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Perspectives on Policy from a Beginning Farmer

March 12, 2010


We are excited to have Sarah Brown, beginning farmer at Diggin’ Roots Farm in Milwaukee, Oregon write a reflection on her experience at NSAC’s beginning farmer fly-in and Drake University’s Forum last week. If you, like Sarah, have suggestions for federal policies to support beginning farmers and ranchers, please email them to us at beginningfarmer(at)sustainableagriculture.net. If you would like to support the Beginning Farmer and Rancher IDA program that Sarah mentions, click here.

By Sarah Brown

sarah-diggin-roots-farm-3

Sarah Brown at her farm in Milwaukee, photo by Shawn Linehan

I never imagined that my path as a beginning farmer would lead me to a seat in a Senator’s office, but that’s where I found myself  last week as a participant in the NSAC beginning farmer fly-in in Washington D.C.  The fly-in and the Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers, which I also attended, brewed in me an interesting mix of ideas to being a beginning farmer, the challenges it holds, and the road ahead.

I was asked to participate in the beginning farmer forum as a representative from Friends of Family Farmers, a grassroots organization in Oregon that supports and works for our state’s sustainable family farms.  I was also invited to attend a farmer fly-in organized by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (of which Friends of Family Farmers is a member) held prior to the Drake Forum in which I participated with other beginning farmers in meetings with representatives from various USDA agencies and with Senator Merkley’s office.

While I am active in my community as a sustainable agriculture advocate and teacher, I am far from a politician.  To put it in perspective, I’d never worn a suit before and had to ask my husband how it should fit.  I am much more comfortable in a wool shirt (remember I live in Oregon) and a pair of Carharts.  This, to say the least, was an incredibly eye opening experience into the world that supports, regulates, and ideally improves the climate in which I dream to farm.

Many of the Senators and Representatives with whom we met were happy to learn about the beginning farmer and sustainable agriculture initiatives that need financial support in 2011 and beyond; but most were also concerned — during a time of budget cutbacks — about where the money would come from.

At a time when our society is in dire need of financial growth and human services support, there is no better investment than beginning farmers.  I might not make tons of money, buy imported goods, or invest in Wall Street but I support my local rural businesses, hire local employees, and most importantly, bring fresh healthy food into food deserts.

And yet, Members of Congress are hesitant to fund beginning farmer programs because of the deficit.  While I may not have the background to analyze our government’s budget, I do have a suggestion that touches on another reoccurring theme at the Drake Forum.  Why not take the 5 million dollars needed to fund the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account (IDA) program from somewhere in the billion dollar budget for commodity subsidies?  I can confidently say that a large portion of those calories are not bound for our nation’s dinner plates, nor is the money staying in rural communities.  Wouldn’t $5 million in direct support for beginning farmers make a larger difference to more people?

Again and again while in the nation’s capital, we heard that the USDA and Farm Service Agency (FSA) are here to serve beginning farmers.  But despite the Administration’s efforts to start a new conversation about food and farming through initiatives like the People’s Garden and the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” many of us in the field are still encountering serious challenges accessing the federal programs that are supposed to help, such as financing and loans.

The NSAC fly-in and Drake Forum reinforced the incredible challenges and opportunities facing beginning farmers, but more than anything the events affirmed my feeling that these issues need to be addressed from the ground up, literally and figuratively.  Small, minority, and beginning farmers absolutely have to reach out to their communities and drum up support for policy change.

Farmers need to be appreciated and preserved for the essential component that they are in our communities.  Our nation’s ‘eaters’ need to know the struggles beginning farmers face.  We need to call our congress-people and tell them not only what we need, but ideas on how to make it available.  Our loan officers need to be exposed to alternative farm models.  And we, as farmers, cannot stop asking for what we want.

I walked away from this conference with tears in my eyes.  Bearing witness to the work and the immense challenge that people from NSAC, ALBA, California Farmlink, Land Stewardship Program, and so many other organizations are doing to improve the services and resources that enable me to do something I so passionately love, overwhelms me with gratitude.  It is remarkable to me that these individuals work so hard, for so little,  to improve my chances at following my dream.  I can’t say thank you enough and look forward to finding myself in my Senators’ offices again!


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers


7 Responses to “Perspectives on Policy from a Beginning Farmer”

  1. Suzannah Stockwell says:

    I recently completed Florida’s Version of “Annie’s Project” and while it was very informaive and elightening, I found myself becoming more and more discouraged as each weekly class passed, thinking how utterly impossiblee it’s going to be for me to grow organic vegetables to make them avaiilable for the dining tables of my local cummunity.
    There are NO funds or grants or low interest loans for beginning farmers……ALL of the risk – ioo% – is on the farmer. Forget the “up front” costs!
    The problem is that those who make the laws, hold committee positions where decisions are made where to allot funding for certain projects -food is not a priority. Have you seen the places these people dine? They don’t consume tomotoes that have been harvested well before their ripeness – and gassed enroute to market……these people have access to only the best – so why would they ever consider that anyone, especially developing children should ever need to eat fresh, organically grown tomaotes, spinach, broccoli or carrots.

    The utterly revolting fact is that these subsidies are going to soy bean, corn and wheat growers and NOTHING will ever trickle down to the small local farmer who puts life (and health) saving food on family dinner tables.

  2. Lisa Bee says:

    You go girl! ~ from somewhere in the billion dollar budget for commodity subsidies? IF THEY WOULD STOP FUNDING MONSANTO CORP WITH OUR TAX DOLLARS THEY WOULD HAVE A TON OF SPARE MONEY FOR BEGINNING FARMERS!!!

  3. Louise Cross says:

    Interesting article, I am sure you are aware of this film below, but just incase you aren’t here’s the link. An inspiring film about the journey of a begining farmer and her quest to make the family cattle and sheep farm sustainable, financially and environmentally (not that the two can be seperated)
    http://www.viddler.com/explore/PermaScience/videos/4/

  4. Mike Burns says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I agree with pretty much all that you have said. It is an uphill battle to continue to fight for the new farmer. The capital investment to farm on a small and sustainable level is higher than most realize. Most small farmers require additional off-farm jobs just to make a living. Most of us would like to farm full-time. Some of the small scale farmers would be able to accomplish this goal if they were given access to capital or grants that make sense.

    My complaint about many of the government programs such as EQIP from NRCS and others is that they really don’t understand they way sustainable farming occurs. I looked in to an EQIP grant and when they finally began to tell me the details of how it needed to be done I realized I was throwing money away on things that did not make sense. They wanted me to construct a permanent watering station … even though I was doing management intensive grazing. There is a new program for cost share of greenhouses. I have been told that they want us to take the covers off the greenhouses in winter. Does this make sense? NO!

    My hope is that there are some private foundations out there that can help small farmers get over the hump and help us to do what we love on a full-time basis.

    Who will replace the aging farmers? Who will be there when the megafarms go out of business? Wake up America and get involved!

  5. […] action for beginning farmers! Jump to Comments I wanted to share a link to the blog entry that I wrote about my experience in DC. Also I wanted to encourage everyone who’s reading […]

  6. […] From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: […]

  7. Dan L says:

    Please don’t loose heart. Yes, there are real challenges to beginning to farm but there is also much to be gained from facing these challenges head on with a positive attitude. If one is waiting to get money from some organization, why would one imaginge that there would not be strings attached? Everything I hear (including from USDA sponsored groups) is that the best route for a small farmer to take is to sell directly to the consumer with a diversity of income streams/products on offer. Don’t bother trying to compete with “commodity farmers,” you’ll never make it–create your own market niche locally. Yes, that means taking on the responsibility of building and maintaining your own customer base. This is what all of the successful small farmers I have met have done. Plan to succeed. Failing to plan is planning to fail. If one doesn’t know what to do, ask for help–I have never been refused answers to the questions I have asked. Learn to ask questions… then slowly and methodically learn what you need to learn and take the steps to make your farm a reality. Save the buying of land for later when your business is established. Meanwhile, lease land, or “borrow” it–there are many looking for farmers to grow things on “vacant” property. Who really needs handouts?–don’t get caught thinking that one has to get large sums of money from some agency in order to begin farming. For example, one can set up a membership base and sell shares (CSA) to raise capital for your start-up. Don’t try to start out too big or grow too fast. Starting a small farm can be done without breaking the bank. Messages of “doom and gloom” that say it’s too difficult to start a small farm only feed into the myth that farming is for “big business” only when we all know this is not the truth. Small farms are the future! I’m convinced that even the USDA knows this. I feel that the only obsticles to starting a small farm are ignorance and misinformation. Why draw attention to what’s wrong with the status quo–move forward into what you know is the right thing to do and set a standard for others to follow–this alone will bring about the conditions you seek… Forums that discuss the “obsticles” to small farmers are really about uncovering the hidden opportunities that need to be developed, aren’t they? Congratulations and Best Wishes!!

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