Food Safety Guidelines Could Dampen Local Foods, Farmers Markets

Do you love your local farmers? We sure do, which is why we care about the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Awhile back, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). They then handed it over to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to write the rules for the act, and that’s when the problems became clear.

FDA isn’t used to working with small and mid-sized family farmers. Instead, they apparently wrote the rules with big produce farmers and big food processors in mind, since a few of those producers and processors have been causing many of the massive food safety scares in the last few years.

photo of Kathie Starkweather with South Maple Street goodiesHowever, the small, mid-sized, and beginning farmers would still have to follow the rules. This might put a lot on small businesses out of business.

The comments came pouring in to FDA from around the country: from farmers worried about losing their ability to farm sustainably, from concerned consumers who fear local strawberries or salsa might disappear from the neighborhood farmers’ market.

Our comments to FDA said that the food safety rules must:

  • Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs.
  • Ensure that diversified and innovative farms – particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods – continue to grow and thrive without being stifled.
  • Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs.

We want our food to be safe. We also want farmers who aren’t causing food safety hazards to be able to make a living. There’s a lot at stake in this piece of policy – the future of our local food systems and farmers’ markets; a fair chance for the next generation of farmers; and the opportunity for children to taste fresh, healthy, and local foods in their schools and communities.

Photo credit: Kathie Starkweather shows off her South Maple Street Goodies at a meeting on local foods. We’re concerned new food safety rules might hamper such markets. | Photo by Chandra Ruthstrom, Kansas State University Read more about Food Safety Guidelines Could Dampen Local Foods, Farmers Markets

  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
  • Small TownsCommunity Food

Farmers and Ranchers are on the Front Lines of Climate Change

My favorite part of my job at the Center for Rural Affairs is talking to rural people about issues that impact their lives. Sometimes these issues are less controversial, like encouraging young people and minorities to get started in farming, or providing assistance to disabled veterans who are rebuilding their lives in small towns with second careers in agriculture.

These are the easy conversations, ones that make you feel warm and fuzzy and inspire me to keep going as an organizer.

Lately, we’ve been having not-so-easy conversations with our supporters on climate change. It’s controversial; a behemoth problem that sometimes makes me feel powerless and wonder what I can possibly do to change things.

Conversations with Center for Rural Affairs supporters change that perception. You remind me of the power in numbers. You recognize the dual role rural people play as advocates for better public policy on climate and practitioners of innovative on-the-ground agricultural practices that build soil, use water more efficiently, and mitigate the effects of climate change.

We recognize climate change as a threat to our rural way of life and support measures to curb the effects. A 2013 study on farmer and rancher perceptions on climate change reported that farmers and ranchers are likely to diversify crops, buy crop insurance, modify lease arrangements, and even exit farming in response to extreme weather caused by climate change.

Our small towns can’t afford to lose farmers and ranchers who throw in the towel due to impossible-to-recover-from weather events. Farmers and ranchers are on the front lines of climate change, and they are fighting back! Read more about Farmers and Ranchers are on the Front Lines of Climate Change

  • Clean Energy
  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food

Farm Bill Future Uncertain as 2014 Dawns

As 2013 headed into the history books, Congress had not yet reached a final deal on the farm bill. However, they say they will likely pass it when they return in January.

The biggest issue to resolve is how much they will cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). There has been some indication that they have reached an agreement that would cut the program by around $8 billion.

We are working to ensure they keep our payment limitations provision to prevent megafarmers from gaming the system and get around the limits to bid smaller farmers off the land. Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Johnson (D-SD), and Representative Fortenberry (NE-1st) worked to win bipartisan support for this provision in both the House and Senate farm bills. Since it’s in both bills, it should be a nobrainer that it marches forward into the final farm bill. But some farm groups are lobbying hard against this provision.

We applaud both Senator Grassley and Representative Fortenberry for calling out the hypocrisy in any attempt to strip payment limitations and coddle millionaire farmers, while at the same time attempting to slash SNAP benefits from working, low-income families.

Stay tuned to our website and Facebook page for updates on the farm bill as we continue to enter the New Year. Have a happy and healthy 2014! Read more about Farm Bill Future Uncertain as 2014 Dawns

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill

Applications Now Open for Two Important Farm & Ranch Programs

The US Department of Agriculture announced two important program opportunities for farmers and ranchers. They are the Conservation Stewardship Program (now open until Feb 7, 2014) and the Value Added Producer Grant Program (open until Feb 24, 2014).

Conservation Stewardship Program
Farmers, ranchers, and foresters have until February 3 to submit applications to their local Natural Resources Conservation Service. The original deadline was January 17, and we successfully pushed for the extension!

The CSP rewards farmers, ranchers, and foresters for maintaining existing conservation practices and adopting additional practices on cropland, grassland, non-industrial private forestland, and tribal lands. The program helps producers foster clean water, better soil management, improved habitat, energy efficiency, and provide other natural resource benefits.

By 2013, CSP reached over 60 million acres enrolled nationally. CSP is one of the most popular and effective conservation programs. We continue to fight hard to protect threats to this funding in the current farm bill and appropriations debates in Congress.

Value Added Producer Grant Program
USDA has $10.5 million available to fund grants to develop value-added agricultural businesses. There is a priority for funding proposals from socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers or ranchers, and small- to mid-size family farms and ranches. Ten percent of funding is reserved specifically for beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. February 24 is the deadline to submit a proposal to USDA Rural Development.

For over a decade, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made Value Added Producer Grants to assist farmers and ranchers in starting and expanding ventures that increase the value of raw farm and ranch products. These ventures include both niche marketing - local, natural, grass-fed, organic, etc. – and processing of crops, produce, or livestock.

Farmers and ranchers interested in these programs can call our Farm Bill Helpline to learn more, and to share their experience with either program by calling 402.687.2103 or emailing me at Read more about Applications Now Open for Two Important Farm & Ranch Programs

  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food

Godspeed Old Friend

During the Center’s early years the organization made some big splashes. The publication of reports such as Who Will Sit Up with the Corporate Sow? in 1975 and Wheels of Fortune in 1976 established the Center as a crucial voice in rural policy debates in and beyond Nebraska.

However, nothing signaled the Center’s coming of age more than Initiative 300, the successful effort to prohibit corporate farming in Nebraska by amending the state’s constitution. Nebraska Farmers Union President Neil Oxton, Marty Strange and Chuck Hassebrook at the Center, and many others worked tirelessly to ultimately win 57% of the vote in a classic David and Goliath tale.

photo of Neil Oxton at signing ceremony for I-300While Initiative 300 was overturned by a federal court 25 years later, there was no overturning what our organization had become. If winning the Initiative 300 vote was a great, gettin’ up moment for the Center, then the person who played as big a role in the emergence of the Center as any other friend, ally, and mentor was Neil Oxton.

Neil passed away on November 16, 2013. His dedication to family farm issues went much deeper than farm and ranch economics. His work with the late Betty Olson at Nebraskans for Peace to challenge the largesse of federal military spending over addressing poverty and hunger in America stands as a testament to his commitment to justice.

I’m comforted in the thought that Neil would support our continued work to confront the excesses of unlimited farm program payments and crop insurance premium subsidies provided to the nation’s largest and wealthiest farms, at a time when many in Congress are seeking to slash nutrition assistance to the nation’s poorest families.

Godspeed old friend. We will remember the lessons you taught us in our early years, and we will honor you by carrying your commitment to justice with us into the future.

Photo credit: Former Nebraska Farmers Union President Neil Oxton (right) is pictured with former NE Governor Charles Thone (seated) and former Secretary of State Alan Beerman at the official signing ceremony of Initiative 300 in 1982. I-300, the strongest state ban on corporate farming in the nation, was proposed and spearheaded by Nebraska Farmers Union. | Photo by Nebraska Farmers Union Read more about Godspeed Old Friend

  • Farm PolicyCorporate Farming

The One Thing: An Exploration of Small Town America

What's the one thing about your town you want to share with a national audience? A new program on National Public Radio is interested in hearing real stories from rural people about rural places. It’s called State of the Re: Union.

The show’s producers reached out to the National Rural Assembly. Then they reached out to us, so we could reach out to you! This is an opportunity to talk about what is happening in your community, why young people leave and why they return, what you hope for the future, and how you’re making a difference.

Share your story. Why do you live in rural? Why did you return? Why is your community important? What’s the ONE thing you want a national audience to know about your rural America? Let's dispel the often-repeated narrative that rural America is a place everyone wants to leave.

Let’s fill up those airwaves! Submit your story online at Read more about The One Thing: An Exploration of Small Town America

  • Small Towns
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Medicaid Expansion as a Rural Issue: Rural and Urban States and the Expansion Decision

This report looks at the differences between rural and urban states in their decision on expanding the Medicaid program as provided for in the Affordable Care Act.

More rural states appear to be less likely to expand Medicaid. Thus a significant number of low-income, working rural residents are left in a "coverage gap." They earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to qualify for health insurance marketplace premium tax credits. Read more about Medicaid Expansion as a Rural Issue: Rural and Urban States and the Expansion Decision

Get Covered! Your Guide to the Health Insurance Marketplace

Mixed with all the holiday marketing, you are probably being constantly reminded that you need to have health insurance. If you have health insurance through your employer, if you are enrolled in Medicare, or if you have veterans health insurance, no need to worry – you are covered and meet the Affordable Care Act’s legal requirements.

If you purchase health insurance on your own or if you are eligible for Medicaid coverage, you have some work to do. Here are some tips to help you provide coverage and security for yourself and your family and to meet your legal requirement. Remember: If you are purchasing health insurance through the health insurance marketplaces, some states have their own marketplaces; the marketplace for other states (most states, actually) is

Important Dates

  • If you enroll by December 23, 2013, and pay your initial premium, your coverage can begin January 1, 2014.
  • First month premiums for plans purchased on marketplaces must be paid by January 10, 2014. Some insurance companies are extending the payment deadline further into January.
  • Open enrollment on the marketplaces ends March 31, 2014.
  • To avoid the penalty for not having health insurance you must enroll by March 31, 2014.

Window shopping at
The issues involving enrollment through the website have been well documented. However, by all accounts recent fixes have made the website work much better. We suggest you do your research before going on the website. The fixes have made that easier. Here are some “window shopping” steps to make your health insurance purchasing experience easier.

  1. When you go to, there is now an option to See Plans Before I Apply. There will be a few questions, and then you will be shown available plans in your area. For example, for my family in Burt County, Nebraska (the Center for Rural Affairs location), there were 28 plans available. This will include a monthly premium amount.
  2. Potential shoppers can now get an estimate of their premium assistance tax credit by providing their family size and income at the same “See Plans Before I Apply” section. There will be a button called “Check if I can get lower costs.” Your estimated tax credit will appear in the available plans details. This will give you an idea of the actual costs of available plans.
  3. The #1 step above also tells you about the plan (“Details” in the plan listings) that gives you information about items like deductibles and out-of-pocket costs and a provider directory.

Doing all these steps will provide you solid information on what health plans are available in your area, how much they cost, how much assistance you can expect, and how the plans meet the needs of you and your family.

Getting Help
Buying insurance can be a complicated undertaking. The home page of provides a Find Local Help link here. It will give listings of navigators and others who can help you through the process and answer your questions.

If you have questions explore (or the marketplace site in your state), contact any of the Application Assisters in your area, or contact us.

  Read more about Get Covered! Your Guide to the Health Insurance Marketplace

  • Rural Health

Rural People on the Front Lines of Climate Change

These past few weeks Center for Rural Affairs staff have been busy talking to rural people about climate change.

The economic health and vitality of rural communities is closely tied to industries dependent on a stable climate, like farming, ranching, forestry, and tourism. These industries employ rural people and keep our communities viable.

Many farmers, ranchers, small business owners, and small town leaders recognize climate change as a threat to our way of life. We support measures to curb the effects of climate change, like emissions standards for existing power plants. These actions represent an opportunity that will help us thrive.

A growing number of Americans believe climate change is occurring, and favor policy changes that mitigate damage. 

For generations, farmers, ranchers, and rural people have found common-sense solutions to pressing problems. We believe our nation’s farmers and ranchers can play a key role in developing agricultural practices that capture carbon and build soils. Small town manufacturers play an equally important role in developing renewable energy technology.

By using a mix of clean energy and innovative agricultural practices, we can make a difference. Strong and reasonable emissions standards that give states the freedom they need to forge their own path to compliance will help us develop a thriving rural economy. But we can’t do it without strong carbon emission rules. We urge farmers, ranchers, and rural small business owners to support emissions standards that make a difference for our working lands and small towns. Read more about Rural People on the Front Lines of Climate Change

  • Clean Energy
Weekly column

Boosting Entrepreneurship in Rural America

In rural and small town America, the best way to create jobs and expand economic opportunity is fostering entrepreneurship and small business. On America’s country roads that means value added agriculture and niche marketing. Such entrepreneurship keeps wealth in rural communities, enhances farm and ranch profitability, revives rural mainstreets and helps young families get a start in agriculture.

For over a decade, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made Value Added Producer Grants that assist farmers and ranchers in starting and expanding ventures that increase the value of raw farm and ranch products. These ventures include both niche marketing - local, natural, grass-fed, organic, etc. - and processing of crops, produce or livestock.

Right now, the USDA has $10.5 million available to fund grants to develop value-added agricultural businesses. There is a priority for funding proposals from socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers or ranchers, and small- to mid-size family farms and ranches. And ten percent of funding is reserved specifically for beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. February 24, 2014 is the application deadline.

Farmers and ranchers - especially those just getting started - who are interested in a value added venture should give this grant program a serious look. Farmers and ranchers can call our Farm Bill Helpline to learn more about this grant program and other resources by calling 402.687.2100, or emailing You can find our fact sheet and additional information here. Read more about Boosting Entrepreneurship in Rural America

  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
Weekly column

Warm Drive, Beautiful Lights!

The days leading up to Christmas for my family centered around lights. Flashlights, as we fed livestock on winter evenings when going outside after five meant going out in the dark. Headlights, as we stood at the end of our driveway in pre-dawn hours, awaiting the warmth found on the school bus. Starlight, as we looked up at bright, twinkling stars in the blackness of a clear winter sky, untainted by city lights.

A Christmas Eve tradition, though, brought the most anticipated light: Holiday light. Every Christmas Eve, after dark, my family climbed into the car. We’d drive to town to be amazed by the magic of holiday light displays and the creativity the decorators put into them. Santa and his sled on the roof at one house, a Nativity Scene at another, a high-tech routine displaying multiple holiday themes at a third.

We’d go to two, maybe three, towns spending three or four hours together discussing our favorite displays. Soon one of us would nod off, and we’d head for home. Inevitably on the way we’d see a blinking red light in the sky, certainly an aircraft of some sort, but on Christmas Eve, to our young minds, there was no doubt it was Santa on his way delivering gifts.

Years later, with all of my siblings in their 20’s, my family and I still load up in cars on Christmas Eve and drive through the darkness of the countryside to go view those beautiful lights.

We work at the Center to help make memories like these. With your support, we work to bring young families back to rural areas. We help them start new rural businesses and find land to farm. This ensures there are still children in rural areas to help with chores and wait for the school bus.

With your support, we strive to bring renewable energy to rural areas to power those holiday light displays and to make sure those bright stars won’t be dimmed by air pollution.

Rural America is a special place. Memories like these prove it. Your tax deductible gift will help keep it strong. Donate today!

Thank you for reading about my favorite holiday memory. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Note to Readers: This is the first installment in our new online December series, Our Rural Memories. Throughout the month, Center staff members will share their favorite holiday memories. Within those memories, we’ll introduce Center staff and show you how our work at the Center helps keep memories alive and growing. If you haven’t already, please sign up for our email list in the “Stay Connected” box! Read more about Warm Drive, Beautiful Lights!

Your stories

What Should the Final 2013 Farm Bill Look Like?

[Photo above by Jared Kofsky, with thanks!]
There are good provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. It is critical that these provisions be carried into the final Farm Bill. 

A conference committee made up of Senate and House members has been meeting off and on to hammer out the differences between the two bills. Rumors fly, and the latest is they may be getting closer to an agreement.  Here's our scorecard on the most important provisions


  • Encourage producers to earn more and expand their markets through the Value Added Producer Grants Program. This is funded in both the Senate and the House. (This is in both bills so should be ok, but a little more in the Senate than the House.)
  • Provide loans and training to small businesses through the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. (Funded in the Senate bill but not the House bill.)


  • Provide the tools, training, and mentoring that beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers need to succeed by funding the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. (Funded in both bills so should make it into the final farm bill.)
  • Increase funding for the Conservation Reserve Transition Incentives Program to give beginners access to land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program. (We want the Senate level as it is higher than the House.)


  • Close loopholes on farm program payments to make the payment limitations effective so they are targeted to small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers instead of mega-farms and investors. (This provision is included in both the Senate and the House version but we are worried it could be stripped in conference committee negotiations.)
  • Include income limitations to qualify for federal crop insurance subsidies as the first step to reform. (This is included in the Senate version, but not the House version.)


  • Reward farmers for their environmental stewardship by fully funding farm conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program. (The House version makes a huge cut to this program, while the Senate version provides a minimal cut. We want the Senate version.)
  • Preserve marginal landscapes by removing federal crop insurance subsidies for farmers who break new sod for crop production. (The Senate version includes a national Sodsaver provision, while the House version would only apply to the Prairie Pothole Region.)
  • Re-link federal crop insurance support to conservation of wetlands and fragile soils. (Conservation Compliance is in the Senate but not the House version.)

If you have a senator or a representative on the conference committee, let them know you want to see these provisions in the final farm bill. You can call their office, or go to one of their public events while they are home during the upcoming recess. Download the attachment below to see the conference committee members (back side). Read more about What Should the Final 2013 Farm Bill Look Like?

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
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Rural People Are Ready to Address Climate

Recent polling in our home state of Nebraska reveals a trend we have long suspected.

The Nebraska Rural Poll found that 73% of rural Nebraskans believe climate change is happening, 54% think humans are causing it, and 60% of rural Nebraskans think action is needed to address it.

Are you surprised? If so, you are not alone. If you read the news and follow leading farm and rural groups, it’s easy to conclude rural people are not concerned about a changing climate.

Some of the most outspoken deniers of climate change are leading farm and commodity organizations. They argue aggressively against action to address or mitigate it.

More recently the national association of rural electric cooperatives voiced their opposition to administrative action to address the growing challenge.

This attitude puts us on a perilous path. It also drowns out the majority view of rural people.

A silent majority of rural people know that climate change is a serious threat to our future and our children’s future. They know it is a threat to the future of farming, ranching, tourism, and the economic well being of small towns.

When confronted with a challenge, rural people have a long history of pulling together to solve it. This is the collective spirit that raised the first barns. It’s the spirit that put poles in the ground and strung wires to far-flung small towns and rural homes to light the countryside.

Today, small towns and family farms cannot choose whether to deal with the challenges of a changing climate – heat waves and snowstorms, droughts and floods. But we can choose to come together to be part of the solution.

The solutions also offer much opportunity for rural America. New limits on carbon pollution will drive investment in wind and solar energy. This new energy will be built in rural places, bringing economic opportunity home to our small towns. Investments in research to improve the resilience of farm, range, and forest land will boost rural economies faced with drought, fire, and floods.

We recognize the majority of farmers, ranchers, and rural leaders are ready to figure out their role in solving this challenge. As a first step, we ask you – rural leaders – to add your voice to a sign-on letter voicing support for action on climate change.

We need leaders like you to voice your support. We cannot let the rural majority continue to be ignored. Will you add your name?

America’s family farmers, ranchers, and rural leaders are powerful political messengers. The nation can no longer afford to have it appear that farm and rural interests are unified against action on climate. Especially, when the majority, in fact, wants action.

Please contact me,, if you would like more information on our work on climate change or to add your name to our sign-on letter. Read more about Rural People Are Ready to Address Climate

  • Clean Energy
  • Farm Policy
  • Small Towns


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