Speak up through advocacy

State and national policy directly impact how we live. With state legislative sessions in full swing, how can you help guide your representatives’ policy decisions? Speak up through advocacy.

Start with identifying your elected officials. On both the state and federal levels, you are represented by members of the House and Senate. Find your elected officials using your zip code at cfra.org/findyourlawmakers.

Before contacting your representatives, craft the message you would like to share. Identify one issue and develop talking points. These will be your reference points if conversation moves away from your issue.

Why is this issue important to you? Tell your story. Make sure your representative hears how this issue has affected you and those close to you. Provide data, if relevant.

You can contact your representative in several ways. Make a phone call, attend a community meeting, send an email, or share your perspective with the media through a letter to the editor.

Don’t forget to display confidence, enthusiasm, credibility, and commitment. One way to display credibility is telling your representative where you live, so they know you are a constituent in their district.

How will these actions create change? The people you are reaching out to are lawmakers who need your vote to become elected or stay in office. As your representatives, their job is to shape policy on behalf of your interests.

Your advocacy ensures your voice is heard on issues that matter most to you. Remember to always show respect to legislators and their staff members, regardless of where they stand on the issue.

Contact info@cfra.org to tell us about your policy priorities or advocacy actions you are taking. Read more about Speak up through advocacy

  • Farm Policy
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Weekly column

Iowa Legislature passes weak water quality bill

This week, the Iowa House of Representatives passed a weakened version of the water quality bill that was discussed last session. Senate File 512 (SF512) now heads to the governor’s desk after members of the House receded the amendments they fought to support in 2017. Democrats expressed frustration that the bill would not be improved through a conference committee. Republicans largely supported the bill, but some stood in vocal opposition led by Rep. Chip Baltimore (R-Boone).

The bill commits more than $280 million over 12 years, pulling from a tax on drinking water and gambling revenues that currently supports school infrastructure and Vision Iowa programs.

What the bill does, as summarized by Rep. John Wills (R-Dickinson):

  • Provide rural water associations with funding for non-nutrient related issues;
  • Allow industries to access funds for point source pollution problems; and
  • Fund monitoring of private conservation efforts completed without cost-share.

What the bill does not do:

  • Target practices in watersheds in a strategic way;
  • Increase funding for water quality monitoring, instead relying on computer models;
  • Make funded projects accountable to nutrient reduction; and
  • Create a new, long-term, stable source of funding for water quality.

This bill was originally proposed two years ago by then Gov. Terry Branstad and then Sec. Tom Vilsack as a compromise. While it is not what we hoped for, the fact that it has faced such strong opposition is a mark of progress.

The Iowa House has proven to lead us towards serious policy on water quality in Iowa. For 2019, we should keep pressure on the Iowa Senate and our governor to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

Read more about this bill in the Des Moines Register. Read more about Iowa Legislature passes weak water quality bill

  • EnvironmentWater
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Successful USDA program aids beginning farmers

The 2008 farm bill introduced U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) first – and so far only – program focused on the next generation of farmers: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The Center for Rural Affairs was a leader in designing, writing, and winning the program. A new report documents the success of the program in offering training opportunities to new farmers and ranchers.

The report, “Cultivating the Next Generation,” was released by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in October 2017 as the first evaluation of the program’s impacts.

The release is timely, as the 2018 farm bill approaches and as USDA programs receive critical review. It is also timely to the state of U.S. agriculture, as many young people and returning military veterans consider careers in agriculture at the same time many senior farmers reach the end of their careers.

Interest in farming is strong among beginners. We hear from beginners, as well as retiring farmers and ranchers, each day who are looking for opportunities and searching for solutions to farm transition.

The program funds organizations to conduct training activities for new farmers and ranchers. During the past nine years, 250 projects have reached some 60,000 beginners. Half of those projects have focused on audiences that USDA has historically not served well, such as Native Americans, Blacks, women, and ethnic minorities. Nearly all projects include business management training, skills that previous generations of farmers largely had to learn on the job.

Surveys and interviews with project leaders, as well as project reports, provided in-depth information on what worked across the country. Among the findings were that farmer-to-farmer mentoring and information sharing were very effective; helping new farmers create networks of peers and advisors was valuable; and one-on-one advising addressed specific needs.

Organizations also benefited from the program. Many developed tools and resources that are now widely shared; with a majority still available. The Center for Rural Affairs, for example, led one project (with three partners), and has participated in six other projects from coast to coast.

Key to this infrastructure growth was the structure of the program. Community-based organization participation was a high priority: 56 percent of projects were led by organizations, and 40 percent were led by land-grant universities. Partnerships are required, which joins the strengths of several organizations and creates lasting networks. The program required 25 percent of funds to reach underserved and socially-disadvantaged farmers; over half of the funding served these audiences.

The report noted several recommendations for improving the program. These included suggestions to project leaders to use farmers more in project development stages and to continue farmer-to-farmer teaching strategies. USDA is advised to help organizations track their participants beyond three years and to provide more opportunities for project leaders to learn from each other.

The report is available at: http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/bfrdp/

Feature photo: Beginning farmers tour Fox Run Farms near Brainard, Nebraska, and learn about growing vegetables. According to a recent report, USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program reached 60,000 beginners in nine years. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Successful USDA program aids beginning farmers

  • Farm Policy
  • Farm PolicyBeginning Farmer & Rancher
  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
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$665,000 more available in lending capital

Recently, we learned of a $665,000 grant awarded to our Rural Investment Corporation for lending capital. The Rural Investment Corporation is a subsidiary of the Center for Rural Affairs that is certified as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). 

The award comes from the U.S. Department of Treasury CDFI Fund. This was our first ever application to the CDFI Fund for loan capital. We were among 303 CDFIs who were awarded $208.7 million to increase lending and investment activity in low-income and economically-distressed communities across the nation.

We won the award in a very competitive field where applications far exceeded dollars available. This award will provide attractive lending capital for small business lending in rural Nebraska.

CDFI financing lags in Nebraska, especially in rural areas. To answer this need, we created the Rural Investment Corporation and were certified in 2013. Since, more than $5.7 million has been loaned through the CDFI.

In a world facing increased capital concentration, community led efforts to rebalance the scales of capital are increasingly important to building inclusive and vibrant communities. That’s what this work is about.

The future of the Rural Investment Corporation includes expanded small business lending as well as exploration of lending in other sectors of need in rural places.

Small business loans up to $150,000 are available to small businesses in rural Nebraska. Visit www.cfra.org/reap for more information on lending services.

Feature photo: Our small business programs have helped Rachel Liester, owner of Red Road Herbs Retreat & Learning Center, LLC, with one-on-one counseling and microloans for training, marketing, repairs, gap financing, and ongoing business expenses. | Photo by Kylie Kai Read more about $665,000 more available in lending capital

  • Small Business
  • Small BusinessREAP
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Fall field days showcase best practices for water quality

Cora Fox contributed to this blog.

Fall is always a busy time for harvest, holidays, and sports. The season is also used to prepare for the next year, as farmers buy seed, implements, and attend conferences and field days. This year, water quality and soil health have been recurring themes at events in Iowa.

Iowa Learning Farms hosted a Soil Health & Cover Crop 101 Field Day in early November at Gordon Wassenaar’s farm in Jasper County, in cooperation with the local Soil and Water Conservation District office and Natural Resource Conservation Service staff.

District Conservationist Curt Donohue used a rainfall simulator to show how cover crops and no-till can greatly reduce runoff and boost water retention in the soil. Helping soil hold its own water can increase yields, as crops can better withstand drought periods.

Wassenaar shared his experience in finding the right cover crop mix for his farm, and how cover crops have lowered costs by decreasing resistant weeds. Cover crop demonstration plots showed a variety of seed mixes and seeding rates.

“I wonder what Norman Borlaug would say to Iowa’s recent push for cover crops if he were alive today," Wassenaar said. "I hope Borlaug’s influence is not lost on future generations.”

In mid-November, two field days were hosted by the Iowa Farmers Union, Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Environmental Council, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, with assistance from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency. The topic was a new discount on crop insurance premiums for using cover crops.

Farmers can currently get cost-share support for trying cover crops to the tune of $25 per acre for the first year, then $15 per acre for returning users. For farmers trying no-till or strip till, cost-share is $10 per acre, or for farmers using a nitrification inhibitor in the fall, it’s $3 per acre. However, after two years, the cost-share is no longer available. This crop insurance discount, at $5 per acre, is to continue rewarding farmers who stick with cover crops and provide an incentive for those still on the fence.

The benefits of organic systems were on display at a tour of Aaron Lehman’s farm near Slater. Soil health benefits could be felt with the softer, spongier ground seeded in rye, following corn. Yields, water retention, and soil organic matter are all improved in his organic corn, compared to his conventional corn. Lehman’s use of cover crops and extended rotations is an on-farm application of research by Matt Liebman from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Dr. Cynthia Cambardella of Iowa State University presented research on improved water quality in organic systems at the Iowa Organic Association Conference in late November. She studies water quality and compares practices on an organic research site in north central Iowa.

In 2006, the site was converted from a conventional corn-soy rotation to an extended four year cycle of rotations under organic practices. No chemicals have been applied to the farm since 2006; instead corn and soybeans are rotated with oats and alfalfa. Only composted manure is used as nitrogen fertilizer. Tile drainage of the entire farm was isolated on each of 30 test plots. Overall, nitrate loads were reduced by more than 50 percent in the organic versus conventional systems.

All events showed that farmers are looking at soil health, water quality, and nutrients, as well as yields. Cost savings, coupled with incentives or organic practices, proves that cover crops can be economical in the long run. Every farm is different, and farmers across Iowa are finding methods that work for them. Read more about Fall field days showcase best practices for water quality

  • EnvironmentWater
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Five signs of small business identity theft, new protection methods

IRS Tax Tip 2017-86, Dec. 4, 2017

Small business identity theft is a big business. Just like individuals, businesses can be victims too. Thieves use a business’s information to file fake tax returns or get credit cards.

Identity thieves are more sophisticated than they used to be. They know the tax code and filing practices and how to get valuable data. The IRS has seen a sharp increase in fraudulent business tax forms. These include Forms 11201120S and 1041, as well as Schedule K-1. These affect business, partnership, estate and trust filers.

Signs of identity theft

Business filers should be alert for signs of identity theft. They should contact the IRS if they experience any of these issues:

  • The IRS rejects an e-filed return saying it already has one with that identification number.
  • The IRS rejects an extension to file request saying it already has a return with that identification number.
  • The filer receives an unexpected tax transcript.
  • The filer receives an IRS notice that doesn’t relate to anything they submitted.
  • The filer doesn’t receive expected or routine mailings from the IRS.

New procedures to protect businesses in 2018

The IRS, state tax agencies and software providers have ways to detect suspicious returns. However, some new measures can help validate returns in advance. The IRS and states are asking businesses and tax professionals to help verify if a tax return is legitimate. These procedures are new for 2018. Software for business tax returns will ask questions related to:

  • The person authorized to sign the return
  • Payment history
  • Parent company information
  • Past deductions
  • Filing history

More information

  • Small Business
  • Small BusinessREAP
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Conservation needs strong support in next farm bill

By Cameron Peirce, published on hjp.com (High Plains Journal)

“Farmers help feed the world.”

I’ve heard that many times and have seen it on signs and in magazines. My family on the Peirce farm takes pride in those words. However, I think it’s time to expand the public’s understanding and support of an agriculture that does more than produce food.

On our Reno County, Kansas, farm, we help make water cleaner and more plentiful to our urban cousins in the area—including the half million or so folks in the Wichita municipal region that rely on Cheney Lake for their drinking water. By focusing on conservation, our goal is to have a healthier soil that better retains moisture and holds nutrients.

Use of precision agriculture allows us to monitor and apply water and nutrients where needed. We recently converted some irrigated acres to a buried drip system, which reduces water use and lowers impact on the soil. With the addition of rotations that integrate cover crops, weed pressure goes down, and water and nutrients stay in the soil and not in the streams.

These are just a few changes in technology and management that support an agriculture that is both productive and environmentally responsible. These changes usually mean farmers need to continually learn and make changes on the farm. That takes capital and involves risk—we can’t control the weather or markets. 

To address this risk, I appreciate the investment our nation makes to ensure there is a safety net for production, whether in the form of crop insurance or other revenue protections. But just as important, conservation programs support long-term productivity and profit for farmers as well as clean water and air, wildlife habitat, and long-term food security for everyone.

Working lands conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program have been a tremendous support to our farm. Voluntary programs like these have helped support our investments in cutting edge technology and practices.

Supporting conservation in agriculture also saves valuable tax dollars. Conservation practices—like using cover crops, managing brush in grasslands and reducing tillage—makes farming and ranching more resilient in the face of more frequent droughts, floods and fires. This, in turn, means less taxpayer money spent on disasters and revenue loss.

As Congress moves forward with writing the 2018 farm bill, legislators must not shortchange conservation—especially those working lands programs like CSP and EQIP. Strong support of conservation is a win-win for both farmers and all Americans.

Cameron Peirce operates Peirce Farms along with his wife and two sons in Reno County. He serves as the Reno County Farm Bureau Board chairman; and vice-chair of the Kansas Sunflower Commission. Read more about Conservation needs strong support in next farm bill

  • EnvironmentWater
  • Farm Policy
  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
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Your stories

To close the digital divide, it must first be identified

Despite the potential for broadband to modernize the economy in rural America, access and availability continue to lag. The President’s recent executive order affirmed this limitation and the need to commit resources to close rural America's digital divide.

Yet, the ability to pinpoint where service is and is not available is fundamental to closing the digital divide in rural areas.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, funding was allocated to establish a comprehensive nationwide map of existing broadband capability and availability. Funding for this program ended in 2014.

Some states, like Minnesota, have adopted legislation or maintained this degree of regulation which require internet service providers to provide access and speed availability data at a granular level.

However, reporting standards vary and often allow for telecommunication services to be reported at the census block level. In many rural areas, census blocks span entire counties, leaving room for error in reporting service availability.

The accuracy of data collected from internet service providers is an important tool used to determine where broadband access is sufficient and where it can be improved. This data is invaluable to state agencies and local entities to identify where public resources should be invested.

For the 23 million rural Americans who do not have broadband speed access, census block data is not sufficient to recognize and address the broadband gap. As federal and state governments seek to close rural America’s digital divide, it is imperative that gap is closed at the granular level, where it exists. Read more about To close the digital divide, it must first be identified

  • Small TownsCommunity Development
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Weekly column

Rural Nebraska's access to broadband internet up for discussion in the Unicameral

Access to high speed internet is essential to ensuring equitable quality of life in the modern economy. Two legislative bills introduced this week by Sen. Lynne Walz, of Fremont, seek to close the digital divide in Nebraska.

Currently, the ability for public entities to work with private companies on the installation of fiber optic cable required for broadband internet access is mired by regulation. LB 1113 introduced by Sen. Walz and co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Briese, of Albion, would eliminate these restrictions.

Internet service providers are eager to work in partnership with rural communities and counties to improve access. With the passage of this legislation, municipalities could lay and lease fiber directly if they have a private partner in place to provide the services, at a cost savings to the community, service provider, and the customer.

Also fundamental to the expansion of high speed internet access for rural areas is the ability to pinpoint where service is and is not available. LB 1114 seeks to reinstate requirements for the reporting of broadband service access at a more granular level.

Current reporting standards allow for telecommunications services to be reported at the census block level, which for many rural areas of Nebraska, span entire counties. For example, residents in Taylor may have high speed access, but that does not mean there is access across all of Loup County. Enhanced reporting will provide service providers and municipalities with a more accurate depiction of where investments and build outs are needed.

Funding opportunities and legislative changes are key to the extension of internet access to all residents. The ability to expand broadband access in the state’s rural communities expands social and economic opportunities for Nebraskans.

The Center for Rural Affairs recognizes the opportunities expanded rural broadband service affords, and has endorsed both LB 1113 and LB 1114. Read more about Rural Nebraska's access to broadband internet up for discussion in the Unicameral

  • Small TownsCommunity Development
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Weekly column

Keeping communities vibrant through forward thinking

Jordan Feyerherm and Carlos Barcenas co-wrote this blog.

For hundreds of years, immigration has shaped U.S. history. And, it continues to shape America, especially in rural areas. Jordan and Carlos recently sat down to chat about our inclusion work.

What does inclusion mean?

Inclusion is making sure everyone in the community has a chance to participate and knows how to participate. It’s welcoming new people to the community and helping them access resources.

We’re talking about biases, so we can successfully navigate those and not let those influence decisions. We know immigration plays a big role in the inclusion conversation, but we’re not only focusing on ethnic diversity. Instead, maybe the issue is about religion, gender, or generational differences. There is more to diversity than ethnic diversity.

It’s not an agenda to teach one side to work with the other. Our goal is to empower community leaders to identify biases and set up plans to intentionally work on leadership.

How do conversations begin with community leaders?

It’s not an easy task. We’re encouraging leaders to have uncomfortable, comfortable conversations. How do we move forward in order to make our communities stronger?

We’re finding there are a lot of differences among residents. Differences are what make each community vibrant. We’re trying to explore those and celebrate them.

We are not experts. You cannot change a community without changing the individual, so that conversation has to start at the individual level.

Conversations begin with, “It’s OK to have biases. We all do.” Then we ask, “Is this bias preventing you from becoming a better leader, or from making better decisions that affect your community?” We let the community drive the conversation.

Has the national political climate affected this work?

Yes. The immigration and inclusion conversation has changed in the last year, along with the national political climate. Before the president was elected, we saw the race conversation pushed forward. As soon as Trump was elected, there was almost a complete shift.

People don’t want to talk about it anymore. They are not as curious or open to talking about race, diversity, and inclusion. We also see more people justifying their prejudice and their bias. We see more acts of pushback.

What is on the horizon?

Conversations about inclusion are some of the most challenging things, especially in a community climate where the conversation seems to be dominated by one group.

How can we sit down, behind closed doors if needed, to say, “How do we move forward and challenge our own bias, our biases?”

The demographics are changing in rural America. And, in a lot of rural communities, people are asking how they can keep their small towns vibrant.

Being forward-thinking about how we approach future problems is a big part of keeping rural areas vibrant.

Feature photo: In March 2017, we hosted a conversation about inclusion and immigration in York, Nebraska, featuring community leaders from Hastings and Fremont, and staff member Lucia Schulz. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Keeping communities vibrant through forward thinking

  • Small TownsInclusion
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A Discrepancy in Rural Nebraska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides food assistance to 1 in 7 Americans, and 1 in 11 Nebraskans. This white paper by Jordan Rasmussen, policy program associate, examines “A Discrepancy in Rural Nebraska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).” Read more about A Discrepancy in Rural Nebraska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program


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