U.S. Senate tackles future of Colorado River

Senator Mark Udall

Senator Mark Udall

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee held a hearing to review findings from the Colorado River Basin Study, which NYFC has been tracking closely. Speakers representing the Bureau of Reclamation, Basin states, and municipal, agricultural, and healthy flows interests presented important Study follow-up items to the Subcommittee, moderated by CO Senator Mark Udall. (See a recording of the meeting here).

4 million irrigated acres of farmland in the Colorado River Basin are at risk as pressures on western waters rise. At the same time, agriculture is the single largest water user in the west, which means as urban demand continues to grow more interests will be turning to rural water users. But no one wants to return to the days of western water wars. Instead, farmers are proactively engaging across borders to develop win-win solutions to a tenuous water future.

Dr. Reagan Waskom, Director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, spoke on behalf of western farmers as the co-chair of the Agricultural Conservation and Transfers work-group, one of three work groups created to carry out next steps from the Basin Study. In Waskom’s written testimony to the Subcommittee, he writes, “Local food and fiber production, protecting open space and wildlife habitat, maintaining agricultural jobs and businesses, and preserving western heritage are among the reasons for ensuring there are adequate land and water resources for agriculture production.”

We want to see the future of western agriculture thrive and we know that we need healthy resources to do that. Farmers are willing to do our part to ensure healthy farms and healthy rivers. (Want to show your support? Sign the Colorado River Farmers Pledge today!) According to Waskom, 77% of farmers surveyed by the Colorado Water Institute and its research partners prefer conservation and efficiency as the first and best options to address future water shortages. While barriers to conservation exist, it is in all of our best interest to work on behalf of farmers as stewards of our precious resources. As Senator Udall remarked, “We need to make every drop count.

When policy puts water back into streams & farms, the benefits are tangible


Farm intern Helen at Thistle Whistle Farms in Hotchkiss, CO. Thistle Whistle uses high-efficiency irrigation technology on their diversified operation

Farming is one of the most tangible professions there is. The product of a farmer’s labor is apparent at the end of every work day, with ripening tomatoes on the vine or gallons of milk in the fridge.

Policy, on the other hand, is often the opposite: a handful of law makers gathering in an air conditioned room turning concepts into law. So for farmers, when does policy become tangible?

As we learned last month with the failure of the Farm Bill in the House, policy has a wide-reaching effect on farmers. Beginning farmer education programs, conservation cost-shares and affordable loans are just some of the tangible outcomes of policy for which NYFC is fighting that remain stuck in limbo while Congress decides what’s next for the Farm Bill.


North Fork of the Gunnison River, CO

But the Farm Bill is not the only piece of legislation with tangible effects on our farms and ranches. States and regions, such as the seven Colorado River basin states, are constantly working with policy that matters to farmers. And with another year of harsh drought in the west—and looming predictions of water shortage—much of that policy is focused on water.

On July 16th the Senate Water and Power Subcommittee will host a hearing on the Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study, the primary “call-to-action” for matching water supply with demand in the Basin.

At the state-level, Colorado water policy is opening doors to more flexible water use for farmers and conservationists alike. Last year, when the Yampa River nearly ran dry, an innovative water leasing program allowed the Colorado Water Trust to lease water for in-stream flows, benefiting both fish and farmers downstream of the imperiled reach.


Farmer Paul Kehmeier gives a tour of his irrigation system

Additionally, state Senator Gail Schwartz is developing legislation that will incentivize conservation for farmers.

It is a time of change, and our voice matters. If policy ever feels like an enigma to you, just look out on your nearest river or stream. We have the power to protect these vital resources, and are doing so as a growing unified voice.

NYFC is working with Congress, states, and other organizations to ensure a healthy future for farms and rivers both. We are keeping the pulse on the above policy developments. We are also showing our decision makers that young farmers care about our rivers with two upcoming campaigns: the Colorado River Farmers Pledge and a string of west-wide events for Colorado River Day on July 25th.

Look out for more details to come on these campaigns. And in the meantime, keep enjoying those mid-summer tomatoes!

Young farmers hold forum with Congressman Tipton to discuss access to farming, water


Congressman Tipton speaking with James Ranch founder Dave James and farm intern.

On Friday, over 25 Southwest Colorado farmers and farm advocates took time out of a busy harvest day to meet with Republican Congressman Scott Tipton to share hopes and concerns for the future of farming in the Southwest. The forum, organized by NYFC and hosted by the farmers of James Ranch in Durango, was held the day after the surprise failure of the 5-year Farm Bill in the House, of which the Congressman was a supporter.


Over 25 local farmers gather with Congressman Tipton

Farmers from Bayfield to Mancos engaged with the Congressman, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, for over two hours on topics ranging from steep land prices in the southwest to regulations surrounding alternative housing on farms. The Congressman expressed the need for more farmers on the land and emphasized the connection between business and farming. Earlier this year the Congressman formed a bipartisan Small Business Caucus with democratic Congresswoman Pingree, a champion of local foods and farming bills.


Farmers Mike Nolan and Dustin Stein discuss markets and land access in SW Colorado.

Farmer Mike Nolan, owner of Mountain Roots Produce, shared how local agriculture has gained new momentum in SW Colorado with the formation of the Southwest Grower’s Alliance. Dustin Stein, another young farmer and owner/manager of Stubborn Farm & Burke Beef discussed how unique partnerships between established and beginning farmers can help make land accessible.

Dave James, founder of James Ranch, highlighted the opportunities for local agriculture in destination communities such as Durango, and the need to keep land in production with young producers. Following local snacks courtesy of James Ranch, Jennifer Wheeling–one of the James children who returned to work on the ranch–provided a tour of the gardens. Farmers discussed the need for irrigation efficiency in this arid climate; and while water supply varies season to season, ongoing drought remains present on every farmer’s mind.


Farmer Jennifer Wheeling gives a tour of the gardens at James Ranch

Farmers emphasized the need for champions in Congress who can build legislation flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of the small farmer. The Congressman suggested co-hosting a fall event to expand awareness of local foods and offered to connect beginning farmers with volunteers from the SCORE program–a network of business leaders who offer business planning and mentoring to beginning entrepreneurs. Our hope is that Congressman Tipton will become an advocate for beginning and sustainable growers in future farm policy debates.



Republicans and Democrats Introduce New Bill To Aid Beginning Farmers













April 25, 2013

Contact: lindsey(at)youngfarmers(dot)org

Republicans and Democrats Introduce New Bill To Aid Beginning Farmers

“Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013” addresses major barriers to starting a farming career

TIVOLI, NY – Today, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Tim Walz of Minnesota announced the introduction of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The two identical bills expand opportunities and remove barriers for beginning farmers and those who wish to pursue a career in agriculture.

In addition to the bill’s lead sponsors, the following members have signed on as original co-sponsors: Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE-1), Chris Gibson (R-NY-19), and House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN-7) in the House, and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Al Franken (D-MN) in the Senate.

“Short of jumping on a tractor, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2013 is the best way that members of Congress can help the nation’s young growers,” says Lindsey Lusher Shute, Executive Director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. “The bill tackles the significant barriers to starting a farm in the US, including access to credit, land and training opportunities. NYFC urges Congress to include all of its provisions in the Farm Bill, and to pass a Farm Bill this year.”

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act is a comprehensive legislative package that invests in critical federal conservation, credit, research, and rural development programs that support opportunities for new farmers and ranchers. The bill reduces barriers, such as credit and land access issues, that new agriculture entrepreneurs face, and invests in successful new-farmer training programs and grants to help farmers capture more of the retail food dollar through value-added enterprises.

“With the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring that the next generation of American farmers is able to provide the world with a safe, abundant supply of food should be a top priority,” said Congressman Walz, Ranking Member of the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry. “To accomplish this goal, we must provide our youth with the training and tools they need to seize opportunity and take up farms of their own. By easing access to lines of credit and land, and creating training programs for new producers, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act works to do just that.”

“As the House considers a five year Farm Bill this year, it is important we include provisions to encourage a new generation of New Yorkers to take up farming.  This is both critical to maintaining the rural nature of our communities and ultimately is a national security issue as we need to have a robust domestic food supply. This bipartisan legislation will expand opportunities for those looking to take up farming and facilitate their entrance into the field.  I applaud the National Young Farmers Coalition for bringing this issue to my attention originally, and look forward to continuing to work with my constituents to ensure we can get these initiatives included in the Farm Bill,” said Congressman Chris Gibson.

Some of the specific proposals in the bill include:

Expanded Credit Options

The bill would create a new microloan program that would make loans of up to $35,000 to young, beginning, and veteran farmers seeking capital to help cover start-up costs, such as purchasing seeds or building a greenhouse. The bill would also give new farmers increased flexibility in meeting loan eligibility requirements for FSA loans to purchase farmland. Finally, the bill would provide funding to jump start an Individual Development Account pilot program aimed at helping beginning farmers with limited financial resources to establish savings accounts that could later be used to cover capital expenditures for a farm or ranch operation, including purchases of land, buildings, equipment, or livestock. 

Access to Farmland

The legislation would help new and aspiring farmers access land to start or expand their farming operations by continuing and improving the successful Down Payment Loan Program, which provides much needed capital to new farmers seeking to purchase property. The bill would also modify the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program to give priority to preserving farmland that is accessible and affordable to new farmers.

New Farmer Training Programs

The bill would renew funding for the successful Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to organizations and institutions to establish new farmer training programs. This program is the only federal initiative that is exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Value-Added Enterprises

This legislation invests in critical economic development programs, including the popular Value-Added Producer Grants program, which provides grants to farmers to scale up their businesses and add value to their products in order to meet surging consumer demand for high quality, farm-based, value-added food products such as farmstead cheese, salsa, and grass-fed beef.

Agricultural Opportunities for Veterans

The bill would also expand resources and create economic opportunities for military veterans interested in pursuing a career in agriculture by establishing a funding priority for new farmer training and agricultural rehabilitation programs specifically geared at returning veterans, and creating a new Veterans Agricultural Liaison within the USDA to help connect returning veterans with beginning farmer resources and assist them with program eligibility requirements for participation in farm bill programs.


National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) is national network of young and sustainable farmers organizing for our collective success: we’re defining the issues that beginning farmers face, fighting for the policy change that we need, and bringing farmers together in person and online to learn, share and build a stronger community. NYFC is a farmer-led partnership between young farmers and innovative beginning farmer service providers and is fiscally sponsored by the Open Space Institute, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.  


Will the new food safety laws affect you?

Roxbury farm crew harvesting beets.  Photo courtesy of Roxbury Farm

The way we harvest: just one of the ways food safety laws will affect farming operations.
Photo courtesy of Roxbury Farm.

The short answer is yes.  The new rules will impact the way our food is produced – everything from how seedlings are watered in the ground to how the finished product is marketed. So from the consumer perspective, we are all going to see some changes.

The real question, though, is for farmers and ranchers. Is your operation going to have to make changes? If you’re not sure, don’t feel alone! Farmers across the country are emailing in, confused about exactly how the laws will influence their farm operations. So here is a brief guide to helping you figure out if the Produce Rules (only one of the several rules, but this is the one most likely to affect NYFC members).

(Please note that this article is intended for guidance only – for more complete analysis of how the rules will influence your farm, contact your local USDA office.)

Produce Rules

Do you grow, harvest, pack, or hold produce?  If yes:

  • You are not impacted if:
    • You are only growing for personal consumption,
    • or if the average annual monetary value of the food you sold during the previous 3-year period is no more than $25,000,
    • or if the produce you grow is processed (ie, cheese, pickles, etc) before sale. In this case, look into the Preventive Controls rule instead

    In this case, you should still follow along – in a few years you may fall into a different category!

  • You are partially impacted if:
    • You make less than $500,000 in gross annual sales (NOTE: this is sales, not profit!) and the majority of the food is sold directly and locally,
    • or your produce will undergo commercial processing intended to kill pathogens

In this case, you are still subject to some rules on labeling and marketing (and you also have the potential to lose your partial exemption at the USDA’s discretion)

  • You are fully impacted if:
    • You do not fall into either of the above categories.

In this case, there may be a lot of changes coming your way. Learn more about the rules here! (Keep in mind that even if you are exempt or partially exempt today, in a few years, will you be falling into a different category?)

Food Safety Rules – Coming to a farm near you!

It’s time to start talking about the new food safety bill and how it’s going to affect you.  Food safety isn’t high on anyone’s list of exciting things to spend their free time reading about, but take a few moments, because how the law gets written this year will have a long-running impact on how small farms can operate.

Watering onions 2013

How often are you testing your farm’s water?

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law two years ago, is a plan to update food safety policy in a way that had not been done since the 1930’s.  It’s culminating this year, with the FDA releasing it’s proposed rules, to be approved later this year.  So far, two rules have been released as drafts:

  • Produce Rule — standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce; and
  • Preventive Controls Rule — requirements for food facilities, including on-farm processing.

How could these rules affect your farm?  Pretty much every part of your day on the farm has to do with food safety.  From sampling and testing your irrigation water to your food-processing room’s layout to how often you wash your harvesting tools – it’s all in there!  

NYFC has been working with policy experts with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and other groups to analyze the new rules (which stretch over literally thousands of pages!) to discern how they will impact beginning farmers.  Food safety is becoming a polarizing issue, with consumer safety being pitted against farm viability.  Our hopes in this are to help the FDA craft something that provides the safety protections needed while not putting overly-onerous loads on small and beginning farmers.

We’ve got a month and a half before the comment period comes to a close.  In that time, we want to hear from you so that we can write useful comments to the FDA!  Got a question or idea for us?  Head over to the FSMA discussion at the NYFC Farmers Forum.

In the mean time, there are some concrete things you can do:

  1. Get reading!  The rules are available to read here.  It’s not quite as engaging as E. L. James, but at least give it a quick skim!
  2. Spread the word!  Start talking to other farmers about food safety and how these rules will affect you.
  3. Stay tuned to this blog!  We will be publishing more pieces about the rules and asking for your input.  So consider this a wake-up call!

Tell me more about… the Conservation Stewardship Program

This is a part of a blog series on different federal programs in the USDA and how they affect the average beginning farmer.  As we work towards improving legislation and pushing for reform in the Farm Bill, we decided to create these quick tutorial pages to act as a reference.  Let us know if there is a particular program that you’d like us to write about next!

Vegetated Buffer Strips - photo courtesy of NRCS

Vegetated Buffer Strips – photo courtesy of NRCS

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a comprehensive initiative focused on protecting the natural resources connected with agricultural lands and practices. The CSP provides financial and technical incentives for farmers to begin new conservation activities in addition to maintaining their existing conservation efforts. It is awarded based on a point-system for a farm’s utilization of specified ecological techniques; high-scorers “win” a five-year contract during which they receive payment for conservation stewardship.

The CSP focuses on comprehensive planning and continual improvement, and holds much higher ecological standards relative to other federal working-lands conservation programs.  Conservation activities that are rewarded by the CSP include everything from building natural buffers around waterways to establishing pollinator habitat improving cover crop rotation.

The Conservation Stewardship Program was first enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill.  Unfortunately, due in part to intended budget cuts, farmers were not going to be able to apply for CSP in 2013.  This went hand-in-hand with cuts to a wide range of other conservation and beginning farmer programs in the USDA.  However, thanks to grassroots support for the program, Congress changed its budget plan to allow farmers to apply for CSP this year.  (See the blog post on support for CSP here!)

How do I enroll in CSP?

If you own or rent agricultural lands, including cropland, pasture, rangeland, and forested land, you may enroll all of your acres unless they have been previously a part of denoted federal preservation programs. To find out if CSP is right for your farm, take a look at the CSP self-screening checklist.

Applicants must meet the “stewardship threshold” for one “priority resource concern” at the time they are offered a contract. Stewardship thresholds are standards set by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to protect priority resource concerns, which are most-pressing resource problems specific to individual regions and watersheds. Examples of priority resource concerns include water quality, wildlife habitat, soil erosion, and biodiversity. When applicants meet the stewardship threshold for a specific priority resource concern, they indicate that they have already been using conservation activities to address the problem.

How does the NRCS judge applications?

Farmers' Guide to CSP

Farmers’ Guide to CSP

In order to quantify applicants’ conservation activities, CSP utilizes the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT). The CMT determines conservation performance for existing and new conservation activities and is used for ranking and payment purposes. With the help of NRCS staff, applicant farmers answer CMT questions and points are awarded accordingly. At this point in time, the full list of CMT questions is not available online, but you can contact your local NRCS office to answer questions.

What can be found online, however, is the list of conservation activities that count towards farmers’ CMT score and required stewardship thresholds. These activities are divided into conservation “practices” and “enhancements” – enhancements are worth more points than practices as they go above and beyond expected conservation techniques.

The scores generated by the CMT help NCRS officers to rank applicants; farms with the highest scores are selected until the state’s total number of acres is allocated to participants. Farmers then enter into a five-year contract that solidifies the continuation of conservation activities, the addition of new ones, and how much money the farm will be rewarded.  Farms cannot receive more than $40,000 per year.

Is CSP right for me?

If you are a beginning or socially disadvantaged farmer, you will be placed in a separate pool for CSP ranking so as not to compete with large, more established agricultural operations. However, small farms should consider if CSP is right for them. Conservation points are counted per acre, so small-scale farms, even if they utilize great conservation activities, may only receive a few hundred dollars from CSP.  Get more information from this comprehensive NSAC guide and the USDA website.

Thank you for speaking up! Reporting back on Farmer Programs in the Senate

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who took the time last week to sign the petition, make calls, tell friends, etc. about the Senate’s budget vote.  As a refresher, there were three big pushes we had:

  1. to push funding for the beginning farmer programs that had been left high and dry in New Years Eve Farm Bill extension;
  2. to fix the problem with the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which had been updated in a way that didn’t allow for new 2013 applicants to the program;
  3. and to pass the Tester amendments that were intended to strip away two anti-farmer provisions to the budget – one on GMO’s and one on the meatpacking industry.  For more of a refresher, check back on some of last week’s blog posts.
Farmers at the 2013 Farmer Fly-in meeting with Senator Stabenow

Farmers at the 2013 Farmer Fly-in meeting with Senator Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Ag Committee

So how did things turn out?  Well, we had a mixed success.  Of the three pushes, we did get one: CSP was fixed so that farmers can apply for it in 2013.  This may not seem like a huge victory, but it really is: CSP helps countless farmers every year institute conservation practices on their farm (everything from riparian buffers to reducing pesticide drift to building pollinator habitat) that would be cost-prohibitive otherwise.  So we are enthused that the USDA will be able to continue supporting those amazing practices across the country.  (And, as always, this isn’t the end of the process – we’re going to stay with this to make sure it makes it through the House and into actual law.)

Unfortunately, of course, that means that we didn’t get funding for the rest of the programs, and we weren’t able to strip back those two anti-farmer riders on the budget bill.  So let’s take a look at both of those:

First, in terms of the stranded programs that were once again left unfunded (this is that long laundry list that we’ve been focusing on, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Organic Cost-share, and much more), we don’t have a lot of options left for short term solutions.  We will keep working on it, though, and let you know if there are other opportunities.  However, the big picture is that we should start focusing more on the next five-year farm bill (that will hopefully be done later this year) and less on correcting the short-term Farm Bill extension we’re currently under.

Second, the trouble in stripping the riders had to do with the Senate’s extreme urgency to pass the budget bill (the deadline to avoid a government shut-down is next week!).  There were nearly 100 amendments proposed – some good and some bad – and ultimately a compromise was made where almost all of them were left out in order to facilitate the budget’s passing.  So while it’s not great, this was really a result of the government’s extreme polarization that forced things to come so close to the edge, and thus need an eleventh-hour solution.  We do want to give a shout-out to Senator Tester, who was the only Democratic Senator to vote against moving forward with the bill.  He remained dedicated to the end to his amendments, and we applaud his efforts on our behalf.

So regarding these nasty riders: yes, they are bad.  The silver lining, though, is that they are in a 6-month budget bill, so they aren’t permanent.  Next fall we will get a chance again to pull them back and fix those anti-farmer (and anti-justice!) travesties.

OK, well that’s the brief recap from Washington over the past week.  We got a lot of emails from folks saying they made their calls, so thank you for making a difference!  We also got feedback from multiple legislators’ offices saying they’d been swamped with calls, so great job!  This is only the beginning of a groundswell of support for these pro-farmer, sustainable-agriculture programs, and regardless of this week’s votes, we are so psyched to be at the beginning of an evolutionary shift in government’s views on farming!

Update on pro-farmer Tester amendments – it’s not too late to take action!

First, a gigantic thank you to those who made calls and signed the petition supporting the Tester amendments this week!

Funny cow, photo courtesy of Martouf

photo courtesy of Martouf

As a quick refresher, the two amendments are to remove two hideous riders to the Senate Continuing Resolution bill (in layman’s terms, they are mini-bills tacked on to the 6-month budget proposal that the Senate is producing).  The first rider would strip away the protections that ranchers receive from the GIPSA act, which stops large packinghouse purchasers from forcing unfair contracts on ranches.  The second undermines the courts when they temporarily halt the sale of a potentially dangerous genetically modified crop by letting the USDA continue to planting of that crop.  This not only endangers farmers and consumers who aren’t then protected, but it actually undercuts the legal system of the entire country!  You can read more about the two riders on the NYFC action page here or on yesterday’s blog post.

We initially reported that the vote was to be yesterday afternoon, but because of the onslaught of messages they got yesterday – emails, phone calls, and webforms – the Senate decided to push off the vote until early next week.  What that means is, we are being heard!

It also means that we’ve got more time to press them to stand up against the riders.  Please give a call or send an email today or this weekend – let your Senator know that they need to support the Tester amendments!  (And for Montana residents, please get in touch with Senator Tester’s office and thank him for his support!).

Two ways to take action: NYFC Action Page, or information on calling your Senators’ office.

Take Action Now to Help Independent Livestock Producers

The Salad Garden's hogs remind us why we care!

The Salad Garden’s hogs remind us why we care!

Independent meat producers and farmers everywhere need your help right now to defeat some terrible language that was included in the Senate’s Continuing Resolution.

As Wes reported earlier today, the Senate’s bill to fund government programs through the rest of 2013 (known as a Continuing Resolution) includes two provisions that support large meat industries and biotech giants, while disregarding the voices of family farmers, independent growers, and sustainable agriculture.

The first provision overrides the protections that ranchers have under the GIPSA rules (which help balance power between small ranches and farms and the giant purchasing companies that dictate prices,) and the second undercuts judicial review for biotechnology by allowing the USDA to permit continued planting of a genetically engineered crop even after a court has ruled that further studies need to be done on it.  (How scary is that?!)

Luckily, we can do something to stop this. Senator Jon Tester of Montana is introducing two amendments – one for each of the awful provisions – that removes them from the Continuing Resolution, and he needs all of us to help him move the Senate in support.

Ask your Senator to support the Tester amendments to overturn these bad riders today!