USDA must focus on expanding and supporting the young and BIPOC farmers who are already working to fight the climate crisis through farming.
My name is Bari Zeiger and I am the owner and operator of Healing Poem Farm, an ecological farm in the start-up phase, located 35 minutes from the city of Buffalo in Java, New York. I also work as the Director of Development at Providence Farm Collective, a non-profit that supports access to farmland, shared equipment, farm and business education, technical assistance, and markets for refugee, immigrant, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers. Additionally, I serve on the National Young Farmers Coalition’s Federal Policy Committee as the Women’s Representative.
In over six years of working on and managing farms, as well as starting a farm of my own, I have both experienced the impacts of climate change and participated in several USDA programs. For me, farming has presented many paradoxes. My passion for farming germinated out of a deep love and concern for the environment, and I have prioritized learning about and gaining skills in practices that are low-input and bolster the resilience and diversity of farm ecosystems. Climate change, however, threatens my and my fellow farmers’ ability to build a stable livelihood and high quality of life in agriculture.
In part, it was my eagerness to find farmer-centered solutions to this issue that led me to the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, where I have reviewed every grant program at least once since I joined the Technical Committee in 2017, and where I now serve as a Farmer Representative on the Administrative Council and Executive Committee of Northeast SARE. The SARE program is a grants program that supports farmer-led innovations in sustainable agriculture. My favorite grants to review are the Farmer and Partnership Grants. Reading the brilliant, innovative, and pragmatic proposals from farmers to enhance agricultural sustainability is inspiring and gives me hope for the future. While Northeast SARE has a long journey ahead to make its grant programs more accessible to BIPOC farmers, researchers, and technical providers, as well as 1890 land-grant universities and HBCUs, it is one of the few USDA and National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant programs open for applications directly by farmers themselves.
Two other programs available directly to farmers are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans. Several other farms I have worked on or managed received funding for high tunnels through EQIP, so I was excited to apply for support on my own farm this round. My farm is small, with intensive production on only one acre, and I am taking the slow and steady approach to building the farm business. This is primarily because of climate change and access to land, two of the major issues facing so many young farmers, which are even more challenging for farmers of color. Having experienced dramatic drought, rainfall, hail, wind and snow storm events, and unseasonable frosts since I began farming in 2015, I knew I wanted to wait until I could purchase and have long-term security on land before starting my own farm business. This would allow me to invest and build equity in the soil and infrastructure required to weather the effects of climate change. Despite leasing land being less expensive than purchasing it, it did not make sense to me to make significant capital investments on land that I would have to eventually abandon after a few years.
Which leads me to another issue — I could only afford land with fairly poor soil quality and absolutely no infrastructure already in place, hence the small and slow approach. Since December 2019, I have invested approximately $140,000, without any loans, in purchasing the farm, re-enlivening the soil with compost and cover crops, and adding critical infrastructure — including drainage tiles, a road, a well, and electricity. I don’t say this with pride. For four years, I have burnt myself out working one full-time and two part-time jobs to save as much as possible to invest in the farm. Another paradox here — I cannot make enough money to properly invest in starting my farm while working and continuing to hone my skills in the field on other farms, so I have had to work for agricultural non-profits, largely behind a desk.
This brings me back to EQIP. With limited acreage and an increase in climate volatility, season extension is vital to my farm’s viability. The EQIP high tunnel funding will be truly game-changing for me and my farm; however, with the current reimbursement model, I have to figure out how to cobble together the money up front. You may already have been thinking that I shouldn’t have to toil so much and that I am under-resourced, and I agree. The problem is, I am ineligible for FSA’s low-interest loans because my income currently comes from the agricultural non-profit work I do to be able to afford the infrastructure needed to support my own economically viable farm business. As farmland becomes fragmented and increasingly more expensive, I imagine that many other beginning farmers are experiencing the same conundrum of only being able to afford cheaper, lower quality land, and therefore needing off-farm income to start their farms. In fact, according to Young Farmers’ 2011 National Survey, over 73% of farmers depend on off-farm income. They are then deemed ineligible for a lending program that is supposed to be designed to help them access capital and start their farms. Programs like these need to take into account the diversity of farmers across the country because the current design and implementation of USDA programs like these deter participation from young farmers, BIPOC farmers, and farm workers. Being able to access affordable, healthy land is not only good for farmers but it’s also good for the planet.
I have years of direct farming experience, as well as holistic business management and bookkeeping skills. I have attended weeks of conferences and workshops and have shelves stacked with farming books. I work with a soil and farm business consultant who recently used me as a case study in a workshop they led at a sustainable agriculture conference on the “best” way to start a farm. I clearly have skin in the game, am committed to running a commercial farm, and I have a salaried, stable income. I should be FSA’s dream borrower, but even I cannot apply.
This is to say, what my farming experience and USDA programs have in common is how at odds they appear to be. USDA programs were ostensibly created to help farmers, but large swaths of farmers not being able to access these programs does not make sense to me. We know that USDA and FSA have historically, and currently, discriminated against Black and Indigenous farmers while boosting white-owned, large-acre, commodity, and CAFO farmers. Meanwhile, young farmers and farmers of color are already more likely to use climate-smart agricultural practices. USDA must focus on expanding and supporting the young and BIPOC farmers who are already working to fight the climate crisis through farming. Reforms focused on increasing accessibility and repairing relationships should be the foundation on which USDA programs are built, to prevent agricultural policies that further discriminate and perpetuate inequitable access to climate resilience. By doing things like passing the Agriculture Resilience Act and increasing funding for SARE, we can build a brighter, more sustainable agricultural future that works for young farmers.