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FSA Partnerships Help New, Beginning Farmers Connect to the Land

By Darrin Vanderplas, Massachusetts FSA Farm Loan Officer Trainee

Sangiwa EliamaniGrowing up in Tanzania, East Africa, Sangiwa Eliamani became a skilled farmer, producing rice, millet and cotton throughout the year, using typical hand tools. He had no concerns about seasonal timing or finding markets for his crops, until he moved to the United States and attempted to farm in Massachusetts.

“Over there [in Tanzania] it’s very different,” he said. “We don’t have this limited time to grow, we have easier access to land and markets to sell our products.”

Sangiwa moved to the United States in hopes of better opportunities, but it seemed his passion for farming may be put on hold when he discovered high land prices, short growing seasons and complex crop marketing.

Though this realization came hard, Sangiwa could not stop thinking about cultivating the land. That’s when he found World Farmers/Flats Mentor Farm, an organization that assists and supports small farmers of diverse ethnic backgrounds by providing them with access to land, farming infrastructure and marketing assistance needed to sustain successful farming enterprises.

World Farmers/Flats Mentor Farm is one of several organizations that have partnered with the Massachusetts Farm Service Agency to help small, beginning and specialty farmers start or expand their operations. Through its Outreach and Education division, FSA works to develop partnerships with local, regional and national agricultural organizations through its more than 2,200 county offices nationwide.

“Farmers who do not speak perfect English feel they can go into the [FSA] office with their broken English and still receive valuable services,” said Maria Moreira, director of the World Farmers/Flats Mentor Farm program.

Since 1999, Maria and FSA County Executive Director Kip Graham have introduced more than 200 beginning farmers to USDA and FSA assistance including the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) and Microloan assistance.

“Because of this partnership, many farmers have rediscovered their connection to and passion for agriculture,” said Graham.

Sangiwa was one of them.

Sangiwa was approved for a Microloan and utilized some of FSA’s beginning farmer benefits like the fee waiver for NAP. He now rents 2 acres of land and the dream of purchasing his own farmland seems possible. The microloan helped Sangiwa purchase his own rototiller, farmers’ market tent, coolers, seeds and fertilizer.

The FSA microloan program is available to all farmers, including beginning, small and mid-sized farmers, providing up to $50,000 in loans using a simplified application process. Since the program began in 2013, over 20,000 farmers received microloans. About 70 percent of microloans are issued to beginning farmers and 55 percent to first-time FSA borrowers.

“My biggest fear was that [FSA] wouldn’t accept me. It wasn’t so,” said Sangiwa. “With beginning farmer support and FSA’s Microloan, I now have the equipment and resources I need to continue and expand my operation.”


Louisiana Backyard Gardener Used 2-Acres to Build 400-Member CSA

By Tanya Brown, FSA Marketing Outreach Specialist

Kacie LuckettFor a few years Kacie Luckett was told there was no way she could compete against large farms at a Farmers Market when she only had 2-acres of growing space.

And they were right.

“It wasn’t going too well and I wasn’t making a profit,” said Kacie, owner of Luckett Farms in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She tried to get into the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge — the largest Farmers Market in the area. “But they wouldn’t let me in because I had no experience and didn’t have a big enough garden or variety of produce,” said Kacie.

So she turned her sights elsewhere.

After a brief conversation with her sister-in-law, she decided to take a different route and use the two acres of land in her backyard to start a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. CSAs allow individuals to purchase shares of the harvest produced by a farm.

But if she couldn’t sell at the Farmers Market, what made her think she could sell her produce at a CSA? That’s what the naysayers said.

She started in 2013 with seven CSA members. Today, Kacie has more than 400 members she weekly provides boxes of fresh corn, tomatoes, peas, eggplant, fruits and multiple other vegetables. She also expanded from two acres to 30 acres to meet demand and markets her CSA at the local hospital and YMCA.

“It’s truly rewarding,” said Kacie. “We started from nothing and now we are able to build relationships with our CSA members and educate people about their food.”

The quick growth of her business also required more capital and more workers. Kacie quit her full-time job as a home health care provider and her husband quit his job at the paper mill to handle the workload. But they needed more help.

“Hiring was a huge challenge for us,” said Kacie, who hired local people to help out, but their work ethic was lacking. “We tried hiring prison labor, but they were ready to go back to prison after working just 20 minutes,” she said. They decided to use individuals with H2A visas. The H2A visa allows foreign agricultural workers to be hired seasonally in the U.S. That worked for them.

Now, extra cash was needed to pay the workers and plan for the future of Luckett Farms.

“Luckett Farms uses farming methods signature to no other within the vicinity,” said Martin Fontenot, senior farm loan officer with the Louisiana Farm Service Agency (FSA). “Although local commercial lenders were not immediately interested in Luckett Farms, Kacie was determined to succeed and her operation was a good fit for the microloan.”

The FSA Microloan provides up to $50,000 to meet the financing needs of small, beginning, niche and non-traditional farmers. Kacie used the loan to help pay for six H2A laborers and to purchase materials for the next growing season, which for Kacie is year-round.

“I never would have seen myself as a farmer,” said Kacie, who also provides tours of her farm and created a Facebook community where CSA members can learn about the produce in their boxes and obtain recipe ideas. “Three or four years ago I didn’t know any of the people in our CSA, now they’ve become our friends.”

Cutline: Kacie Luckett had to quit her job as a home health care provider to work full-time on her farm and manage her 400-member CSA operation.


Military Experience Opens Door for Soldier to Return to the Farm

By Tanya Brown, FSA Marketing Outreach Specialist

Tracy RobinsonGraduating from high school in the small town of Blakely, Georgia, Tracy Robinson was required to take an armed forces aptitude test. When asked what he wanted to do with his life, Robinson said he wanted to farm. The Marine recruiter told him he would be a great field artilleryman.

“I heard the word field and thought it had something to do with farming,” said Robinson. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and after finding out field artillery had nothing to do with farming, he stayed and fought for his country for 24 years, serving in Desert Shield, Afghanistan and Iraq.

He achieved the highest enlisted rank of E9 and traveled to 30 different countries before retiring in 2010 and returning to Georgia to do what he loves – farm.

Today, Robinson farms 300 acres of peanuts, cotton, soybeans and wheat, and he does it without owning or leasing any equipment. But to get to that point was a struggle and required a lot of support that many military veterans or underserved farmers once did not have.

Over the past eight years, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been turning that around, expanding the availability of its programs to more diverse farming communities, including veteran and women farmers. By forming partnerships and developing outreach efforts to restore trust and improve relationships, USDA has seen a 12 percent increase in black farmers and a 21 percent increase in Hispanic farmers.

The same efforts have been put into helping soldiers returning home who want to farm. Since 2009, USDA has provided $443 million in farm loans to help more than 6,505 veterans purchase farmland, buy equipment and make repairs and upgrades to farm businesses.

Robinson was one of those veterans who obtained a microloan in 2013 when, at the time, the Farm Service Agency had just launched the $35,000 loan and shorter application process to help small and beginning farmers get started.

“Once I returned home from the military, I was able to rent the same land that my family rented farmed when I was a child,” said Robinson. “When I approached FSA in 2011 about a loan, they said I didn’t qualify because I had no farming experience.” He later ran into a high school friend who allowed him to volunteer and work on his farm to get the experience. “When the microloan came out, the criteria changed and my military experience counted toward my farming experience and I was approved.”

But the friendship and volunteering never stopped. Robinson still helps his friend while farming his own land; however, he enjoys the benefits because his friend allows him to use the farming equipment in return for Robinson’s help.

“Mr. Robinson is very successful primarily due to his discipline and attention to detail that can be attributed to his military experience. Also, his record keeping is unlike any other farmer that we work with,” said Rodney Brooks, former Farm Loan Officer with the Georgia FSA who helped Robinson at that time. “Without the microloan he would have had to struggle to fund his operation. Yet, Robinson insists that his situation is different from other veterans and underserved farmers.

“I do this because I enjoy farming and it is great mental and physical therapy for me,” said Robinson. “I had a lot of help. But a lot of military veterans return home to families and they don’t have the financial capital or access to get into farming.”

Robinson hopes to someday develop a program for veterans and young people, to not only teach them to farm, but teach leadership and life skills.

To learn more about how USDA is helping military veterans enter farming as a profession, visit www.usda.gov/veterans and www.usda.gov/newfarmers. To learn more about FSA microloans, visit www.fsa.usda.gov.microloans or contact your local FSA county office. You can find your nearest FSA office by visiting http://offices.usda.gov.


Alabama StrikeForce Works to Eliminate Food Desert

By Cassondra Searight, Alabama FSA Public Affairs Specialist

Access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat should be an inherent birth right. However, the reality of the situation is that food deserts are all too common in the Unites States. Rural communities are typically the victims of food deserts and plight. One community, Lower Peach Tree, Alabama, is all too familiar with food deserts. On a good day Lower Peach Tree residents have more than a 25-mile, one way commute to the nearest grocery store, providing the ferry is working, which has been less than six months over the last three years. Otherwise, the commute to the nearest grocery store is over 50 miles, one way.

Alabama Hoop House

Through the USDA StrikeForce Initiative, Lower Peach Tree residents have an opportunity to access fresh fruits and vegetables at the local elementary school, Monroe Intermediate School. The school was approached about integrating practical experience into their science curriculum through the use of a wooden hoop house. The principal, Betty Madison, saw the value and opportunity that having a hoop house would extend, not only to the students, but the community as well. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency Tuskegee University, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Wiregrass RC&D Council, Alabama Tombigbee RC&D Council, and others, pulled resources together to provide funding, labor, equipment, expertise and a helping heart to build a hoop house at the school. Over the course of a year, all the partners aligned to contribute different expertise into making the hoop house a reality.

Students from sixth through eighth grade were thrilled about the project and eager to learn the science behind vegetable production. They jumped right in during the site preparation, planting and harvesting. CED Karen McDonald said “many of the students had no firsthand knowledge of gardening or agriculture in general. But that did not deter them, as the students have taken ownership of the hoop house and are invested in the results.”

Monroe Intermediate School plans to contact USDA Food Nutrition Service about the possibility of being a certified site to accept EBT cards. This would enable the school to use the profit from the sale of produce to ensure the project continues to expand and have funds for the next crop planting season. In the meantime, the students that help harvest the crop will get to enjoy the fruits of their labor at home with their families and produce will be donated to the elderly and disabled individuals within the community. Since this event, two other schools in Alabama have contacted their respective FSA offices to inquire about the program and plan to find ways to replicate such within their school districts.