At the end of June, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) hosted its second “farmer fly-in” of the fiscal year (FY) 2018 season. Growers and advocates from Oregon, Mississippi, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia took time out of their busy schedules to bring important food and farm issues to legislators’ attention as the FY 2018 appropriations cycle heats up.

“It is the farmers’ stories that are the most critical to explaining the importance of US Department of Agriculture programs to Congress,” said Greg Fogel, NSAC Policy Director. “These are the folks that are actually using the programs every day, and they are the ones that will be most impacted by the legislative and appropriation decisions made here in DC.”

On Wednesday, June 21 organic farmer Eric Simpson and farmer “ag-vocate” Susan Pavlin flew into the capital from Georgia to meet with the office of Representative Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-GA). Eric and Susan shared their stories with Representative Bishop and discussed the importance of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (also known as the “2501 Program”), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Eric and Susan also met with officials from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to discuss how these programs help farmers thrive.

Eric operates a 19-acre organic farm in west Georgia, and is part of the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative. Eric grows an abundance of different vegetables, and also raises goats and chickens.

“Today I felt like I was able to give small rural farmers, small socially disadvantaged farmers a face and a voice,” said Eric. “I grew up on a farm, but left early when my Mom moved us into the city. I didn’t get back into rural life until I was in my 30s, when I found Georgia Organics. I found property in 2012, and have been trying to evolve as a farmer ever since.”

Susan is the co-founder of Global Growers and the Founding Director of Common Market Georgia. Both of these organizations help commercial farmers access markets that specialize in sustainable and regional agriculture. Global Growers has received a 2501 grant, as well as a Food Safety Outreach Program grant. Thanks to the support of these programs, Susan’s organizations can do critical outreach and training work with farmers in their area.

“Our 2501 grant allows us to provide targeted services that equalize the playing field, helps farmers of color to make the most of their agricultural expertise, and transforms that farmer expertise into viable commercial operations and production,” said Susan.

The Section 2501 program works to level the playing field for farmers of color and military veteran farmers, who have historically been underserved by USDA and other federal programs, by arming them with the resources and technical assistance they need to thrive and compete in today’s agricultural economy. For decades, 2501 has been the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of historically underserved farmers.

“2501 keeps us in the room with the people that can steer us and guide us to get through eligibility, get through barriers, and access markets,” said Eric. “2501 has allowed farmers like us who sell at wholesale markets to access the tools and resources to be GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] certified and market ready. If not for them, we probably never would have made progress on getting GAP certified and wouldn’t have access to those markets.”

Despite the crucial role 2501 plays for so many of our nation’s farmers, the program’s budget was cut in half in the 2014 Farm Bill. In order for 2501 to adequately serve farmers and provide them with the resources they need to thrive, NSAC urges Congress to provide $10 million in discretionary funding for the 2501 program, restoring it to pre-2014 levels.

Eric also took the opportunity during the NSAC fly-in to talk with Representative Bishop about EQIP, which provides financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices. Conservation programs like EQIP help farmers provide clean water, protect soil, and enhance wildlife habitat, and maintain productive farms and ranches. NSAC is urging Congress to avoid making any cuts to mandatory funding for farm bill conservation programs, including EQIP.

“I have seen EQIP provide infrastructure like hoop houses, or irrigation access, that changes the game or dramatically increases farmers ability to increase their production,” said Susan. “Infrastructure like this is often not accessible to small-scale farmers in absence of this support because of a lack of capital or access to capital.”

“The West Georgia Farmer Cooperative has outlasted a lot of other co-ops in the area because in the last five years we have benefitted from 2501 and EQIP,” said Eric. “Most of our farmers have high tunnels, drip irrigation and things like that. The infrastructure we built thanks to EQIP and 2501 have allowed us to sell at markets that we might not otherwise be able to access.”

Recently, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed their version of the FY 2018 budget, largely rejecting many of the devastating cuts proposed by the President’s budget request. While we were disappointed that the House did not allocate additional, much-needed funding for Section 2501, we were pleased that their bill included no cuts to mandatory EQIP funds for the first time since 2008. NSAC will continue to work with farmers, our members, and champions in Congress to secure additional funds for Section 2501 and to protect on-farm conservation programs in the FY 2018 appropriations package.