In early November, four farmers and farm advocates representing Dakota Rural Action (DRA) flew to Washington, D.C., to advocate for a 2018 farm bill that supports America’s family farmers.
DRA members Gerry Adolf, Kristi Mogen, and Stephanie Peterson met with representatives about farm bill programs that direct public money to benefit factory farms. They stressed that in this difficult farm economy, public money in the farm bill should be spent wisely, reaching the most family farmers.
Too often, the farm bill supports corporate interests, including corporate-controlled industrial livestock operations. In particular, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and loans for hog and poultry facilities use taxpayer dollars to favor industrial livestock production. The DRA members urged their public officials to reform these programs to support family farms, rural communities, and a healthy food supply.
Support Beginning Farmers
Another DRA team member, Aaron Johnson, highlighted a major step for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2017 would
- Expand beginning farmers’ access to affordable land;
- Empower new farmers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy;
- Ensure equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance; and
- Encourage commitment to conservation and stewardship across generations.
Aaron addressed other beginning farmer concerns, such as increased access to credit and affordable farmland. In South Dakota, farmland has reached as high as $9,000 per acre, posing a serious barrier for aspiring farmers. With the average age of American producers at nearly 60 years, Aaron stressed the important role federal policy plays in bringing in and training the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
Back to farming
Growing up on his family’s farm, Aaron had always hoped to return to agriculture, but found a steep learning curve between growing up on a farm and running one. He credits DRA’s Farm Beginnings program for helping him succeed. The program receives funds from the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which is part of the farm bill.
“I grew up on a farm, but once I had my own operation, I realized there was a lot I needed to learn,” Aaron said. “My wife and I learned a lot from the Farm Beginnings course. We got help with everything from financial planning to learning how to incorporate family life into farm life–and best of all we got to meet and form connections with other beginning farmers.”
Aaron now serves on the leadership committee for Farm Beginnings. He farms in Madison, South Dakota. Johnson Farms is one of the largest organic row crop farm operations in the state. A new storytelling project, Homegrown Stories, profiled Aaron and his farm.
Farmer training and support
DRA’s Farm Beginnings is a farmer-led training and support program for beginning and aspiring farmers. The program provides an opportunity to learn first-hand about low-cost, sustainable methods of farming and offers the tools to launch a farm enterprise. Each year, twenty local farmers teach the peer-to-peer classes, which focus on farm, business, and financial planning; marketing; and connecting with resources and with mentors.
Farm Beginnings offers over forty hours of in-class instruction, followed by on-farm experiences such as tours, skills sessions, and internships. Throughout the summer of 2017, DRA hosted farm tours, skill shares, and workshops. Events included learning to plant cider stock at Blackshire Farms and touring RiverBend Farm’s U-pick raspberry operation.
Throughout the years, participants have learned to milk animals, build fence, high tunnel growing techniques, livestock pasture rotation, harvesting of specialty crops, beekeeping, and on-farm slaughter of chickens, and other skills. Participants use these new skills on their operations and are better equipped, due to the guided hands-on experience, before attempting the skill alone. Hosts come away with new ideas and, sometimes, additional labor for big projects.
Adapted from article by Matthew West, Dakota Rural Action
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