USDA’s small-farm focus gets mixed review

Candace Krebs

The House Ag Committee this week was rolling out a series of field hearings to gather input on the 2012 farm bill, including a stop in Cheyenne, Wyo. The current $284 billion bill expires in September 2012, and committee members hope to start early and avoid disagreements that delayed passage the last time around.

The last farm bill expanded support into new areas of agriculture, including farmers markets and organic farming. While legislators in Oklahoma, Kansas and other farm states have criticized the current administration for shifting priorities toward small farmers and rural development and away from maintaining a financial safety net for conventional farms, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack has made his interests clear through support for initiatives like the “Know Your Food, Know your Farmer” program, which allocates $65 million this fiscal year and pledges to “deliver millions more” in 2011.

One of the most visible among the new provisions in the last farm bill was an injection of $33 million over five years to promote farmers’ markets and other direct marketing ventures. Additional money for grants and loan guarantees for small farmers and community food programs were included, and some traditional programs like EQIP conservation cost-share were extended to organic farmers.

So as another lengthy farm bill debate begins, how much do small farmers feel they have benefited from the new direction at the Ag Department and the mandates and money trickling down to the states? Is direct government money helping bolster their bottom-lines?

Many of them say they like the direction overall but have found it hard to navigate federal and state programs in order to take advantage of them, and many times find bureaucratic road blocks offset the potential benefits.

Kathy Moore, owner of the Anichini-Moore Ranch and Farms near Woodward, Okla., received a state ag diversification grant to start a mobile farmers market for taking farm grown food to towns without grocery stores, locations known in modern parlance as “food deserts.” (The last farm bill allocated $500,000 for a one-year USDA-led study of these food deserts and to identify strategies to reduce their incidence.) But Moore now says her plan became mired down in health department bureaucracy and several hundred dollars worth of permitting that would have wiped out any chance of profitability. In addition, in order to qualify for an EQIP cost-share, she is in the process of becoming organically certified, which she says will cost roughly $1,200 in fees on 160 acres.

“I am struggling, frankly, it is a stretch. I am not commercialized. My farm is spartan at best,” she said.

She has written to the state Ag Department asking that separate standards be devised for small versus large farms, saying “one size fits all” doesn’t work.

“When I process beef, it’s one head. Instant traceback,” she noted.

Barbara Crain, owner-operator of the Wagon Creek Creamery at Helena, Okla., agreed. During opening day of the Enid Farmers Market, she explained that her small family dairy was subject to the same food safety regulations as Braums, an Oklahoma company that milks 10,000 cows daily and operates hundreds of stores in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. As a result, the Crains were forced to invest a quarter of a million dollars in their creamery in order to sell yogurt, cheese and other products in local markets.

The Crains have also run into snags interpreting requirements of the EQIP program. After a new fence was built, they were told it didn’t qualify because they had used the wrong wire and it would have to be torn down and rebuilt if they wanted to collect a cost share. “I could see it if he used baling twine to cut cost, or something like that, but my husband knows how to build a fence,” she said.

As the state budget goes down, licensing fees for the creamery and a commercial kitchen have gone up, she said. Five years in, their grass-based dairy business needs a “phenomenal” year to survive.

“It’s hard to measure,” she said of the positive impact from USDA’s small farm support. “The bureaucracy and the costs put up a barrier to small farms.”

Other small farmers share that assessment.

In the Arkansas Valley, Doug Wiley, who produces grassfed beef, milk and pork on a fourth generation farm with his wife Kim near Boone, Colo. was once a member of the old Tres Rios Cooperative, which he says benefited from some government money. But he can’t point to much direct monetary impact otherwise. And he’s been turned off by USDA’s focus on a proposed National Animal ID System, which seems geared to farms so large they can’t track their own livestock.

“There is a lot of good work they do,” he said of USDA. “It’s good to see them putting some of the money into things like this” — he gestured at a gathering held to support the Colorado Farm and Art Market in Colorado Springs which opens in June — “rather than putting it all into crop subsidies. But the problem with some of these programs is it all comes with strings. You’ve got to be careful about getting help but then being restricted on what you can do. They have to have rules, but red tape can prevent you from doing what you need to do on your farm. And the field staff aren’t given the leeway to use their judgment, sometimes.”

Susan Gordon, hired with her family to run Venetucci Farm south of Colorado Springs, said the farm doesn’t benefit from any government grants because it is so time-consuming to apply.

“I don’t have the resources,” she said. “It’s a major undertaking to write a grant.”

Dan Hobbs of Avondale, Colo., who is in the process of buying a neighboring farm and transitioning it to organic production, was one of the few farmers who expected to receive direct benefits from USDA. An EQIP signup he made last year will put an extra $1,000 a year in his pocket, he said, though he hasn’t collected the money yet.

In addition, the Organic Seed Alliance he runs has received federal funding to put on educational meetings and a national symposium. So far, the administration’s new emphasis on small farmers has been more in the form of outreach and promotion rather than direct funding, he said. USDA maintains an on-line list of farmers markets across the nation and most state ag departments offer them as well. Hobbs also noted more federal incentives for practices like cover cropping and crop rotation popular on small farms.

“For us, it’s just exciting to hear food being brought into the national conversation,” he said. “It’s in people’s consciousness more. A lot is happening with farm-to-school.”

Jay Frost, who farms near Fountain, is similarly upbeat. He started offering a Wednesday market last summer at his ranch along Fountain Creek.

“The new administration seems pretty wound up to the small guy,” he said. “In principle, they are moving in the right direction, I think. The big outfits get most of it, but we’d just like to have a little piece of the pie.”

Close to 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas with higher poverty and jobless rates and lower average income levels than urban areas, which is one reason Secretary Vilsack is placing emphasis on rural development. About 400,000 of the 2.2 million U.S. farms account for the lion’s share of crop and livestock production, while many farms are too small to provide an adequate income to support a family.

But there are now nearly 5,000 farmers markets nationwide, fueling a renaissance in small, community-oriented farms.

Corey Groendyke, founder and coordinator of the Enid Farmers Market, said she is rounding up volunteer researchers and grant writers in hopes of snagging federal money in the future. One project in the works that may qualify is a community garden.

She believes a likely benefit from the push to support farmers markets could come in the form of more government streamlining and coordination between agencies. She said starting a new farmers market, or gearing up to supply one, can be an overwhelming task.

“From the basic coordination to getting vendors the information they need to establishing relationships with the health department all the way to planning for the future, there are so many facets to making a market work,” she said. “I think the state agencies are working to merge together their requirements so you can have something clear, concise and consolidated. They are in the process of making this much more attainable.”

Ag Journal