As some of you may know, we recently had a week-long break between our Spring and Summer Farm Share seasons. A few weeks before our break, we got an email from our friends at the National Young Farmers Coalition inviting us to their first farmer fly-in to DC for the 2018 Farm Bill, which just happened to be during our break! Chelsea was kind enough to let me go even though we had planned to weed every row and trellis tomatoes all week. It was an amazing experience, and I wanted to share some of it with you.
If you haven't heard of the National Young Farmers Coalition yet, you should go check them out. NYFC is a national network of young and beginning farmers and ranchers building a sustainable future for American agriculture. There are 36 local chapters in 26 states, including our own Middle Georgia Young Farmers Coalition. Local chapters are self-organizing and adaptive to the needs of their farmer members. Some chapters host parties and other social events, some organize collective buying clubs or equipment shares, some organize and advocate for policy at the state level. In addition to supporting local chapters, NYFC also provides business services including tons of discounts, legal services, help with FSA and other USDA programs, and other resources for farmers. Finally, NYFC advocates for policies in Congress and at the USDA that support young and beginning farmers. Two thirds of US farmers are over the age of 55 (and nearly one third are eligible for social security, which means that over the next generation, two thirds of US farmland will change hands. Policy that affects young and beginning farmers affects the entire food system in this country, so it is vitally important. But more about that later.
We first heard about NYFC forming chapters of young farmers before we started our own farm, and it was a huge source of hope and inspiration to feel like we were a part of something bigger than ourselves. We became members soon after starting our own farm. In 2015, Chelsea was asked to represent NYFC at the Georgia Organics conference expo. Soon after, we started a Middle Georgia chapter and became much more involved. Chelsea traveled to California for NYFC's annual Convergence of chapter leaders from across the country in November, and she came back totally invigorated and ready to make change happen on our farm and in our community. We've done some interviews on behalf of NYFC over the last few months, but this fly-in is my first time really getting involved in the policy side of their work, and it was really exciting!
After travelling most of the day, I arrived at NYFC's DC office in the Methodist Building across from the Capitol. There were 9 farmers from key districts around the country flying in, as well as 9 NYFC staff members based in DC, Colorado, and Hudson, NY. We spent the rest of the night getting to know one another, learning about NYFC's history and platform, and getting briefed on the logistics of meeting with our members of Congress.
A little background real quick: the Farm Bill is a huge piece of legislation that is supposed to be passed every 5 years. It funds most of the farming and food related policy in the US. The Farm Bill funds everything from commodity programs to crop insurance to food stamps to farmers market programs to FSA loans to conservation programs. The next Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2018, so we are starting to meet with members of Congress now to make sure we have support for programs that help young farmers.
A big chunk of NYFC's Farm Bill platform includes playing defense. A lot of programs that benefit young farmers across the country are small chunks of change in the Farm Bill, which means they are often on the chopping block unless a constituent speaks up. In fact, President Trump's proposed budget completely eliminates the department of Rural Development from the USDA, which houses funding for everything from farmers markets to value-added producer grants to cooperatives to solar power. Some of the programs that we are especially interested in maintaining funding for include the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which funds new farmer training and is the only program targeted specifically at young farmers; conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which funds cost-share programs for farmers to install high tunnels, irrigation, fencing, and other best practices that conserve soil and water quality; the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which matches private funding for property easements that keep farmland affordable; and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which funds on-farm research and education about best agricultural practices across the country.
Another major piece of NYFC's platform is making existing programs more accessible to young farmers. A great example of this is the FSA Microloan program, which created a shorter application and quicker process for FSA loans under $50,000 and includes funding targeted at young and beginning farmers. NYFC lobbied for the Microloan program and got it as a trial in 2013 and permanent program in 2014. Many other simple tweaks could be made to existing programs to make them more accessible to young farmers: online applications, the ability to pre-qualify for an FSA loan, higher limits for FSA loans, a Micro-EQIP program that targets EQIP funding for smaller farms.
Two non-Farm Bill issues are also at the center of NYFC's policy platform: student loan debt and healthcare. Starting a farm is starting a small business, which means student loan debt can really hamper a young farmers' chances at success. NYFC has introduced a bill in the House and looking to introduce in the Senate that would add farming to the federal public service student loan forgiveness program, which forgives student loan debt after 10 years of service in medicine, teaching, and other fields already. Similarly, since farmers are small business owners our only option for health insurance is the private marketplace. That means that the vast majority of young farmers who are members of NYFC rely on converage through the ACA exchanges or Medicaid in states that expanded Medicaid.
Bobby + Chelsea
We grow tasty veggies, bake bread, host farm events, manage a farmers market, raise an energetic little munchkin, cook, restore this farm property, read books, and try to bring more good food and good things to middle Georgia!