RUSHFORD, Minn — Featherstone Farm has managed to not only exist but thrive in the certified organic industry for 26 years without much help at all from the federal government.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., along with a member of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture visited the Rushford farm on Aug. 10. Smith, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said while work on writing a new farm bill continues, she wanted to discuss crop insurance and vegetable production, as well as land, capital and market access for beginning farmers.
“I really wanted to hear the perspective of a local produce producer from Minnesota to understand what barriers they face,” Smith said. “And what we can do to make sure that the farm bill is helping everybody who’s farming in Minnesota and the upper Midwest, and not just the big guys.”
Vegetable operations like Featherstone Farm and smaller farms face the challenge of running a business dependent on plants and nature without the safety net of crop insurance.
On Aug. 10, Smith said that’s one of the things they’re trying to solve in the next farm bill. Smith cosponsored the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program Improvement Act, which will expand access to crop insurance for farms producing fruits and vegetables.
The 2014 Farm Bill created the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) insurance pilot to succeed the Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) and AGR-lite programs.
WFRP was championed at the time for its potential to encourage diversification and level the playing field for producers underserved by other federal crop insurance options.
“That program hasn’t worked as well as we expected,” Smith said of WFRP. “There hasn’t been as much uptake as we expected, and we heard today about what some of the problems are.”
Some of the issues with WFRP include complicated rules, skepticism from farmers and disinterest from insurance agents.
“In the case of a disaster, the benefit is really not large enough to make a difference. The premiums are too high,” Smith said of WFRP. “And also the farm credit category is really not participating like we would have hoped. So we’re trying to get to the bottom of that and figure out how we can fix that, so that whole farm insurance can actually work for producers.”
Featherstone Farm is a certified organic vegetable farm nestled in Rushford, in southeastern Minnesota’s bluff country which is part of the driftless area. 140 acres of vegetables are grown in a 250-acre rotation just a couple miles away from Magelssen’s Bluff, a 440-foot bluff looming over the town with the town’s name written in large white letters on the side of the hill.
“We are selling fresh market vegetables to customers throughout the Midwest,” said Jack Hedin, owner of Featherstone Farm, which produces around 70 varieties of produce. “We happen to be on a really, really unique piece of farmland here, and that makes it possible for us to do what we do.”
Featherstone sells produce to warehouses and stores and to consumers through its CSA program. Whole Foods, which has a warehouse in St. Paul and a regional distribution center in Chicago, is the farm’s largest customer.
The certified organic farm is one of the largest produce operations in the area, yet crop insurance isn’t an option for them, said Hedin.
“I think that’s largely a product of actuarial tables and the presence, or absence of an industry, that any insurer could use to figure out what the value of an acre of carrots or an acre of tomatoes would be, and what kind of premium to charge someone to insure that crop,” Hedin said. “If there were more producers like us, there might be more opportunities to insure crops, but that’s not the way it works in corn country.”
That’s actually been OK this season, despite the
, Hedin said.
“Since 2012, we have invested heavily in irrigation,” Hedin said. “We do much better when it’s dry. Wet years is when insurance would come into play because of crop disease and loss of yields through disease that makes crops unmarketable.”
A local premium
Hedin said the general public understands that there is reason to pay a premium for organic produce, because it’s more costly to grow. But a “local premium” will have to be on top of that if Midwest customers want to see more Midwest-grown produce in the stores they shop in.
“We have the best soil, and we’re very, very serious at this after 30 years, and I can say with great confidence that we will never be able to produce and offer for sale in the upper Midwest a box of broccoli or a box of carrots for the same price that a producer could do in the Arid West,” Hedin said. “We cannot compete with California or Mexico for a whole host of reasons. So if people want to buy Minnesota grown, in addition to organically grown, there will have to be a premium for the local as well as the organic.”
That’s counter-intuitive for many people, Hedin said.
“We used to go to
and people would say ‘Oh, it’s gonna be fresher, it’s gonna be better, it’s going to be cheaper’, because it’s grown 20 miles away, not 2,000 miles away,” he said. “Unfortunately, in my experience, that’s backwards.”
Unpredictable federal visas
Along with crop insurance complications, Hedin shared with Smith how Featherstone Farm has to deal with the unpredictably of hiring seasonal employees. The farm has 14 year-round employees and in the summer adds another 25-30 employees.
“Most of those seasonal people are coming with H-2A visas from Mexico, staying anywhere from three months to seven months, depending on the nature of the visa,” Hedin said.
The unpredictability is in who is awarded a visa and who isn’t, Hedin said, and they had two longtime visa employees not get awarded visas this year after getting them the previous six to eight years.
“They had real responsibility here, year after year after year,” Hedin said of those employees. “For a small farm like ours to lose two experienced equipment operators, for reasons that that we can never understand, that’s a hard one.”
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