Farmers Answer the "Call to Farms"

Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) meets with farmer Leslie Cooperband, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition 
Last week, farmers from across the nation descended upon Washington, DC for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) first 2018 Farm Bill “fly-in”. NSAC’s farmer fly-ins provide farmers and farm/food advocates with the opportunity to speak directly with decision makers in Congress about the issues that most affect their lives, businesses, and communities. On November 8th, NSAC held our first of several fly-ins focused on the 2018 Farm Bill. Twenty farmers and food advocates came from across the country to speak with their Congress Members about their farm bill priorities, including:

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

Beginning farmer Aaron Johnson with Senator Thune's Office
On the same day that our fly-in farmers were heading to the Hill last week, a major step forward for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers was making its way through the House of Representatives. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (BFROA) of 2017, introduced by Rep. Tim Waltz (D-MN) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) on November 8, provides a comprehensive blueprint for ensuring our next farm bill is a farm bill for the future. BFROA will:
  • Expand beginning farmers’ access to affordable land,
  • Empower new farmers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy,
  • Ensure equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance, and
  • Encourage commitment to conservation and stewardship across generations.
Fly-in participants and attending NSAC member organizations (including the Center for Rural Affairs, Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, and Future Harvest CASA) highlighted the benefits of BFROA during their meetings, as well as the importance of USDA training and outreach programs that have benefitted and supported their work.
One of these farmers was Aaron Johnson, who serves on the leadership committee of Dakota Rural Action (DRA) and is also the owner/operator of Johnson Farms, an organic row crop and cattle operation in Madison, South Dakota. Johnson participated in DRA’s “Farm Beginnings” program at the beginning of his career, which is funded in part by USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).
“I grew up on a farm, but once I had my own operation I realized there was a lot I needed to learn,” said Johnson. “My wife and I learned a lot from the Farm Beginnings course. We got help with everything from financial planning to learning how to incorporate family life into farm life – and best of all we got to meet and form connections with other beginning farmers.”
When meeting with his legislators, Johnson highlighted the need for support for programs like BFRDP, as well as for addressing other top beginning farmer concerns, such as increased access to credit and affordable farmland. In South Dakota, farmland can cost as much as $6,000 per acre, which poses a serious barrier to entering a career in agriculture for aspiring farmers. With the average age of American producers nearly 60 years, Johnson stressed to legislators the important role that federal policy has to play in bringing in and training up the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
For more information on beginning farmer and rancher programs and policies, check out NSAC’s farm bill campaign page, blog, and our latest publications.

Socially Disadvantaged Producers

Organic farmer Javier Zamora with Representative Panetta (D-CA) 
Javier Zamora came to Washington, DC armed with fresh organic berries and a deep understanding and appreciation of USDA programs that support socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers. Zamora is a farmer fly-in veteran, having joined NSAC on a previous fly-in in 2016 to ensure that the appropriations process properly funded programs that supported farmers like himself and those in his community.
Zamora is the owner operator of JSM Organic Farms, as well as a board member of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA). Zamora started his farm, which is now in its fifth year of production and supporting nearly 30 employees, after attending a farmer training and outreach program operated by ALBA. ALBA’s Farmer Education and Enterprise Development (FEED) Program is able to provide opportunities for aspiring farmers—including farm workers and people of color who have not had access to farm business training and support in the past—thanks to the support of BFRDP, as well as the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers (a.k.a. the “2501 Program”).
For decades, Section 2501 has served as the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of minority farmers, and was recently expanded to also serve military veterans. The program helps institutions and nonprofits provide critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to support historically underserved producers. Despite the important role 2501 plays in supporting farmers like Zamora, in 2014, mandatory funding for the program was drastically cut from $20 million to $10 million per year.
NSAC and Zamora will be urging Congress to fully support both Section 2501 and BFRDP, as well as other programs and policies targeted toward beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, in the 2018 Farm Bill.
For more information on the Section 2501 program, check our Grassroots Guide.

Conservation and Stewardship

Organic farmer Dean Mcllvaine with Representative Marica Fudge (D-OH) and OEFFA. 
Working lands conservation and natural resource stewardship were at the top of the agenda for many of the farmers and advocates at this year’s fly-in. Nearly all the attendees had benefitted at least one USDA conservation program, and many participants actively used more than one to increase the sustainability of their operations. Key conservation programs highlighted during the fly-in included the:
Dean Mcllvaine was one of several organic farmers who made the trip to discuss how USDA conservation programs have specifically benefitted organic growers, and how they could be improved in the 2018 Farm Bill. McIlvaine has been farming organically in Ohio for the past 30 years and came to the fly-in along with NSAC member organization the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA). McIlvaine has used CRP to remove some of his more sensitive land from production and to plant trees and install filter strips on his land. Primarily, however, McIlvaine has utilized the EQIP program to help him transition his land into organic production, and to increase his on-farm conservation activities.
“I was among the first handful in this county and state to go organic,” said McIlvaine. “Finding resources was difficult, but EQIP helped me plant cover crops, implement no-till planting, and develop an organic planting system. EQIP helped to minimize the potential risks of some of that, so we were able to experiment and find what worked best for us.”
For more information on conservation programs and policies, check out NSAC’s farm bill campaign page, blog, and our latest publications.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Seed Breeding

Seed breeder John Hart with NSAC staff member Kanika Gandhi
John Hart flew in from Florida to discuss the need for increased funding and support for public seed breeding in the 2018 Farm Bill. Hart, who is the co-founder of Earthworks Seeds, has worked as a seed breeder in both the public and private sector. During his meetings, Hart emphasized the benefits of investing in public breeding work, which is openly available and accessible to all farmers.
By supporting public plant breeding research, we can better ensure that all farmers have access to high performing, locally adapted seeds—no matter where they farm or what they grow. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program provides funding for this kind of farmer-driven research and breeding, and it also helps to publicize the results to other farmers. SARE has been funding sustainable agriculture research for 30 years, and is the only USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture.
By supporting public research and breeding programs like SARE, Congress can spur innovation and sustainability in American agriculture.
For more information on public research and seed breeding programs and policies, check out NSAC’s farm bill campaign page, blog, and our latest publications.

Local and Regional Food Economies

Farmer Will Reed meeting with the office of Senator Cochran (R-MS) 
Will Reed, a Mississippi specialty crop farmer and chairman of the board for the Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, is passionate about feeding people in his hometown of Tupelo. During meetings with Mississippi legislators, Reed spoke about the immense potential benefit of local agriculture in a state that currently imports about 90 percent of its food, despite having rich, fertile soil. Native Son Farm, Reed’s operation, provides fresh vegetables and strawberries to over 200 families in his community through a CSA program; he also has marketing relationships with local restaurants and schools. Reed sees local food production as a way to help with the food and health issues that plague his home state.
“Mississippi has a lot of challenges,” explained Reed. “We need to both look outside the box and look to ourselves to solve them. Local and regional food and farms can enhance our economy, attract people to our state, and improve health.”
During his meetings, Reed asked his Congress Members to fully support the Local FARMS Act, which was recently introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Maloney (D-NY). The Local FARMS Act recognizes the vast, untapped potential in our farming and food producing communities and offers ways to transform that potential into economic prosperity.
For more information on local and regional food programs and policies, check out NSAC’s farm bill campaign page, blog, and our latest publications.

Crop Insurance Modernization 

Liz Stelk of ISA with farmer Leslie Cooperband at Representative Cheri Bustos' (D-IL) office. 
Americans rely on family farmers for the food on our tables, and we trust them to protect the lands they steward. Because of the important role farming plays in our lives and in our economy, it is in the public interest to help protect farmers against risk. Several farmers and advocates on the NSAC fly-in spoke with their Congress Members about the chief way that USDA helps farmers mitigate risk: the federal crop insurance program.
Leslie Cooperband, who attended the fly-in along with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA), has owned and operated Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery with her husband since 2005. In their first season of production, Cooperband and her husband transformed their land from cash grain agriculture into perennial production. By their second year, they had planted over 350 fruit trees and 600 berry plants, and purchased their first four Nubian goats. Though Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery is doing robust business through wholesale and direct market/CSA outlets, they do not currently use the federal crop insurance program because it does not provide the risk management tools they need as a specialty crop and livestock operation.
Cooperband spoke with her legislators about ways to make the federal program more accessible and supportive for a wider range of producers and production types. Chief among the recommendations supported by NSAC, ISA, and Cooperband were that the 2018 Farm Bill should
  1. Expand access to serve all types of farmers.
  2. Actively promote conservation by eliminating barriers to sustainable farming practices and linking premium subsidies to stewardship practices that protect our land, water, and health.
  3. Reform its structure to prevent the program from unfairly influencing markets, land access, or planting decisions.
  4. Improve the delivery of the crop insurance program to make it more transparent and efficient.
For more information on crop insurance and risk management programs and policies, check out NSAC’s farm bill campaign page, blog, and our latest publications
NSAC team and farmer fly-in participants 
This article was submitted by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.
NSAC’s vision of agriculture is one where a safe, nutritious, ample, and affordable food supply is produced by a legion of family farmers who make a decent living pursuing their trade, while protecting the environment, and contributing to the strength and stability of their communities.