Our farm is debt free … but that wasn’t the plan

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

Like many startups, my farm’s business plan has been tweaked a time or two. Initially, I wanted to start a commercial cow-calf operation, but I was unable to secure the financing necessary to get it off the ground. So instead I decided to explore a grass-fed beef operation and direct marketing opportunities, which offered lower startup costs plus higher profit margins.

The downside was, the production cycle for grass-fed beef is longer than for a commercial cow-calf business, so it would be a long while before I made any money. Also, my education and industry certifications were all focused on traditional cattle operations, so learning the ins and outs of more natural beef production was all on me. I read everything “grass-fed” I could find, and reached out to several other grass-fed farmers in the area. After a couple months of research, I compiled the info and revisited the original commercial cow-calf business plan I drafted in business school. By adjusting the production strategy and numbers to fit grass-fed beef, I finally had a roadmap customized for Willow Springs Farm.

But despite lowering my startup costs, I still needed capital to launch my business. My initial three options for funding my cattle—a crowdfund campaign, USDA/FSA financing, and outside investors—did not pan out. The crowdfund campaign did supply the money necessary for catch pen materials and additional fencing, so that was super helpful. But the USDA/FSA financing options did not work for me, and my network of tech startup investors were more interested in putting their money in the latest app than in cattle. At present, my farm is 100 percent self-funded, meaning I work my tail off as a full-time marketing and PR consultant and a part-time adjunct professor so I can put every extra dime in my “cow fund.” (more…)

FSMA Update: FDA Finalizes the Produce Rule

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By Eric Hansen, NYFC Policy Analyst 

This is what we have all been waiting for, at least those of us with a stake in farm policy. On November 13 , the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released the final version of Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption, commonly known as the Produce Rule. This is the last new regulation we have been tracking under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) and our partners have been working on these rules for the past few years, and together our coalition provided FDA with a lot of feedback about how the rules could be effective without creating an unreasonable burden for farmers. You can check out some of our past work here.

The Produce Rule pertains to farms and covers the use of manure and compost; water quality; farmworker hygiene; and other potential causes of food-borne illness. NYFC has been watching this rule very careful, since it will be the primary regulation for food safety on farms. We raised serious concerns with the FDA when this rule was proposed two years ago, and we saw significant improvement in the draft released last year. The final rule closely mirrors the draft.

Our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have the full rundown here, but we thought it would be helpful to summarize the high points of what this means for your farm:

Oranges_IMG_4415_cropWhen do theses regulations take effect?
The earliest deadlines for compliance begin in two years, starting January 2018. For farms that qualify as “small businesses,” which gross no more than $500,000 in produce sales annually (based on a rolling three-year average), compliance begins in January 2019. And for farms that qualify as “very small businesses,” which gross no more than $250,000 in produce sales annually (based on a rolling three-year average), compliance begins in January 2020.

How can I prepare?
Since the rules are so new, there is not a lot of guidance on how farms should ensure they meet the requirements. However, in the next year, the FDA and others will be helping farms sort out these requirements. Keep an eye out for more information on guidance and training next year. In addition, the FDA is asking for specific questions and recommendations for implementing the rule. You can submit those here.

There is one step you can take now.
If you think you will qualify as a small or very small business (grossing less than $500,000 or $250,000 respectively), make sure you are keeping records that reflect that. The FDA is going to want you to demonstrate that your farm meets these thresholds as far back as 2016 once compliance begins. The FDA will release specific guidance on what these records should look like, but until then, it’s a good idea to make sure you save any records you have.

National Convergence: 29 chapter leaders

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Top: All of the chapter leaders and NYFC staff. Middle: NYFC executive director Lindsey Lusher Shute addresses the chapter leaders. Bottom: Tess Brown-Lavoie of the Young Farmer Network of Southeastern New England addresses the group. Tess is also an NYFC board member.

Top: All of the chapter leaders and NYFC staff. Middle: NYFC executive director Lindsey Lusher Shute addresses the chapter leaders. Bottom: Tess Brown-Lavoie of the Young Farmer Network of Southeastern New England addresses the group. Tess is also an NYFC board member.

Last week was a momentous one for the National Young Farmers Coalition: we hosted our first National Chapter Leader Convergence, an event that brought the leaders of 25 chapters from 25 states together for three days of education, sharing, and momentum-building. NYFC was founded in 2010 to give young farmers a united voice as advocates for their own interests and to facilitate community building on the local and national level. Chapters serve both of these purposes.

A farmer who is 25 or 35 will often find that she is the youngest farmer in her community by a margin of two decades or more. Farming can be a fundamentally solitary profession, and this age gap (the average American farmer is 58.3 years old) can further isolate young farmers, preventing them from building a community of peers who are facing similar struggles. Chapter organizing offers farmers a way to find each other, build community, work together on difficult farm projects, and advocate for local and national policy change. (more…)

Land Trust 101 for farmers

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By Holly Rippon-Butler, NYFC Land Access Program Director 

Last month I took a break from the steadily-dropping temperatures of Upstate New York and headed west. Fellow NYFC staffer Kate Greenberg and I spent two weeks traveling around California, meeting with farmers and funders, presenting at the annual Land Trust Alliance Rally, and hosting two workshops – one for farmers and one for land trusts.

Farmland in the United States is at a critical moment of transition—millions of acres will be changing hands in the next two decades. At the same time, land access is one of the biggest obstacles for young farmers. NYFC believes that land trusts have the potential to be powerful partners in ensuring this farmland remains available for farming and accessible to farmers for generations to come. For the past few years, the National Young Farmers Coalition has been working to bridge the gap between farmers and land trusts – providing education on the tools and strategies that are available to address the challenges of farmland protection and access.

In California, we partnered with CA FarmLink and Equity Trust to present a four-hour workshop for farmers on the process of working with a land trust to access land. A few days later, we brought together over 45 land trust staff members, funders, and other individuals involved in farmland conservation for a full-day workshop in Sacramento. This was the second annual Land Access Innovations Training convened by the National Young Farmers Coalition and Equity Trust to bring together staff from some of the top agricultural land trusts in the country.LandTrustTraining2_CA2015_crop

Since most of you weren’t able to attend the events in California, we wanted to share a little of the information with you here. Here are the top three things farmers need to know about partnering with a land trust:

1. What are land trusts?
Land trusts are non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations, often started by community members to protect specific resources, such as wildlife habitat, farmland, water quality, viewsheds, or habitat corridors that are at risk from development or damage. They range in size and capacity from all-volunteer, local groups to national organizations with offices in multiple states. (more…)

5 things to love about USDA’s New Farmers website

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By Eric Hansen, NYFC Policy Analyst 

Yesterday, USDA announced that they are doubling down on their commitment to new farmers. The Department is aiming to boost beginning farmer participation in their programs and services by focusing $5.6 billion of existing funding on these farmers over the next two years. It is exciting to see this commitment to beginning farmers as well as the clear, measurable goals that the Department has set for beginning farmer participation. We are hopeful this commitment will support the success of thousands of new farmers across the country.

In addition, USDA launched a brand new version of the New Farmers website. This site brings together information from across USDA, aimed at people exploring a career in farming. Anyone who has spent time searching for information on USDA’s website (and I am certainly in that camp) can tell you that resources are difficult to find. The redesign of the New Farmers website was launched to help new farmers navigate this maze. The new site makes a lot of progress towards meeting this goal.

Here are the five things about the website we are most excited about:

  1. Four Steps to Start Farming
    USDA first conceived of the New Farmers website as a place to pull together information about all the programs and resources they offer for new farmers. Originally, they met this goal by offering a laundry list of everything USDA offers. On the new website, information is organized and much easier to find. They identify four steps to start farming, then they group information and resources in relation to each step.
  2. The Discovery Tool
    There’s a new tool on the website to help users find resources specific to their farm. With the Discovery Tool, you can select the type of farm you want to run, how you intend to market your goods, and other specifics. The tool then matches this description against programs that might be relevant to you. USDA offers a lot of different programs to assist farmers, and we’re excited that this tool will help new farmers wade through them all.
  3. A Focus on Farms in Transition
    Land access is a critical challenge for young farmers. We are excited to see a section of the website that focuses specifically on resources for transitioning farms. Some of these resources, like the Conservation Reserve Program’s Transition Incentives Program (CRP TIP), reward landowners who transition their farms directly to beginning farmers.
  4. Women in Ag
    Comprising nearly a third of all farmers, women are critical to agriculture. Unfortunately, their role and leadership has not always been recognized. USDA is trying to change this with the new Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network. You can find more resources and join the network on the New Farmers website.
  5. OUTER SPACE
    Did you know that USDA has a partnership with NASA? It’s true! USDA is helping NASA grow food in space, and NASA is conducting research relevant to back-on-Earth agricultural production. The new website dedicates a page to this partnership, and—paired with other pages dedicated to innovation in agriculture—it is clear that USDA is making the case that ag is a relevant and fascinating career choice. I’m sold.

Death happens (and other facts about being a farmer) – BOOTSTRAP AT EMADI ACRES

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By Derek Emadi, Emadi Acres

We asked each of our Bootstrap Bloggers to tell us the top five things people should know about farming. This is Derek’s list:

1) Love thy organic matter
Simply put, always accumulate organic matter. If you farm, whether it’s mulch, hay, manure, leaves, topsoil, cardboard, etc, take what’s free. People are always getting rid of wonderful organic matter. It’s a great resource that is often overlooked or disposed of. Organic matter is helpful in improving your soil, making compost, managing erosion, and much more.The possibilities are endless. Even if you don’t have an immediate use for it, your farm will be rewarded in the future. Remember that the microbes in the soil are hungry, so feed them food they love!

2) “Organic” ain’t easy
Everyday, through tremendous effort, my farm moves closer to organic status. One of my end goals is to be a diversified organic farmer who only uses rainwater to irrigate. Sounds like a crazy dream, but I’ve seen it in action at a farm down the road. The farm’s owner has never pumped any water from our aquifers in 26 years. He intensively manages the organic matter and soil on his 5-acre farm and uses moisture retaining techniques like heavy mulching. It’s really impressive and something I believe we should all strive for in the agricultural community. His farm is the best example of true sustainable, organic farming I’ve seen. At an “organic” farm I worked at previously, I was taken aback by how much water the farm was constantly running on. Even during the brutally hot summer, they ran water all day. This gave me the desire to be a water conserving farmer, even in our drought stricken area.

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VIDEO: Clif Bar calls for more young farmers

Three generations of the Sahatjian family.

Three generations of the Sahatjian family.

The Sahatjians have been growing raisins in Madera, California for nearly 90 years and across four generations. But their story of farm succession is increasingly rare. Today we’re announcing a new partnership with Clif Bar & Company, one of the nation’s leading organic food makers, to raise awareness of the U.S. farmer shortage and highlight the importance young farmers play in driving innovation.

To kick off this joint campaign, Clif Bar is releasing a new video in their Farmers Speak series, in which they share the story of a family of organic raisin farmers whose farming tradition is now into its fourth generation. Without a concerted effort to recruit and encourage young people to enter farming, these types of success stories will become less common in the future. Watch the video and share it widely: 

The average age of the American farmer is 58.3 years. Over the next 25 years, more than one-fourth of U.S. farmers are expected to retire, requiring more than 700,000 new farmers to replace them. However, from 2007 to 2012, the number of young farmers increased by only 1,220.

Why so few young farmers? One major obstacle: costly student loans. NYFC surveyed 700 young farmers for our Farming Is Public Service Report and found that young farmers with student loan debt owed an average of $35,000. Nearly a third of those surveyed said their student loans are delaying or preventing them from farming. To raise awareness about the impact student debt has on the shortage of young farmers, Clif Bar is donating $35,000 to NYFC to support our work and highlight the average amount of reported debt.

Clif Bar is also joining NYFC in calling for federal legislation that would relieve the young farmer student debt burden, helping a new generation choose agriculture as a profession. The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 would forgive the balance of student loans for farmers who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments.

Take action right now by asking your Representative to support the Young Farmer Success Act. We’ve already drafted the email – just tell us your zip code to get started.

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I wanted to be a cowgirl – Bootstrap at Willow Springs Farm

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By Hannah Becker, Willow Springs Farm

One of my earliest memories is sitting on an old Paint gelding outside of Memphis, Tennessee. I couldn’t have been more than three or four, but from that moment on I was obsessed with becoming a “cowgirl”. Despite growing up on quarter-acre lots in suburbia, where the only cows I saw were on old Bonanza reruns, my passion to own my own cattle operation never wavered. Completely ignorant of all things agriculture, I knew educating myself would be the first step towards owning my own cattle farm.

At 19, I enthusiastically enrolled as an animal and dairy science student at Mississippi State University. Week one, I was informed by a seasoned Delta farmer and distinguished alum that “people don’t ‘become’ farmers—you have to be born into it.” Discouraged (I was one of the only students not hailing from a multi-generational farm), I was determined to pursue my education and find a way to make my farming dream come true.

master_cattle_Hannah__cropAs an undergraduate student I began to recognize the immense market potential many “traditional” farmers were overlooking. The agriculture industry seemed oblivious to the inevitable evolution of consumer demands, driven largely by millennials and their purchasing power. Organic and natural products, community supported agriculture (CSA) and reformed animal husbandry techniques, etc. weren’t even on “those old Delta farmers’” radars until the GMO debate began making headlines. The industry was teaming with opportunity. (more…)

Land trusts: apply now to attend national land access training

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The National Young Farmers Coalition and Equity Trust are convening our second-annual Land Access Innovation Training, aimed at helping land trusts utilize tools to protect farmland affordability. The training will take place on Sunday, October 11, 2015 in Sacramento, California from 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.

This one-day, in-person training is aimed at staff from land trusts with a high degree of commitment to protecting working farms and sufficient capacity to move forward in the implementation of farm protection projects that incorporate affordability innovations. You can read more about last year’s training here and see a list of this year’s presenters here

Land trust participants will receive coaching on funding strategies; monitoring and enforcement; legal considerations; and easement enhancements and ground leases that preserve affordability and active farming. This year’s presenters include Equity Trust, The Vermont Land Trust, South of the Sound Community Farmland Trust, and others!

The training is free for attendees thanks to the generous support of the Cedar Tree Foundation, UNFI, and the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation. There are a limited number of slots, so those interested in attending must fill out an application. Applications are due Friday, August 21st, 2015.

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NYFC will also host a workshop for farmers October 7 in Sacramento, California titled “Partnering with a Land Trust to Access Affordable Farmland.” This workshop will help teach farmers some of the innovative ways they can partner with a land trust to access land. The event will be presented by NYFC in collaboration with Equity Trust, CA FarmLink, and Farmers Guild. Details coming soon.

2016 Agriculture Appropriations: An Update

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By Eric Hansen, NYFC Policy Analyst 

Earlier this month, Congress reached a major milestone in its annual appropriations process, which funds the federal government. Both the relevant committees in the House and the Senate passed funding bills for the Department of Agriculture. These bills set spending levels for conservation programs and farm loans and include “policy riders” that alter Farm Bill programs.

The Appropriations Process
Each year, Congress must pass spending bills that fund the federal government. The government works on a fiscal calendar that begins on Oct 1st. This means Congress needs to pass new legislation before Sept 30th or face a government shutdown.

Congress divides government operations in 12 substantive areas—such as agriculture; interior and the environment; and defense—and writes one bill for each area. In both the House and the Senate, the agriculture bill is written by a small group of legislators who sit on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. These are often different legislators than those who wrote the Farm Bill.

Once the subcommittee writes the bill, it is considered by the full Appropriations Committee. So far this year, both the full Committees in the House and the Senate have approved their respective bills. Next, the bills should be up for a vote before the full House and Senate. Once amended and approved, the bills will be “conferenced” between the two chambers, and once a joint bill is approved it will go to the President for his signature.

What’s in and what’s out
While this year’s spending bills are by no means final, the Committee drafts provide a pretty clear picture of where things are headed. Overall, funding is down compared to last year. This was expected in a Republican-controlled Congress; however, it has made it harder to secure funding for new programs and initiatives.

There are a few bright spots in the bills: (more…)