Perspectives on Policy from a Beginning Farmer

From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

I never imagined that my path as a beginning farmer would lead me to a seat in a Senator’s office, but that’s where I found myself  last week as a participant in the NSAC beginning farmer fly-in in Washington D.C.  The fly-in and the Drake Forum on America’s New Farmers, which I also attended, brewed in me an interesting mix of ideas to being a beginning farmer, the challenges it holds, and the road ahead.

I was asked to participate in the beginning farmer forum as a representative from Friends of Family Farmers, a grassroots organization in Oregon that supports and works for our state’s sustainable family farms.  I was also invited to attend a farmer fly-in organized by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (of which Friends of Family Farmers is a member) held prior to the Drake Forum in which I participated with other beginning farmers in meetings with representatives from various USDA agencies and with Senator Merkley’s office.

While I am active in my community as a sustainable agriculture advocate and teacher, I am far from a politician.  To put it in perspective, I’d never worn a suit before and had to ask my husband how it should fit.  I am much more comfortable in a wool shirt (remember I live in Oregon) and a pair of Carharts.  This, to say the least, was an incredibly eye opening experience into the world that supports, regulates, and ideally improves the climate in which I dream to farm.

Many of the Senators and Representatives with whom we met were happy to learn about the beginning farmer and sustainable agriculture initiatives that need financial support in 2011 and beyond; but most were also concerned — during a time of budget cutbacks — about where the money would come from.

At a time when our society is in dire need of financial growth and human services support, there is no better investment than beginning farmers.  I might not make tons of money, buy imported goods, or invest in Wall Street but I support my local rural businesses, hire local employees, and most importantly, bring fresh healthy food into food deserts.

And yet, Members of Congress are hesitant to fund beginning farmer programs because of the deficit.  While I may not have the background to analyze our government’s budget, I do have a suggestion that touches on another reoccurring theme at the Drake Forum.  Why not take the 5 million dollars needed to fund the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account (IDA) program from somewhere in the billion dollar budget for commodity subsidies?  I can confidently say that a large portion of those calories are not bound for our nation’s dinner plates, nor is the money staying in rural communities.  Wouldn’t $5 million in direct support for beginning farmers make a larger difference to more people?

Again and again while in the nation’s capital, we heard that the USDA and Farm Service Agency (FSA) are here to serve beginning farmers.  But despite the Administration’s efforts to start a new conversation about food and farming through initiatives like the People’s Garden and the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” many of us in the field are still encountering serious challenges accessing the federal programs that are supposed to help, such as financing and loans.

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