Bootstrap at Willow Springs Farm: Meet Hannah

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Welcome to our 2015 Bootstrap Blog series! Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing you to our four Bootstrap Bloggers, who are all in their first or second year of running a farm. Throughout the season, each Bootstrap Blogger will write about the highs and lows, glory moments and curveballs that come with farming.

 

Hi! I’m Hannah Becker, founding farmer of Willow Springs Farm. Located in Franklin County, Kansas, Willow Springs Farm is a first-generation, bootstrapped startup focused on producing high quality grass-fed beef products. Our farm currently has 15 acres under operation, with another 45 leased acres designated for future development. We just wrapped up our first crowdfund campaign, and look forward to purchasing our inaugural herd August first.

Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I did not have many opportunities to explore agriculture despite my strong passion to “be a cowgirl” since the young age of five. Determined to pursue my dreams of owning a cattle operation, I graduated with a B.S. in Animal and Diary Science, and my Masters of Business Administration (MBA). Additionally, I became one of the first female cattle producers recognized as a “Master Cattle Producer” by Mississippi State Extension, and completed the Masters of Beef Advocacy Certification.

hannahbecker2My objective for Willow Springs Farm is to lead the Kansas City area in high quality beef production by producing enough beef in 2020 to feed 150 community members. As a self-funded farming operation, Willow Springs’ development requires innovative strategy and determination. Completing my undergrad and graduate school education required the resources of student loans.

As a young farmer currently striving to invest in a startup farm, plus paying back student loan debt, its’ my hope that National Young Farmers Coalition succeeds in adding “farming” to the list of public service careers that qualify for student loan forgiveness. The financial constraints of my loan repayment pull money away from “would be” farm investments, thus slowing the growth and scale of my operation.

I believe farming is one of the most noble (and needed) of all professions, and am honored to be afforded the opportunity to live out my dreams of producing food for our world. With the average age of a U.S. farmers topping 58 years old, and only 6% of U.S. farmers under the age of 35, the emergence of new agricultural entities, such as Willow Springs Farm, are necessary to ensure our future food supply.

You can read more about my farm on our website, and you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

New NYFC report finds student loan debt is exacerbating farmer shortage

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Today NYFC released a new report, Farming Is Public Service: A Case for Adding Farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which shows that student loan debt is one of the key barriers preventing more would-be farmers and ranchers from entering agriculture.

Read the full report here. 

FIPS_report_coverThe report contains data from a new survey of more than 700 young farmers as well as data compiled from the USDA Census of Agriculture. Highlights include:

  • Only 6% of all U.S. farmers are under the age of 35. Between 2007 and 2012 America gained only 1,220 principal farm operators under 35. During the same period, the total number of principal farm operators dropped by more than 95,000.
  • Survey respondents carried an average of $35,000 in student loans.
  • 30% of survey respondents said their student loans are delaying or preventing them from farming.
  • 28% of survey respondents say student loan pressure has prevented them from growing their business, and 20% of respondents report being unable to obtain credit because of their student loans.

“Farming is a capital-intensive career with slim margins,” said NYFC executive director and cofounder, Lindsey Lusher Shute. “Faced with student loan debt, many young people decide they can’t afford to farm. In other cases, the bank decides for them by denying them the credit they need for land, equipment, and operations.”

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With thousands of American farmers nearing retirement (the average age of farmers is now 58), the U.S. needs at least 100,000 new farmers over the next two decades. This issue reaches beyond the farm and impacts rural economies because farmers are often the primary revenue generators and employers in rural areas.

According to Davon Goodwin, a 25-year-old farmer and veteran from North Carolina (pictured above), encouraging more young people to become career farmers is essential. “Farming is serving your community at the highest level,” said Goodwin. “Making sure families have access to healthy, local food is as important as being a police officer or a teacher.”

On June 1, legislation was introduced in Congress that would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), placing the profession of farming alongside careers such as nursing, teaching, and law enforcement that already qualify for the program. Through PSLF, professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments while serving in a qualifying public service career have the balance of their loans forgiven.

The bipartisan Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 2590) was introduced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Rep. Courtney (D-CT). Co-sponsors include Rep. Pingree (D-ME), Rep. Emmer (R-MN) and Rep. Lofgren (D-CA). The legislation has broad support from nearly 100 farming organizations, including National Farmers Union, FFA, and Farm Aid.

Interested in supporting the Young Farmer Success Act? Visit our Farming Is Public Service page to learn more and take action. 

Young Farmer Success Act introduced in Congress

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University of Maryland agriculture instructor Meredith Epstein loves teaching, but it isn’t the career she imagined for herself. Epstein doesn’t lack the skills, training, or talent for her chosen profession—farming—she simply can’t afford to invest in a farm of her own because she has student loan debt. The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would remove this barrier to business investment for Epstein and thousands of other young farmers like her.

The Young Farmer Success Act (House Bill 2590) was introduced on June 1, 2015 by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT). The bill seeks to address a major crisis facing American agriculture: Not enough young people are becoming farmers. As the majority of existing farmers near retirement (the average age of the American farmer is 58), we will need at least 100,000 new farmers to take their place. But between 2007 and 2012, the number of young farmers increased by only 1,220.

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The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would incentivize farming as a career by adding farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an existing program that currently includes professions such as government service, teaching, and nursing. Under the program, public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments would have the balance of their loans forgiven.

careersAs Representative Gibson explains, farmers provide a service every bit as valuable as other professions currently covered by the program.

“Our farmers not only generate vital economic activity in every state, they produce our food and fiber and protect the rural landscape as true public servants,” Gibson said. “This common-sense legislation makes it far easier for our college graduates to return to the family farm or begin production on land of their own, safeguarding a way of life that sustains our nation.”

Farming is an expensive business to enter, in part because of skyrocketing land prices, and beginning farmers often face small profits or even losses in their first years of business. In 2011, the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) conducted a survey of 1,000 young farmers and found that 78% of respondents struggled with a lack of capital. A 2014 NYFC survey of 700 young farmers with student loan debt found that the average burden of student loans was $35,000 and that 53% of respondents are currently farming but have a hard time making their student loan payments, while another 30% are interested in farming but haven’t pursued it as a career because their salary as a farmer wouldn’t be enough to cover their student loan payments.

“To reinvigorate our agricultural workforce, we must invest in a new generation of farmers,” Representative Courtney said. “Skyrocketing higher education costs and a growing student loan debt burden are thwarting young farmers from purchasing farming operations. This needed legislation would assist new farmers during the costly, initial phases of starting up farms and would increase the stock of new farmers to meet our nation’s growing agriculture needs.”

Story1_optAccording to NYFC executive director and cofounder, Lindsey Lusher Shute, who is herself a young farmer, House Bill 2590 has broad support from nearly 100 farming organizations, including National Farmers Union, FFA, and Farm Aid.

“We are extremely proud of the coalition that has come together in support of this bill, and grateful for champions like Representative Gibson and Representative Courtney,” Lusher Shute said. “If we want to support rural economies and feed our nation, not just for the next five years but for the next five generations and beyond, we must make recruiting young farmers a top priority.”

House Bill 2590 will be considered as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is the legislation that houses the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.

In the meantime, farmers like Epstein will continue to pursue off-farm jobs while paying down their student loan debt, hoping for a day when they can start a farm of their own.

“I teach beginning farmers at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Applied Agriculture, preparing students to go out and achieve the dream that I can’t,” she said. “I hope that their student debt doesn’t put them in the same position I’m in.”  

Send your Representative an email today,

and tell him/her to support House Bill 2590. 

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I know what you are thinking – you don’t have time for this button. But why take that chance when there’s so much at stake? Even one email can make a big difference. 

New report: Innovation & stewardship in the arid West

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Here’s a story you probably haven’t heard in the news: Family farmers are leading water conservation efforts in the West. Here are two examples.

  • By building up the level of organic matter in the soil of their California farm, Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser (pictured above with their crew) have drastically cut their irrigation use while increasing their production seven fold compared to similar California farms.
  • In Wyoming, ranchers Pat and Sharon O’Toole have always managed their land with conservation in mind. Along the way, they’ve built strong partnerships with Trout Unlimited, Audubon Wyoming, and The Nature Conservancy—organizations some ranchers once viewed as adversaries.

NYFC_WesternCaseStudiesFINAL_Lower_Page_01Our new report, Innovations in Agricultural Stewardship: Stories of Conservation & Drought Resilience in the Arid West, offers five case studies profiling producers across the Colorado River Basin (an area that spans seven Western states) and beyond who—with curiosity, creativity, and seasons of trial and error—are adapting and even thriving in the drought. This report was created in partnership with the Family Farm Alliance to highlight farmers who are building drought resilience, saving water, & growing good food for all of us.

Read our new report here. 

The West is mobilizing in search of answers to a growing water gap between water supply and demand. Earlier this week the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages much of the water infrastructure in the West, released a report that NYFC also collaborated on titled Moving Forward Phase I Report that identifies ways to reduce water stress in the Colorado River Basin.

Now with our latest publication, Innovations in Agricultural Stewardship, we hope to add to the list of solutions. In order to develop smart policy, it is critical to understand the creative ways farmers and ranchers—young and seasoned alike—manage their land. We call on our policymakers to engage farmers as allies in finding innovative solutions that support the health of our land, water, and Western communities.

The West, water and you: Take our new survey

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This year drought has gripped the West to a new extreme. But both young and seasoned farmers are forging new and innovative solutions, growing more food with less water while enhancing biodiversity, soil health, and their local communities.

Yet despite this, too often young farmers are not engaged in shaping water policy. This means their values and their voices go unheard by policymakers.

NYFC is changing that. As part of our ongoing work on water in the West, we are developing a grassroots advocacy platform on western water. We just launched an online survey to hear what matters most to you on western water issues.

Are you a farmer or rancher? Complete our survey, and as a thank you, we will give you a year of free membership in NYFC. Existing members will have their membership renewed.

 

TAKE THE SURVEY:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/TPP8H9Q 

 

We have been hosting community gatherings on water across the West, but since we can’t make it everywhere we’d like, we’re hoping to get a broad response via the survey. We want to know: Is conservation important to you? How has drought impacted your operation? Can policy and funding be enhanced to support you in your success?

We know your time is packed with actual farming this time of year, so thank you for taking five minutes to lend your voice to this effort. For taking the survey, you will receive a FREE year-long membership with NYFC.

Membership is optional, but membership is also awesome. You decide.

Want to meet with your representative on an issue you care about? Email our western organizer, Kate Greenberg, and we’ll help you have your voice heard.

To learn more about issues farmers are facing in the arid West, watch our short film “RESILIENT.”

Apply now to be a 2015 Bootstrap Blogger!

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Each year, NYFC’s Bootstrap Blog follows farmers starting new farm businesses, like Nate Brownlee of Nightfall Farm in Indiana and Connie Surber in Montana. The Bootstrap series is one of our most popular features, and we think it’s a critical platform for highlighting and recruiting the next generation of farmers and ranchers. If you think your farm is Bootstrap-worthy, bust out your laptop and your selfie stick and send us a few words and photos about yourself and your operation. Here are the details:

  • Headshot-BlankWe’re looking for three farmers or ranchers to write monthly blog posts beginning in June 2015 and ending in December 2015. The selected bloggers will receive a stipend.
  • Topics will be assigned by NYFC staff and might include subjects like, “Why I Farm,” “Community and Collaboration,” and “My Student Loans.” NYFC staffers will collaborate with you on edits.
  • To apply, submit a short (300-500 word) profile that sums up your life as a farmer. Be sure to tell us what type of farm you have, where you are located, the scale of your operation, what motivates you to farm, and what your hopes are for the future. We’d also love to know how student debt impacts your ability to farm, but having student loans is not a requirement for selection. Attach a couple photos, if you can, or include a link to your farm’s website.
  • EDIT: In our original post we forgot to mention that to qualify as a “new farm business,” you should be in your first or second year of operating your own farm business. If you in your third-plus year, OR if you are still in the planning stage or working on someone else’s farm, we’ll cheer you on, but we won’t select you as a Bootstrap blogger this year.
  • Submit applications and questions to NYFC communications director Chelsey Simpson (chelsey at youngfarmers dot org) via email no later than May 18, 2015.

So there it is—your path to fame and moderate fortune. We look forward to reading your submissions!

Zoning and Other Boring But Important Stuff

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Guest post by Ann Larkin Hansen

When we bought our farm in the early ’90s, we were too ignorant about rural living to worry whether a large cattle feedlot, a stock car racetrack, or other incompatible neighbors might move in next door. We’re lucky: Our neighbors are still wetlands and lake cabins, and things will probably stay that way.

A lot of farmers aren’t so lucky. In my years of working as a farm reporter and serving on our township’s planning commission, I’ve seen a lot of problems connected with land-use issues, from atrazine contamination of wells due to heavy pesticide use, to odor issues caused by large swine and poultry operations, to noise and light issues from frac sand mining and trucking. And there are a lot more operations looking for places to build in the country: “adult” entertainment, prisons, landfills, industrial plants, and housing developments filled with folks who object when you spread manure or have to run machinery late in the evening to complete a harvest.

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Ann Hansen

Fortunately, land-use regulations allow a county or township to protect itself, for the most part, from land uses that injure or offend the current residents. Unfortunately, many townships and counties haven’t put good regulations in place and are caught by surprise when this makes them a target for CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) or other new neighbors who might not be a good fit for the neighborhood.

So, if you’re looking at land to buy, I highly recommend that you:

  • Check out what land-use regulations are in place at both the county and township level, and also ask about what sort of changes might happen in the future. A lot of county and town websites now have their ordinances online; if not, call or stop by their office and ask to see them.
  • Ask if there’s a Comprehensive Planning document for the area; this will tell you what’s expected to happen in the next twenty years or so in terms of road building and upgrades, power line corridors, residential development, and industrial development.
  • Also look for other clues about your potential neighbors. Ask how many high-capacity wells have been drilled in recent years—these are used for large-scale agriculture. An increase in requests for driveway and building permits indicates a rise in residential development.

The land-use ordinances will also tell you what you will and won’t be allowed to do on the property you’re thinking of buying. If you’re planning on-farm sales or an agri-tourism enterprise, make sure that these activities are allowed. (I knew a couple who gradually built an on-farm greenhouse and nursery operation into a thriving business only to be told that they had exceeded what was allowed in their township. They had to shut down.)

It’s important to understand that there are three types of land-use regulation that are employed to regulate what and how landowners can use their land.

(1) Licensing and Nuisance Ordinances
The first type are called Licensing and Nuisance ordinances, and these are still quite often the only type found in rural townships. Licensing and nuisance ordinances do NOT regulate what can be done on land; they can only set rules, within reason, for how an activity is done, such as hours of operation.

And, as with all ordinances, the rules don’t apply if the establishment—say a gambling casino—was built before the ordinance was passed.

 

(2) Land Division Ordinances
The second type of land-use regulation are Land Division ordinances. These regulate how land can be divided for future development and may govern such items as whether a parcel must have road access, a good building site, and appropriate soils and space for a septic system. In our township, for example, we’ve written ordinances that require a minimum lot size of 2.5 acres and road access that meets state standards regarding distance from intersections and other driveways.

As with licensing and nuisance ordinances, land division ordinances do NOT regulate what can be done on a piece of property, they only establish minimum requirements for development.

 

(3) Zoning
Only the third type of ordinance, Zoning, regulates what can be done on property. It’s kind of a double-edged sword: Zoning ordinances, for the most part, protect you from injurious or obnoxious neighbors; they also limit what you are allowed to do on your own land. For this reason, “zoning” has become a dirty word in many rural areas since the thought of not being able to do whatever you want in your own private kingdom seems to trump the thought of someday having a casino next door. Too often, it seems, rural townships refuse to even consider zoning until something awful to live next door to comes to the area, and then it’s too late. In the last ten years, mining for frac sand has exploded in our area, causing a big scramble by area townships to get any regulation they can in place. Many of these efforts haven’t been successful.

Zoning works by establishing districts for different land uses, so incompatible uses, like a huge dairy operation, aren’t built next to residential subdivisions. In rural areas, zoning may include districts for farming, residential, recreational, industrial, and commercial use.

It’s important to look over the definitions of the districts since these vary considerably. Some zoning ordinances are quite detailed and regulate right down to what is allowed for things like fence height, while others are pretty minimalist.

 

There’s one further twist to land-use regulation. In some instances, such as wetland protection, state or federal regulations have been put in place, which override any local ordinances. In this case, counties and towns can’t override state and federal regulations, so it’s a good idea to ask at the county level what type of state and federal land-use regulations might affect the land you wish to acquire.

 

Ann Larkin Hansen is a farmer and author whose books include “The Organic Farming Manual,” “Finding Good Farmland,” “A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods” (with certified master logger Mike Severson and consulting forester Dennis Waterman), “Making Hay,” and “Electric Fencing,” all from Storey Publishing.

 

 

March Update: Leanna Says Goodbye to Student Debt

This week, we learned that our Operations Manager, Leanna Mulvihill, was selected to receive student loan forgiveness by New York State. Leanna is starting her own livestock operation this year and will now be able to invest her savings in lambs and pigs instead of student loan payments. This is exactly the kind of impact that we’re working to achieve with #FarmingIsPublicService – to help young people manage their student debt while getting a farm operation off the ground. Campaign updates to come!

In this March newsletter, you’ll hear directly from Leanna, meet NYFC’s newest chapter, get an update on Western water and see a listing of events across the nation. (more…)

Enrollment Deadline for USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program is Extended Two Weeks to March 13th

CSP buffer stripsThe USDA has announced that they are extending the deadline for applying to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) this year! If could use extra funding for on-farm conservation, CSP is the program for you.  You now have until March 13th (the original deadline was today, February 27th).

What is CSP?

CSP is a working lands program run by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). It provides funding for farmers to take on conservation activities while simultaneously farming the land. For farmers that care about the environment, this program is a great way to receive help funding projects that improve soil, air, and water quality; increase water quantity, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity; or decrease soil erosion. (more…)

Thanks to Everyone for an Incredible Winter Supper

winter supper pic - smallLast week the National Young Farmers Coalition hosted our first Young Farmer Winter Supper at Wythe Hotel. We met over a hundred of incredible like-minded people devoted to promoting NYFC’s cause and mission.

Click here for some great images of the event to get a sense of what was shared that evening at the Winter Supper.

We would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity to once again thank all of our generous sponsors –Etsy, Stonyfield Farm and Wythe Hotel — who believed that NYFC could host an event of this kind. We would not have had the resources to embark on the Winter Supper without their initial faith in us.
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