Eagle Bend farmer pushes for policy in Washington
Nolan Lenzen last week traveled from his central Minnesota dairy farm near Eagle Bend to Washington, D.C., with an important message: federal support of beginning farmer initiatives can help create jobs and vibrant rural economies. Lenzen, who is a member of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project (LSP), was one of a dozen beginning farmers from across the country who met with members of Congress and USDA officials to discuss how the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill can make sound investments to ensure the next generation of beginning farmers.
"There are opportunities in agriculture and people want to farm, but it's tough to get started and sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against you," said Lenzen, 29, who has used Farm Service Agency ownership and operating loans, as well as the USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, to launch a grass-based organic dairy. He is also a graduate of the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program, a beginning farmer training initiative that has graduated more than 500 people in the past 15 years. "Personally, I would be nowhere near as far along on my farming career if I didn't have access to programs like these, as well as community support."
During the fly-in, which was sponsored by LSP and other members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Lenzen and other beginning farmers conducted more than 50 meetings with agriculture policymakers. Among others, they met with Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson, who is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, as well as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan. They also met with the staff of agriculture committee members Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
During the meetings, the farmers discussed how the next Farm Bill could build on current federal initiatives that help new farmers and ranchers who are seeking affordable credit and savings options as well as viable ways to adopt conservation measures. New farmers discussed the importance of community-based approaches to supporting beginning farmers through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). This is a competitive grants initiative that assists community groups working with beginning farmers to address local approaches to starting and succeeding in agriculture. Since it was launched in 2009, demand for BFRDP has far outstripped the resources available, with more than 100 groups applying for grants annually.
Beginning farmers were making the case in D.C. for policymakers to support an upcoming bill called the "Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act," which is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks, said Adam Warthesen, an LSP policy organizer who participated in the fly-in.
"There is no shortage of opportunities in agriculture," Warthesen said. "As we've seen with current initiatives like BFRDP, priming the pump for the next generation of creative, hard-working producers with programs like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act could not only help farmers, but the rural communities they live in."
Lenzen said he felt fortunate to participate in the fly-in and meet new farmers from across the country.
"The policymakers we met with at both the Captiol and the USDA were supportive and recognize new, viable farming enterprises range from livestock production to produce and crops," Lenzen said. "I've never been to Washington, D.C., before and being able to make the case for new farmer support with policymakers was better than a vacation -- it was talking about what I know and