Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
Bari Zeiger, President of the Greater Catskills Young Farmers Coalition, managing the garden at Frost Valley YMCA Farm, Claryville, New York.
A Conversation with
of Frost Valley Farm
During her undergraduate years at SUNY Geneseo, Bari Zeiger studied philosophy, systems thinking, and environmental ethics, and began to experience what she describes as “a moral imperative” to leverage her skills and privilege to make the greatest positive impact she could on both the environment and on our social systems. That imperative ultimately led her to pursue a career in farming.
After interning on a small-scale, organic farm, in Dansville, New York, she moved to Bostic, North Carolina, to work on a larger, permaculture-based farm. Bari has been the manager of Frost Valley YMCA Farm in Claryville, New York, for the past two years, and in 2019 purchased a farm property she named Healing Poem Farm in Java, New York, on the outskirts of Buffalo.
Bari reports that the new generation of farmers bring a distinctive knowledge base and value system to farming in the 2020s, as they innovate ways to address climate change, market access, and social inequities. They should, she assert, have a prominent seat at the table when policy decisions are enacted.
A New Generation Returns to Human-Scale, Community-Based Farming
“My network of first generation farmers have a really rich understanding of everything from soil, to anthropology, to social sciences,” Bari reports, “What I see among them is a return to human-scale farming, and the community aspect of agriculture as integral to a functional food system.” The emphasis is on information sharing among farmers, as well as a deliberate reaching out to the larger community of eaters.
Bari emphasizes that much of what we call “regenerative” agriculture—integrating livestock and vegetable operations, human-scale, non-mechanized systems, and the CSA system—are a borrowing from the traditions of indigenous and African American peoples. “Since the intervention of the ‘Green Revolution’ post WW2,” she reports, “we've dismissed and devalued indigenous knowledge systems about soils, ecology, and agro-ecology. We are now just coming to the same conclusions about farming that these peoples have been practicing for centuries and that had sustained and nourished them in the world before the globalized food economy.”
How Climate is Impacting Frost Valley Farm
Climate has impacted Bari’s farming operations at Frost Valley in critical ways: she reports experiencing more dramatic and unpredictable temperature and rainfall fluctuations, as well as severe storm events. This year the winter at Frost Valley has been “eerily warm followed by deeply cold temperatures.” She’s seeing fruit trees blossom early and then succumb to freeze. It’s much harder to know when to prepare the beds and plant annual vegetables,’ she maintains, “making it more important to have access to season extension infrastructure to buffer those early spring and late fall frosts.”
In the past few years, intense bouts and extended periods of rain have made it difficult for the more mechanized New York State farmers to access their croplands. Frost Valley, Bari notes, being less mechanized, has not been quite as challenged.
Another concerning trend is the uptick in invasive species like the spotted lantern fly. “We are really just starting to begin to know what the effects of these invasive species will be,” Bari worries, “especially coupled with the die-off pollinators and native, beneficial insects.”
Apprenticing at A Way of Life Farm, Bostic, North Carolina.
Healthy Soil is the Key to Climate Change Resilience
Under these climate-stressed conditions, tending to soil fertility—ensuring microorganism diversity within it and a mix of cover crops above it—must be a priority. “A healthy soil is an important piece of the climate resilience puzzle,” Bari says. “It’s able to handle both drought stress, increased precipitation, and the fluctuations in temperatures.”
Soil coverage moderates soil temperatures and sustains life for a diversity of organisms. And that diversity is important because each microorganism responds differently to different temperatures. When temperatures are fluctuating wildly, ensuring microorganism diversity is thus critical to soil risk management. That’s where cover cropping best practice comes in, says Bari: “With each plant having a different relationship to different life in the soil, we are recognizing the importance of a mix of cover cropping.” In the end, it’s all about mimicking nature: “What we know is that the earth likes to keep the ground covered and that monocultures don't exist in nature, biodiversity exists in nature.”
Technical Training Should be a Two-Way Street
As farmers make the connection between soil health, biological diversity, and climate resilience, technical service providers need to play catch-up, Bari shares. “Green-Revolution-based approaches have infiltrated even our most prestigious and advanced agricultural college curriculums,” says Bari. “And I don't think Ag school curriculums are keeping pace with what we are coming to understand as farmers about these robust, diverse biological systems. Many technical service providers are coming out of Ag schools with no real farming experience.”
She consequently sees the need, now more than ever, to empower farmers to take the lead on the front lines of the climate change battle. “Just as we must be followers and allies to those who are leading social justice reforms,” she reports, “the same theory applies to agricultural reform. It should be the farmers leading the way. The farmers are the ones with the lived experience. They're the ones with the boots on the ground. They understand the nuances and complexities of their challenges and they're best equipped to find those solutions to meet those challenges and overcome those challenges.”
Bari is calling for more USDA and state grant programs to offer opportunities for farmer-led research. The Sustainable Agriculture and Research Program (SARE) offers such a model, she asserts. SARE grants enable farmers to design technical solutions to the challenges they are experiencing. “These have been some of the most innovative, impressive grants that I've seen with such tangible, pragmatic and valuable potential outcomes,” Bari shares.
Farm tour and policy discussion with State Senator Metzger at Frost Valley Farm.
Farmers Assume a Lead Role and a Seat at the Policymaking Table on Climate Change
The single most powerful way to create opportunities for farmers to effect policy changes is to bring them into the conversation in ongoing, meaningful ways. Bari is experiencing this in her own community with Representatives like New York State Senator Jen Metzger and Representative Antonio Delgado spending time to take farm tours, and not just pose for photo ops with farmers. “They are coming out to the farms, placing their own feet on the earth, and learning firsthand from farmers rather than through another organization that is filtering the words of farmers,” she says. “It is also great to see them working with service-based organizations like National Young Farmers Coalition.”
What Needs to Be Fixed on the Ag Grant Front?
Many grants that are theoretically available to small-scale farmers, Bari notes, are often in fact inaccessible to many of them. One major constraint is that they are often offered on a reimbursement basis only. “You might need to spend $10,000 up front with the reimbursement coming a month or two months later,” Bari explains. “That requires that you have liquid capital or access to a line of credit, which first generation farmers often lack and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers have been historically and structurally denied from accessing.”
Grants and loans also come with other strings attached, like high-bar proofs of income and business operating history. “A lot of first generation farmers are disadvantaged compared to second generation farmers who can claim their family's farm and show their families’ farms income and land base,” Bari notes.
Farmers Need to Be Compensated for their Role as Climate Change Leaders
Bari asserts that more innovative financing mechanisms—micro loan programs, other direct funding mechanisms and forms of compensation—need to be offered to farmers to enable them to scale up or begin to implement climate-resilient best practices.
In 2018 State Senator Didi Barrett introduced the first carbon farming legislation in the state, creating a pilot project in Dutchess and Columbia Counties to test and measure the carbon-sequestering efficacy of a variety of farming practices. Similar projects are helping increase farmer’s knowledge base about how they can measure, and ultimately be compensated for, their carbon sequestering services.
Most recently, for example, the carbon sequestering power of creating more inviting habitats with more energetically and nutritionally closed loops for native flora and fauna has become more evident to the farming community. “We need to directly incentivize farmers for implementing these practices,” says Bari, “and provide funding to support service providers so that they better understand the relationship between practices and these outcomes and can guide farmers through the implementation of these processes.”
Bari also believes farmers need to be monetarily compensated for the knowledge they impart to interns and to service providers. “Many farmers are incredible teachers,” she says. “They run apprenticeship programs, internship programs, farm-based learning opportunities and they are paying their apprentices and their interns. But you rarely see a farmer being compensated for the wisdom and the education they’re imparting to others. Subsidizing the costs for farmers engaged in these didactic programs would also aid farmers in providing a living wage to their apprentices and interns, which is essential for broadening access to hands-on agriculture learning opportunities. Being able to apprentice on a farm where I learned foundational skills and received a small stipend was a privilege. Had I been in debt, economically supporting other family members, or not had the financial help of my family, this simply would not have been a possible opportunity.”
Organizations like the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) are advocating for the development of state-level workforce development programs that would subsidize the costs of farmers who are assuming real risks when they hire often-inexperienced apprentices and interns. “We're hoping to assemble a task force of stakeholders and farmers to dive into the nuances of how this policy or legislation would work in New York State,” Bari share.
Farmers Need to Help Shape Crisis Management Guidelines
The current Co-Vid crisis has also illuminated the need for policy changes on the federal and state level that would enable farmers to respond more rapidly to consumer demand in crisis situations. For example, lack of broadband access for many rural farmers has been a major constraint in that regard. Bari, for example, has only satellite access on her farm, which tends to be unreliable especially during weather events. “Not only is it difficult to stay informed,” she says, “but a lot of farmers who want to be innovatively shifting their business to an online platform where they're conducting marketing, sales, deliveries, drop-offs are denied that opportunity.” At the same time rural consumers are denied access to fresh produce.
Indeed, the Co-vid crisis has highlighted the urgent need to put farmers front and center when crisis management policies and strategies are formulated for the food sector. Farmers had little guidance about whether or how they would be allowed to operate during the pandemic, which put the entire food system at risk. “Farmers need to be included in the development of these emergency protocols,” Bari notes. “When we see a threat to the safety of our food through major contamination or through the destabilization of the global food market, we should be depending upon and valuing our domestic farmers and thinking seriously about how can we mobilize them when we need them the most in these emergency situations.”
The Challenges of Accessing Health Care and Student Loan Forgiveness
Bari also notes that access to healthcare—including mental health—is an additional issue for beginning and early stage farmers. In her Catskill community farmers are often caught in a catch-22—reluctant to scale up or implement operational efficiencies because if they generate revenues beyond a certain threshold they will be disqualified from government subsidized healthcare, and yet their income will be insufficient to purchase private insurance.
Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Programs also need to be revised to give more farmers access to them. “Farming is one of the most capital intensive endeavors," she explains. "The expectation that someone can invest $55,000 in 12 acres of land and then $30,000 in compost to build their beds, $10,000 in a well, and $15,000 in a deer fence just to get their operation running while they're still paying back student debt is untenable.”
“Reading the Land” Can’t Be Rushed
Finally, we need policy reforms that acknowledge the unique issues around farm startups. As Bari is learning from first-hand experience with the farm property she recently purchased, it takes time to read the land and that can take more than a few months. Newbie farmers often assume substantial debt and are immediately under pressure to service and retire it quickly. They are often forced to make business decisions in the short-term to generate cash that may not be conducive to the long- term viability of their farming operations.
Bari is taking a slower, more permaculture- and Holistic Management-based approach to observing her newly acquired farmland. “I'm just investing year after year, living extremely frugally and investing my salary incrementally,” she reports. “ I am doing that not only to avoid the assumption of debt, but also to allow time for the land to really speak to me and tell me what it needs and what it wants.”
More and Better Land Access Reforms Are UrgentLY Needed
Even the most enlightened agricultural policies will be for naught if land is not made more accessible to the next generation of farmers, Bari maintains. As farmers retire and their properties are sold for residential or commercial development, ag land is vanishing at alarming rates, and what remains is often priced out of the reach of new farmers. “Whether that's through a conservation easement program or a tax incentive to landowners to sell or rent to new farmers, we really need to protect our farmland just as we're protecting what we deem ecologically important land, such as state parks,” Bari says. In particular land needs to be more accessible to farmers of color and new immigrants, who are often highly experienced but lack the financial wherewithal to lease or own land. One solution might be to make down payment assistance programs available to them. “We often talk about the importance of biodiversity in farming,” Bari maintains, “but we don't talk enough about cultural diversity in farming. In large part because our farmers are not culturally representative of America we are not doing a good enough job of producing culturally relevant food for all people.”
How Bari Engages in Policymaking
Bari Zeiger takes her responsibility to represent the farmers’ voice in policymaking forums very much to heart. She is a member of Congressman Antonio Delgado's Agricultural Advisory Committee and sits on The National Young Farmers Coalition Federal Policy Committee as its Women's Affinity Representative. She is also a Greater Catskills Young Farmers Leadership member, a director of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute Board, and sits on Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Sullivan County Program Advisory Committee. She is a grant reviewer for Northeast SARE and New England Grassroots Environmental Fund. She participated in “Home Grown: A Round Table Discussion on Youth” and “The Future of Work in Upstate New York Workforce Development Roundtable” at SUNY Sullivan.
Workforce Development Program Models
Colorado’s Agricultural Workforce Development Program (AWDP) provides financial incentives to agricultural businesses to hire interns and provide them with hands-on training. Qualified businesses may be reimbursed for up to 50 percent of the actual cost of hiring an intern, not to exceed $5,000 per internship.
The AWDP is the result of legislation introduced during the 2018 session of the Colorado General Assembly by the Young and Beginning Farmers Interim Study Committee. In its first two years alone, the AWDP has supported 27 internships at 20 different Colorado agricultural businesses for a total of $92,000.
The New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s (NMDA) Agricultural Workforce Development (AWD) Pilot Program also incentives the state’s agricultural businesses to hire interns.