From Colorado to Washington, DC, How one NYFC Member’s farm bill proposal made it to the Senate

Mike Nolan, farmer at Mountain Roots Produce and organizer of the Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition.

When the Senate Agriculture Committee passed their draft farm bill out of committee on June 13, they also passed an amendment with a programmatic tweak to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This tweak creates a “microEQIP” pilot program to make it easier for small farms to access this conservation program. Although it’s a small change in statute, it could have a big impact for young farmers, making it easier to get a small contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to put in cover crops, update irrigation systems, or switch to rotational grazing, to name a few. Although few people in the room knew it when the amendment passed, microEQIP is an ‘NYFC original’, hashed out over beers at the 2016 National Leadership Convergence, and passed on to the policy team to develop it further.

In this guest blog, Mike Nolan, one of the idea creators and president of the Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition, takes us through the microEQIP initiative and what it means for young farmers.

Back in November of 2016, I had the privilege of attending the 2nd annual NYFC convergence in San Diego, CA. Farmers and ranchers from all over the country gathered to share ideas, make connections and do what they do best… talk shop.

The night before I flew home to Southwest Colorado, I grabbed a beer with my good friend and peer Alex Funk, who was the Western Policy Director for NYFC at the time. Our conversation was focused around the farm bill, and more specifically how young, beginning, and small acreage growers could access established programs.

The USDA microloan program, originally proposed by NYFC and, ultimately, permanently authorized in the 2014 farm bill, was a great example of the type of policy shift we were talking about. We were not asking for more money or a new program, but an adjustment to bring more folks who reflect the changing farmer population into USDA offices.

My own farm signifies some of that change. I grow seven acres of vegetables in Southwestern Colorado. It is one of the largest mixed vegetable operations in a hundred miles. I am also a board member of the Mancos Conservation District and have a good relationship with the head of our local NRCS office. I’ve had conversations about how some programs are out of reach to young, beginning, and small acreage producers. There can be a lot of paperwork to apply for an NRCS contract, and when the payouts per acre are slim, it is just as hard for the producer to justify filling out the paperwork as it is for the NRCS agent.

After Mike’s idea came to fruition, NYFC staff in DC approached the office of one of Mike’s Senators, Senator Michael Bennet, with the challenge young farmers and ranchers face when accessing EQIP. Sen. Bennet’s staff, with NYFC’s input, crafted a policy to create the microEQIP initiative, making it easier for small farms to apply for and receive conservation funding. In June, Senator Bennet introduced microEQIP as an amendment to the farm bill, which was adopted by the Senate Agriculture Committee. The bill is currently being debated on the floor of the Senate.

The microEQIP initiative, with its streamlined application and approval process that is tailored to smaller producers, will alleviate much of my personal concern with accessing these programs. Additionally, it will create flexibility for both agents and producers all over the country, allowing more contracts to be made that are tailored to farmers like me.

That evening in San Diego we had no idea that our idea would get pushed up the chain to my Senator’s desk and end up as an amendment in the Senate draft of the 2018 farm bill. This experience has left me with some important takeaways:

First, you never know how or when or where a good idea might come up, and there is no reason why your Representative or Senator should not hear about it. Second, as the participants in the agricultural landscape change, the way we approach making change in omnibus bills like the farm bill is very important. I believe that this amendment will be successful because we are not asking for new funding, calling a program obsolete, or demanding a major change. Rather we are working with the template that is there. This template works for most, but as the microloan program showed us, small tweaks to established programs can bring more folks through the literal threshold of USDA offices all over the country, thus increasing the viability of the agricultural system and inclusiveness of federal programs. Finally, being a member of NYFC with its staff, membership, and resources really elevates what one individual member can accomplish. We are stronger as individual farmers because of the diversity and strength of our member base with the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Even when the Senate bill is passed (with microEQIP included), the work won’t be done, yet! The House and Senate will have to reconcile their two different versions, and we’ll still need your help to ensure microEQIP ends up in the final bill. Stay tuned for more updates on the 2018 farm bill process and how you can be involved.

Young Farmers Bring the West’s Historic Drought Straight to the Nation’s Capital

Farmers and Ranchers from the Southwest flew to DC June 11-13th to talk to Congress and USDA about drought and the need for conservation programs. From left to right: Selwyn Justice, Kong Thao, Michael Kotutwa Johnson, Tiana Baca, Travis Stovall, and Dan Waldvogle. Not pictured: Eamon O’Toole.

With the Southwest in exceptional drought, seven young farmers and ranchers from the Colorado River Basin made the trek to D.C. to tell Members of Congress and USDA about the importance of federal support for drought resilience and water conservation. Despite the pressures of the season, they left their farms and ranches to bring their stories to Washington. 

The group touched down in D.C. on June 11 and, along with NYFC policy staff, met with over 20 Congressional offices and three USDA offices over the next day and a half. First on the agenda was to share their concern over the current and impending drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin. Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a Hopi farmer and PhD Candidate at the University of Arizona whose people have been raising crops in the semi-arid Southwest for over 2,000 years, flew out from Arizona. “What makes Hopi unique is we plant, tend and harvest our crops – beans, melons, corn, and squash – in an area that only receives 6-10 inches of annual precipitation,” Michael said. Another Arizona farmer, Selwyn Justice, operator, along with his dad, of a cow-calf operation and the oldest continuously cultivated citrus orchard in the state, warned his elected officials about the potential for water shortages in coming years with Arizona having the most junior water rights on the Colorado River.

Travis Stovall, a young rancher from Colorado, told his Senators about the ways he’s building resilience, not only on the ranch but in the way he accesses new markets and connects with his customers. In his meeting with Senator Gardner (R-CO), Travis found that “the most important takeaway was his acceptance and willingness to listen to new agriculture organizations rather than those traditional ones that are so familiar. Sen. Gardner lent his ear for me to express my concern on the future of local food and alternative markets.”

While the farmers were pounding the pavement, the Senate Agriculture Committee was sitting down to work through its draft farm bill (for more on the Senate Farm bill and its ‘wins’ for young farmers, see our previous post). The Senate draft offers far more support for young farmers than the hyper-partisan House version, but as our farmers made clear, the West needs more support to respond to drought. Dan Waldvogle of Colorado shared with Sen. Bennet (D-CO) that “it is extremely important that the 2018 Farm Bill have a hearty safety net and conservation programs directed toward creating resilience for the next generation of farmers and ranchers”. That same week, Sen. Bennet, responding to feedback from young farmers in his state, introduced an amendment during the Senate Committee debate to create a micro-EQIP program that would help small farms and ranches access the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), USDA’s flagship conservation program.

On the House side of the Hill, Albuquerque farmer and Rio Grande Farmers Coalition board member, Tiana Baca, spoke with Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham about the importance of supporting farmers in conservation. Kong Thao, a farmer from California’s Central Valley, flew all the way across the country to meet with his representatives. As a small farmer cultivating 25 acres, he has a unique perspective to share. Congressman Costa’s office said that he may well be the farmer with the smallest acreage to come to DC. He highlighted some of the challenges farmers face when working on only a few acres.

Wyoming rancher Eamon O’Toole with Senator Barrasso, Senator Enzi, and Representative Cheney.

Along with their Congressional members, the group sat down with officials at USDA to share some of the challenges they face to accessing federal programs. They met with Mark Brusberg, the Chief Meteorologist, to discuss drought and improvements for data collection on tribal lands. They talked conservation and modernization of USDA programs with Leslie Deavers, the Chief of Staff for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Jamie Clover Adams, Chief of Staff for the Under Secretary of Farm Production and Conservation. While meeting with Leslie Deavers, Ea’mon O’Toole of Wyoming highlighted the importance of land access for young farmers and the importance of support for land transition through conservation easements.

Communicating the needs of beginning farmers to USDA, building support for the microEQIP amendment, and supporting another amendment to increase conservation funding for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers were major goals for the NYFC members who visited D.C. At the end of their second day, word came through that both amendments were included in the bill and passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I would have never thought that by coming out here I would be able to make an impact,” said Kong. “But they [legislators and staff] all wanted to hear what a very small farmer, like me, does.”

Senate Farm Bill Committee Draft Reflects Young Farmer Needs

Senate agriculture committee

 

Senate introduces farm bill draft with the Young Farmer Agenda in mind

On Friday afternoon, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its long-awaited draft of the 2018 Farm Bill. In stark contrast to the hyper-partisan approach of their House counterparts, Senate Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) offered a bipartisan alternative, the product of months of negotiations and consensus-building. The result is a bill that, despite a challenging fiscal and political climate, contains significant wins for young farmers and ranchers.

The Senate bill includes many proposals outlined in NYFC’s Young Farmer Agenda. And it’s clear that the tireless work of young farmer leaders throughout NYFC’s farm bill campaign has paid off, and that those voices were heard.  No bipartisan bill is perfect, however, and we’ll highlight some areas for improvement below.  

The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to amend and approve the bill on Wednesday, June 13th. To help take action as the farm bill passes through the senate simply text “FARM” to 40649 or go here. Here’s a summary of what they got right and what NYFC members and supporters need to work together to change:

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Victory in Colorado! Bipartisan Apprenticeship Bill Becomes Law

Over the last year, NYFC chapters and members across Colorado testified, authored op-eds, met legislators in Denver, and brought legislators out to the farm to talk about the importance of supporting beginning farmer education through apprenticeships. SB18-042, a bipartisan effort to create an Agricultural Workforce Development Program is the result of their efforts. 

Today, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper traveled to Durango, CO to sign SB18-042 into law.

The bipartisan legislation passed unanimously from the first-ever Colorado Young and Beginning Farmer Interim Study Committee, established in 2017, before heading to the full General Assembly this session. The new program will reimburse qualified agricultural businesses up to 50% of the cost of hiring a farm apprentice, helping existing farmers and ranchers stay in production while allowing young farmers and ranchers to gain better access to land, equipment, and mentorship in Colorado.

If Colorado wants to save family farms, we need to find ways for young and beginning farmers to be farmers,” said Representative Marc Catlin (R-Montrose), one of the prime bill sponsors in the House. “This bill will help start that conversation.”

“Our agricultural lands are an essential part of the fabric of Colorado, and we must do what we can to keep them viable and productive,” said Representative Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango), the bill’s other prime sponsor in the House. “Young and beginning farmers represent our future, our environment, and our economy.” In the Senate, the bill was championed by prime sponsors Sens. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) and Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa).

This bill comes at a critical moment for Colorado agriculture, which is reflective of national trends. The average age of farmers in the state is 59, higher than the national average. Sixty-four percent of Colorado producers will exit farming over the next two decades, and over 20 million acres, or 63% of Colorado’s agricultural land, will need a new farmer. But there are not enough young farmers to take over: Colorado farmers over 55 outnumber farmers under 35 by twelve-to-one. Ensuring that young farmers and ranchers have access to land and mentorship is critical to the future of agriculture in Colorado.  

Reps. Catlin and McLachlan attended Thursday’s bill signing. Joining them were dozens of local farmer and rancher leaders from the Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition, a joint chapter of NYFC and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, as well as members of FFA and the Old Fort Lewis Farmer Incubator Program.

So many organizations, individuals, and legislators rallied behind young farmers in this effort over the last year, showing that support for the next generation of farmers and ranchers is here. Let’s keep it going.

House farm bill makes key land access investments, but misses big opportunities

NYFC policy staff continues to dig into the House farm bill, H.R. 2. Read our previous posts on the overall analysis of the bill, as well as its potential impact for young farmers in the West.

Across the country, climbing land prices have made it increasingly difficult for farmers to afford land. The challenge of land access for young farmers is so widespread and acute, in fact, that NYFC has an entire team dedicated to it. The farm bill, reauthorized by Congress every five years, can help, or hinder, young farmers’ ability to access land.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee voted its draft of the 2018 farm bill, H.R. 2, out of Committee on a strictly party-line vote. As the bill heads to debate before the full House, NYFC’s land access team breaks down what its impact might be on farmland access for young farmers.

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House Farm Bill Will Cost Young Farmers, Organic, and Conservation

At long last, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX) introduced his draft of the 2018 Farm Bill on Thursday. And we’ve got work to do.

The bill maintains important provisions for beginning farmers, such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, but it would phase out programs that are critical to young farmers, compromise farmland conservation, and hurt the consumer safety net.

The next step in the farm bill process is the agriculture committee markup next Wednesday. Between now and then, we need you to raise your voice and tell Republicans and Democrats what amendments and fixes are needed to get this bill into shape. Moving forward, here’s the good, the bad, and what you can do to help.

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Finding Farmland: Upgrade Released

If you have been using NYFC’s Finding Farmland site, get ready for a big upgrade to the Land Affordability Calculator. And if you haven’t—try out the new version now!

A decision-making tool designed specifically for farmers seeking land, the Finding Farmland Calculator makes it easy for farmers to understand and compare farm financing options, determine what they can afford, and prepare to work with a loan officer. Since our beta release in October, we have consulted dozens of farmers and service providers to identify improvements to the calculator. We are excited to now release the new-and-improved version.

The calculator allows you to build your own land purchase scenarios using conventional financing options, like bank loans, or with other farmland access strategies, such as conservation easements and lease-to-own deals. Compare financing options to determine how best to afford farmland, or stack up one property against another. Once you build a scenario, enter some financial information to determine how affordable the property is for you and your business. Download your results to compare scenarios and share them with mentors and lenders. NYFC does not save any financial information entered into the tool.

We intend the Finding Farmland Calculator to serve you at any point in your search for land. If you’re just getting started, the site will introduce you to financial terms and options you should be familiar with. For those in the midst of a land search, rely on the calculator as a decision-making tool, helping you keep your property and financing options organized for easy comparison. Think of it as your own, personal loan officer.

We encourage agriculture educators to use the Finding Farmland Calculator, and the other educational tools on the Finding Farmland site, in their business planning programs. More educational resources for land-seekers or service providers, and help documents for the calculator, are available at our Finding Farmland Calculator resources page.

Don’t forget to rate the tool to let us know what you think, and sign up for NYFC’s email list to receive updates on our work! Contact findingfarmland@youngfarmers.org with any questions or suggestions.

 


THIS PROJECT IS SUPPORTED BY A GRANT FROM THE USDA NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE THROUGH ITS BEGINNING FARMER AND RANCHER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM.

THE LAND AFFORDABILITY CALCULATOR WAS DEVELOPED WITH FATHOM INFORMATION DESIGN, A BOSTON-BASED DATA VISUALIZATION STUDIO.

On the County Line

Eva Moss farms in North Carolina on the line between a solidly red county and a solidly blue county. Photo credit: Lea Ciceraro

By Eva Moss

Last January, I began leasing 16 acres of historical farmland along Highway 64, just outside the town of Staley in Randolph County—“the heart of North Carolina”—a few seconds west of the Chatham County line. When I walk out to get the mail at the top of my driveway, I look left and can just see the tip of the sign that reads “Chatham County,” as I send up a prayer that the cars rushing along the highway won’t nip me.  (more…)

Finding and Funding Your Farm

By Michael Durante, Land Access Program Associate

A thin line separates opportunity from crisis in America’s agricultural economy. Farmers over the age of 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by a margin of six to one, and U.S. farmland is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of older farmers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly two-thirds of farmland is currently managed by someone over 55. Yet young Americans continue entering agriculture despite the odds. For only the second time in the last century, the 2012 Census of Agriculture registered an increase over the previous census in the number of farmers under 35 years old.

The demographics suggest that finding farmland should be easier now than ever, and indeed the National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that over the next five years, nearly 100 million acres of U.S. farmland are expected to change ownership. But beginning farmers consistently find that accessing land—particularly finding and affording land on a farm income—is the number one challenge they face. NYFC’s 2017 National Young Farmer Survey found that 75 percent of young farmers did not grow up on a farm. First generation farmers have particular difficulty building the collateral necessary to qualify for financing while renting land, earning low pay as farm workers, or paying back student loans.

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Sustainable farming depends on sustaining farmers

By Mai Nguyen

I am writing in the aftermath of the Tubbs and Mendocino Lake Complex fires that devastated my farm community. To remain optimistic, I think of what I’m grateful for. In this context, I’m honored that the National Young Farmers Coalition invited me to share my farming experiences and reflections, and I appreciate King Arthur Flour’s support of this project. I thank you, the reader, for taking interest in the lives of young grain farmers. Andrew, Halee, and John have inspired me with their different approaches and techniques, and I wish them great success. We should all be able to enjoy responsibly-grown food while living in a cared-for environment.

But collective success requires collective action. It took community cooperation to nourish and shelter those displaced by the fire, and continued collaboration will be required for rebuilding homes and farms. We as a society must work together to address farming’s broader challenges.

The primary challenge is compensation.

Sustainable farming depends first on our ability to sustain farmers. Our country has never equitably compensated farm labor, and has too often worked actively against it. We haven’t invested in the human and environmental health conditions for safe farming and eating. Is it a wonder, then, why young people don’t remain in or take up farm work? (more…)