Family Farming and Rural America By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President

1 05 2014
The 2014 International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas. The goal of the 2014 IYFF is to reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies in the national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development.  The 2014 IYFF will promote broad discussion and cooperation at the national, regional and global levels to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by smallholders and help identify efficient ways to support family farmers.

The 2014 International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.
The goal of the 2014 IYFF is to reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies in the national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development. The 2014 IYFF will promote broad discussion and cooperation at the national, regional and global levels to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by smallholders and help identify efficient ways to support family farmers.

As our country witnesses a trend toward urbanization of the population, our focus at NFU in the International Year of Family Farming is to continue to improve the economic well-being and quality of life of farmers and families in rural communities. In order for farms to thrive and for young people to be attracted to work on the farm, we must have vibrant and engaged communities. That’s where rural development comes in.

Rural development touches every aspect of farm life, from housing to transportation to utilities. In the area of housing, rural development programs have helped roughly 627,000 rural families in more than 21,000 communities buy, repair or refinance a home since 2009.

As many rural towns and counties have lost population to more urban areas, we focus on small businesses that rural towns need in order to serve residents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development success stories include one from Illinois:

“The Rocke family founded RMH Foods, a food processing company, in Morton, in 1937 and owned it until Smithfield Foods acquired it in 2001. The plant future was uncertain after Smithfield Foods announced plans to sell a portion of its portfolio that included RMH Foods. Jonathan Rocke, grandson of the original owner, assembled a group of investors to pursue purchasing the plant to keep it open. USDA Rural Development awarded… Rocke and his investors, a loan guarantee… The USDA investment was matched with private funding. Once again in the hands of the Roche family, the company is expanding with the launching of new food lines that are being distributed to some of the nation largest supermarket chains. With Rural Development support, 133 employees continue to have jobs in Morton, producing more than 200,000 packaged dinners each week at the 15-acre site.”

USDA’s Rural Development programs help by providing loans so that “mom and pop” don’t get pushed out by big box stores and corporations, and so “son and daughter” have assistance starting and maintaining their own local businesses as well.

More than ever, we rely on, and are connected to, one another online. We research crop information, read the day’s news, and email friends using the Internet. Having access to broadband in rural areas is key to living in a connected, informed community, as are the USDA programs and loans that help small communities achieve reliable service.

The vast majority of farmers rely on their small towns and communities for the needs of their everyday lives. The community provides school, shopping, health care, places of worship and recreation. It is necessary for utilities and transportation. We focus this month on how to strengthen all aspects of rural community life, and invite you to offer your thoughts in the comments section below.





NFU Delegates Adopt Eight Special Orders of Business

31 03 2014

NFU held its 112th anniversary convention March 8-11 in Santa Fe, N.M. During the convention, delegates from across the country debated a number of amendments to NFU’s policy and passed eight special orders of business (SOBs) – resolutions that highlight a particularly timely or high priority issue on which to focus advocacy efforts for the coming year. This year’s SOBs focused on the following topics:

• International Year of Family Farming: The United Nations (U.N.) has officially designated the year 2014 as the “International Year of Family Farming,” and NFU delegates felt it important to reinforce that recognition with a SOB. The resolution states, “NFU recognizes the vital role family farms play in the economic and social well-being of the United States and the world, and the importance of raising the profile of family farming by focusing the world’s attention on its significant role in alleviating hunger
and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment and achieving sustainable development in rural areas.”

• Family Farming and the Implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill: After many years of advocacy, NFU is proud to have finally achieved passage of a new five-year farm bill. However, as the delegates recognized in this SOB, “equally important as the legislative process is the implementation of the farm bill, and NFU urges officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to act in a way that benefits family farming throughout the nation.” The resolution goes on to list a number of specific implementation priorities.

• Family Farming and Immigration Reform: “The current immigration system is broken, especially for agricultural laborers and employers,” stated NFU delegates. Congress and the administration have highlighted immigration reform as a policy priority in 2014, making this SOB particularly timely; however, a number of obstacles stand in the way of completion. As the resolution continues, “NFU is supportive of the legislation passed by the U.S. Senate in June 2013, which included agriculture provisions based upon an agreement between a coalition of farm organizations and the United Farm Workers. The U.S. House of Representatives should follow this example and take action to pass a reasonable comprehensive reform bill.”

• Family Farming and Trade Policy: Pending free trade agreements and the president’s request for trade promotion authority, which would prevent Congress from amending or filibustering trade agreements negotiated by the president but instead subject them to only an up or down congressional vote, prompted delegates to adopt an SOB that “opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership as it currently stands because it uses the same failed blueprint as past trade agreements” and “opposes legislation that would enact trade
promotion authority, or ‘Fast Track,’ for negotiating trade rules.”

• Family Farming and Animal Disease Protection and Research: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are in the midst of a process to move research on highly contagious animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), from its current location on Plum Island, N.Y. to a mainland location in Manhattan, Kan. This proposal “poses significant risks – a concern echoed by a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. The inadvertent release of any of the diseases researched at the facility, which will be located in close proximity to domestic livestock production, would be devastating to the U.S. livestock industry.” For that reason, the resolution opposes moving this research to Kansas but, if inevitable, “urges Congress to provide robust funding of the Kansas facility to ensure it is in top condition to contain these highly
contagious diseases and prevent them from contaminating the U.S. herd.” It also opposes “attempts to loosen restrictions on imports from countries that are affected by FMD.”

• Family Farming and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): The RFS is the main policy driver of biofuels, and it is “under attack on a variety of fronts. In Congress, the deep-pocketed oil industry and other interest groups have put the RFS in their crosshairs.” The administration has also proposed to reduce the 2014 biofuels targets under the RFS and is in the process of soliciting input on its proposal to do so. The resolution states that “NFU remains adamantly opposed to changing the statute legislatively or
administratively.” To combat the claim that the oil industry has met a ‘blend wall’ and is unable to use more biofuels, “NFU calls for the retention of the RFS, increased availability of blender pumps nationwide, and the expansion of flexible-fuel vehicles.”

• Family Farming and the Reform of the Beef Checkoff: NFU is a member of the Beef Industry Checkoff Group, in which livestock stakeholders have come together to seek changes to the checkoff which will ensure the funds are not used to support priorities that are contrary to ranchers’ interests. To support this work and stress the need for a swift resolution of this nearly three-year process, delegates passed an SOB that outlines the organization’s priorities for reform: “Checkoff programs are intended to promote the consumption and further research and development of commodities, funded by assessing a fee from a farmer, rancher, grower or processor, based on the production of the commodity. These are worthwhile objectives if the checkoff programs and funds are properly administered. Policy organizations should be divorced from the beef checkoff program.” The resolution concludes by stating “if adequate changes to the current structure of the beef checkoff are not made within the confines of the Beef Industry Checkoff Group, NFU will seek its own resolutions to these problems.”

• Sequestration: Automatic, arbitrary and across-the-board budget cuts, known as the sequester, went into effect after Congress was unable to reach a compromise on spending cuts and tax rates to reduce the deficit. These cuts have already “weakened the ability of some agencies to perform their duties”; therefore, the resolution urges “the immediate repeal of sequestration.”

Read the full text of the special orders of business at http://www.nfu.org.





Managing your desk first step in managing farm, Wiswall says

19 03 2014

FarmingSmarter_Crowd_web

By Tom Parker – guest writer

People get into farming for a number of reasons, but nobody gets into farming because they love running a business. The business side of farming is often disliked, distrusted and delayed, often with disastrous results, according to Richard Wiswall, author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook and co-owner of Cate Farm in East Montpelier, Vt. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Most farmers are dragged kicking and screaming into the business side of it,” he said. “But the farmer’s number one job is to make sure their business thrives financially as well as ecologically.”

What Wiswall calls “the neglected business side of farming” begins with the office desk, he told a crowd of farmers, many of them beginning, organic or specialty crop farmers, at a workshop entitled “Farming Smarter, Not Harder.” The workshop, sponsored by Kansas Farmers Union, Frontier Farm Credit and Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition, was held Saturday, Feb. 22 at Pachamama’s Alton Ballroom in downtown Lawrence.

The efficient farm office begins with order and neatness—two qualities often missing from the average farmer’s desk, Wiswall said.

“Desks can be a real source of frustration,” he said. “Many farmers tend to let things pile up until they don’t know where to start, or simply walk away and pretend it’ll go away. The main thing is, you want some way of controlling the flow of paper.”

Actually, two flows of paper: purchases and sales. A filing system not only keeps things organized, it makes it easier to track expenses, bills and paid invoices. Desks should include some way of sorting paperwork into thematic cubbyholes, he said, such as folders for unpaid invoices, bills to pay, paid bills, employee records and insurance policies. Good accounting software can create paper trails as well as simplify bill paying by printing personal checks and sending notifications of bills coming due.

“You need a temporary resting spot for unpaid invoices, bills, credit card slips, payments and reimbursements for cash expenditures,” he said. “Once they’re processed, they go into a semi-permanent resting place.”

A good filing system can also help to keep a desk uncluttered, something Wiswall finds conducive to keeping on task. “You don’t need anything on your desk unless you’re working on it,” he said.

A third element to the efficient farm office, and perhaps the most critical, is a state of mind. “You have to value office priorities,” he said. “Make it a priority.”

Through trial and error, Wiswall decided to set aside several hours every Wednesday morning to do paperwork and open mail. During that time the phone goes unanswered and his door is closed. Because of his filing system, he can sort through invoices and bills rapidly and chart his progress in sales and inventory. “Setting aside a scheduled time for office work keeps you focused,” he said. “Don’t do it late at night or when you’re rushed. You’ll make mistakes, transpose numbers or leave things half-finished.”

Though in reality his system is nothing more than basic office procedures, he’s found it effective for the way he does business. “Nobody taught me this, I had to learn it on my own,” he said.

The most difficult thing to do is to make a priority list, sort of a blueprint for the most, and least, pressing concerns. He borrowed a template from Steven Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” that broke everything down to four quadrants—important urgent, important not urgent, not important urgent, not important not urgent.

“This is where long range planning comes in,” he said. “Because something’s not urgent, it just doesn’t get done. Obviously you want to get urgent important things first, but you want to spend your time above the important axis. The first quadrant is crisis management, but you don’t want to stay up there because you’re always reacting.”

A calendar—two, actually, one on the desk or wall and the other carried with him at all times—is crucial for planning and organizing business paperwork. Today’s smartphones have some of the most sophisticated calendar and planning apps in history, but Wiswall is hard pressed to beat a wall calendar, which he designates as the master. With it he creates a master to-do list that incorporates every facet of paperwork and farm planning, from buying seed to planting and harvesting dates.

If tasks aren’t completed on time, he relocates them to a future time when completing the job would be more favorable. “It’s important to transfer things to another day, otherwise they get lost in the cracks,” he said. “Tackle the most important thing first, and follow through to make sure they get finished.”

Effective management isn’t rocket science, and it’s not hard, he said, but farmers have to schedule time for it. An organized, clean desk, a good filing system and a dedicated timeframe to keep up with the paperwork can help manage the business side of the farm with a minimum amount of effort.





The velocity of change: the ‘80s farm crisis, advocacy efforts and its remerging shadow

17 03 2014

By Tom Parker, guest writer 

McPherson, KS – The last thing Roger Johnson expected when he knocked on the door of a ramshackle house in western North Dakota was to see the curtain part by the long blued barrel of a rifle.

Johnson, then a credit counselor for a farm crisis program, was far outside of his normal territory. The farmer, an old cowboy with a penchant for swearing and histrionics, had already chased off four other counselors—something Johnson wasn’t aware of. Nevertheless he asked the man if he could come in and discuss his plight. The old cowboy finally lowered the rifle and opened the door.

The eighties were trying times for farmers. The previous decade had seen a record of excesses as land prices rose to unprecedented heights and bank loans were handed out like candy. Farm ground was called “black gold,” as valuable as the fabled metal. And then it all came crashing down. Land values plummeted by one-third, interest rates soared and thousands of farmers were forced into bankruptcy. Suicides were common. Nor were farmers the only
victims; for every four farms that went under, it was estimated, one business collapsed in rural America.

Unlike the Great Depression which impacted almost every American, the financial crisis of the 1980s seemed uniquely and relentlessly the domain of family farms. And like the Great Depression, it was an unforgettable era.

“For those of us who farmed through that time, it is never forgotten,” said Kansas Farmers Union president Donn Teske. “People’s lives were drastically changed, sometimes violently. Multi-generational farms fell by the wayside to be sacrificed like straw out of the back of a combine. What’s really sad is, those discarded farms and farmers were judged to be the failures in society when the events that took them down were out of their control.”

Johnson shared his story and others following the screening of the documentary “The Farm Crisis” at the annual Kansas Farmers Union convention in Topeka from Jan. 3-5. With him on a panel discussion were Kansas Rural Family Helpline director Charlie Griffin, Kansas Agriculture Mediation Service director Forrest Buhler, former Kansas Rural Center farm financial counselor Ed Reznicek and Teske.

Johnson was one of a growing cadre of farm mediators and counselors who stepped in to offer support, advice and empathy in response to the Reagan administration’s cold shoulder. Occasionally they were able to help farmers but usually the best they could offer was a shoulder to cry on.

The ecumenical response was broadly supportive too, Buhler said. Protestants, Catholics and Jews worked together to find a way to create a support system for farmers in need. “We saw how profoundly they were affected, how it affected them physically as well as mentally,” he said. “They needed professional help.”

Economists, financial advisers, psychologists and, above all, those with farming backgrounds scoured the land trying to find solutions of which all too few were available. Griffin, raised on a farm but with a degree in marriage, family therapy and stress management, started working with the rural wellness program at the Onaga Hospital when the crisis struck.

“The first meeting I was invited to was sponsored by the Kansas Rural Center,” he said. “Room full of guys in bib overalls, very polite, they let me talk an hour on deep breathing and letting go of stress, things we needed to do, but after that all we did was talk. That was the last time I talked about breathing. I told them they needed an attorney, they needed a financial advisor—and yeah, they needed to breathe deep.”

Hotlines sprang up to provide relief. Farmers, for the most part inured to change from the weather to uncertain markets, found themselves unable to cope with the suddenness of the crisis. “Change happens to everyone,” Griffin said. “What matters is the velocity it comes at you.” Finding the right mix of professional assistance proved the key to helping many of those bewildered families survive the storm.

The cowboy’s case was typical: too much debt, not enough income. “But,” Johnson said, “You still had people. As a person you had worth. Let’s figure out how to deal with this farm as a business.”

There was nothing radical about the information provided by the counselors, Reznicek said. “We just outlined the structure of the debt problem and gave them strategies farmers could use,” he said. A meeting early in the crisis in Effingham brought about 25 farmers and three bankers. After that the phone started ringing and didn’t stop.

The crisis lasted a decade. Through their efforts some class-action lawsuits were generated, the number of foreclosures slowed, and some assistance was provided. But it was tough road, and creative measures had to be explored. One seed company donated truckloads of less expensive seed to gatherings, and others followed suit. “It made a difference,” Reznicek said.

They made a difference. Farmers started planting milo and soybeans, cheaper, more affordable crops, and cattle prices started picking up. Slowly, at times excruciatingly so, the crisis wound down.

If there were any lessons to be learned, the best one might be attributed to a photographer who sided with Midwestern farmers throughout the worst of the meltdown. He photographed farm auctions and courthouse protests, funerals and moving processions, dispossessed families and armed deputies attempting to keep the peace. He photographed a people both proud and broken.

“I saw this on a sign,” he said, “but it stood for what I was seeing. ‘Tough times never last—tough people do.’ That’s the message of the eighties.”





Building relationships, not managing employees

17 03 2014

By Tom Parker, guest writer

McPHERSON, KS - Farmers, like any business or corporation, have certain expectations of employees. Some of those expectations are reasonable-honesty, integrity, punctuality, a strong work ethic-while others border on wishful thinking. A major source of conflict, and something often heard by Richard Wiswall, a farming consultant and author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, is the expectation that employees should be exact clones of their employers.

“We want someone who does it just like we do,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”

According to Wiswall, it is. His advice is to adopt a proactive form of management that gives employees, and employers, room to breathe while maintaining a well-defined, hierarchical structure. It also doesn’t hurt for employers to lower the bar on expectations.

“The sooner you lower your expectations, the better,” he said.

Wiswall spoke of the “neglected side of farming,” or the business aspect, at a special full-day workshop entitled “Farming Smarter, Not Harder: Planning for Profit” held Saturday, Feb. 22 at Pachamama’s Alton Ballroom in downtown Lawrence. The event was sponsored by Kansas Farmers Union, Frontier Farm Credit and Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition.

There are several keys to good management, he said, starting with the basics: furnish written job descriptions, define farm policies and have them posted, resolve conflicts as they arrive and before they can fester, provide proper training and keep track of employer responsibilities such as wages, withholding taxes and other government forms. In reality, effective employee management requires a hands-on approach followed by a hands-off approach once the employee is trained.

“I don’t think people are born with a work ethic,” Wiswall said. “They need to learn how to work at a specific pace, and some people are more motivated than others.”

Wiswall, or some of his more experienced employees, work alongside less-motivated or new hires to get them up to their full potential as soon as possible. It’s critical to answer any and all questions and to provide the best training possible. After all, he said, “you’re imparting knowledge to the people you work with.”

Farms, like manufacturing plants, get paid by the piece while employees get paid by the hour. Inculcating a productive work ethic ensures that employees can keep up with the paces required for a farm operation. “We need to incorporate the belief that no matter how small the project, it’s important to the overall health of the farm,” he said. Fixing target rates for chores, mixing fun tasks with not-so-fun-tasks and teaching employees skills that go beyond the normal day-to-day routine go a long way toward assuring happier, and more productive, employees.

A fair working wage is also important, he said. Paying more than minimum wage and giving generous bonuses might seem counterintuitive, but Wiswall sees it as putting money back into the local community as well as cementing employer-employee relationships. “Employees become promoters of our business,” he said. “That’s a huge impact for everyone.”

Communication is essential, he says. At Cate Farm, in East Montpelier, Vt., which he owns and operates with his wife, Sally Colman, meetings are scheduled first thing every Monday morning. A roster of duties is given to his crew chief who oversees the employees. A defined schedule is even more important for farmers in that every week during the growing season brings changes that must be dealt with. Employees want to know what they’ll be doing and when they’ll be doing it and it’s up to the employer to tell them. “Organize everyone’s day,” he said, “including your own.”

It’s also important to take time out for yourself. He’s found that when he has a crew working, there never seems to be enough time left over to finish his own responsibilities. Rather than continually falling behind, he sets aside two days each week where nobody works, except, that is, for him and his wife.

“It takes time and effort, but having a different relationship with an employee makes a huge difference,” Wiswall said. “Make it a fun way to retain people and enhance the work ethic, and effort, of the farm.”





NFU Delegates Elect Teske Vice-President at 2014 Convention

17 03 2014

March 10, 2014 – SANTA FE, NM - Delegates at the National Farmers Union (NFU) 112th Anniversary Convention elected Donn Teske, Kansas Farmers Union president, NFU vice president.

“I am so humbled by the faith and trust the delegates have shown by electing me vice president,” said Teske. “I’ll do my best to help NFU President Roger Johnson move the organization forward under the direction of the grassroots policy formed here today.

Teske was elected from a field of three candidates, and replaces former NFU Vice President Claudia Svarstad, who did not seek re-election.

Teske has served as Kansas Farmers Union president since 2000 and is a fifth generation farmer in northeast Kansas.
For more information about the NFU convention, visit http://www.nfu.org/convention, or follow @nfudc and #NFU2014 on Twitter.
Teske VP 2




Family Farming and the Marketplace

5 03 2014
The 2014 International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas. The goal of the 2014 IYFF is to reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies in the national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development.  The 2014 IYFF will promote broad discussion and cooperation at the national, regional and global levels to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by smallholders and help identify efficient ways to support family farmers.

The 2014 International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.
The goal of the 2014 IYFF is to reposition family farming at the centre of agricultural, environmental and social policies in the national agendas by identifying gaps and opportunities to promote a shift towards a more equal and balanced development. The 2014 IYFF will promote broad discussion and cooperation at the national, regional and global levels to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by smallholders and help identify efficient ways to support family farmers.

By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union President

Farmers Union was founded on the idea that farmers can work together to find power in numbers. That’s why 10 farmers and rural residents in Texas formed the Farmers Union in 1902. Whether farmers need to organize to receive better shipping rates for cotton, as those founding 10 did, or to start a cooperative that can process and market their crops and livestock, or to have a louder voice on legislative issues to regulate markets, farmers have been coming together through the NFU to have a larger say in the marketplace for more than 110 years.

As NFU continues to recognize the International Year of Family Farming, the month of March brings us to consider a very important part of our experience as farmers – the marketplace. Throughout the month we’ll feature guest writers on our blog who will discuss different aspects of the marketplace, ranging from competition, regulation, strategies and history. It will be an interesting conversation, and I urge you to offer your thoughts in the comments section of our blog.

Markets need to be competitive in order to be functional. Farmers, as consumers of many inputs and the producers of commodities, usually find themselves in the position of “price-takers” rather than “price-makers.” All too often, those prices are volatile and disconnected from readily apparent supply and demand forces.

Much of NFU’s legislative efforts are directed toward making sure that laws and rules are enacted that allow for a fair and free market, so that those with power cannot run roughshod over everyone else. This month will feature some viewpoints from leaders on those issues.

We’ll also hear from bloggers who are finding new and innovative ways for farmers to assert themselves in the marketplace. Food hubs, strategic partnerships and new customer bases are offering some promising avenues for farmers to excel in today’s market.

As our tagline says, NFU is “united to grow family agriculture,” and the preamble of our grassroots-adopted 2013 NFU Policy includes this passage:

“The loss of family farms and other independently owned businesses is not inevitable. We believe the accelerated march toward a vertically integrated production system must be reversed. This requires action to enforce and enhance antitrust and competition laws, strengthen the regulatory system and revitalize independently owned businesses and competitive markets.”

Let’s spread the word about the importance of the marketplace for family farmers during the month of March.








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