Getting to know the USDA

Posted: Friday, May 8, 2015 12:00 am
By Tessa Edick
For Columbia-Greene Media


You can learn everything and anything you ever want to know at a farm.


The “Know your Farmer — Know your Food” tagline is true. Meeting your farmer is key to changing the way America eats and farms. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center can show you the way to good food, best practices, financial protection and conservation of our farmlands.


From new farmer initiatives, land conservation, soil expertise and the farm bill — not to mention youth programs, grants, loans, dietary guidelines, food safety, dairy margin protection plan, climate solutions and rural opportunities in every sector of agriculture ranging from world markets and trade to data and analysis — the USDA has you covered with guidance, resources, insight and funding. Offices throughout each state invite you to participate in the future of farming with resources from the USDA in your own backyard.


Food and farming is big business and at the heart of our agricultural roots. We rely on seed and soil beyond our plates for economic development, health and wellness in our communities.


Our nation’s 30th secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, leads the USDA in “working hard to strengthen the American agricultural economy, build vibrant rural communities and secure a stronger future for the American middle class,” according to the USDA website. Working alongside Vilsack, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden oversees the day-to-day operation of the USDA’s many programs and spearheads the $149 billion USDA budget process.


USDA Service Centers are designed to be in locations where customers can access and learn about the services provided by the Farm Service Agency (, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural Development agencies.


Our New York state FSA office staffs more than 170 employees who, according to the website, “ensure that New York farmers have the information they need to participate in federally funded agricultural programs. FSA-administered programs benefit all Americans by providing stability for our agricultural producers, thus helping ensure a safe, abundant and affordable supply of food and fiber.”


In New York, the state office is located in Syracuse. Additional county service centers are located in 39 New York towns and serve the needs of area farmers.


Sandra Ferry is the county executive director overseeing six counties from two offices — in Ghent and Millbrook — for the FSA. She is a farmer’s direct connection to the opportunities offered by the billion dollar Farm Bill that started in the 1940s to get farmers back on their feet as they emerged from the depression and the “dust bowl,” when top soil was literally blown away from the drought in the Midwest. The aim was for farmers to sustain profitability and take better care of farmland with conservation practices still vital today.


The federal government implemented the Farm Bill, which has a new name every time it is rewritten about every four years. The Agricultural Act of 2014, passed last February, is important legislation that provides authorization for services and programs that impact every American and millions of people around the world. The new Farm Bill builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past five years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer.


According to Ferry, “One of the best things about the recent [Farm Bill] were the many changes in programming for new farmers and ranchers to help them get started.”


We need to capture a younger generation to help bring in new farmers and fill the gap so we can continue to have a safe and reliable food source.


There is a need for all sizes and types of farms and farmers. The Farm Service Agency has programming for beginning farmers; women and other minority groups, now referred to as “Economically Underserved”; and limited resources.


“We want to see all kinds of people in farming,” Ferry explained.


There are two sides to the FSA coin: The farm loan side and the farm program side. The farm loan officers cover a region from Clinton County to Columbia and Greene counties and as far as Saratoga County. They review applications and options for borrowing. The Microloan programs offered through FSA allow low-interest loans for operators to borrow under $50,000 to buy equipment and fund growing operations. Now with land upwards of $5,000 per acre in Columbia County, it’s tough to get started farming. The FSA has many different loans available and if you qualify as a beginning farmer, the funding can come from a different pot of money that is reserved for beginning farmers (less than 10 years meets the criteria). This is vital so we don’t run out of funds for this group of farmers and can help the next generation begin to farm.


The farm program delivers programs like the Non-insurable Crop Assistance Program, called NAP. This refers to coverage for crops that are not insurable under federal crop insurance (as opposed to corn and apples). When natural disasters happen, crops like cherries, hay or vegetables grown conventionally or organically can now be covered by the NAP program. The losses are paid according to the market value price and now because of changes from the new Farm Bill, they can purchase additional coverage over the 50 percent loss level so they can cover up to 65 percent of their normal crop production.


This program is a fortunate upside from the wrath of Mother Nature for a beginning farmer protected by the Farm Bill. Beginning, limited resource and economically underserved farmers are able to have a discount on the premium to help them afford insuring their crop at the best level against a natural disaster. This insures food is provided and farmers are paid so the farm can return to work once the storm has passed.


The Margin Protection Program is another fortunate addition to the new Farm Bill, which allows farmers to protect against the fluctuation of milk price and feed costs. The program is designed to protect the margin between the cost of feed and the price of milk. Farmers have the opportunity to choose the coverage level that best fits their farm and what they can afford to pay for the protection. Dairy commodity pricing is a complicated procedure with stock market influences and quite the science behind determinants of price.


“Farmers try to gage feed prices, environmental factors and weather patterns and take a ‘guess’ at milk consumption and export markets. Some farmers are able to do the research and find the time to lock in pricing on their own on the open market,” Ferry explained. “The Margin Protection Program allows farmers that are not able to lock in prices a way to help protect their margin.”


Depending on the state of a farm, the Farm Bill allows a “business strategy” based on assessment of risk factors to insure or not, “ she continued. “More use of fluid milk in the United States and less powder (used to export to other countries because it is cheaper) yields a better price based on demand.”


Bottom line in our dairy centric society: Drink more milk to lift up our local farmers and build local economies.


NRCS, another agency within USDA, is a tech service backed by land experts who facilitate conservation programs and plans, cost share expenses and conserve farmland, water sheds, wetlands, nature preserve and highly sensitive land to benefit the environment and animals in their natural habitats. Cornell University is a partner with the USDA and funds education of farmers to help explain programs and tools to use for forecasting.


Without input from the farms and the fields, there is no clear indicator of need. Ferry’s “bosses” are primarily farmers from our communities as they direct the office to the needs of our local farmers. FSA then responds from the top of the food chain: President Obama and Vilsack.


Ferry invites everyone to “come in and see us at the local USDA service center,” as we all get more connected to food through seed and soil and learn about resources designed to support our agricultural society. Farming — the way life should be.


You can reach Ferry at 518-828-4385 or stop in and see her at the Columbia County Farm Service Agency at 1024 Route 66 in Ghent.


If you eat today, thank a farmer. And remember, your food choices and sources matter and your health depends on responsible eating! FarmOn!


To contact Tessa Edick, email tessa@ or follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @FarmOnFarmOn.


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