Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Lauren Errickson (left) of Singing Nettle Farm in Brooks was one of seven farmers selected by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to travel to Washington, D.C., to talk with legislators about successful, federally funded sustainable agriculture programs on their farms. Errickson met with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (right) and Senator Susan Collins.

One Farmer's Voice for Many in Washington

By Lauren Errickson

In mid-March I had the opportunity travel to Washington, D.C., for a "Farmer Fly-In" event held shortly before the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee began debating how money authorized by the new Farm Bill will be spent in 2016.

The fly-in was sponsored by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources and rural communities.

The seven farmers selected to participate in the fly-in were brought to D.C. to share our stories of successfully implementing federally funded sustainable agriculture programs on our farms.  Specifically, I was able to share with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Senator Susan Collins how the conservation programs of the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and research grant funding from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE) have benefitted our farm and, concurrently, the state of Maine.

The support awarded to Singing Nettle Farm over our five years in operation has certainly helped us reach a state of financial solvency and has significantly contributed to our success in creating an ecologically diverse, healthy farm ecosystem. Our farming strategies focus on increasing soil health, conserving water resources, and sustaining plant and animal species diversity; each year we continue to see our conservation efforts come increasingly to fruition.

With funding awarded through the NRCS, we have been able to create significant areas of pollinator habitat, improve our pastures through rotational grazing, better manage the nutrient cycle on our farm, construct an unheated high tunnel for season extension and increased soil conservation, and install a solar-powered drip irrigation system to better manage our water resources.

The lesser-known aspect of NRCS support that exists to fund sustainable forestry practices has also helped us. Like us, many farms in Maine have not only production field space, but also a forested area and/or working woodlot as a portion of their total acreage. By providing direct financial support for farmers to sustainably manage their woodlands, the NRCS funding can help keep Maine's forest resources intact while allowing farmers to hold long-term ecological health as a top priority.

In addition to the NRCS funding, we have received two federally-funded research grants via SARE. Our initial grant focused on improving the species composition of our pasture and hay fields without the conventional intensive practices of tilling, applying herbicides and/or reseeding the fields. Instead, we applied a unique mineral amendment blend to boost the soil health, essentially improving the soil in order to improve the forage quality. Currently we are evaluating the viability of cold-hardy figs for commercial production in an unheated high tunnel. Research opportunities such as these drive innovation in sustainable agriculture, providing a means for farmers to develop new practices and share their results with others across the country. The network of independent U.S. research farmers is growing daily, contributing to increased food security in all our communities.

While many who are reading this are at least broadly familiar with the subsidies awarded to large commercial agricultural operations for producing commodity crops, it is important to recognize that programs exist to support small, independent and family farms as well. Dollar for dollar, these programs might not measure up to the larger commodity subsidies, but the reality is that they are helping farmers in our communities remain viable agricultural businesses and, more importantly, to do so while making sound ecological choices as stewards of the land. Of notable benefit, sustainable agriculture program funding also affords young entrepreneurial farmers added incentive to stay in Maine and engage in agricultural activity, rather than seeking financial solvency elsewhere. When offered the chance to speak for these sustainable agriculture programs in D.C., I recognized that it was also an opportunity to be a voice for small farmers across the Northeast. One of the best ways to preserve our farmlands and agricultural heritage in Maine is to keep our local farmers in business. All of us need to continue reminding our state and national government that sustainable agricultural programs are important to our farmers and our communities.

Lauren Errickson operates Singing Nettle Farm, a MOFGA certified organic, horse-powered, off-grid farmstead in Brooks, Maine, with her husband, Bill. They offer fresh produce, perennial nursery stock and permaculture design services focused on edible landscapes and ecological stewardship.