Farmers Care About SARE: NSAC Hosts Virtual Annual Appropriations Fly-in

April 19, 2021

Front of US Capitol Building. Photo credit: Louis Velazquez

Every year, NSAC partners with coalition members to organize dozens of farmers and ranchers across the country to share their stories, ideas, and needs with Congressmembers. Marking one year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, NSAC gathered once again this spring to host our third virtual farmer fly-in here (and everywhere) in DC.! Last month, farmers, ranchers, and researchers from ten states came together to discuss agriculture appropriations for the 2022 fiscal year (FY) with their Congressional delegations. Folks from Wisconsin, Illinois, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Georgia, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and New Mexico took time out of their busy schedules to raise important federal food and farm program issues to legislators’ attention. 

The topic of discussion this year? The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program! These farmers and researchers, leaders in their communities, met with lawmakers to discuss the benefits of SARE on their farm operations and communities they serve. Since its inception in 1988, SARE has funded farmer-driven research and education through its competitive grants programs for farmers, researchers, and students. NSAC helped to champion the creation of and has been an avid proponent of SARE, the only farmer-led, competitive research grant program offered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that focuses on sustainable agriculture. We work every year to ensure that SARE funding levels meet the growing needs of farmers and ranchers seeking to address sustainability and create innovative organic and conservation farm practices that improve farmer profitability, stewardship, and quality of life. 

The farmers and researchers who joined us last month had participated in SARE sponsored projects preserving heirloom chili pepper varieties in New Mexico, exploring the ways that food in institutional settings are perceived and executed in Illinois, and supporting tribal communities in North Dakota who are engaged in community gardening to improve access to food and nutrition, and advocate for indigenous food sovereignty. Many of our fly-in farmers have utilized SARE to address environmental degradation and the impact of poor soil management practices on their operation. As one of the first USDA grant programs to fund projects that directly address climate change and provide research and education on soil health and carbon sequestration management practices, SARE has had contributed to building climate resilience in communities throughout the country. 

We are honored to have hosted such an amazing group of folks working on the ground to promote resilience and sustainable practices on their farms and communities. Featured here are a few of the meetings farmer experts held with Members of Congress last month about the importance of SARE in addressing challenges arising from COVID-19, climate change, agricultural research, and innovation. 

Jess Alger, Alger Ranch – Montana

Located on the rolling native grass prairies of central Montana, Jess grows 1,650 acres of organic grains and pulses and raises cattle on his ranch. Jess met with Senator Jon Tester to discuss the role of SARE in his transition to organic farming and use of rotational grazing practices incorporating small grains. 

SARE funding allowed him to investigate new weed management strategies using black medic, a member of the legume family, as a forage stock for grazing livestock. He has also explored different organic management methods for Lepidium draba, an invasive weed, and other problem weeds using beneficial insects, tarping, and vinegar solutions. 

“I have had three SARE grants. They all have helped me learn to be a sustainable organic rancher. They helped bring diversity to pastures for cattle. The second grant proved to me that it made sense to go organic!  The third grant helped me to control my weeds without chemicals!  The first grant on black medic helped bring diversity to the ranch.  Black medic helped with diversity in cattle diet. On dry years the grass dries up and the only thing green is the black medic!” 

In his meeting, Jess emphasized the importance of SARE in advancing farmer-driven research. The lack of robust organic research at universities and institutions across the state of Montana, in particular, had inspired him to take on projects that not only improved his operations, but could also be shared far and wide to neighboring farm communities interested in going organic. Through SARE, he has been able to host a number of farm tours and visits in partnership with NSAC member Montana Organic Association to highlight the work he’s been able to accomplish through the program and share his knowledge with fellow ranchers.

Tom and Gwynne Gillett, Black Tansy Farm – Oregon

Tom and Gwynne, two livestock farmers and soil health champions in Oregon, met with Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Peter DeFazio’s offices to discuss their current SARE-funded project, led in partnership with the University of Oregon Extension, on the effects of multi-species rotational grazing on microbial soil health when implemented with other federal working lands programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Since acquiring their farm in 2019, Tom and Gwynne have been pursuing pasture-based soil health management to improve the health of their farm property which once produced row crop vegetables. The damage brought about by the intensive row cropping inspired them to research innovative ways to improve soil and animal health through sustainable practices. As one of 50 farms certified in regenerative agriculture through A Greener World, they have been able to scale up their livestock production to raise animals and grow healthy food for their community. Following the fly-in, they became a part of the Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network (ORCAN), an NSAC member, to continue advocating for climate change policy in Oregon and nationwide. They are also active with NSAC member Friends of Family Farmers

“We learned about SARE through Friends of Family Farmers. We applied for Western SARE Farmer and Rancher grant a couple years ago, around 2019. Our project is to implement multi-species grazing with cattle, pigs, and sheep rotating them through the pasture. We wanted to know if this improved microbial soil health, so we partnered with the University of Oregon and they did DNA sequencing on soil sampling. This year, we’re adding some laying hens to improve soil and animal health because it breaks down pathogen cycles. We think it’ll improve human health, and we’re hoping there’s lower levels of antibiotic resistance in the soil.” 

Ann Swanson, Hendrick House Farm – Illinois

Ann, the Farm Director of Hendrick House at Fowler Farms in Illinois and SARE grant reviewer, met with Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Lauren Underwood’s office to discuss the impact that SARE has had in her work bridging the gap between sustainable agriculture’s role in healthy food procurement and consumption and the foodservice industry. There, she shared her experience with SARE as both a recipient and reviewer of the program.

“It was really great. Wes was a great facilitator. Dick Durbin’s staff asked a lot of questions. He went to school in Champaign so he was familiar with a lot of the programs I was talking about. Each office seemed open to talking to their respective bosses about the maximum funding available. The true test is if they give SARE their maximum funding! I love SARE and because they are a farmer driven and really seek to give support to those that need it.” 

As a chef, Ann’s career spanned the high-end culinary arts world doing molecular gastronomy and farm-to-table dining until she moved back to her home state of Illinois to pursue her dreams of becoming a farmer. After participating in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program through the University of Illinois Extension, she pursued a SARE grant to address the way institutional food is perceived and executed in the foodservice industry.

Through her educational project and dedicated support from the SARE community of Illinois, she was able to provide farm to table education to foodservice providers, youth, farmers, and the local community to encourage a transition from prepackaged, pre-processed, unhealthy food that institutional kitchens often provide while also creating awareness of the importance of supporting local farms in the community. She established the Hendrick House Farm in 2013 through SARE to create an educational space for at-risk kids to raise awareness with their families about the importance of fresh food and sustainable agriculture. 

“I wanted to build an educational program to facilitate this change that needed to happen.  I wrote an illustrated book, I gave them recipe ideas, all the different varieties they could see coming off the farm, and trained them from the ground up. SARE is so wonderful at being transparent and open with farmers that aren’t grant writers. They care more about how you’re going to fulfill your project. It takes the fear out of farmers and shows them that this program is accessible and attainable. Once I got the grant, it showed Hendrick House I was able to bring the money in. Because of that, we’ve moved to a 10 acre farm. I have an 80-person CSA program, and, as a result, we’ve gotten a lot of food service contracts because of our fresh food mentality. Now, I’m working on a USDA-funded project in Champaign to get local food into schools.” 

Rich Lee, Tender Soles Farm – Maine

As a farmer, educator, and father of two, Rich Lee of the 45-acre certified organic horse-powered Tender Soles Farm located in Richmond, Maine, has dedicated much of his life advocating for environmental sustainability and agriculture. After working as a counselor with at-risk kids through Cornell Cooperative Extension to teach an ecology and farm curriculum, he found himself working on a horse-powered farm in Wiscasset, Maine as an apprentice farmer. There, he fell in love with the idea of becoming a farmer full-time, using horsepower as the driving force of his operation. Through apprenticing, he also met his partner Kate, and they went on to begin their farm business together in 2012. 

Last month, Rich met with Senator Susan Collins and Representative Chellie Pingree’s office to discuss the importance of SARE for on-farm education in Maine. He is currently participating in a SARE- funded program with NSAC member Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), the Maine Climate Resilience Training Program. Through this program, he has been able to receive both educational training and technical assistance to fine tune his understanding of farm business, financial planning, cover cropping, and weed management.

“I was a part of the Maine Farm Resilience program (MFRP), an educational program with MOFTA. We were the first MFRP cohort in the winter 2019 for five- to ten-year farmers. The goal for them was to forward the work to help farmers that have gained a lot of experience with more long-term financial planning for personal finances and retirement to make better business decisions.

One thing that helped us was technical advisors. They provide technical assistance for growing crops and general farm management, labor management, food safety. That I know is funded by SARE. We’re in pretty regular contact with Jed of Farm Smart Maine. The first year provided $1000 in TA funding, you could use it to hire a consultant for anything. In our case we had a farm consultant come and help us make better farm planning decisions to reach our goals to have us pay ourselves and do that planning 5 years out . That’s been huge.  The second year you get $2000 in TA, and you get reimbursed for that work, to continue working with Jed and doing some product development for a fermented vegetable product line.”

SARE has been pivotal in accelerating the trajectory of his and his partner Kate’s farm while assisting them as they implement sustainable practices that mitigate the impacts of climate change in their region. With drier growing seasons becoming more common since beginning their farm a few years back, Rich and Kate shared how invaluable SARE has been in learning about irrigation and other organic practices using climate-friendly, plastic-free materials to implement in their vegetable and fruit production. 

“We have been recipients of lots of SARE-funded farm education programming, so that’s where we’ve gotten the most benefit. I do truly think that small scale sustainable agriculture is the answer to feeding people and feeding them nutritiously, and breaking people out of the current food system that’s calorie heavy, lacking nutrients, and reliant on large-scale farming which still has its place for sure. SARE has a good ability to disseminate this information and show that small scale agriculture can work because it’s based on the work and research of small scale farmers in general. It does have a much more grassroots construction of how it works and is invaluable in that.” 

More About SARE

Over its 30 year history, SARE has funded over $327 million toward over 7,600 projects across the country, including almost 1,000 graduate student grants. There are three primary grant programs administered across SARE’s four regional offices: Research and Education, Professional Development, and Producer Grants. Some regions also offer additional grants for community innovation, graduate student research, agricultural professionals conducting on-farm research, and region-specific initiatives. 

SARE was one of NSAC’s first legislative accomplishments over 30 years ago and, to this day, remains one of our coalition’s top funding priorities. To learn more about SARE’s history and impact, check out NSAC’s Grassroots Guide page and SARE website to explore projects happening in your state and region of the country. 

What Comes Next?

As farmers and communities across the country continue to adapt to the challenges brought about in the food and agriculture system as a result of the pandemic, it is imperative that agriculture appropriations reflect the current and ongoing needs to strengthen local and regional food systems, prioritize assistance for farmers of color and beginning farmers, fund farmer-led research, and increase food safety and meat supply chain support.

The impact SARE has had on the field of agricultural research is unmatched, and that is why NSAC brought together beneficiaries of the program to request new investment for the program. Despite SARE’s successful research and educational outreach, the program has yet to reach its full funding level of $60 million.

The FY 2021 spending bill provided $40 million for SARE, the highest funding level the program has had in its history, but demand still far exceeds available resources. NSAC is advocating for increased investments for SARE to boost research in soil health and climate resilience, expand investments in research to support farmers, especially farmers of color, and help rural communities thrive. NSAC will continue advocating for SARE to receive its full authorized funding level of $60 million in the FY2022 spending bill to expand the scope and reach of farmer-driven and regionally appropriate agriculture research. 

Budget and Appropriations, Carousel, Research, Education & Extension


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