NSAC's Blog

Farmers Agree, Mr. Vilsack: Farm Bill Should Emphasize Beginning Farmers

July 8, 2010

By Anna Jones-Crabtree from Vilicus Farm

On July 1st, NSAC posted a blog to applaud Secretary Vilsack’s plea to Congress to support beginning farmers and to encourage USDA to walk the talk.

Farmers agree.   Here is how Anna Jones-Crabtree from Vilicus Farm in Montana responded to our blog:

We would not be farming if it were not for some of the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) beginning farmer programs.   However, all of the points made below are right on….. USDA and the farm bill continues to talk the talk about beginning farmers but we aren’t seeing the walk.

Access to land, financing/credit, and time are the three biggee’s for beginning farmers.   There are minimally supportive programs for financing and access to land.  The time issue isn’t even dealt with since most of us are working two jobs to support the dream of farming.

It’s clear to us; we need systematic reform.

We need to rework the risk structure system so we can get crop insurance on ‘specialty crops’ like flax and spelt in our first year of production since we choose to not follow the recipe of a simple wheat/fallow/spray rotation.   Society needs to provide farmers with health insurance so we don’t have to work second jobs.  We need a formal farmer mentorship program to ask questions like how deep do you set your blade plow? Or, at what stage does mowing your cover crops work?

We need a much more robust, creative and integrated research program at our universities.  We need research that targets real life systems approaches to sustainable agriculture.  We need researchers to inform and cooperate with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) on their conservation programs.  We need to value and compensate our farmers just as we do our doctors.  We don’t ask our physicians to jerry-rig and duct tape the heart lung support machine– we ask them to be doctors.  We need to ask our farmers to be farmers.

In my vision of the future, I see well-informed farmers captivated by the wonders of soil microbial action.  I see farmers working with their communities to create biodiesel from their oilseed crops that they grew as part of their complex rotational — improving the sustainability of not only their operation but also their community’s.  I see farmers growing vegetables for their local community.   I see farmers, such as myself, growing grains and legumes, that change vast tracts of land into functioning robust ecosystems, that are not just based on ‘nature’ but also weave humans into natural systems. I see rigorous academic opportunities to study farming systems that produce farmers held in as high esteem as engineers.

My husband Doug and I are committed to this longer term vision.  It has taken us 15+ years in other careers, saving money, and building good credit to even be able to entertain a return to farming.  Even with all of our ducks in a row,  it was not, by a long shot, an easy path.

We have to make the entry to farming easier.  We have a whole generation who would relish the opportunity to farm but don’t know where to start.  Their hands have spent more time text-messaging than shaking off hydraulic oil from an implement that just didn’t want to plug or from playing with the tractor. They need exposure to climate change science, business planning, skills to navigate USDA programs, agronomy, wildlife, moisture management along with the basics of growing carrots, or safflower, or buckwheat, or eggplant or, or, or…..

I was one of 100+ folks that applied for about 10 positions on that Beginning Farmer and Rancher Advisory Committee.  The  Committee was supposed to be in place by the end of last calendar year.  I spent a lot of time on that application and had some wonderful letters of recommendation.  Try as I might to call, ask, probe, USDA is moving slower then molasses in December on our farm in north central Montana.

I would welcome a spirited conversation about what we can do in Montana and elsewhere to grow our next generation of farmers in a way that creates the systemic change I think we all hope for.  We need a dialog with all the parties in the food system – the farmers, the buyers, the consumers and the retailers- about the challenges inherent in the current system and how we change it for the better – for all of us.

We need to start somewhere.  At some level, I believe we as a society have written our farmers off… it’s not something our best and brightest strive to become.  It’s not a career you go into if you are smart.  All that has to change if we have any hope of creating a sustainable way of living on this planet.

And heck, if the Beginning Farmer Rancher Committee ever gets appointed and I get the chance to be on it, I would welcome a way to take the grounded, real life ideas from a bunch of Montanan’s to DC.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems

One response to “Farmers Agree, Mr. Vilsack: Farm Bill Should Emphasize Beginning Farmers”

  1. patricia gadsby says:

    Anna Jones Crabtree has it exactly right.
    We need to attract a super-smart and practical new generation of farmers–nerd farmers (who understand soil microbiolgy) with dirt under their fingernails. And give them every possible means of encouragement — access to land, affordable housing, affordable health care.
    Perhaps take a look at the Teach For America model…….Dig for America?