September 18, 2014
Decisions that legislators make in Washington, DC have real impacts on the ground in communities and on farms around the country. On Friday, September 12, 2014, several NSAC staff members toured several farms in and around Raleigh, North Carolina hosted by Farm Aid (an NSAC member) ahead of their 2014 Farm Aid Benefit Concert. The 2014 Farm Aid concert also featured the stories of a host of North Carolina farmers, who shared the stage early in the day with Farm Aid musicians and NC-based NSAC member Rural Advancement Foundation International.
The farm tours and stories shared at the concert highlighted how federal policy is truly connected to farms and rural communities, and gave a glimpse into the incredible work happening in North Carolina to build a vibrant local and regional food system. The farms we visited included organic, diversified operations raising dairy and heritage, pasture-raised livestock. All the farmers shared their experiences and the challenges they have overcome along the way.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a variety of programs that support beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, veterans, organic operations, and small and mid-size family farms. These programs have helped build and maintain vibrant local and regional food systems around the country and provided resources for a new generation of farmers.
Below we’ll highlight the farms we toured and heard from on stage during Farm Aid and provide some background on some of the programs that have helped farmers and growers just like these launch and maintain successful, profitable and environmentally sustainable farming operations.
Cypress Hall Farms is located on 850 acres in Louisburg, North Carolina. Operating a heritage and pasture-raised livestock and poultry operation while also growing organic, heirloom vegetables on 80 acres, farmer Robert Elliott is selling his products faster than he can raise and grow them. A veteran farmer who has earned the Homegrown by Heroes certification from the Farmer Veteran Coalition (an NSAC member), Robert works to educate not only the public and his customers, but also veterans interested in pursuing agriculture. All are welcome to tour and visit his farm. In 2013, Robert worked with NSAC member Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) to transition his farm from tobacco to an organic, pasture-focused operation.
Success stories like Robert Elliott are becoming more common. Programs like USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program fund collaborative local, state, and regionally based networks and partnerships to support financial and entrepreneurial training, mentoring, and apprenticeship programs, as well as “land link” programs that connect retiring with new farmers, innovative farm transfer and transition practices, and education, outreach, and curriculum development activities to assist beginning farmers and ranchers. After being renewed and provided with additional funding in the 2014 Farm Bill, the program now includes provisions to specifically support veteran farmers — as well as other underserved farmers including women and minorities. NSAC and our allies are working to ensure this program receives the funding it needs to fully support beginning and veteran farmers and ranchers – like Robert Elliott – in the coming years.
Vollmer Farm sits on a picturesque 100 acres in Bunn, North Carolina. A fifth-generation family farm, Vollmer Farm is an incredible example of what the future of farming in this country can look like. Russ and his family run a successful organic fruit and vegetable operation offering organic strawberries, blueberries, and greenhouse tomatoes. Aside from their successful pick-your-own and wholesale operations, Vollmer also provides agri-tourism and field trip opportunities, helping to educate the next generation of farmers and consumers. Russ, like his father before him, firmly believes in the power of direct marketing, helping to build a stronger relationship between local farmers and the communities they serve.
Today’s farmers have to operate in an increasingly fraught and challenging environment. Changes in precipitation, from drought to flooding, new pests and blight, and the daily challenges of working on the land make a usable safety net, like crop insurance, a critical tool not just for farmers, but the communities who rely on them. However, up until very recently, diversified operations like Vollmer Farms did not have viable crop insurance options available to them. All that changed in 2013 when USDA’s Risk Management Agency agreed to develop a pilot Whole Farm Revenue Insurance product, with help from NSAC, RAFI and many other organizations. Once this new crop insurance product becomes available for the 2015 crop insurance year, it will allow diversified growers to better weather any unforeseen challenges they face on their farms so they are able to continue providing fresh, wholesome food to their customers.
Dorathy and Phillip Barker own Olusanya Farm, one of the only African-American-owned dairies in the South, and lead Operation Spring Plant, Inc. — a nonprofit, community-based group that facilitates training and outreach to farmers and young people interested in farming.
In addition, the Barkers have been instrumental in providing critical services to local farmers with limited resources that have helped them expand their businesses through cooperatives and direct marketing opportunities with consumers, including through a food hub that aggregates and distributes fresh produce.
The Barkers also played a pivotal role in exposing discriminatory lending practices at USDA that contributed to a tremendous loss of black farmers and black-owned farmland. These policies resulted in the loss of almost 50 percent of black farmers across the country between 1982 and the mid 1990s. In North Carolina, the host of Farm Aid 2014, the number of black farms in 1992 had fallen to 2,498, a 64 percent drop since 1978. In 1999, a lawsuit was settled against the US Department of Agriculture, in what is called the largest civil rights settlement ever, for discriminatory practices in lending to black farmers between 1981 and 1996.
While NSAC staff was unable to tour Hotshot Goat Farm, Farm Aid 2014 shared the stories of Kay Doby and Craig Watts on the main stage before the start of the concert. Kay is a former contract poultry grower who experienced abusive practices under the contract poultry system. She was able to convert her poultry barns into a goat operation and has been raising goats since 2008. Craig Watts is a current contract poultry grower who has spoken out against the unfair practices used by large corporate processors to dominate and control the industry from top to bottom at the expense of small family farmers.
Virtually all of the poultry raised and consumed in this country is dominated by vertically integrated meat processors. What this means is that large corporations control every aspect of the supply chain, from the feed, to owning the birds, to determining what facilities growers must have to house and feed their company-owned chickens. Growers that enter into contracts with processors — like Purdue and Tyson — have limited rights or recourse. Speaking out or trying to negotiate better prices can result in a terminated contract and being blacklisted in the industry. For growers who are still in debt, trying to pay off the numerous upgrades demanded by the processor, this means financial ruin.
Every year in the annual appropriations process set by Congress, these corporate processors have attempted to erode the rights of growers even further. Currently in the House agricultural appropriations bill, there is a rider that would strip strip basic grower protections against unfair industry practices, including right to a jury trial if a grower had a dispute with company over a contract. The rider also would prevent USDA from ensuring that companies paid growers fairly. It even would prevent USDA from taking action to protect growers from retaliation if they speak to Members of Congress or form a farmer association. NSAC will continue to work with farmers and allies this fall to ensure this bad rider is not allowed to become law.
Farm Aid 2014 provided the unique opportunity to show NSAC staff and the general public the incredible depth and diversity of agriculture in this country. With so many hopeful stories, we look forward to the coming year and prepare to defend and protect the programs and farmers that provide the fresh, wholesome food we feed our families every day.
To learn more about how you can get involved in fighting for a more sustainable food system, visit our take action page for the latest opportunities.