March 18, 2016
Throughout the month of March, farmers, ranchers, and “ag-vocates” from across the country traveled to DC for a series of “farmer fly-ins”, sponsored by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). During the fly-in the groups met with Senators and Representatives from their home states to discuss the benefits of federal sustainable agriculture programs, and to ask for Congressional appropriators’ support during the fiscal year 2017 (FY 2017) budget process.
“In our view, there are no better advocates for these critical U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs than the farmers who use and benefit from them. Each year, as Congress prepares to develop its annual funding bills, we bring farmers and ranchers from NSAC member organizations to Washington to speak with their congressional delegations about what matters most to them. This year we are honored to host a great group of farmers and program leaders from across the country who can testify first-hand as to the importance of these programs,” said NSAC Policy Director, Ferd Hoefner.
The farmers, ranchers, and ag-vocates came to Capitol Hill to advocate primarily on behalf of four issue areas:
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is the only USDA competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and regionally specific, farmer-driven research. For the first time in several years, the Obama Administration has requested an increase in funding for SARE – from $24.7 million to $30 million. This historic proposed increase represents a clear acknowledgement of the importance of investing in cutting-edge research that is easily accessible, regionally appropriate, and farmer-tested.
Montana rancher, Jodi Pauley and her family raise cattle, sheep, hogs, and hay on their ranch in Deer Lodge, Montana and have worked with SARE on multiple occasions. While in Washington DC, Pauley had the opportunity to visit Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Steve Daines (R-MT) offices.
“SARE has been very beneficial to my work,” said Pauley. “SARE grants are a great opportunity to bring research to producers at a reduced cost, to help them implement new practices and to
develop conservation methods. We need programs like SARE for the viability and sustainability of agriculture and everyone involved in it.”
Kansas farmer Leon Sowers, who has been farming full-time since 1972, also spoke to Congressional appropriators on behalf of SARE. Sowers, a vocal advocate of no-till farming, emphasized how SARE has helped him spread the word about soil health to other farmers.
“Soil erosion is a major problem on most, if not all farms in the United States,” said Sowers. “Programs like SARE program are designed to promote soil, water, and wildlife conservation.
Thanks to a SARE grant, I was able to work with the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance to produce a 30-minute video explaining the advantages of no till farming, and the steps a producer might take if they wanted to introduce this practice on their own lands.”
Sowers met with Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Representative Kevin Yoder (KS-3) to ask for their support of SARE, CSP, and EQIP through the coming budget appropriations process.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is the nation’s largest working lands conservation program, supporting farmers and ranchers as they introduce and expand conservation on their lands. Combined with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides financial cost-share assistance to implement conservation practices, these two represent the heart of America’s agricultural programming to improve land stewardship and environmental performance.
During the fly-in, farmers Mark and Melanie Peterson of Stanton, Iowa met with legislators to ensure that no cuts are made to mandatory farm bill funding for private lands conservation programs, which include CSP and EQIP.
The Petersons spoke with Representative David Young (IA-03) and Iowa Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) about the importance of encouraging farmers to employ conservation methods through training, information sharing, and funding support.
According to Mark Peterson, one of the most important issues he has faced has been “to prove [to legislators and to other farmers] that cover crops don’t cost, they pay”. “As we continue to use cover crops, our soil is becoming healthier, with an increase in organic matter, water holding capacity, and nutrient stabilization,” said Peterson.
For years, the Petersons have been experimenting with cover crops, no-till farming and many other conservation methods on their 500-acre Iowa farm. As President of the Board of Directors of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Mark Peterson is dedicated to strengthening farms and rural communities through farmer-led research and information sharing.
For decades, the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also known as the Section 2501 program, has served as the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of minority farmers, and was recently also expanded to also serve military veterans. Section 2501 helps institutions and nonprofits provide critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to serve these historically underserved producers.
Charlene Glover and Ann Milton, who help operate Georgia’s Healthy Living Farms (HLF), came to the capital to meet with the offices of Representative Sanford Bishop (GA-02) and Senator David Perdue (R-GA) and to speak with them about how Section 2501 funding has supported their work.
Healthy Living Farms is a chemical-free, 16.5 acre farm committed to supporting the health and wellness of their community by providing nutritious produce and offering education and employment opportunities. Support from the Section 2501 program is vital for HLF; the program helps them to provide workshops and training for socially disadvantaged farmers through a partnership with NSAC member, Georgia Organics.
“The 2501 program is an essential and beneficial resource for socially disadvantaged and historically underserved farmers,” said Glover. “As a result of this program, we have gained valuable information about sustainable and organic food systems.
Javier Zamora is a Latino farmer from the central California coast who got his start in organic farming thanks to support from two NSAC member organizations, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) and California Farmlink. Javier now serves as a board member for each.
When ALBA received funding through the Section 2501 program, Javier was one of the local Latino farmers they were able to support.
“If we didn’t have these programs, I don’t think I would have made it to where I am,” said Zamora. “Without Section 2501 I wouldn’t have been able to make my dream of farming come true. I am who I am because organizations like ALBA and support from USDA’s grant programs made these opportunities happen for me. I am going where I am going because of their support.”
Gregg DeBoer, an 11-year veteran of the armed forces, also came to the capital to speak about his successes with Section 2501. DeBoer headed off to boot camp just 10 days after graduating high school, served tours in Kosovo and Iraq as an Army Combat Engineer, and wrapped up his military career serving as a recruiter. Nobody could doubt Gregg’s toughness, but when he returned to civilian life in 2009, he struggled to make the transition.
“I saw on social media that agriculture was beneficial for veterans who were having difficulty transitioning, and I thought it might be something that could be helpful for me as well,” said DeBoer.
Shortly after that, DeBoer was able to link up with his local County Extension Coordinator, who helped him to get started with a background vegetable garden, as well as NSAC member organization, the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC).
“We are very lucky to have the staff that we have around here with the Extension office, Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Farmer Veteran Coalition,” said DeBoer. “I have extension agents out on my farm helping me learn how to run a plow. That is how dedicated they are.”
DeBoer has seen the advantages of working with other federal agriculture programs too, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Sustainable Agriculture Research Education program (SARE), in addition to the Section 2501 program.
“I really appreciate this opportunity to come to Washington DC and speak with the offices of Representative Aderholt and Senator Shelby,” DeBoer said. “These programs have made a huge difference for me. This opportunity has been huge for me and my family.”
The Food Safety Outreach, Education, Training, and Technical Assistance competitive grants program (FSOP) helps small and mid-size farms and small processors comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s new and complex food safety regulations.
Dr. Michele Pfannenstiel, CEO of Dirigo Food Safety, is a military veteran, veterinarian, and an industry leader in food safety training. Pfannelstiel came to Washington to speak with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Representative Chellie Pingree (ME-01) about the importance of supporting FSOP.
“We have so many veteran farmers, new farmers and farmers wanting to grow their markets that will need to be compliant with the new FSMA regulations,” said Pfannenstiel. “In order for them to deal with FSMA they’ll need this training, its a non-starter for them if they don’t have it. I’m a specialist, and its still hard for me – without really specific training our farmers will be left guessing, and that’s not OK.”
In order to ensure that all small and mid-size producers, processors, and wholesalers can succeed under, and not be unduly burdened by, NSAC, Pfannenstiel, and DeBoer are advocating for a doubling of the current budget for FSOP to $10 million.
You can view more photos from the NSAC farmer fly-in by visiting our Flickr page.