Who are the Driftless Farmers?
The first thing that comes to my mind is a group of nomadic farmers that wander the countryside in search for their next plot of land...That has to be close to what you were thinking, right?
Well, you're not too far off. The Driftless Farmers is a coalition of young farmers that are trying to become established and build thriving farm businesses, usually from the ground up. The biggest challenge, is actually finding ground to farm on.
The Dritfless Farmers is a smaller chapter that is affiliated with the National Young Farmers Coalition, based in Hudson, New York, that works to help advocate for young farmers across the United States. The Driftless Chapter is made up of young farmers from Southeastern Minnesota, Northeastern Iowa, and Western Wisconsin which all reside within the Driftless Rregion of the Midwest.
The Driftless Region is a very unique region to the Midwest, as it is a region that was virtually untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. This region is made up of rolling hills, steep cliffs, hise-rising bluffs, and rivers that wind through this beautiful landscape. Because this region has such a unique landscape, we also have a more unique approach to our agriculture practices. Much of the land in the Driftless is not tillable, meaning you cannot use it for large row-cropping operations due to the terrain. Many farmers in this region are small-scale farmers that specialize in niche markets, or product-offerings that are not super mainstream, because our landscape allows for unique livestock and produce.
For instance, we have many orchards, small ruminants, pastured-raised livestock and heritage breed cattle because our hilly landscape is grassy pastures and woods, not suitable for many large breeds of livestock. Also, since we do not have much tillable ground, we specialize in fruit and vegetable production instead of corn and soy mega crops.
But, going back to the part about finding ground to actually farm on...that is a huge part of what the Driftless Farmers advocate for. We have our foot in the political door when it comes to representing young farmers. We engage with local politicians; educate our chapters on local state and federal laws that are impacting young farmers; help young farmers network with other young farmers in their communities and across the country; host and engage in local community-based events pertaining to agriculture; host and engage in workshops and other educational experiences pertaining to agriculture, and host and engage in social events for young farmers to connect.
Here are a few things I have been a part of since becoming a part of the Driftless Farmers Leadership team in the summer of 2019...
Back in September, I hosted Representative Ron Kind to my farm to share my story on behalf of the Driftless Farmers. Like most young farmers, it is hard to find land for sale at a manageable size for a price that won't break the bank. This is one of the biggest reasons of how I came to live in this region of Wisconsin...land access. Where I grew up, finding a plot of land to farm that is less than $20,000/acre is hard to come by nowadays, so I found myself looking to farm in other parts of the state where it was more affordable.
The next hurdle to try and overcome is land to expand. Our farm currently sits on 5 acres, but all the land in our valley is mainly used as recreation land for hunting, so ever having the ability to buy or lease the land is next to impossible. We are fortunate, however, to partner with our neighbors who happen to own all the land surrounding our farm. We are partnering with them to run cattle on their pasture ground, while using our barns for storage and overwintering of animals. We are very fortunate to have this opportunity, but many young farmers do not.
During my meeting with Representative Kind, myself and our Chapter Vice President talked about the importance of a capital gains tax reform. A capital gains tax is a tax put onto a landowner that sells off large portions of land, the tax rate is 20% on the federal level. This means that if a landowner sells land worth $100,000, they will owe $20,000 in taxes back to the government. This is causing many landowners to hesitate when selling their land, especially farmers, who use land as capital asset. Also, the trend we see is many retired farmers keep land in their possession, and pass it down to generations that end up dividing and selling it for commercial or residential use. This is contributing to the decline of farmlands in the United States. The National Young Farmers Coalition is pushing to have this tax reduced or completely wiped out when the transaction of land sale occurs for agricultural purposes. This would help ensure future generations having quality land access opportunities.
I was also a part of a legislation proposal for a bill that would eliminate student loan debt for beginning farmers. As many farmers already struggle financially, having student loan debt only drives our debt higher up. The bill was assigned to a committee this past fall, and is going to be evaluated during the next committee session. This is a work in progress!
This past fall, I hosted breakfast on the farm, where I opened my farm up to other young farmers for a Sunday brunch to talk about farming...and the good and the bad that comes with it. Below is a picture of myself, our Vice President, and President. :)
Our chapter also hosted a social gathering at a pub in La Crosse, WI to kick off the 2020 MOSES Conference. MOSES stands for the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, which hosts an annual conference all about organic agriculture. This event allowed us to network and hang out with many young farmers from other Midwest chapters. I often feel alone in this farming industry, as it's hard to find other young farmers, but the Driftless Chapter has allowed me to connect with many, especially local farmers.
If you are reading this and you are a young farmer, please don't hesitate to reach out. Even if you're not looking to join an organization at this time, I would love to exchange stories and meet another young farmer! If you want more information, below are some great resources :)
National Young Farmers Coalition Website: https://www.youngfarmers.org/
Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/DriftlessFarmers/
Young farmers, like myself, are trying to share our stories and educate people on the importance of these laws that will help to shape the future of agriculture. Everybody has to eat...right? Why not help to support the future of your food system!