April/May 2016 IssueIf there’s been one thing that’s been consistent with the federal government and agriculture over the last eight years, it’s been outreach toward the small farmer.
For example, in 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched StrikeForce in Arkansas and two other states. It was a concerted effort to bring smaller farmers in impoverished areas into the USDA universe by making them aware of the availability of financial assistance, conservation and rural development programs.
StrikeForce has just kept growing. It now reaches into 25 states and Puerto Rico. According to the USDA, in 2015 alone, it invested $7.49 billion in more than 62,000 projects, and extended assistance to nearly 10,000 farmers. In Arkansas in 2015, the program invested $438 million in 3,716 projects.
One Arkansas success story is Dakota Williams, a member of the Cherokee tribe who began her cattle business on her family’s third-generation Arkansas farm at age 12. Williams started with a Farm Service Agency Youth Loan, which helps young people with income-producing projects under organizations like 4-H and the National FFA Organization. She has since used an FSA Microloan — a program that targets smaller farmers with nontraditional operations — for her specialty operation, breeding Angus cows with Brangus Bulls to create a new breed, Ultrablack.
The microloan is another example. The maximum is $50,000; there is no minimum. The application process is streamlined to minimize paperwork. Now three years old, the program has resulted in nearly 17,000 loans and has grown every year, from $66 million in fiscal 2013 to $209 million in 2015 and the first quarter of 2016. This year, FSA added Direct Farm Ownership Microloans, so very small operators can buy the resources they need to start a new operation. USDA is expected to add guaranteed farm ownership loans, which back credit from commercial lenders and would allow the money to stretch much further.
USDA’s Census of Agriculture recently released findings from its 2014 survey of horticultural specialty crop producers. Those sales rose 18 percent in five years to $13.8 billion, and the number of operations grew by 8 percent. An interesting side note is a 71 percent increase since 2009 in crops grown under cover; producers use such techniques as hoop houses or “high tunnels” to extend their growing seasons for fresh-marketed crops.
One who’s taken advantage of the technology is Clyde Fenton, who grows strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and some vegetables on his Harrison farm.
“I absolutely love high tunnels as a growing tool,” he told AMP. In addition to the longer season, “It allows me to reduce the amount of crop protectants that I use.”
The tunnels are challenging, he said, but they kept him in the strawberry business; rain used to wipe out a large percentage of his crop. Now, “the high tunnels have reinvigorated my passion to grow strawberries.”
Fenton mostly grows conventional varieties, but another grower in tomato-crazy Warren has reached into the past. Julie Donnelly and her husband used a $30,000 USDA Value-Added Producer Grant to diversify their operation, Deepwoods Farm, into heirloom tomatoes. She obtained some Cherokee purple tomato plants from the University of Arkansas at Monticello; customers were reluctant at first, but now pay a premium for the crop.
The Value-Added Producer Grant program is another way USDA has helped farmers meet rising demand in the food industry. The competitive bidding process rewards winning submissions with up to $75,000 for feasibility studies and $300,000 for operating money on a 50-50 matching basis. During the last bidding period in spring 2015, USDA Rural Development had $30 million available to help producers proceed further up the supply chain.
That program has been around a long time, but those targeting smaller farmers emerged during the current administration, and the question needs to be asked whether they will survive a regime change. The major political parties have different philosophies, and if federal farm programs are seen as tools toward the goal of American food security, a new face at USDA may see a different use for those resources.
Particularly under former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, the Obama administration championed such programs as “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF²),” which she described during a stop at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2009 as a way for communities “to figure out what their local assets are, and how they can keep more of that food dollar locally.” Republican lawmakers challenged KYF² as an excessive diversion of rural development money to small-scale producers with a well-to-do clientele. With the Ag Department’s budget forever under the scalpel, it’s possible in coming years local farmers who want to serve local consumers may have to become even more self-reliant.