I recently had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. on behalf of Niman Ranch to attend the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) Convergence. This was their fourth annual event, bringing in about 100 farmers from all around the country. When attending something like this that’s so far from home, it’s always nice to see some familiar faces. Fortunately for me, I was not the only Niman Ranch attendee. Raeanna Crile, a Niman Ranch Next Generation Foundation Scholarship recipient whose father raises hogs for Niman Ranch, flew in from Dordt College for the convergence. Kerri McClimen, who leads Communications for Niman was also there to support the partners and provide guidance.
The event took place in Chevy Chase, Maryland at the National 4-H Center and included local farm tours, meetings, trainings, and visits to Capitol Hill. My first stop after checking in on Monday was a vegetable farm outside of Washington D.C. They operate about nine months each year and then travel south during the winter months. The workers load up their truck with as much of their seasonal produce as possible and head to farmer’s markets in downtown D.C. They sell crops three days a week to local consumers and provide several job opportunities each season.
The second stop on Monday was a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. This was a new concept for me, but very interesting. A CSA operation allows local consumers to purchase a share in the farm. This share grants them access to the vegetables, fruit, and meat grown by the operators. The downside is that some products may not be available year-round like bigger chain stores. The upside, however, is the freshness, sustainability, and community involvement. People invest in this operation because it is healthier for the environment and their families.
I met many farmers from states far from my own, including Vermont, Colorado, California, and even remote islands off the coast of Florida. They farmed much more than just corn and soybeans. Some of my favorites were black beans, tropical fruits, crab, and even maple syrup! Many attendees owned or worked on diverse vegetable farms as well. What they can accomplish with only a few acres is amazing. Some of these farmers are working with as little as a quarter of an acre.
On Tuesday I got to interact with my fellow farmers a little more. We listened to speakers who had developed their farms successfully and grown from their personal challenges and experiences. We participated in workshops where we were taught about the contents of the Farm Bill, our elected officials, and what we were expected to share and ask when we met with them on Thursday. Aside from networking with other farmers, one of the goals of the convergence was to persuade our senators and representatives to pass a farm bill before the end of the year. Specific parts of the bill would create opportunities for beginning farmers to acquire land and start their own operations.
On Wednesday, Raeanna and I, along with a handful of other farmers, were asked to attend a special meeting in D.C. with Secretary Sonny Perdue’s senior staff at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). We talked about the struggles of starting a farm and how the Farm Bill or USDA paperwork channels could be adapted to speed up the process. All in all, I think it was a successful meeting with people I would have never met. But the new experiences didn’t stop there.
When Thursday morning finally came, we loaded ourselves on the buses and rode towards the Capitol. My meetings weren’t until after lunch, so I found some other Iowans who were interested in touring the city. We spent the morning going in and out of government buildings, viewing the Senate floor, visiting the offices of elected officials, and of course, going through dozens of metal detectors. Not to mention, it snowed the whole time! I had thought I left that behind in Iowa, but I was sorely mistaken.
Finally, our meeting time rolled around, and my group of nine farmers met with Andrew Brandt, legislative assistant for U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley. We discussed many of the same things we did with Sonny Perdue’s staff. Andrew was attentive and interested in what we had to say and even had a couple of questions about Niman Ranch. Our last meeting was with U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa native. Senator Ernst is one of the most personable and enjoyable politicians I have ever met. She was familiar with the areas we were from in Iowa and the obstacles we’ve endured. I trust that she will do everything possible to help small and beginning farmers.
I want to thank Niman Ranch for sending Raeanna and myself to this convergence for the National Young Farmers Coalition. I met politicians and farmers from all over the country while learning new methods of farming that aren’t prevalent in my area. I would never have been exposed to this if it weren’t for Niman Ranch and the leaders within NYFC.