On December 5th and 6th 2013, American University’s (AU) School of International Service hosted the Rural Coalition’s Annual Winter Forum. The Rural Coalition, which is the North American Branch of the international peasant movement “La Via Campesina,” defines itself as a national organization formed “to help shape and influence public policies and processes affecting rural America.” The annual Winter Forums serve both to engage current members and welcome new ones, as well as to produce “action items” for members to take back to their communities. AU Chaplain Reverend Joe Eldridge opened the Forum with a welcome address, pointing out that while President Obama would speak on AU’s campus later that same day, the highest honor for the University continues to be hosting groups like the Rural Coalition.
The December 5th program included panels on strategies for cooperative Farm Bill advocacy between Rural Coalition members and allies, managing risk in agricultural systems, and equity and inclusion in agriculture worldwide. In the discussions following the panels, Rural Coalition members strongly framed these issues as civil rights issues, citing in particular the United States Department of Agriculture’s failure to reach out to and include producers of color in loan programs and risk management tools. Another strong current throughout the forum was the involvement of young people in farming; youth activities ran parallel to the panels, and a session on “Next Generation Leaders” invited youth members to share their perspectives on the future for rural America that they envision. AU students and faculty supplemented the day’s panels with tours of the campus Community Garden and bee hives, as well as an Agri-Food Studies Research Symposium showcasing student and faculty research.
The December 6th program included panels on the relationship between human health and healthy land, the use of loans and credit to advance community food sovereignty, and producer research on forest and land conservation. This last panel featured representatives from:
– EarthReports Demonstration Farm, which reflected on the positive outcomes for human health, the environment, and productivity of transitioning from conventional to organic farming: “If we don’t eat vegetables, we’ll get sick and have health issues…I’m glad that Rural Coalition is pushing for organic agriculture because it’s the best way to do it.”
– Rural Coalition Farm and Ranch Team, which reported on the increasing frequency and intensity of forest fires in the West and Southwest, attributing these trends in part to turning forested areas into protected wilderness: “And that is absolutely the worst thing you can do to these lands, because then the management of those lands goes away, and the resources will erode and die.”
– A New Mexico law firm, which recommended that all producers inform themselves about HR 1526, or the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which could serve as a platform to lobby for “multiple use” of forests: “…studies found that over the colonial period, the forest was very healthy and one of the practices that contributed to its health were native grazing practices…Everyone can benefit from forests and there’s enough room for all activities.”
– Mvskoke Creek Nation in Oklahoma, which is working with a food sovereignty initiative to improve food and health among the Mvskoke people, including production of a new corn-based drink, “Safi.”
The Forum closed with a unique proposal for continued partnership between AU and the Rural Coalition: AU faculty invited Rural Coalition members to brainstorm about gaps in food- and agriculture-related research, which they and their students would then endeavor to incorporate into their own research agendas. Aimed at advancing community-academic partnerships in food and agriculture, the discussion included requests for research on the impacts of corporate consolidation on producers, the definition of an American “small farm,” and the avenues of dissemination for existing and future research.