Farmers Demand Congress Address Climate Change in the Farm Bill

Illinois growers attend the Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience in Washington and lobby members of Congress

Nathan Ryder March 23, 2023

When you’re a small-scale or underserved farmer, it’s easy to feel overlooked and unheard when it comes to the federal policies that shape our food and farm systems.

Time and time again, big agriculture and our corporate food conglomerates come in for the win, championing policies that don’t reflect a more just and regenerative farm system. That’s why, when given the opportunity, no matter how quick the turnaround may be, you jump at a chance to gather a group of farmers and take them to Washington, D.C., where their voices can be heard.

On the back of cocktail napkins at a farm conference banquet dinner, the staff of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, of which I am communications director, penned a proposal to request travel funding from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to send family farmers from across Illinois to the NSAC-sponsored Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience in Washington, D.C., a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once funding was approved, there were less than two weeks to assemble a delegation and head to D.C. for the March 7 event.

Here I am, heading off to Washington D.C. and reflecting on the journey before us. (Nathan Ryder)

This year, Congress is working on the 2023 Farm Bill, which is drafted and passed every five years. The farm bill determines funding for everything from food stamps to crop insurance. It sets the policies about what type of food ends up on our plates and what type of farming practices are encouraged or discouraged. With five Illinois Congresspeople on the House and Senate Agriculture Committee, folks in our state have a unique opportunity to shape the future of food and farming in this country.

From Ashland to Quincy, seven Illinois farmers and Illinois Stewardship Alliance members from all corners of the state flew out of three different airports to attend the Rally for Resilience. The rally was held in D.C.’s Freedom Plaza where a number of farmers shared their personal stories of how the climate has affected their livelihoods and communities. They also spoke about how sustainable agriculture practices like cover cropping help mitigate climate change and urged Congress to include critical support for Black, Native and Latino producers in the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill.

Hundreds of farmers and advocates from 40 states gathered at Freedom Plaza for the Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience. (Nathan Ryder)

“Here’s all I can say—keep slugging,” said musician John Mellencamp, who started Farm Aid in 1985 with Neil Young and Willie Nelson to support family farms.

John Mellencamp performs at the Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience. Mellencamp co-founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985. (YouTube)
Willie and Micah Nelson address the Rally for Resilience from Willie’s RV. (YouTube)

Musicians and farmer advocates Willie and Micah Nelson shared a video message with the rallying farmers. They said, in part:

Willie: Farm Aid stands for family farmers and ranchers, and you are all so important to us, especially for the role you play as stewards of the land.

Micah: We don’t have to tell you because all of you already know, but Congress needs to hear from us the importance of prioritizing farmer-led climate solutions in this year’s Farm Bill.

Willie: And they need to center racial justice in the Farm Bill and put communities ahead of corporations.

Father and son then sang “Heartland,” which Willie co-wrote with Bob Dylan in 1993, the final stanza of which goes:

There’s a home place under fire tonight in a heartland,
And bankers are taking the homes and the land away,
There’s a young boy closin’ his eyes tonight in a heartland,
Who will wake up a man with some land and a loan he can’t pay,
His American dream fell apart at the seams …

The Nelsons’ video call to action played on a monitor next to one of the highlights of the Rally for Resilience: “Beep Beep,” one of the tractors that participated in the American Agriculture Movement’s 1979 tractorcade to Washington, D.C., when nearly 3,000 farmers from across the U.S. drove their tractors to protest farm foreclosures. The tractor, belonging to the Riffel family, was so named because its horn sounds like the cartoon Road Runner.

After the rally concluded, participants took to the streets, marching from Freedom Plaza to Capitol Hill to call on members of Congress to ensure that the next farm bill reflects real, inclusive and systematic change. Our demands include farmer-led climate solutions, racial justice in our food and farm system, and a focus on communities before corporations.

The seven members of Illinois Stewardship Alliance came to D.C. with a mission to share our personal stories with policymakers on how climate change has impacted our farms. Over the course of a day and a half, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance team of delegates met with legislative staff for both Illinois Senators and more than a dozen Representatives. The schedule was grueling but the mission was critical. Each of the farmers who lobbied on Capitol Hill shared a feeling of empowerment.

Illinois farmers, pictured from left to right, included: (front row) Andy Hazzard of Pecatonica, Nathan Ryder of Golconda, (middle row) Stef Funk of Chicago Food Policy Action Council, Kamina Loveless of East St. Louis, (back row) Jessica Whiston of Quincy, Chad Wallace of Ashland, and Joshua Snedden of Monee. Not pictured: Christine Johnson of Richmond. (Nathan Ryder)
Chad Wallace, owner of Oak Tree Organics in Ashland, raises a variety of food on his 18-acre farm including hogs, lambs, and mixed produce.
Chad Wallace, owner of Oak Tree Organics in Ashland, Ill., raises a variety of food on his 18-acre farm, including hogs, lambs and mixed produce. (Nathan Ryder)
Christine Johnson is co-owner of Wild Trillium Farm in Richmond, Ill., a micro-farm where she raises cut flowers and mixed vegetables. (Nathan Ryder)

“Joining Rally for Resilience gave me an opportunity to put my words to action,” says Christine Johnson of Richmond, Ill. “As a small diversified veggie farmer in northern Illinois, growers are often alone in their fields, working long hours, thinking about the larger system they play a role in. Traveling to our capital to share our stories with passion and eloquence was like tending to a brand new crop: The relationships farmers, eaters and constituents have with their elected officials deserves no less attention or nurturing than any other field task. I’m grateful to continue strengthening the relationship farmers have with both the folks on the Hill and the web between the worlds we live in.”

Kamina Loveless, an urban grower from East St. Louis, Ill., in front of the office of Sen. Dick Durbin (D). (Nathan Ryder)

Kamina Loveless produces vegetables on a half-acre abandoned lot behind her home in East St. Louis, Ill. Kamina’s father originally farmed the land, providing fresh eggs and vegetables to his neighbors. Her mission is to continue where he left off in a city that is often considered a food desert for the people that live there.

Illinois Stewardship Alliance and Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project at a farmer meetup. (Nathan Ryder)

A bonus for farmers attending the Rally for Resilience was the opportunity to meet like-minded farmers from across the country. Farmers with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance joined those from Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project for coffee and discussions about how the changing climate has impacted each of their farms in recent years.

Nathan Ryder, co-owner of Ryder Family Farm, visits the office of Illinois Rep. Mike Bost (R).

I co-own Ryder Family Farm with my wife Talina in Golconda, Ill. The two of us left jobs in the corporate world to live a more sustainable lifestyle and grow fresh food for their community. Our 10-acre farm includes dairy goats, grass-fed lambs, pasture-raised eggs, and fruits and vegetables for our CSA members and farm stand.

Farmer Joshua Snedden of Monee, Ill., in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Nathan Ryder)

Joshua Snedden co-owns Fox at the Fork Farm with his wife Morgan. Located in Monee, Ill., the couple grows a wide-variety of produce as part of a CSA program. Both are first-generation farmers.

“My family regularly supported and spoke up for causes that they cared about,” says Joshua. “My grandmother has traveled to D.C. a number of times in support of many causes she cares about. That is why I decided to travel to D.C. and attend the Rally for Resilience, march, and lobby day. I saw joining the Illinois Stewardship Alliance delegation as an opportunity for me to lend my voice for those who were unable to attend, bring action to the values I care most about, and be part of a positive change for our farmers, food system and environment.

“The three-day excursion flew by. I left D.C. with new relationships with farmers and local food justice advocates from across the country, having told our story including the challenges faced on Fox at the Fork Farm, and feeling heard. I had the chance to reflect on what it means to farm sustainably, what I find most empowering about farming. I feel heard. The politicians and their staffers were receptive to our policy asks for the 2023 Farm Bill. I’m optimistic that the 2023 Farm Bill will provide the foundation needed for small-scale farmers to feed and help their communities.”

Nathan Ryder

Nathan Ryder, a farmer from Pope County, Illinois, is the communications director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a farmer-driven and eater-powered organization that works to create a food and farm system that centers farmers, community, and diversity, as opposed to the current arrangement that favors consolidation and corporate control: the results of which have been devastating to the health and wealth of our communities and climate.

Have thoughts or reactions to this or any other piece that you’d like to share? Send us a note with the Letter to the Editor form.

Want to republish this story? Check out our guide.

34