Specialty crop programs at stake

The number of small farms producing value-added crops such as vegetables, fruit or naturally raised livestock has grown tremendously the past decade in Iowa. Back then, most people didn’t think of these as legitimate farms. They were hobby farms. Today, these operations earn income from specialized crops and other enterprises by selling to farmers markets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, or community-supported agriculture, groups, as well as directly to consumers.

Key Points

Programs in expiring 2008 Farm Bill are helping create new opportunities.

Local food and farming systems are a major new driver in the farm economy.

Programs help small farmers, beginning farmers and value-added ag.

Matt Russell, state Food Policy Project coordinator at the Drake University Agri-cultural Law Center in Des Moines, says as consumers want to know more about their food, including who produces it, this trend to more locally produced food will continue. While the trend is market-driven, it also gets help from several USDA programs in the 2008 Farm Bill. That bill is soon to expire and will be replaced by a new farm bill Congress is now writing.

USDA recently released a comprehensive report on its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. “This is a very timely report,” notes Russell. “The ongoing revitalization of local farm and food systems depends on continuation of key 2008 Farm Bill programs whose funding expires later this year, if Congress doesn’t act. Local food systems are a major new driver in the farm economy.”

Meeting the challenge

USDA is reaching out to help smaller farms and many new and beginner farmers who raise intensively managed crops such as vegetables, which require a lot of labor.

These farm programs are carried out by USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Russell is a member of the FSA state committee in Iowa, which oversees operation of the programs in the state, so he has a unique view. Also, Russell and partner Patrick Standley farm 110 acres in Marion County, growing vegetables on an acre and a half. They also raise cattle, hay and produce eggs from laying hens raised on pasture. They bought the farm in 2005. Standley started farming then and Russell continued a farming vocation begun on his parents’ farm in Cass County where he grew up.

The FSA staffs at county and state levels have had training to help farmers with diverse crops. That wasn’t always the case. “Our FSA employees are doing a good job,” says Russell. “They’re now trained to help carry out the new special programs, and we have great FSA employees in Iowa.”

The programs to assist small farmers, promote specialty crops and help develop local food systems aren’t a shift away from corn and soybeans, or larger livestock agriculture, says Russell. Small farms producing specialty crops and livestock are a real part of agriculture that USDA is taking seriously and consumers are too, he adds.

If you are interested in diversifying a small farm, it’ll take some time and work at the FSA office, but not as much as it did a few years ago. “What is interesting is FSA didn’t have new funding to put the specialty crop and local food system programs in place,” he says. “It was leadership at USDA pulling this together, saying smaller farmers are ... important for the future.”

FSA’s Beginning Farmer program is a key part of the 2008 Farm Bill. It has helped farmers not only enter farming but also raise value-added crops. Also, the FSA storage facility loan program helps, as does the NAP or non-insured ag products program for specialty crops that can’t get insurance from private sources.

“What we’re talking about with these specialty programs is targeted money that is having a very significant impact,” says Russell. “USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass, which you can view on USDA’s website, shows how these programs have grown and how they work together. We need these farm bill tools available in the future to grow rural jobs and to increase new farming opportunities.”

This article published in the April, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.