Heart and Grain: Learning to farm from my mom and YouTube

Andrew’s father helps him with a repair. It was actually Andrew’s mother who taught him how to drive a tractor and care for his farm. Meet Andrew’s parents in the video at the end of this post.

By Andrew Barsness

When I started farming in 2011, I had no idea what I was doing or what I was in for. Consequently, my naiveté spared me the appropriate terror and trepidation that may have deterred a well-informed individual from such an endeavor.

I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a farming community. Despite regular visits to my grandparents’ 280-acre grain farm, I never really participated in the actual farming operations. Sometimes I would help my grandfather with simple tasks that he found difficult or time-consuming at his age, but that was the extent of my involvement. Luckily, there are several people who have helped me find my way as a new farmer.

After the passing of my grandparents, my mom and I started farming the same 60-acre field that my grandfather was still farming when he died. My mom was relatively familiar with the way that my grandfather had done things on the farm. She knew whom to speak with at the local co-op to purchase crop inputs, and who to speak to at the bank to get an operating loan, and how to go about securing crop insurance. She also had a sense of which pieces of equipment to use for different tasks, and she taught me how to drive my grandfather’s tractor. I would have been lost without her guidance. My mom even drove the old Chevy C50 grain truck back and forth from the field to the grain elevator in town during harvest.

My mom also showed me the notes that my grandfather wrote every year. He recorded critical details like planting dates, how to set the grain drill for the desired seeding rate and depth, and the proper tractor gears and engine RPMs for different field operations. My grandfather died before I took an interest in farming, but I think he’d be happy to know that he was able to provide me with guidance as I literally follow in his footsteps. (more…)

Heart and Grain: When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears

 

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

Last year, after we harvested our wheat, we planted a diverse cover crop mix designed for forage and biomass production. It was a rainy summer, and we were getting close to the date when seeding this mix wouldn’t be as effective since the days were getting shorter. I was on my last field, after just refilling the grain drill with seed, and as I passed through a grass waterway, my right grain drill tire (a very specialized tire, of course!) was completely punctured by a 20-year-old hay rake that was lying hidden in the grass. Rains were imminent, and I was stuck. Walking back to the farm would have taken me 30 minutes. I called Paul, who was working in the shop. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed

By Mai Nguyen

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Big farms require big equipment. And lots of money.

By Andrew Barsness

Along with blood, sweat, and tears, farming requires a significant financial investment, and grain farming is one of the most capital-intensive types of farming. To support a small family, a grain farmer typically needs hundreds of acres of land, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery and infrastructure, and an equally large amount of cash to cover annual costs like seed, fertilizer, fuel, and repairs. It is common for family grain farms to span more than 1,000 acres. Even at this seemingly large scale, most grain farmers need an additional, off-farm source of income just to make ends meet.

I’ve noticed that people unfamiliar with grain farming sometimes perceive these larger-scale farms as corporate or “factory farm” operations. However, when it comes to grain farming, that simply isn’t the case.

I have two neighbors, a father and son, who farm roughly 2,000 acres together. They don’t have any employees—it’s just the two of them. Their farm supports the father, the son, and his family. Yes, 2,000 acres is a substantial amount of land, but it’s the scale at which most grain farmers have to operate in order to make a living thanks to small profit margins. (more…)

From Direct Action to Direct Seeding

Dan Graeve on his urban farm in Denver, CO.

 

It’s the week of action leading up to the 2017 People’s Climate March. Farmers are on the front lines of our changing climate, and this week they’re raising their voices. Here is one farmer’s story.

 

By Dan Graeve, True Roots Farm.

During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, I set up shop in front of the main convention center and displayed a piece of artwork about climate change. I stood in front of it juggling and rattling off statements about the need for action. Despite getting a pat on the back from Ted Koppel, I can’t be sure how impactful it was.

Like a lot of people, I spent a lot of time as a young adult speaking out against an environmentally destructive economy. Also like a lot of people, when I found a job working on an organic farm, everything changed. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet Mai

By Mai Nguyen

To celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, my family—aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, cousins once removed—gathers to exchange well-wishes for the year to come. I enjoy this tradition. We voice encouragement and best wishes to each person, imagining the happiest future for those we love.

The tradition is especially poignant for my family, as each year we also gather the week before New Year’s Day to commemorate the passing of my grandfather. In Buddhist Vietnamese culture, we hold a memorial for ancestors on the anniversary of their death. These memorials are occasions for us to honor the family members who have passed away. We set up an altar with their photos and favorite foods to feed their spirits—long tables filled with rice bowls, bamboo shoot soup, mushroom salad, tangerines, apples, and desserts. (more…)

National uncertainty, community hope, and pruning

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

All winter I’ve been going to conferences, having potlucks, and generally reveling in the amazing farmer community we have here in Colorado. But now it’s time to start farming, which means the fun is over. Okay, that’s not true, but the rolling of the season brings us into a new cycle of long hours and hard work. Just as the buds are beginning to swell, so are the knots in my lower back and shoulders. Hello, spring.

Actually, this is the time of the year when I can’t contain my excitement for the growing season. Winter is a time of reflection and education. As a community organizer, I’ve been living my life one meeting at a time. We’ve been having great discussions about soil health and climate-smart agriculture with a broad spectrum of producers. Big operations and small ones are taking these conversations seriously and adopting practices that conserve water, build soil, and protect our environment. Most of my role models right now come from the world of traditional ag, which I think is a strong indicator of a more progressive attitude throughout agriculture. It makes me proud to be part of this industry and part of the system that sustains the people of this planet. (more…)

My climate change plan: foster community

Casey distributes CSA shares.

By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Last season was different. A noticeable shift. And based on what I’ve heard from other farmers, they’ve noticed it too. A term that describes what’s happening is on our tongues: climate change. It is impacting our plans for next season as well as our outlook for the future. My plans will be based on which crops I’ve seen do the best last season with an awareness of what will build towards greater overall sustainability for the farm.

Casey and Fawn

All the beans but the Dragon’s Tongue did awful last year, so this year I’ll definitely grow the Dragon’s Tongue again as well as a solid green bean like the Provider and a new variety that hails from my region—perhaps a tepary bean. These beans are accustomed to dry heat and very little water, so with an eye toward the future, it would be wise for me to start learning how to grow them. Of course, even though I have hesitations, I’ll continue to grow tomatoes. But I won’t be growing all of the same types. With the heat and drought we have been experiencing, there are definitely varieties that simply won’t work. Instead we’ll try to find tomato varieties that grow in other desert regions and see how they do here. This is the same principal behind our own seed saving—farmers in other desert regions have bred similar desirable traits into their fruit, and hopefully that will give us a leg up. (more…)

Is Whole Farm Revenue Insurance right for your farm?

Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) is a new national crop insurance program for farmers. Since it is so new, lots of people are unclear about how it works.

Traditionally, CSA and market farmers didn’t buy crop insurance because the crops they grew weren’t covered, the paperwork was mountainous, or the coverage amounts were based on wholesale or commodity crop pricing. Crop insurance was also viewed as less crucial to those with diversified farms and direct-market sales because they are exposed to less single-crop risk and they can sell their products for higher prices.

In 2003 the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) implemented a pilot program for diversified farmers called the Adjusted Gross Revenue Program (AGR and AGR-Lite), but participation was low. In recent years, sustainable ag groups, like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, saw this gap and collaborated with RMA to develop a better option. In late 2014, the USDA rolled out a new insurance option, Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP), to reach small and diversified growers. CSA, farmers market, and wholesale producers can be covered under this insurance plan. In fact, it was created with those groups in mind. And it isn’t just for crops— it applies to dairy and meat farmers, too!

Whole Farm Revenue Protection is subsidized to be affordable, and an individual farm’s diversification raises the level of subsidy available. Farmers base their insured revenue on their own previous sales records, so the farmer is able to set the worth of their crop. WFRP is administered by RMA and sold and serviced by private insurance agents. Also, if you’re considering FSA loans, WFRP will meet the FSA insurance requirement.

A team at Cornell has worked to create an online tool that helps farmers compare premiums, levels of coverage, and indemnity payments. In order to buy insurance, you’ll have to speak with a crop insurance agent.

Here at NYFC, we’re trying to help farmers better understand this opportunity and identify if it works for their farm. Are you having a hard time understanding how WFRP works? Are there barriers that keep you from using it? Are small, beginning farmers inherently opposed to crop insurance? Are the premiums or the payouts too confusing? We want to help you understand this option, and figure out if it is a good fit for your farm. Check out this introduction to WFRP and a new online tool developed by Cornell University’s Ag Analytics team to evaluate the program’s usefulness on your farm.

Cornell University Professor Jennifer Ifft invites farmers with questions or feedback about crop insurance to contact her for one-on-one information sessions between now and the March 15th sign-up deadline. Reach her via email at jifft@cornell.edu or phone at (607) 255-4769. She should be available during the following times, or you can call to set up a specific time:

March 6: 2-4pm
March 7: 9am-11am
March 9: 2-4pm
March 11: 9am-11am

If WFRP is a good fit for your farm, there’s still time to sign up for 2017! The final day to sign up for WFRP for the 2017 crop year is March 15th. If it isn’t a good fit, please help us understand what needs to be changed to make it more helpful for beginning farmers. Please contact Cara or write a comment on this post if you have crop insurance feedback.

This article is a part of the activities of the New York Crop Insurance Education and Risk Management Project, which is managed by Cornell University in partnership with the USDA Risk Management Agency to deliver crop insurance education in New York State.

NYFC and State Policymakers Take Action on Student Debt

As young farmers and ranchers across the country celebrated the reintroduction of the Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060) in the U.S. House of Representatives last week, the issue was also taken up in several state capitals. The burden of student loan debt on young farmers is too important an issue to address solely on the federal level. This year, NYFC and farmer leaders in multiple states are working to advance state legislation to provide student debt relief to young people who are feeding their communities.

State Senator Kerry Donovan meets with NYFC’s Southwest Organizer Cassidy Tawse-Garcia and local farmers during NYFC’s CO legislative meet & greet last week.

Across the country, states are taking action to invest in the next generation of farmers and ranchers, rural communities, and our nation’s food security by helping young people better manage their student loan debt. Several states already offer programs that help with student loan repayment to encourage eligible graduates to pursue careers in agriculture, and to do so in their state. The New York State Young Farmers Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program, for example, provides student loan repayments (up to $50,000 over the course of the program) to individuals who obtain an undergraduate degree and commit to operating a farm in New York State, on a full-time basis, for five years. Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Education Loan Forgiveness Program provides a similar service. These programs are designed to attract new farmers and ranchers to the state, thus promoting the sustainable growth and long-term viability of the agriculture industry and rural communities.

Leanna Mulvihill received loan forgiveness through the New York State Young Farmers Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program.

NYFC is a strong advocate for these programs and is in the process of working with several states to develop new student loan repayment programs and ensure that these programs work for young farmers and ranchers.

In Wisconsin, for example, NYFC is working with a state representative this session to reintroduce a bill that would establish a New Farmer Student Loan Assistance Program. Once established, the program would provide grants up to $30,000/person over a period of 5 years to help cover the cost of repaying student loans and interest. The program would be available to state residents who have graduated from an accredited institution of higher education (not limited to Wisconsin schools) whose primary occupation is operating a small farm, defined as between $35,000 and $500,000 in gross annual sales. Applicants must also have started to operate a small farm no later than 5 years after obtaining a degree and commit to operating a small farm in the state for at least 5 years after applying to the program.

Similar efforts are underway in New Jersey, Montana, and New Mexico.
We can’t do this alone. As we work to build support in Congress for the Young Farmer Success Act, taking similar actions on the state level helps to multiply these efforts and broaden the scope of solutions to this critical challenge.  If you are a young or aspiring farmer or rancher who is struggling with student debt, please reach to NYFC to learn more about opportunities to find out how you can engage with policymakers in your state to tackle this problem, and how NYFC can help! become engaged on these issues and access resources to promote similar programs in your state!!

If you’re interested in state-level advocacy on this or any issues facing young farmers, please contact Andrew Bahrenburg, National Policy Director, andrew@youngfarmers.org.