NYFC got the rare opportunity last week to sit down with the USDA’s new Deputy Secretary, Krysta Harden, in Clermont, NY, when she was in-state for the Young Farmers Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture.
Harden, who took over the number two spot at the USDA when Kathleen Merrigan stepped down earlier this year, has been making a concerted effort to meet with farmers and farming groups around the country to discuss the farming community’s needs and concerns.
The Wednesday meeting was presented by the National Young Farmers Coalition, Hearty Roots Community Farm of Clermont, NY, and the White House Business Council. After a farm tour with Harden and several local legislators and community leaders at Hearty Roots, Harden joined a panel of twelve area farmers for a farming roundtable. The farmers, brought together by NYFC, represented a diverse group of local businesses, from a medium-scale family farm growing wheat, corn, and soy on several thousand acres to nascent livestock farms and burgeoning CSA’s just a few years in operation.
NYFC Executive Director Lindsey Shute and Deputy Secretary Harden began the roundtable with a warm welcome to the assembled farmers, commenting on the rich diversity and strength of the beginning farmer movement. A number of beginning farmer issues arose over the next hour, and Harden was excited to hear from the farmers present as well as other community leaders in the room.
One recurring issue was the problems of accessing land and credit, especially in regions of high land-cost, such as the Hudson Valley. Farmers shared stories about growing their businesses but feeling that they were hitting a wall when attempting to move beyond short-term land rental arrangements. A few specific USDA policies came up, such as a qualifier in the FSA’s direct farm ownership (DFO) loan program that restricts who can apply. As farmer Jen Carson of Lineage Farm pointed out, when multiple business partners (those co-owning a business as either a partnership or a corporation) apply for a loan, FSA gives them the favorable beginning farmer status only if they are related by blood or marriage; unrelated business partners (or those in a relationship that’s not official in the eyes of the government) can’t access the set-aside pool of beginning farmer funds. Harden promised to look into the oversight.
The importance of beginning farmer education came up, with farmers addressing the usefulness of business and technical training programs. Since many of those programs are partially funded by USDA grants through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), the reiterated push was to keep supporting that program to ensure a well-prepared next generation of farmers. The importance of the Cooperative Extension program also came up, several farmers expressing concern that the program needs to be doing more, and yet doesn’t have the funding to do so.
The lively conversation swept through a range of other subjects close to the hearts of the group, including reform to the H-2A worker program (and the possibility of immigration reform in general), the lack of infrastructure – such as the shortage of slaughterhouses – that is holding back agriculture in New York State, and much more.
The discussion concluded amicably, with Harden thanking the group for sharing their perspectives and promising to take back the concerns to DC, although cautioning that “change happens slowly,” and we need to keep pushing. NYFC is excited to be building a close connection to the new Deputy Secretary, and will continue to work with farmers throughout its network to push for positive change at the USDA.