By Yahaira Cáceres
Each year, the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers) participates in the appropriations process by submitting letters to Members of Congress. The appropriations process refers to how Congress allocates funding each year to different federal agencies and programs. By submitting letters to Members of Congress, stakeholders in the agriculture industry (including farmers, ranchers, and food policy advocates) can make their case for why specific programs or initiatives should receive support. Participating in appropriations means advocating for funding specific programs or initiatives related to agriculture, rural development, and food policy.
As legislators and advocates work together this farm bill year, we are reminded of how important it is to participate in the appropriations process. The farm bill is a piece of legislation that is reauthorized every five to six years, impacting various issues related to agriculture, nutrition, and rural development. The farm bill authorizes the amount of funding various programs receive. It only guarantees how much funding should be allocated to the programs or initiatives in each fiscal year budget if the farm bill legislation mandates mandatory funding for the program. Without participating in the appropriations process, programs may not receive the necessary allocated money, even if they have been authorized in the farm bill. This lack of funding can result in essential programs being unable to operate effectively or taking a long time to kickstart, as seen with the Heirs’ Property Program and the Office of Urban Agriculture.
By consistently advocating for programs and initiatives through the appropriations process, securing mandatory funding becomes more accessible, as demonstrated by the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program in the 2018 Farm Bill. This creates program security and allows stakeholders to focus on advocating for other programs and priorities. Therefore, it is crucial to participate in the appropriations process during a farm bill year to ensure that important agriculture, rural development, and food systems programs receive adequate funding and can continue to operate effectively.
The programs we are advocating for in 2023 include:
Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA): $1.7 Billion
Young farmers have a strong environmental ethic, with 86% of respondents to our 2022 National Young Farmers Survey describing their practices as regenerative. Regenerative agriculture broadly refers to an approach to farming and ranching that builds healthy soils and ecosystems, supports climate-resilient farms and communities, and addresses inequity in agriculture—practices that are not new and have been innovated by Indigenous communities for thousands of years. Such practices have a climate impact far beyond the farm gate. Funding for Conservation Technical Assistance enables Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field staff to provide direct technical assistance and planning support for farmers and ranchers across the country as they respond to and mitigate the impacts of climate change, enabling them to build resilience as they grow their operations. Inevitably, the farm economy in every state is being challenged by the harsh new realities of our changing climate. Conservation Technical Assistance can ensure that farmers are adequately prepared to build the resilience necessary to weather these environmental changes and sustain their farm businesses.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE): $60 million
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) is the only farmer-led research program and is a critical tool in helping farmers fight climate change. In addition to providing grant funding for farmers to lead research on sustainable agriculture, the program is also critical in supporting peer-to-peer learning because program research findings are shared with other farmers across the country. The program funds on-farm research into sustainable agricultural and organic farming systems. Research findings from SARE projects help small-scale, diversified farmers implement conservation practices and measure their climate mitigation impacts. Increased funding for SARE would allow farmers to create new innovative grant programs that are responsive to their needs and the issues they’re facing in the field.
For more information on the importance of the SARE Program for young farmers, check out farmer Bari Zeiger’s story.
Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land Survey (TOTAL): $15 million
Land access remains the biggest challenge facing beginning, current, and aspiring young farmers. Farmers cannot invest in on-farm infrastructure or conservation practices critical to building soil quality, financial equity, and successful businesses without secure land tenure. Land loss is also a significant challenge for farmers of color who need a clear title to their land because it was passed down without a formal will; the land is then subject to fractured ownership among many relatives, becoming what is known as heirs’ property.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress tasked USDA with completing an updated Tenure, Ownership, and Transition of Agricultural Land Survey (TOTAL) Survey, the results of which will provide comprehensive data on farmland ownership, tenure, transition, and entry of beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as a follow-up to the Census of Agriculture (Sec. 12607). Access to this information is crucial to better understanding the policies and trends that lead to secure land tenure and thriving farm businesses. The last survey’s results—completed in 2014—paired with demographic information from the Census of Agriculture—indicate that about 40% of all farmland will change hands in the next 20 years.
Heirs Property Re-lending Program: $10 Million
According to the Census Bureau, 80% of land owned by Black farmers has been lost since 1910, partially due to challenges stemming from heirs’ property. Heirs’ property refers to land passed down through generations informally, leading to fractured ownership with many relatives over time. This leads to difficulties in transferring that land to the next generation and leaves farmers vulnerable to discriminatory practices that result in land loss. The 2018 Farm Bill authorized the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to establish a loan fund to help resolve heirs’ property issues. This fund would help cover legal costs and succession plans to secure land ownership by farmers of color.
With 95% of the farming population identifying as white, our nation’s farmers lack the diversity necessary to ensure a sustainable agriculture system in our country’s future. Lapses in land tenure and passage to future generations resulting from issues of heirs’ property only further complicate the journey to a more just and equitable food system. Support for the re-lending program would resolve heirs’ property challenges across the country, ensuring land belonging to communities of color remains in their possession for the next generation of farmers.
Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production: $25 million
Many young and socially disadvantaged farmers choose urban environments for their operations to be closer to markets and to foster greater community engagement. However, urban growers often need help with access to USDA services. The 2018 Farm Bill created a new Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production that would exclusively serve urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural production practices to be more inclusive. Importantly, it can assign farm numbers to rooftop, indoor, and other urban farms to streamline their access to USDA programs.
Many major cities are seeing the community, food access, environmental, and economic benefits of urban agriculture. The early programming results from this office have shown a huge unmet demand. For example, in its first year of grantmaking (FY20), the office received 578 applications requesting competitive grants or cooperative agreement funding. The office could fund only ten competitive grant projects and 13 cooperative agreements with the discretionary funding available. Significantly increased funding is necessary to fully resource urban and innovative producers as they grow their agricultural businesses.
Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) – Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) and Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP): $20 million split appropriately between VAPG and FMLFPP
The Value Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG) has been a critical resource for thousands of farmers looking to expand their value-added businesses, leading to increased customer bases and incomes. A 2018 study by USDA’s Economic Research Service found that businesses receiving support from VAPG were less likely to fail than similar businesses that did not receive grants from the program. The study also revealed that VAPG recipients were significantly more likely to remain in business two and four years after receiving the grant, with an 89% and 71% higher likelihood than non-granted businesses. On average, VAPG recipients were reported to create more jobs, providing five to six more employment opportunities for their communities than similar non-recipient businesses. A growing number of young farmers are inclined towards direct-to-consumer sales, with approximately 86.4% of young farmers selling through at least one direct-to-consumer channel like farmers’ markets. Of those direct-to-consumer sales, 58% of farmers sell their products at farmers’ markets.
The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) plays a vital role in supporting the growth of local and regional food systems, providing critical resources for farmers and producers to connect with consumers through farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, and other direct-to-consumer sales channels. The program also facilitates the development of value-added agriculture products, increasing the competitiveness of small and mid-sized farmers in domestic and international markets. Furthermore, the FMLFPP fosters the development of local and regional food systems that support healthy eating habits and increase access to fresh, nutritious foods for underserved communities, such as low-income areas and food deserts. The program also stimulates economic development and job creation in rural communities, strengthening local food systems and reducing the carbon footprint of food transportation.
In recent years, the demand for locally grown foods has surged, and the FMLFPP has proven to be a critical resource for farmers and producers seeking to meet this demand. Despite its importance, the FMLFPP has experienced funding cuts, jeopardizing its ability to support the growth of local food systems nationwide. Therefore, funding the FMLFPP is crucial to support the growth and development of local and regional food systems, promote healthy eating habits, and stimulate economic development in rural communities.
Programmatic Funding Request for Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO): $10 million
The Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) Program, established in the 2018 Farm Bill, brings together two of USDA’s essential training and technical assistance programs for beginning and socially disadvantaged producers – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and Section 2501. BFRDP is the only USDA program that provides funding for projects that offer technical assistance, education, and training for the next generation of farmers in the United States. This program supports local, state, and regional partnerships, creating opportunities for beginning farmers to develop skills related to farm production and business operations. BFRDP has been instrumental in supporting the development of organic incubator farms, farm transition planning courses, new farmer training curricula expansion through farm-membership organizations, and mentoring opportunities that facilitate knowledge transfer between generations of producers.
Programmatic Funding Request for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN): $10 million
Mental health is an often overlooked challenge farmers face nationwide. Farmland loss and land access issues, rising production costs, inflation, plummeting farm incomes, climate change, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic are contributing to a mental health crisis within the farming community. Suicide rates amongst farmers and ranchers are well above the national average, while mental health services are less available and accessible in rural areas.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) was reauthorized to develop a service provider network that assists farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with stress management and offers a pathway for improving mental health awareness and access for farmers and their families. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded funds to four regional entities to help launch the network. These four regional centers are coordinating efforts to serve the unique needs of their respective populations. These centers evaluate the needs in their regions and then develop and implement training and services to address farm stress issues.
Many reasons exist for ongoing farm stress and mental health challenges for farmers and farm workers. Continued FRSAN funding is essential as the FRSAN regional centers continue to develop their networks and programming to serve populations where the need is great, and resources are often limited. As the Subcommittees develop the FY 2024 agriculture appropriations bill, we urge them to fund FRSAN fully at $10 million. This funding will be critically important in meeting the mental health needs of farmers, ranchers, and their families.