July 15, 2016
Over the last few days, farmers from across the country have come to Washington to speak with their Senators and Representatives about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that help them employ conservation measures on their farms, create business and financial plans, and much more.
With Congress set to leave town today for a month-long recess we at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) wanted to make sure sustainable agriculture issues remained fresh in legislators’ minds. Once Congress returns on September 5, they will have only a few months, cut very short by campaigning and elections, to determine funding levels for government programs, including agricultural programs.
Throughout the year, NSAC brings farmers, ranchers, researchers, and “ag-vocates” into the capital to speak directly with their representatives about the program that have impacted their lives, and helped them realize their dreams.
NSAC has held four “farmer fly-ins” already this year, bringing the stories and wisdom of farmers and agricultural experts directly to legislators on the Hill. This week, we were joined by organic farmer Anne Berblinger (OR), farmer and economics professor Steve Ford (AL), Dr. Sandra Hayes of Tougaloo College (MS), dairy farmer Karen Kelley (WI), and farmer Bradley McVey (KS). These farmers and ag-vocates spoke with their legislators about the importance of funding USDA programs that support family farmers, including: the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE); Value-Added Producer Grants program (VAPG); Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and other mandatory farm bill conservation programs; Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (“2501”); and the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP).
Brief highlights from their visit are included below:
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
SARE is the only USDA competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and regionally specific, farmer-driven research. Organic farmer Anne Berblinger has seen firsthand the effect that the SARE program can have on small family farms. In addition to running her own farm, Anne also serves on the Advisory Committee for the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at Oregon State University (OSU). Working with OSU has given Anne a front row seat to the many successful SARE-funded projects, which have helped farmers across the country to improve their businesses.
“I’ve seen so many great projects get off the ground here at OSU thanks to support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program,” said Anne. “Take Nick Andrews’ organic fertilizer calculator, for example. He developed that at OSU with help from SARE and now it’s an amazing tool that any farmer can use to make sure they’re not wasting money by applying excess fertilizer that could run off into the water supply.”
Anne visited the offices of Representative Earl Blumenauer (OR-03) and Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). She asked each of them to ensure the longevity of important programs like SARE by supporting the $2.3 million increase included in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2017.
“I’m very happy to have been able to speak with Oregon’s representatives about these important issues,” said Anne. “I was especially heartened to hear from Representative Blumenauer that he will be gathering input and ideas for the 2018 Farm Bill directly from Oregonians, getting their insights on programs like the ones we discussed today.”
Outreach to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers
Dr. Sandra Hayes, Executive Director for the Tougaloo College Owens Health and Wellness Center in Mississippi, came to the capital to talk her work with Tougaloo’s “Farm Aid 2501 Program”. Farm Aid 2501 uses funding from USDA’s Section 2501 program to provide outreach services and education, technical assistance, training and financial education to socially disadvantaged and military veteran farmers and ranchers residing in the Mississippi Delta.
Sandra visited with members of the Mississippi delegation, including Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), who chairs the Senate’s Appropriations Committee and also sits on the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and Representative Bennie Thompson (MS-02), a long-time champion for minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. The Senate Appropriations Committee had included an additional $3 million for the program, while the bill passed in the House left funding flat. Sandra encouraged members of the delegation to support the increased funding approved by the Senate.
“In the Delta, farms are economic engines that provide jobs and opportunities, creating more sustainable communities,” said Sandra. “However, the inability of socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers to access financial and human resources has stifled their growth and, in most cases, hindered their ability to maintain their farms.”
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. Section 2501 helps institutions and nonprofits provide critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to serve these historically underserved producers.
NSAC welcomed several farmers who have had success using USDA conservation programs to Washington to ask their delegations to oppose cuts to these crucial programs. Farmers from Alabama, Kansas, and Oregon, all of whom use a diverse array of USDA conservation programs, discussed with their representatives how the programs have improved the health and efficiency of their farms, while also benefiting their bottom lines.
Steve Ford, an agricultural economics professor who runs a no-till farm in Alabama told Congressman Aderholt, who is both a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Agriculture, about the success his farm has seen with working lands programs like CSP:
“In our last CSP contract we used the funds to plant a cover crop mix of cereal rye and crimson clover, which help us build productive soil and control pests and diseases,” said Steve. “We were also able to plant legumes, which means we can rely less on using chemicals to restore the nitrogen to our soil.”
On her own specialty crop farm (Gales Meadow Farm) in Gales Creek, OR, Anne Berblinger and husband René have utilized USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to help them implement conservation activities. So far, they have used the program to switch from overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation, reducing the farm’s water usage, as well as for nutrient management, cover cropping, and installing hedgerows.
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 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.
NSAC, our members, and farmer advocates urge Congressional appropriators to refrain from any cuts to already over-taxed and under-resourced USDA conservation programs.