By Mike Nolan, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union; President, Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition
Three years ago in August, I bought a small, 13-acre parcel of irrigated land in the Mancos Valley of Colorado. I had been farming for 6 years at that point, but paying a mortgage and building permanent infrastructure was completely new to me. I had a realization that I could now fully utilize the resources of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) to help me get on my feet…and that’s when my FSA crash course began.
The FSA means different things to different types and scales of producers. Predominantly, the FSA works with larger commodity producers through Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) payments programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), operating loans, and cooperative programs. For me, the FSA was a way to access the micro loan program, inquire about a low interest loan to build a packing house, and acquire a tract number to access NRCS programs.
The unfortunate fact is that, as a small grower, working with the FSA can be challenging. Many FSA offices are not accustomed to the recent influx of beginning farmers and ranchers that are attempting to access resources. My own local office was lacking motivation to work with beginning farmers, and I don’t blame them. Young producers, such as myself, are not common in our region, and our needs are different from those of established, larger operations.
A $5,000 microloan often requires the same paperwork as much larger loans, which can be challenging for the FSA officer to process. Paperwork is also a headache for the applicant. Next to none of the FSA applications or paperwork can be submitted digitally, which means slow processing times and multiple trips to either the post office or regional FSA office to fill out and sign documents. I’m lucky that my office is only 20 miles away, but for many farmers, their closest office is a 2-6 hour round trip, which makes working with the FSA prohibitive for a grower of any scale.
I recently had the fortune of appearing on a panel with Latrice Hill, the Outreach Director for the FSA. A room full of diverse producers from across the country had the opportunity to share their concerns with her, while still maintaining that the FSA is a fantastic organization. Like most federal programs, it could just use some small tweaks to make things run more smoothly. Ms. Hill was surprised by our observations and experiences, but vowed to work with the FSA to improve access and to train more FSA officers to work with smaller producers of all backgrounds, and we appreciated that immensely.
I encourage all farmers and ranchers to access the needed capital and incentive programs offered by the FSA. I feel privileged to belong to an industry with access to capital and resources, especially in an economy where many other banks and lenders have a hard time lending to agricultural enterprises. At the end of the day, know that your regional FSA office is only as strong as its officers. If you run into problems, you can work with another regional office. As the agricultural landscape of our country changes, it may take time for the FSA to catch up, both office to office and federally, but it is still there to support all producers of all backgrounds, scales and skill sets.
Mike Nolan is the owner-operator at Mountain Roots Produce. Mike graduated from the Center for Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems Apprenticeship Program in 2006, and has been farming for 11 seasons. He is the president of the Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition, a farmers union chapter in southwest Colorado.