July 12, 2011
From June 22 through 26, Rural Coalition/Coalición Rural held its National Rural Gathering: Water, Land, Energy, and Food in Shawnee and Wewoka, Oklahoma. Located in the heart of the Seminole Nation, better supporting socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers was the major focus of the gathering. NSAC works with the Rural Coalition to advocate for programs and policies that support these agricultural producers.
Participants shared stories about facing discrimination from USDA employees and offered suggestions to USDA officials in attendance for potential changes. Improvements, they said, could include increasing the availability of interpreters at USDA Service Centers and offering occasional weekend hours at the centers.
In a panel discussion about food and farm policy and the next farm bill, Rural Coalition Executive Director Lorette Picciano spoke about the importance of organizational collaboration. She urged groups to coordinate policy and grassroots efforts in order to “make dollars go further.” Added Ben Burkett, a farmer in Mississippi and member of the USDA Minority Farmer Advisory Committee, “we need allies across the country.” NSAC and Rural Coalition will offer a workshop on uniting food and farm voices for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers at the November 2011 Community Food Security Coalition conference in Oakland, CA.
Poppy Davis, National Program Leader for Small Farms and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers in USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach, addressed the gathering, noting the need to clarify Secretary Vilsack’s goal of creating 100,000 new farmers. For example, she explained that the goal should go beyond numbers to ensure that these new farmers are on a “good path” and not “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Davis observed that the Census of Agriculture can play an important role in tracking progress and supporting the initiative. She added that the program she heads will consider the demographics of the new farmers to target populations that could particularly benefit, for example those returning from military service as well as minority and socially disadvantaged communities. “Everything’s on the table…all beginning farmers are good under this program…it’s about creating the maximum number of pathways into agriculture.”
Davis described a timeline for the efforts including the development of a national strategic plan in the next year (by 2012) and offered that her goal is to “get as much input as possible.” She also said the Agency will begin rolling out “practical tools [i.e., tax clinics] that we already know need to be done.” She then identified six issues that her program will definitely focus on:
(1) the legality of on-farm apprenticeship and mentorship;
(2) microcredit within credit programs;
(3) the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, including training and best practices;
(4) income tax concerns for beginning farmers and ranchers;
(5) land tenureship models other than owning land; and
(6) specialty contracts, for example on land that might not be productive or is far from markets.