As lawmakers debate provisions of the 2018 farm bill, now is a key time for farmers and farm advocates to share their stories about the importance of programs that affect what they do.

For Practical Farmers of Iowa and its members, two farm bill programs are critically important: the Conservation Stewardship Program, a tool that helps farmers protect and enhance natural resources, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act, a key source of funding that directly supports beginning farmers.

Sarah Gilbert, a beginning farmer and PFI member from Iowa Falls, recently travelled to the nation’s capital to meet with policymakers about passing a farm bill that supports on-farm conservation practices and beginning farmers.

Sarah farms with her husband, John C., and his family in Hardin County, where they grow traditionally bred corn, soybeans, hay, oats and a variety of annuals for forage. They also milk 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and raise pasture-farrowed pigs. The family is committed to being good stewards of the land and employs numerous conservation practices to help protect soil and water quality.

The Gilberts have received assistance through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to help get them where they are now. Sarah says that, as beginning farmers, she and John C. have also benefited from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). She met with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to advocate for funding these programs in the next farm bill.

“I thought it was important to participate because politicians like to talk about supporting family farmers, but they need to see and hear from them more directly,” Sarah says. “I had the opportunity to meet with staffers for Iowa Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, and to talk with Rep. David Young. A group of us also met with the Democratic agriculture committee staffers actually writing language for the farm bill.”

The Conservation Stewardship Program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and works by providing financial and technical support to farmers and ranchers who adopt and expand conservation practices – such as cover crops, diversified crop rotations, managed rotational grazing, transitioning to organic systems and more. Practical Farmers of Iowa wants the 2018 farm bill to maintain CSP funding to support farmers, like the Gilberts, who protect and enhance Iowa’s natural resources.

While in Washington, Sarah also took the time to discuss how funding from the farm bill’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) helped her and other beginning farmers in Iowa gain the necessary farming and financial management skills to be successful. Many of Practical Farmers’ beginning farmer programs received funding from BFRDP, in turn helping hundreds of farmers get their start in agriculture.

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (BFROA) was recently introduced in Congress to replace the BFRDP. If enacted, it would support beginning farmers and ranchers through affordable land access, education for agricultural skills, financial management training, and conservation and land stewardship. Practical Farmers of Iowa considers beginning farmers a top priority and fully supports the inclusion of this bill in the 2018 farm bill.

“It was inspiring to meet other farmers from California to Michigan to Florida who are all concerned with ensuring conservation and beginning farmer programs remain in the next farm bill,” Sarah says. “Hopefully our combined voices and efforts will keep these vital programs funded in the future.”