When you bring a bunch of farmers together over pizza and beer, there’s a certain magic that happens. On September 9th, after traveling from thirteen different states, nineteen farmers from incredibly diverse backgrounds descended on Washington, DC, for the first session of the 2018-19 National Farmers Union’s (NFU) Beginning Farmer Institute (BFI). This educational opportunity is an annual leadership training program that offers three sessions in different parts of the country. In November, we’ll meet up again in northern California and March in Washington state. The mission of BFI is “to empower people to educate our youth, neighbors, media and policymakers of the social, economic and cooperative contributions of family agriculture.”
My husband and I arrived last that evening, as apparently the availability of flights out of tiny Alpena, Michigan is much more scarce than the other regions people hailed from. When we joined everyone at the NFU Headquarters, they were deeply engaged in hearing about what was happening with the impending Farm Bill (see more about this in my other article this month). After this initial meeting and other updates, we milled up to the main office for pizza, beer, and intriguing conversations about how other people approached their operations. We met a wine grower from California, a permaculturist from Hawaii, a hydroponics specialist from Alaska, a hemp farmer that runs a homestead and veterans’ retreat in New York, pastured cattle and pig ranchers and commodity farmers from the Midwest, other vegetable growers, and flower farmers.
And for the next few days we learned about crop marketing and cooperatives; we had the most understandable and entertaining presentation on the Food Safety Modernization Act I’ve seen to date; we lunched and chatted with NFU President, Roger Johnson; we took a deep dive into USDA programs and business planning and credit; we investigated how beginning farmers can reshape food systems; and we dined at Founding Farmers, a restaurant owned by “more than 47,000 family farmers of the North Dakota Farming Union and is supplied by hundreds of family farms everywhere.” We also had the chance to tour DC Greens’ K Street Farms, a nonprofit organization that supports food education, food access, and food policy in the nation’s capital.
This Institute accepts new applications every year, generally in January or February, and you can find the application on their website; I cannot recommend this program enough. We’ve only just completed session one, and I’m already looking forward to meeting up again with this group to pick their brains come November. Although this bunch of farmers all participate in different markets, practices, and regions, we know the opportunity to collect with this vast amount of farming knowledge and wisdom for a few visits is extraordinary and I feel darn lucky to be able to participate.
Molly Stepanski is the Local Food Coordinator for Northeast Michigan and owns and operates Presque Isle Farm with her family. She enjoys digging, planting, and hiking in the dirt; cooking up her own recipes; drinking wine; and eating lots of fresh, seasonal produce (and anything deep-fried, in accordance with her southern heritage). Contact her at [email protected]