I have never doubted my Honda Civic before. It has served me well in my work with the Land Stewardship Project and otherwise as I traverse west-central Minnesota. Last week it was tested as I drove Ann Bartuska, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, to a family farm in the region. Also in the car were my Farm Beginnings co-workers, Amy Bacigalupo and Nick Olson, and our destination was Common Harvest Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture operation owned by Dan Guenthner and Margaret Pennings.
Earlier this month, LSP got a call from the USDA—Bartuska would be visiting Minnesota and was interested in visiting a farm. Her goal was to learn about how we are assisting new farmers with support from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). This was a fantastic opportunity for LSP and we seized on it. The Deputy Undersecretary oversees the inter-agency initiative that offers BFRDP, which is the first program directing USDA funds toward organizations that help beginning farmers. It’s been a major focus both on the ground and at the policy level for our organization.
We arrived at the farm and were greeted by four Farm Beginnings graduates in addition to Dan and Margaret, who had a role in mentoring all of these graduates. After a short round of introductions, Dan and Margaret described the background of their operation, telling the stories that led them to farming and giving a brief tour. Walking through the packing shed, we all marveled over the amount of tomatoes ready to be packed in boxes.
Following the farm tour, everyone sat down for a deeper discussion about the role Farm Beginnings has played in each person’s agricultural career. As familiar as she was with nationwide statistics showing the big picture of agriculture, Bartuska was keen to learn more about what it takes to start a farming operation on an individual level and how it is that our organization is helping beginning farmers.
Produce farmer Adam Greeson expressed a general sentiment of the group: “The need for more farmers is apparent. Starting a farm business is difficult, and the continued funding for programs like Farm Beginnings is essential to the success of new farmers.”
I felt that this resonated with the Deputy Undersecretary, and it was good to hear it so directly from a beginning farmer.
Throughout the visit, conversation flowed easily between Bartuska and farmers; she asked questions both about new CSA packing boxes and about how national agricultural statistics compared to what we observe in this area. We also talked about access to land, an issue everyone is struggling with. Individuals were quick to report on its complexity and causes— from housing developments to the price of commodities that are driving land values so high.
It was hard to leave the beauty of Common Harvest Farm and the rich conversation of the visit to get back in our cars. Yet, as cramped as the ride home might have been, it was well worth the drive for the chance to participate in a thoughtful exchange.
This was a valuable opportunity for me to learn about the Deputy Undersecretary’s work, and I found it promising to see such a high level civil servant learning about the lives of beginning farmers in such a grounded way.
Sienna Nesser, a graduate of LSP’s Farm Beginnings Program, is serving a summer internship in our western Minnesota office.