Maisie Ganz spends most her days doing what she loves best, growing vegetables and flowers with her friends on one and a half acres called Soil Sisters Farm just up the hill from downtown Nevada City.
Earlier this spring, Ganz flew to Washington, D.C., where she spent two days as a sustainable farm advocate on Capitol Hill.
She was among a group of 54 other farmers from around the nation who participated in a “Farmer Fly-In” to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and share their stories.
Farmers participated in two days of advocacy and policy trainings and visited with legislators and their staff to speak about the importance of supporting local and regional food systems.
“It’s critical that farmers like Maisie have the opportunity to speak out and tell their stories. They represent the future of American agriculture and are the best voices to help shape federal farm policy for the future,” said Sarah Hackney, grassroots director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, D.C., the organization that coordinated the March Fly-in.
After spending years farming while in college and now entering her fifth season farming in Nevada County, Ganz knows firsthand the joys and challenges that come with full-time farming.
“I think it is hard to understand for someone who is working in D.C. all the challenges and obstacles of starting and sustaining a farm as a young farmer or rancher just coming into the work,” said Ganz.
Ganz is one of the founding organizers of Living Lands Agrarian Network, a program with a mission to train and support the next generation of farmers. She and Willow Hein started Soil Sisters Farm, a women’s farming collective on land owned by local property owners and managed by Living Lands.
Also a writer, Ganz has submitted essays to the Greenhorns project, a grassroots organization that supports new farmers through networking and events and promotes farming through multi-media such as radio, film, essays and books.
She spent time at Hidden Villa, a nonprofit farm and environment-based educational organization and as a farm advocate and speaker.
Her meeting with federal lawmakers was another step in her path of advocacy.
“The idea was that it can be very powerful to be able to put an actual face and personal story to the somewhat vague notion that we need more legislative support for programs related to sustainable agriculture,” Ganz said.
Investing in the future food supply
Funding meant to support programs for beginning farmers and ranchers, as well as those related to conservation were lost when the Farm Bill extension passed with the Fiscal Cliff Deal in January.
With the extension, billions of dollars of controversial subsidies for grain, cotton and soybeans were locked in while programs that many consumers want - programs that support young farmers and local farmers markets - were left in the lurch, according to National Public Radio.
The Fly-in was a unique opportunity for Ganz to share her farming story with federal lawmakers at a crucial time, said Farmer Tim Van Wagner of First Rain Farm, who along with Ganz and Leo Chapman founded Living Lands.
“There absolutely needs to be a larger voice for small-scale agriculture in Washington. Unlike many large-scale corporate farms in the United States, small scale farmers don’t have the resources to lobby for their voice in Washington and therefore are all too often left out of the discussion all together,” said Van Wagner.
Former director of Living Lands Rachel Berry agreed.
To be successful, young farmers just starting out need support from family, mentors, nonprofit organizations and government programs, Berry said.
“The average age of today’s farmer in California is 58 years old. Who is going to grow the nation’s food if we don’t invest in supporting young farmers? It’s essential for our food security,” Berry said.
This is the third time that Congress has started the process of writing a new farm bill in the past two years.
Each version has been informed by the previous version, making it critical to build awareness for sustainable agriculture during the process, according to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s website.
“I tried to stress that there is a growing number of young people who are passionate not only about farming, but also about growing healthy food, stewarding the land and collaborating together for the sake of creating vibrant and local communities,” Ganz said.
Since Living Lands Agrarian Network was started, 30 interns have gone through the program. Ganz estimates 75 percent of those interns are still farming.
“I can’t think of anyone who we’ve trained who’s not growing food in some capacity,” she said.
Some have started their own successful farming and ranching operations, such as Amanda Thibodeau of the Food Love Project and Matthew Shapero of Buckeye Ranch.
Ganz is concerned that the fraction of a percent set aside to fund small-scale agriculture has been scrapped with the Farm Bill Extension at a time when Living Lands was established and could show success, poised to qualify for federal dollars.
“We’re on the cusp of being able to take advantage of these sorts of programs,” she said.
May is a busy time for Ganz, who is preparing for Soil Sister’s Flower CSA starting up in June.
She never paid much attention to government policy before, but later this month, she hopes to meet with Representative Doug LaMalfa and his staff again in an effort to secure funding for programs that support small farms like hers.
Despite the energy it takes to fight corporate agricultural interests, Ganz says she is ready for the challenge.
“Now that I’m less blind to how things work, I do feel as if I have an obligation,” she said.
To learn more about Soil Sisters Farm: http://soilsisters.org/
To learn more about National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: http://sustainableagriculture.net/
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.