March 9, 2012
This week, four beginning farmers and ranchers came to Washington, D.C. to participate in a congressional briefing on the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (S.1850, H.R.3236). The briefing was hosted in the House by Reps. Tim Walz (D-MN-1) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1), and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).
The farmers came from across the country to tell their unique stories and talk about the struggles they have faced as beginning farmers just starting out. Collectively, they spoke about various challenges that are commonly reported among beginners, such as access to land, access to credit, technical assistance and training, financial assistance for conservation practices, and accessing USDA programs (see this report by the National Young Farmers Coalition which highlights many of these challenges). They also spoke about their experience with specific programs included in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, which helped them overcome these obstacles and helped them get started farming.
The four farmers who participated in the briefing (as pictured above, left to right) included:
Jason Frerichs, Frerichs Farm, Wilmot, SD – Jason is a fourth generation farmer/rancher who has been farming with his brothers and father in Northeastern South Dakota since 2007. He raises corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa and also manages a 150 head beef cow/calf operation using rotational grazing practices. He spoke about his experience with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program — two working lands conservation programs administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that pay farmers for being good environmental stewards. Jason talked about how he uses these federal conservation programs to support his controlled, rotational grazing system, to fence cattle out of vulnerable streams, and to plant cover crops for his row crop operation. He also serves in the State Legislature and has been a strong advocate for agriculture, education, and the development of renewable energy in South Dakota.
Justin Doerr, Plainview, NE – Justin has been farming on his own for four years in Northeastern Nebraska. He raises beef cattle on pasture, and diversifies his operation with alfalfa, grass hay, and a few row crops such as corn and soybeans. He talked about his difficulties obtaining crop insurance as a beginning farmer with no established production history – which increased the financial risk he took with his farming operation in the first few years. Justin also mentioned that access to farmable land and the high cost of farmland were two major barriers for him in starting and now, expanding his operation. He tried to use the Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program, which helps beginners access CRP land coming back into production using sustainable practices, but found it challenging to identify eligible land in his area. Justin is also a military veteran, and found it difficult to find information on available programs, and believes there is a great need for outreach specifically geared toward veterans who wish to begin farming.
Dave Fikel, New Frontier Family Farm, Chino, CA – Dave started farming in Southern California in 2011 with his wife, Heather, and two young sons. He raises chickens and beef steers fed organic feed and pasture to sell to direct markets, including farmers’ markets and direct-to-consumer drop-off locations around the San Diego area. He talked about his experience receiving a loan from a community-based organization, which helped him expand his operation and purchase equipment for his farm. The loan was made through California FarmLink and was supported through technical assistance by USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and through USDA’s Guaranteed Loan program. Both programs are included in the Beginning Farmer bill. Dave is also a military veteran and believes more resources should be made to connect returning veterans with meaningful careers in agriculture.
Aimee Finley, Land Stewardship Project, Farm Beginnings Facilitator, St. Charles, MN – In 2001, Aimee graduated from a farmer training program called Farm Beginnings, which is offered by the Land Stewardship Project – a community-based organization located in Minneapolis, MN. Farm Beginnings, now in its 15th year, is in part funded by USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which was established in the 2008 Farm Bill and included in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. Aimee discussed her role facilitating the Farm Beginnings program in the Driftless region of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and how important beginning farmer training, mentoring and networking opportunities are for farmers just starting out. Additionally, Aimee talked about her own experiences running a small dairy farm in St. Charles, Minnesota, and how useful she found the Farm Beginnings program when she was starting out.
Over 60 congressional staff and other agricultural stakeholders attended the beginning farmer briefings on Monday. In addition to participating in the briefing, the highlighted farmers also made time to visit with their legislators directly to talk about beginning farmer issues and gain their support for prioritizing beginning farmers in the upcoming farm bill. NSAC and our allies will continue to advocate for beginning farmers and will be mobilizing our members and farmers on the ground to stir up additional support for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act.