“I’m Not Done Here” : Wyatt Fraas Celebrates 20 Years
Anybody who has worked with Wyatt Fraas knows that he represents that rare individual whose impact goes both deep and broad. Working one-on-one with a beginning farmer or tackling how agriculture can mitigate climate change, he’s left an indelible imprint on the land and the people who manage it.
In this interview, Wyatt takes a look back at his 20 years and some of the changes he’s witnessed in his career at the Center. And, lucky for us, he’s not done yet!
What was your first project at the Center?
It was the beginning farmer project. We had a project to track a dozen beginning farm families, look at their finances and learn about the decisions they were making and the difficulties they were facing. And that has informed work that I have done almost continuously since then.
What did you learn from the Beginning Farmer Project that’s still relevant today?
We saw that there was a big bulge in the population close to retiring. That land was going to change hands. And if it was going to stay in family farmers’ hands, it had to be transferred to another generation. That was not happening; there was no preparation being made and we were some of the first to make noise about that. So we emphasized putting out information through Land Link -- the ways to do a land transfer and why its important. We suspect there are hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve used this information and gone ahead and done it on their own.
What kind of changes that have you seen in the last 20 years working with beginning farmers?
One positive change is the public interest in food, particularly artesanal, locally-produced, high-quality food -- things that take a lot of labor and management skill, rather than mass-produced in great quantity. Beginners can put the time and labor into it, because that’s what they have. The public interest in those kinds of food has helped beginners get started in many places around the country.
On the other hand, it’s gotten harder for people to get into operations that focus on commodities. Prices for everything have gone up up up and in particular land prices have gone up so much that the risk of failure has increased tremendously. If someone is putting lots of money into seed and machinery and chemicals and land, the risk of a crop failure can throw them out of the business in just one season and keep them out for a long time.
How has your job changed in the last 20 years?
One thing that has developed, is my understanding that there are people who’ve had ideas and experiences that I need to learn from. In particular, there have been some periods when farmers have struck me with being extremely innovative. Part of my job became identifying those folks and bringing their message to other people. It amazed me what people were thinking of.
The same sort of thing applies with community development or food system work. There are innovators out there who have great lessons. So, my role has changed from me identifying what needs to be done to identifying who’ve got the great ideas and helping those ideas get spread around.
What do you like about this new role?
When I started, this was all new work for me. My background was in ranching and range management and wildlife management, not working with people. And not working with agriculture, particularly. But I knew that was important for maintaining the resources. So it was fairly easy to move into that, even though I didn’t know a lot.
At what point did you know this was a career, rather than just a job?
Probably three years into my job at the Center, my major professor contacted me with what would’ve been a dream job, managing and advising on a ranch in Montana. I said, “That sounds interesting, but I’m not done here”. I haven’t been able to say “I’m done” ever since. The challenges keep showing up and some of them keep growing.
What would be the ideal situation you can imagine regarding these challenges? When will you know when your work is done?
On the beginning farmer front, I think the ideal situation would be that communities recognize the value of young people running businesses and the farms and ranches -- and that the established folks take pride in mentoring young folks and helping them get started.
When people are in the coffee shop now they complain about the state of the world, the state of young people and they brag about fairly inconsequential things: calving rates, bushels per acre, or the market price they got. It would be an ideal situation when they brag about the young farmer they got started.
Is there a story you have in mind that exemplifies the Center and its values?
One of the characteristics of the Center that has always impressed me is the willingness to provide information and express opinions when it’s unpopular. I can think of a couple things in the recent past that have been that way. Before I came it was the big hog issues and the fight against corporate farming. Then we identified a major issue – health care – and we became expert, and took an unpopular stance.
Lots of people don’t like the Democratic party, or the big government association with recent health care reform, but our message had nothing to do with that. It was ‘here’s what rural America needs.’ Problems must be addressed. To ignore the health care issue because we’re concerned about politics or ideology doesn’t solve the problem. We’re carrying the message that rural people have problems with the health care system and we should do something about it.
In the same vein, the climate change issue is also not particularly popular in Nebraska or other rural areas. But just as with so many of the topics that the Center has tackled over the years, it is important to rural areas and there is information to be shared so that people understand what’s going on and we are doing that.
What in your opinion is the biggest challenge that the Center faces in the future?
We always face the issues of being relevant with what we’re working on. The main purpose is bringing justice to people in rural areas -- that’s always going to be there as an issue. It’s something we share with orgs in other countries and in urban areas; bringing powerless people a voice.
Figuring out how we can do that effectively is our challenge. How can we do it with few resources and few people? How can we get the best people to do the job? How can we continue to engage public to support what we’re doing? Because what we do depends on other people taking action. Our policy work is very important, but it’s not us that makes it effective. It’s the people who call and write on subjects we bring to their attention.