By Liz Brownlee, Nightfall Farm
My farming tools change constantly.
Today, I’ll need a pitchfork to muck out the laying hens’ winter stall in the barn. Tomorrow, I’ll open my laptop to email CSA members a reminder about pickup this Saturday. Wednesday, our first meat chicks of the year arrive; I’ll use my hands to dip each chick’s beak in water and my smartphone to snap pictures for our farm’s social media posts.
But on Thursday of this week, I’ll use what’s perhaps my most powerful farming tool of all: Our story. On Thursday, I get to meet with policy makers who are working on the Farm Bill. We need our representatives to hear our stories, to understand the beauty of farming on a community scale, and what we need from the upcoming Farm Bill.
Let me set the stage for the meeting (in an effort to suggest that you, too, can have a meeting of your own). We’ll meet at the local offices (not in D.C.). We won’t get to meet with Senators Young (R-IN) or Donnelly (D-IN), but rather their agriculture staffers who help write farm policy. And I’m not going alone—I’ll join fellow members of the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition (a group of beginning farmers from across Indiana). I did have one clear advantage that you may not: the folks at the National Young Farmers Coalition encouraged us to have the meeting and helped schedule it. But anyone can call to request a meeting, which means that every small farmer across the country can feel empowered to meet with her representatives while the Farm Bill is being written.
Like all Farm Bills, this current bill will cover everything from crop insurance to food access. Some of these issues (like price supports for commodity crops and products) simply don’t impact our small farm. The folks writing policy have heard lots about these issues. They know about corn and soy and concentrated animal feeding operations, and how policy can encourage industrialized agriculture.
We want the policy makers hear a different story—and imagine a different future: one that is abundant, community-based, and joyful.
Many parts of the Farm Bill impact us every day—and we’re excited to advocate for policies that help beginning farmers succeed. But I won’t bombard the Senators’ staffers with acronyms: I’ll share stories.
The last Farm Bill was a major “win” for beginning farmers (that’s anyone in the first 10 years of farming). I could list the programs—EQIP and BFRDG and MO’s from FSA—but it’s much more fun if I tell you about how our farm (and our friends’ farms) benefited from good policy. And that’s where the tool I mentioned (storytelling) will come into play for me. Here’s one story (and policy connection) that I’m going to share:
Our first year of farming, Nate and I had 13 acres of land, hesitant looks from my family, and not much else. We had a few years’ experience working on other people’s farms, so we felt relatively confident about raising livestock. But we’d always worked on farms that were already operating; they had fences, watering systems, and shelters in place. Thanks to my family, we had access to land—but that land had been planted with corn and soybeans for the last 40 years straight, so it wasn’t a ready-made livestock grazing situation. We faced a basic beginning farmer problem: how to establish (and afford) installing the systems needed to raise food. We planted cover crops to start healing the soil, and began grazing chickens, pigs, and turkeys on the pasture-to-be. We built mobile livestock shelters, fashioned feeders from recycled materials, and bought the electric fences that we needed to move our animals to fresh forage daily.
But what about water? We didn’t have a well at the pasture, and the house well was too far away to just run hoses to the animals. Instead, Nate found an old hay wagon buried in the barn, under three decades of debris. Remarkably, the tires held air, and it rolled right out. We borrowed a 210-gallon water tank, put it on the hay wagon, and pulled it around the field when we needed to get water to each animal group. This wasn’t the most efficient way to move water around a pasture for a rotational grazing livestock operation, but it was significantly better than carrying buckets of water by hand.
Thankfully, the 2014 Farm Bill included a new perk for beginning farmers. The USDA’s EQIP program helps farmers implement conservation-minded farming practices that protect soil and water quality. The Farm Bill gave beginning farmers a higher incentive payment for planting trees, building hoop houses, transitioning annual crop land to pasture, and more. We applied for EQIP and were accepted. In our second year, we installed a well, underground pipeline, and a series of hydrants.
Thanks to EQIP, we can get fresh water to our animals in any part of our pasture—and do a better job moving our animals and improving the health of our soil. By converting annual crop ground to perennial cover and grazing rotationally, we help protect the Muscatatuck River, which runs within 100 feet of our pasture. And because we were beginning farmers, we were eligible for a higher cost-share payment. Establishing these systems was a real hurdle, and the 2014 Farm Bill provided a real response to our hurdle. This didn’t happen by accident, of course: groups including the National Young Farmers Coalition advocated for policies that fit beginning farmers (because our aging population of farmers will retire at some time, and we need to help the next generation get going).
For this year’s Farm Bill, the Young Farmer Agenda challenges policy makers to expand benefits for beginning farmers. The Agenda includes increasing EQIP funding (with higher incentive payments for beginning farmers, just like we received), but also tackles land access, racial equity, and climate resilience.
We will be advocating for these policies—and employing our powerful storytelling tools.
If you want to join the conversation (and you live in Indiana), you’re cordially invited to a state-wide meeting with Senator Donnelly on April 28, 3 to 5 p.m. in Bloomington. This event is being hosted by the Food and Farms Coalition, which includes the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, the Indiana Farmers Union, Hoosier Action, local food councils, and many others.
If you can’t come on April 28 (or don’t live in Indiana), that’s just fine. The time is ripe for you to have a conversation with your policy makers, too—just remember to bring your best tool: Stories about your farm.
This blog is part of a series hosted by Indiana Farmers Union. Each week, we will post a different blog, written by Hoosier farmers at all stages—from just beginning to long-established. If you’re an Indiana Farmers Union member and are interested in writing for us, please contact Sherri Dugger at firstname.lastname@example.org.