Last week, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) hosted our second farmer fly-in of 2018, bringing in farmer advocates from across the country to make their priorities known on Capitol Hill. Ten growers and advocates from Alabama, California, Mississippi, Montana, Georgia, Kansas, North Dakota, Oregon, Michigan, and Vermont took time out of their busy schedules to bring food and farm policy issues before their legislators as both the 2018 Farm Bill (H.R. 2 )and fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations bill are both under active debate.
During the fly-in, farmers advocated for and shared their experiences with sustainable agriculture programs, including: the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program, Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (Section 2501), Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), farm loan programs, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development program (BFRDP). A summary of their experiences on the Hill and the priorities for which they advocated are detailed below by issue area.
Linda Pechin-Long of Graze The Prairie – a Kansas-based American Grassfed Association Certified ranch – was excited to share with her legislators how critical CSP and EQIP have been to the development of her operation:
“Projects like putting in water tanks are incredibly expensive,” said Pechin-Long. “I could not have managed as effectively as we are now, [without the help of USDA conservation programs], our cattle would have had to go too far to water. In Kansas, we’re either going into a drought or out of a drought; we run out of water in our ponds & creeks all the time. [Without the water tanks], we would have had to sell-off most of our stock, but with water available year-round, we’re able to keep a healthy, closed herd and we don’t have high death-loss because we’re able to keep them on healthy pasture.”
With maps of her acreage and detailed summaries, Pechin-Long illustrated to her members of Congress how working lands conservation support had helped to keep her operation sustainable. The funding Pechin-Long received, combined with consultation support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agents, allowed her to evaluate, plan, and implement a seasonal herd rotation schedule on her operation. She was also able to install tanks that provided year-round water for her stock, which help her both to care for her herd, as well as to protect the long grass prairie.
Several other fly-in farmers, including Alabama farmer Randy Moody of Moody Hill Farm and Montana farmer Chad Doheny of C & E Farms, also spoke to their elected officials about the important roles federal conservation programs like CSP and EQIP have played on their operations.
Outreach to Socially Disadvantaged, Veteran, and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers
Angela Ipock, a Latina farmer and military veteran from California, came to Washington with a mission to share her story with her state’s representatives. After serving in the Navy, Angela returned home and started Neverending Sunshine Farm in 2016. She received early technical assistance and veteran-specific support funded by the Section 2501 program from the Farmer-Veteran Coalition (an NSAC member organization), which was instrumental to her successful start in agriculture.
For decades, the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka the “Section 2501” program) has served as the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of farmers who have been historically underserved by USDA programs. In 2014, the program was expanded to also serve military veterans. Section 2501 helps institutions and nonprofits to provide critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to farmers of color and military veteran farmers.
“I’ve seen how veterans will benefit from this holistic approach to healing,” said Ipock, speaking about the Section 2501 program. “For me, farming is about continuing service to my community and to my nation, about about finding your humanity again. This also leaves a legacy behind for my children. And if [farming] worked for me, if it helped me overcome my difficulties with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and anything else like that, then I know I’m doing it right.”
Ipock plans to continue expanding her operation, and hopes to soon offer educational classes for youth and veterans. She was very grateful for the opportunity to share her experiences with her legislators and to impress on them how important these programs are to farmers like her.
“Being able to convey my story and passion to my staff, to show them that we chose this, was so important,” said Ipock. “If they understand the critical need to maintain or maybe increase funding for this program, that means the world. I hope that when they think about farmers, they think of me. I hope they keep track of Neverending Sunshine. That they say, look, she succeeded, she expanded.”
Fly-in farmers Tim Robinson II of Robinson Farms in Georgia and Felicia Bell of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) also spoke to their elected officials about the important role Section 2501 has played in their states, including technical assistance and support accessing local and regional markets for their products. Bell’s work in Mississippi includes direct technical assistance and offering issue-specific workshops with a range of farmers across the state. Robinson, a military veteran, has accessed 2501-funded training that helped him expand his food safety certification and access new markets for his certified organic produce in Georgia.
Local and Regional Food Systems and Food Safety
Evan Smith brought over three decades of experience in food safety and regulatory compliance and local food systems with him from Michigan to DC. Currently, Smith serves on the board of Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS), an NSAC member organization. As part of the NSAC farmer fly-in, Smith had the opportunity to meet with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters’ (D-MI) offices, where he thanked them for their work on local food systems and expressed the need for increased funding for programs that provide food safety training and systems development.
Stephanie Blumhagen also came to DC to speak about the benefits of programs that support farmer entrepreneurship. She was so excited, in fact, that she brought samples of her Meadowlark Granary products all the way from North Dakota for her meeting with Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Blumhagen comes from a family of grain farmers, and four years ago she took a Farm Beginnings class offered by FARRMS, a sustainable farming organization in Medina, ND. Shortly afterwards, Blumhagen launched Meadowlark Granary, which sells whole wheat flax bread at the Bottineau Farmers Market.
FARRMS’ training and outreach programs are supported by federal farmer support programs like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and Blumhagen now serves as the Executive Director of FARRMS, helping to implement beginning farmer training across North Dakota. Her own value-added farm enterprise has benefited as well from the Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), which offers grants directly to farmers; Blumhagen has utilized the program to help her to develop her value-added products and market them through local and direct market outlets.
Several farmers, including Jim Bronec of Praying Mantis Farm in Oregon, visited their members of Congress to discuss the importance of supporting agricultural research programs generally, and the SARE program specifically. Funding for these research initiatives is important because the projects and resources they produce help farmers to improve crop rotation practices, develop alternative fertilization methods, and discover new crop production methods, among other benefits. The research and testing to required to achieve these results would be too costly for farmer to undertake on their own; but public, farmer-led research programs produce innovative results from which all growers can benefit.
Bronec has long collaborated with researchers at Oregon State University thanks to the SARE program. Bronec’s farm participated in garlic variety trials with Oregon State and he has also worked with the university on a SARE-funded project to develop a cover crop calculator for growers; this free tool helps Northwest growers determine the most cost-effective and well-balanced nutrient management programs for their farms.
SARE is the only USDA competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and regionally-specific, farmer-driven research. The Senate FY 2019 appropriations bill raises total SARE funding to $37 million; this would be SARE’s highest level of funding since its creation in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the House appropriations bill proposes a $5 million cut to the program. NSAC strongly supports the level provided in the Senate appropriations bill.
Farmer Advocates and the Farm Bill
NSAC is grateful to our farmer fly-in participants for taking the time to share their stories and advocate for the programs and policies that support their work and farms – especially during such a busy time of the season! For more information on NSAC’s farm bill priorities, click here. For updates on the budget and appropriations processes, click here.
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