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…But Wait, There’s More! Additional Farmer Stories From NSAC’s First Virtual Fly-In

April 8, 2020

Cherry Blossoms at US Capitol Building. Photo credit: Christopher Sessums

Editor’s note: This blog post is the second in a two-part series featuring farmer advocates from NSAC’s virtual appropriations fly-in held earlier this spring. Click here to check out the first post, which includes additional fly-in details and an outlook on appropriations amidst COVID-19.

At the end of March, NSAC hosted its very first “virtual” farmer fly-in to gather “ag-vocates” from around the country in support of key sustainable ag funding priorities for the coming year. Of course, this event wasn’t originally planned to be virtual. The participating group of dedicated  farmer advocates had intended to physically “fly-in” to Washington, DC from across the country to speak directly with congressional leaders about the issues that most affect their lives, businesses, and communities. However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on travel, farmers and ranchers from Wisconsin, North Dakota, Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, and Connecticut, instead held conference calls with Senators and Representatives from their home states to discuss the benefits of federal sustainable agriculture programs and how Congress could support farmers and local food systems during the ongoing crisis.

While Congress and farmers alike are being pulled in many different directions in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the annual appropriations process continues, and so must the necessary advocacy for these important federal programs. In such times of uncertainty, it is more important than ever to build solid foundations for food and farm programs that best support our country’s farmers in these times of crisis.

Program priorities for NSAC’s first virtual farmer fly-in included:

Below are some highlights from NSAC’s farmer fly-in which profile how farmers from across the country are seeing the impacts on their farmers and in their communities of critical USDA programs.

Steve Munno, Massaro Community Farm – Connecticut  

Steve manages a nonprofit, certified organic farm on 57 acres of land in Connecticut. Massaro Community Farm serves customers through a 200+ family Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers markets, farm to school, restaurant sales and donations to hunger relief organizations. Their farm participated in a food safety training through the University of Connecticut extension, and Steve spoke with Representative DeLauro’s (D-CT) office about how crucial it is for academic and nonprofit organizations to be able to defer costs of farmer food safety trainings through FSOP. 

Steve discussed how FSOP funded trainings have helped their farm ensure that they are able to meet new food safety standards mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Steve also mentioned that a state program in Connecticut provided them with grants to upgrade and improve their equipment to meet food safety requirements, similar to the option that will soon be available to farmers across the country in the VAPG program. Steve encouraged Rep. DeLauro’s office to ensure LAMP funding will guarantee that all farmers are able to access small grant money to improve and upgrade food safety equipment through VAPG.

Debora Coleman, Uncle Jerry’s Farm – Mississippi

Debora, a beginning farmer growing specialty crops in Mississippi, met with Senator Clyde-Smith’s (R-MS) office to discuss the importance of FOTO and FSOP. She shared the need to mentor and nurture the next generation of farmers as farming models change in response to economic and environmental challenges and changing consumer preferences. The Section 2501 program, part of FOTO, provides outreach and assistance for beginning small-scale farmers, socially disadvantaged  farmers and ranchers and veteran farmers and ranchers. Debora shared how important hands-on and on-the-ground training is to truly understand farming practices for beginning farmers. She said, “until you put your hands in it, it doesn’t click.”

Debora also spoke to the importance of FSOP in increasing the marketing potential for farmers’ products, which is particularly important given that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the loss of markets and revenue for local and regional producers. Debora highlighted the need for USDA field staff to have a good understanding of all programs available to farmers so that farmers are aware of all the available options and can make informed decisions about which programs will most benefit their farms and their bottom lines based upon information provided by the field staff. Debora explained, “no one size fits all when it comes to agriculture,” highlighting the need for increased outreach and improved training for all USDA field staff.

Ryan and Katie Pekarek, Pekarek’s Produce – Nebraska

Ryan and Katie’s produce operation consists of 15 acres of diversified vegetables and small fruits, six greenhouses, and 170 acres of row crop production in Dwight, NE. Ryan and Katie met with Representative Fortenberry’s (R-NE) office to discuss VAPG, SARE, and conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Ryan and Katie used VAPG funding to build a packing shed on their farm that allows them to wash and pack all of their produce. 

Ryan and Katie also used EQIP funding to build their first high tunnel on their farm. In 2019, they began their first year of a three-year cover crop EQIP program. They were also able to use this funding to buy a no-till grain drill and pay for cover crop seed in 2019. 

They have also benefited from the many SARE research reports that come out each year, and have had a broccoli variety trial funded by SARE in the past. They recently submitted project proposals for SARE to investigate new vegetable varieties and growing practices in Nebraska. Ryan and Katie emphasized the importance of SARE research because it is directed by the farmers for the farmers, and not by a company trying to sell technology or products.

Gail Wege, Route Step Farm – Kansas

Gail, a veteran farmer from Onaga, KS, raises beef cattle, dairy goats, meat goats, meat sheep and wool sheep on her farm in Kansas. Gail met with Representative Moran’s (R-KS) to discuss critical funding for SARE. Gail noted that SARE is a great resource for developing a multi-species grazing operation like the one she has in Kansas. Multi-species pasture rotation and apiaries are two of the subjects Gail and her husband are looking forward to utilizing in the future through SARE program research.

Gail also emphasized the need for better tax policy and farm policy in general to help with land purchases, particularly with intergenerational and family land transfers. She mentioned Capital gains tax makes it really hard for intergenerational and inter-family land transfer and purchasing to keep family farms in the family. 
Gail and her husband are also hoping to participate in their local SAVE Farm, which provides pathways to veteran farmers and gives transitioning military members meaningful skills and job opportunities in agriculture. Given the current health crisis, they have been having difficulty arranging dates and times to visit.


NSAC is grateful to all of the virtual fly-in participants for taking the time to share their stories and advocate for the programs and policies that support their work and farms – especially during such a chaotic time. NSAC will continue to stay engaged in the appropriations process, which will include making recommendations to appropriators on ways in which Fiscal Year 2021 decisions can be targeted towards addressing the longer term economic recovery that will need to take place once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. 

For updates on the budget and appropriations processes, click here.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations

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