Balancing work with work: On day jobs and land hunts

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By Stacia Cannon, Topp Fruit

The juvenile plums were a pale, unappetizing green. Then, almost overnight, the trees were adorned with rich purple, speckled fruit. Naked and new, the plums continue to swell and gain even darker, more brilliant hews. In the orchard and elsewhere it has been a very fruitful year, replete with many successes, but also persistent, grinding challenges.

Balancing an off-farm job with the often unpredictable needs of the orchard is a constant battle. When I’m not ranching I work for a vet, and Harrison works part time for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Harrison has the freedom to work remotely, so most days he drives to his “office” at the orchard, a small makeshift desk and a folding chair on the east side of the barn. With internet access and cell phone reception, Harry has everything he needs, plus a killer view of the orchard overlooking Paonia. Still, our home on the ranch is an hour-and-half away—an already long day is made much more taxing when you add a three hour commute on top of it.

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NYFC’s Western water program director, Kate Greenberg, makes use of Harrison’s “office” at the orchard during a visit last summer. Harrison is picking fruit in the background.

Since the orchard is so far from our home, my ability to help out with maintenance is limited to my days off from working at the vet hospital and the ranch, which makes it really hard for us to get some of the less-essential but still-important jobs completed, such as mowing. When we have a million other things that need to get done at the orchard, mowing doesn’t always make the cut. It isn’t essential and we like the wild and beautiful look of the grasses, but when harvest time comes, the foliage is impossible to navigate with a ten-foot ladder and harvest basket. Living closer to the orchard might enable us to get some of these tasks completed, so we’ve started looking for more land that can be our home place and also help us expand our farming ventures. We’re starting the process with a mixture of caution and rollicking enthusiasm bordering on mania. (more…)

ENDING VIOLENCE AGAINST PEOPLE OF COLOR IN FOOD AND FARMING

A statement from the board and staff of the National Young Farmers Coalition

We at the National Young Farmers Coalition are stricken by the persistent violence against black people, including the recent killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Delrawn Small and Paul O’Neal, among too many others. Like many of you, we’ve processed shock, anger, fear, grief—and felt called to respond to a deeper questioning: What is our role as a young farmer advocacy organization with predominantly white leadership in showing up for racial justice? What does this time ask of us?

We begin with the simple and necessary affirmation that Black Lives Matter. We know that systemic racism encumbers people of color in almost every aspect of life—from physical violence to the wealth gap to disproportionate incarceration to housing discrimination. We recognize the destructiveness of food apartheid, and that access to healthy, fresh food and inclusion in the “good food movement” are not equal across racial difference.  We also acknowledge that systemic racism divides us all with fear and guilt, undercuts our personal relationships, and keeps us all and our movement from reaching full potential. And we affirm that the agricultural community must show up to be a part of solving these challenges.

The contributions to agriculture made by people of color in the United States are immense.  At its founding, this country’s wealth was built on the agricultural labor of black slaves. Latinos, Latino immigrants, and other foreign-born farmworkers of color currently undergird the U.S. food system and produce the majority of the food we eat.  More than 60% of the world’s food supply comes from crops originally cultivated by Native American farmers. Chicano farmers have led the charge for farm worker rights and continue to be leaders in grassroots farmer organizing.  African American farmers modeled today’s intensive and profitable small farms fifty years ago, and pioneered farmer cooperatives and community land trusts.  And Hmong American farmers are now at the forefront of popularizing local food in the Midwest.   However, these vital contributions to agriculture by people of color go largely unacknowledged within the dominant narrative of farming in this country.

The core mission of the National Young Farmers Coalition is to shift policies and remove structural barriers to make it possible for the next generation of farmers and ranchers to succeed. We focus on core issues such as land and capital, but we have failed to address race–an issue that may easily outrank any other for young farmers of color. When we tell the story of why our work matters, we frequently reference the devastating pace of small farm loss in this country, but rarely do we discuss the systematic dispossession of land from black farmers, and the lasting impacts of that stolen inheritance for their children and grandchildren. We don’t discuss the lack of mobility for the millions of Hispanic farmers who are now laboring for others, nor the original violence against Native Americans, who are now relegated to a fraction of what was once their land. (more…)

FSA announces funding for loan program

USDA_FIPS_Fly-inUSDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced last Friday that they are transferring additional funding into their direct farm operating loan program. This program loans money to farmers to help them pay for farm operating expenses and equipment when they cannot find a farm loan with another lender. This program includes the incredibly popular microloan program that NYFC helped create.

Congress funds FSA’s farm loan programs for each fiscal year, which begins October 1. Farm loans are then available until this funding runs out or the next fiscal year begins. This year, direct operating funds ran out over the summer, which means FSA has been unable to fund roughly 2,000 approved loan applications. The funding transfer announced last week will wipe out this backlog and hopefully sustain the program through the end of the fiscal year.

NYFC is a strong advocate for FSA loan programs. For many of our members, FSA is the only entity that will give them a farm loan, and those loans are key to supporting and growing any farm business. We have been monitoring the farm loan funding situation carefully, and we strongly urged USDA to make this funding transfer. We have also urged Congress to increase funding for farm loans next year, in order to keep this situation from happening again. Thus far, the House and the Senate have both proposed increasing funding to meet demand.

While Friday’s action addresses the shortfall in the direct farm operating loan program, it does not fix the shortfall in the guaranteed farm operating loan program. Guaranteed loans are made by private banks but backed by USDA. If a farmer defaults on a guaranteed loan, USDA will step in and pay the bank a portion of the amount owed. FSA is facing a backlog in these loans as well.

Finding land (with water) isn’t easy

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By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

No matter where they live, one of the biggest barriers that young farmers face is access to good quality land. In the West, good land for agriculture is usually tied to good water rights, which is a big factor in the price of land. When we started our search for a piece of land that we could call our own, we stuck to one of the emerging organic produce economic models: we needed to be close enough to a well-to-do city in order to fetch a good price on our products, but far enough away that we could afford land.

We looked at properties in the Animas Valley for about a week before realizing that we were kidding ourselves even thinking about affording land that close to Durango (the well-to-do city). In the Animas Valley there are plenty of beautiful acres and one of the last free-flowing rivers, but encroaching development and numerous media accolades from the likes of Outdoor, Forbes, and National Geographic have made that land out of reach for beginning farmers. We refocused our search on the Mancos Valley, which is largely undeveloped thanks to being a 30-minute drive from Durango over two minor mountain passes and one county line. The piece of land that we settled on would never have been within our reach in the Animas Valley.

Even after we found a piece of land that was within our price range, getting a mortgage on 72 acres proved to be very difficult. No conventional bank or credit union would touch that much land, and the USDA programs that loan money to beginning farmers are slow and cumbersome. After going to almost every lender in town, we finally found a bank that actually read our business proposal and had recently decided to go after more “sustainable or green investments.” We were a good fit for this new chapter in their portfolio, and they kept our loan in-house instead of trading it in the open market like most mortgages (think financial meltdown in 2008), which we really liked. We knew what we wanted and we plugged away until we got it, but we had to be incredibly determined and flexible to put all of the pieces together.Hoyt_HopiBeans_cropped

I personally believe that getting more willing hands onto rural land to produce local food on a small scale should be an aim for this country. Revitalizing rural communities could help to manage parcels of land better, keep open spaces from being developed, bring back rural economies, and provide more access to good quality food.
There are plenty of willing, young farmers, but unless they have the ability to own the land they work, their desire to make longterm improvements to the land diminishes. We need more land ownership—not just land tenancy—but their are immense barriers to ownership and incredible responsibilities after the dotted line is signed.

I have long been an advocate for contemporary agrarianism and some form of a New Homestead Act, which could use the populist movement in this country to repopulate rural areas and make farming an easier investment for young and beginning farmers. I was discussing this topic with a friend the other day who is currently looking to buy land and running into all of the same problems that we did. When I brought this idea up, he agreed with me, but then immediately asked how people would qualify for such a radical land grant.

The first Homestead Act put a lot of people on land for the first time, but it also led to the displacement of millions of native peoples, widespread land speculation, price manipulation, commercial and industrial development, and events like the Oklahoma Land Rush and the dust bowl.

Should anyone with a pipedream of farming be given almost-free land to do with as they please? I think definitely not, yet there should be an easier and cheaper way to get young people back onto good quality rural acreage. Whether it comes from government agencies, land link programs like these, or through word of mouth, young people are already being encouraged to take on land responsibly, but I can’t help but hope for something a little more progressive and radical to help expedite the process.

Editor’s note: For information on NYFC’s approach to helping young farmers find affordable farmland, visit our land access campaign page

Convention recap: Is there a farming platform?

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By Eric Hansen, NYFC Policy Analyst 

Agriculture was conspicuously absent from the conversation at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We already noted in The Hill the missed opportunity this presented for the RNC. Unfortunately the Democrats did an equally poor job speaking to farmers.

For Republicans, highlighting agriculture should be a no-brainer. Rural America overwhelmingly votes Republican and rural farmers are some of the most stalwart Republicans. By not addressing the challenges that farmers face, Republicans ignored a critical constituency, and at the same time a critical problem facing all Americans and their food supply.

Democrats also have an interest in good agriculture policy. Democrats are increasingly clustered in urban areas that, in spite of the growing interest in urban agriculture, are not known as farming centers. However, urban areas are full of consumers who are looking for safe, healthy, and affordable food. Good agriculture policy meets the needs of these constituents as well.

The Republican and Democratic platforms do not discuss agriculture policy extensively, but at least they each mention the topic. The Republican Platform primarily takes aim at on-farm regulations, including those governing Clean Water Act jurisdiction, the Endangered Species Act, and contract livestock production. On the Farm Bill, it reprimands Congress for the time it took to pass the 2014 Farm Bill and calls for swift passage of the next Farm Bill. Finally, the platform also takes a swipe at federally subsidized crop insurance, saying:

“No segment of agriculture can expect treatment so favorable that it seriously disadvantages workers in other trades. Federal programs to assist farmers in managing risk must be as cost-effective as they are functional, offering tools that can improve producers’ ability to operate when times are tough while remaining affordable to the taxpayers.”

The Democratic Platform, by contrast, strikes a more opportunity- and investment-focused tone. It calls for “funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers” and it specifically references the importance of sustainable agriculture, local markets, and regional food systems. Unfortunately, the platform is missing specifics on how to accomplish these goals.

While party platforms are important, agenda-setting documents, they are no guarantee of future action. Given the lack of attention paid to agriculture at the conventions, it is going to take a lot of work to bring the policy focus onto farming. However, there are steps you can take right now to get started. To learn more, click here.

A Young Farmers Guide to Election Season

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Election season is in full swing, and Congress is in recess, which means that instead of hanging out in D.C., most Senators and Representatives are in their home states, listening to voters. Agriculture hasn’t gotten much discussion at the national level, which makes it even more critical that candidates hear from farmers.

Young farmers are important constituents, and candidates need to understand that agricultural issues matter. Many candidates and elected officials don’t know very much about farming and even less about growing and marketing methods that many young farmers care about, like organic farming and CSAs. When you take the time to educate policymakers, you are doing them a favor. You’re also helping to inform policy that could impact farmers nationwide.

But before we talk about how to engage, you are registered to vote, right? If you aren’t sure, you can register here.

Now that that is taken care of, it’s time to make your voice heard. There are many ways to engage candidates, whether they are running for president or town council. Try one of these five actions:

  • Attend a town hall or candidate forum. While there is no universal format for town halls or forums, anyone who attends can ask questions or make a statement. Candidates use these events to share their beliefs and get feedback on the issues and positions that matter to constituents. Attending one of these events gives you the opportunity to talk about farming and publicly ask the candidate for support.
  • Ask a question at a local debate. Debates often provide the opportunity for the audience to ask questions. By attending and asking about agriculture, you can challenge both candidates to take on the issue.
  • Get a group of local farmers together to request an on-farm meeting with the candidate. What better way is there to show the importance of farming than to get the candidate out onto a local farm! If you get a couple local farmers together, you can show your impact on the local community and demonstrate your challenges and successes first-hand.
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Rep. Yolo at Swallowtail Farm in Florida.

Are you sensing a theme here? Meeting with a candidate, face-to-face, is a great way to share your experience and concerns. But there are other ways to speak up as well:

  • Engage the candidates on social media. If you only have a few minutes or cannot make it to an event, you can still reach out to a candidate online. Campaign staffers are carefully watching Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you share a position with the candidate online, the staff will take note.
  • Bring your friends into the conversation. Candidates will pay attention to the positions they hear the loudest and most often. So bring other constituents with you to amplify your impact, either online or in person.

One last reminder: We all have personal politics and preferred candidates. However, elected officials are charged with representing all their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them. You do not need to agree with your officials’ politics in order to invite them out to the farm, attend an event, or make the case for them to support good agriculture policy. Farmers need champions from both sides of the aisle, and lawmakers need your help understanding the issues!

From droughts to contamination, our water supply is precarious

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One of my partners, Dory, flood irrigating a field at Red Tractor Farm. We have an underground pipe from the turn out that takes the flood water directly from the ditch to our fields.

By Casey Holland, Red Tractor Farm

Where does our water come from? Too few of us in the United States ask this question as we turn on our faucets and partake in a seemingly limitless supply of clean drinking water. Some communities, such as Flint, Michigan, have recently had to directly address this question as they find their water sources poisoned and toxic.

Here in Albuquerque, our water supply is quite precarious. Despite the beautiful Rio Grande flowing directly through our city’s heart, our situation is not one of plenty. We have been in a mega-drought, and March of 2016 was proclaimed to be the driest March on record. The last few months definitely have not shown an increase in precipitation.  

Here in the desert Southwest, lack of water is not the only threat we face within the Rio Grande-Albuquerque watershed. Contamination is as serious a concern as it is for the residents of Flint. Just a few years ago it was revealed that the Kirtland Airforce Base has been aware of a massive leak of jet fuel since as early as 1999. Albuquerque sits directly atop of an aquifer, leaving it particularly vulnerable to contamination.

In addition to the jet fuel, developers have come through seeking to build large housing compounds on the edges of our cities. Projects such as the proposed Santolina development would stretch our already scarce water supply even thinner. We must protect our water resources for future generations, not squander them away in a bid to make the desert bloom more than it already does. (more…)

I can see my watershed, I can ski my watershed

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By Tyler Hoyt, Green Table Farm

When I began thinking about this blog post, it made me want to check inat the source of our water. Three miles of highway and another 15 of variable dirt roads, and my brother and I were within striking distance of patches of snow clinging to windloaded north faces. A little ski boots-on-talus action and we were making some legit ski turns. The grins on our faces at the bottom of this thin patch of snow (it was mid-June after all) are the reason I first came to Southwest Colorado and a big part of why we chose to settle here.

One of my biggest stipulations when we were looking to purchase land was that we would not leave the mountains. I spent a disproportionate amount of my time skiing the mountains of the Western U.S., and there was no way I was going to sacrifice that way of life entirely for farming. Little did I know that my time on the slopes would give me a foundation of knowledge about watersheds that would serve me well as a farmer.

The sliver of snow where my brother and I “inspected future water availability” is situated in the La Plata Mountains, which are a microrange that drains water into the Animas, La Plata, Dolores, and Mancos Rivers. This is a tall order for a small set of peaks, but they are mighty, rising over 13,000 feet. Among the tallest (there is active debate about the highest peak in the range) is Mt. Hesperus, which is regarded by local native tribes as the Northern Holy Peak, with Mt. Blanca, Mt. Taylor, and the San Francisco Peaks rounding out the other three cardinal directions.

Every drop of rain, every snowflake or hailstone that falls on Hesperus eventually flows into the West Mancos River. Part of the water that is tied to our property comes from Jackson Lake (a reservoir), which fills off of the West Mancos River. When we realized this connection between Hesperus, our property, and the Mancos Valley in general, we were all the more sold on our place. Living close to the mountains has advantages, like being able to physically see the source of our water and look after it. It also has drawbacks for farming, such as long winters and deep snow. Theoretically, since we are close to the source we should be free of most contaminants that one would find further downstream, such as petroleum products, chemicals, and agricultural runoff, but there are still threats to water quality. This was witnessed last summer during the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River, which is only thirty miles from Mancos. That kind of threat is a reality anywhere mining takes place, and Colorado was settled because of mining. (more…)

Land access innovation at Temple Wilton Community Farm

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Lincoln Geiger and Anthony Graham, who are two of the original three founding farmers and continue to be full-time farmers leading the dairy (Lincoln) and vegetable (Anthony) operations.

By Holly Rippon-Butler, Land Access Program Director

My last post described the range of challenges farmers are facing when it comes to land access, and I suggested broad solutions, like working with a land trust and fostering community support. In this post, I want to show you how those solutions can look on the ground by telling you the story of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm Project.

Temple-Wilton Community Farm in Wilton, New Hampshire is one of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the United States. CSAs are more than a marketing structure, they reflect a shared vision and risk and a joining together of resources and skills to provide food for a community. Many CSA farms offer shares at a fixed price that community members can purchase at the beginning of the season, affording them access to a share of the farm’s harvest on a regular basis. At Temple-Wilton, this community effort is taken one step further by estimating their expenses, sharing their budget with their members, and asking them to pledge what they can afford.

For 20 years, Temple-Wilton has been operating on these principles of transparency and trust, as well as a strong commitment to the triple bottom line of farmer financial viability, sustainable land use, and strong local food systems that feed communities. It is no surprise that they brought all of these ideas to the table when confronting their land access needs.

The Temple-Wilton Community Farm operates on 200+ acres of land spread across a cluster of parcels in Wilton, NH. Over the past two decades, farmers Lincoln Geiger and Anthony and Glynn Graham took on personal debt to purchase parcels of farmland in the Abbot Hill area of Wilton, NH as the land came up for sale. The land then became part of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm and the farm community raised funds to help pay down debt. Additionally the farmers worked with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Town of Wilton to place a conservation easement on the land that protects it for farming. To achieve their goal of bringing the land into common ownership and ensuring that sustainable biodynamic agriculture will continue to take  place on the property beyond the life of any one person, the farmers partnered with the Russell Foundation to donate the land to the Yggdrasil Land Foundation. In exchange, they received a 99-year renewable lease on the land.

The farmers have built and operated their agricultural community successfully for many years. Despite all this, the 68-acre Four Corners Farm—where all of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm’s infrastructure is located—remains under a separate lease arrangement that does not provide security or equity to the farm. The landowners retain the ability to terminate the lease with little notice or cause. Given the insecurity of this arrangement and inability for the farm to build equity in this piece of land, the community has now reached a point where ownership is the security they need. (more…)

Playing caveman hydro-engineer

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By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

Our day started this morning at 4:30, when we met the crew to move sheep. The sheep are born in the bottomlands near Montrose, a brushy landscape that’s the gateway to the Utah desert. Around mid-May we moved them up to the irrigated fields on a nearby mesa. Today we moved them further up to a leased parcel in a scrubby, mid-elevation forest. We’ll do one final move in July, to an even higher elevation forest service permit on the far side of Telluride, CO. We’re learning that the sheep actually do much better on the mountain flora. They prefer the brushy alpine plants to the grassy pastures, and it will also help to improve the quality of the meat.

Heading into the high country is always fun. Not only is it cooler and full of life, there is often an abundance of water.
In Colorado and much of the arid west, we do something called “irrigating” which is the practice of diverting water from rivers or aquifers onto crops.

Topp_ditch noteOk, so you’re not dumb, you know what irrigation is, but it is still a surprise to a lot of people that we straight-up don’t get enough precipitation to grow most crops, so we are reliant on the water that comes out of the mountains from melting snow. So bringing sheep into the high country is a chance to get into the headwaters of all our rivers and streams and ultimately the birthplace of the Colorado River!

The ranch where Stacia works diverts water out of the Uncompahgre River via a big canal. The orchard is also fed by a big canal that comes out of Paonia Reservoir, which is fed by the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Though it may sound dull, these details have soooo much to do with being a successful farmer out here. Irrigation infrastructure and delivery, the details of the watershed, and the actual year that the diversion right was first filed are some of the most important things that a person can know about their farm or ranch.

Topp_pipe in the grassAt our orchard we divert directly out of the Fire Mountain Canal, which is managed by a ditch company cooperatively owned by all the water users. When water “turns on” in the spring (which is one of my favorite days of the year) a representative from the ditch company, called the ditch rider, will leave us a little note at our point of diversion that lets us know how much water we can take out of the canal. From there, it’s up to us to get it to the trees!

When I first started, we had a beautiful (but totally inefficient) network of hand-dug ditches that delivered water across the orchard. Stones, dirt, shovels, tarps, and metal fragments were used to get the water to flow where I wanted it. It could take hours to get the right amount of water kind of close to where I needed it to go. So lots of muddy fun, but also frustrating, especially when a freeze later took out the whole crop, which meant I wasn’t compensated for the hours spent playing caveman hydro-engineer.

Now we use gated-pipe (a 6-inch pipe with intermittent cut-outs that can be calibrated with little sliding doors called gates). This system is still relatively inefficient, though it works really well for us.

Frank, my mentor and partner, uses micro-sprinklers at each tree. This is definitely the trend among orchardists, but expense and a slew of other issues keeps our farm from upgrading. Besides, I’d hate to lose the feeling I get every spring when I first see water rushing out of the pipes and down between blossoming processions of trees.