With the next farm bill and annual agriculture funding decisions actively being debated, now is the time to amplify the voices of America’s family farmers and ranchers. Every year, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) works with their 120+ member organizations to find farmers and ranchers from across the country who want to become “ag-vocates” for the federal programs and policies that help them to remain successful. This week, NSAC brought in 20 farmers and farm advocates representing 14 agricultural states to give their expert testimony to members of Congress about everything from beginning farmer programs to working lands conservation.
“There’s been a great deal of debate about the timing for the next farm bill,” said Greg Fogel, NSAC Policy Director. “but the fact of the matter is, the 2014 Farm Bill is expiring this fall, so we’ve got to make sure Congress has all the information and input they need to craft a bill that supports family farmers, protects our natural resources, and expands access to healthy food. We’re grateful that we’re able to bring diverse producers in from across the country to speak as the real experts on all things food and farm, it’s a big effort and something we could never do without the assistance of our members, supporters, and funders.”
NSAC fly-in participants held meetings both on the fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations process, which is being negotiated concurrently with the long-delayed FY 2018 appropriations package, and on the upcoming farm bill. Family farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates have been particularly concerned about appropriations and funding decisions for the coming year after the President released a proposed budget including devastating cuts to critical food and farm programs.
“Appropriations can be the less visible side of the policy process, but it’s no less important,” said Fogel. “Without adequate funding even the best programs are unable to properly function and serve their intended constituents, so this is a process that we follow and engage in actively with our membership.”
On the farm bill front, NSAC laid out the Coalition's priorities in the October 2017 release of their policy platform, Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill. Priority issue areas included: Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers; Comprehensive Conservation Reform; Local and Regional Food Economies; Seed Breeding and Research; and Crop Insurance Modernization. During the farmer fly-in, NSAC’s experienced policy staff support the advocacy efforts of diverse producers from across the country who have first-hand experience using federal programs that pertain to these priority issue areas.
Lance Gartner is new to the whole idea of a “farmer fly-in,” but he’s had plenty of experience working with federal conservation and research programs, like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE), program on his cattle operation in Glen Ullin, ND.
Gartner and his family operate a 300-cow/calf operation in addition to managing 300 acres of cover crops for grazing and hay for forage. Gartner has worked with CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to regenerate the health of the soil on their hilly land, and with the SARE program to rejuvenate unproductive grasslands through cover cropping. Gartner and his family have hosted several hundred farmers, researchers, and NRCS field staff who come to their farm to learn about on-farm conservation and see the fruits of this labor.
“Thanks to the support I received from programs like CSP, EQIP, and SARE, I’ve been able to build up my soil health, extend better quality grazing opportunities for the cattle in an extended season, and build habitat for pollinators on the farm,” said Gartner. “Senators from North Dakota were very receptive to the need for conservation today; it was a good experience and gratifying to get to connect to the policy behind good conservation.”
Veteran farmer fly-in participant Deirdre Birmingham spoke with her Members of Congress about the federal programs she uses to support conservation and marketing efforts on The Cider Farm, their 166 acre farm in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The Cider Farm specializes in growing rare organic English and French cider apples, which Birmingham and her family transform into ciders and apple brandy. To keep their operation going strong, Birmingham and her husband, John Biondi, have utilized both CSP and EQIP.
“CSP and EQIP have really helped us to reduce the environmental impact of our operation and ensure that we’re growing as sustainably as possible,” said Birmingham. “We’ve used EQIP to help build and maintain pollinator habitat around the orchards, and CSP has helped us take additional steps toward the environmental sustainability of our orchard and woodlands.”
Birmingham has also utilized the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG), which helped her to get The Cider Farm’s cider business off the ground.
“Going from producing a raw ingredient to producing a value-added product can potentially increase a farm’s bottom line,” said Birmingham, “But making that leap requires a lot of information, expertise, and capital that many producers just don’t have – that’s where a program like VAPG can really make a difference. We started with a planning grant in 2005, which helped us to complete a feasibility study and business plan for the cider business. Then in 2015 we received a working capital grant that helped us to greatly expand our cider production and marketing in Wisconsin and Chicago. We could not have done it without the added support that the VAPG provided.”
Victor and Veronica Cortes and Gerardo Fuentes came to DC together to talk to California legislators about the transformative power of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the Section 2501 Program) – as well as SARE, beginning farmer, and local food and farm programs. Fuentes is the Farm Incubator Program Manager at the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in Salinas Valley, California, which is an NSAC member organization. ALBA’s mission is to create economic opportunity for limited-resource and aspiring organic farmers like the Corteses, who launched their organic farm, La Granjita Orgánica in December 2013 after completing ALBA’s Farmer Education and Enterprise Development (FEED) program.
The 2501 program provides grants to organizations that offer support and technical assistance for farmers of color and military veteran farmers. The program has been a key source of financial support for ALBA’s FEED program, which educates and trains new farmer-entrepreneurs who want to launch a viable organic farm businesses or advance their current careers.
“This opportunity to speak directly with our legislators about 2501 is really important to us, they need to hear firsthand from the people who use this program so we can tell them how vital it has been for us, for many historically un-served or underserved folks in agriculture,” said Fuentes.
In addition to Gartner, Birmingham, the Corteses, and Fuentes, farmers and advocates from Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Oregon, and Virginia were also in attendance for NSAC’s March fly-in.
“We want to express our thanks to all the members of Congress and congressional staff who took the time to speak with our farmers this week,” said Fogel, “These are the voices that need to be heard as the next farm bill is debated, the voices of real family farmers and ranchers who will be affected by the decisions Congress is getting ready to make. We’re glad we could be a part of amplifying their voices, and look forward to bringing more farmer advocates into the capital this summer.”
For more information on NSAC's farm bill priorities, click here.
Information provided by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.