Agencies That Help Farmers; Navigating the Alphabet Soup

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Many folks with a small plot of farmland have dreams of making it more productive. It’s no easy task to take a few acres of soil and turn it into a viable farm enterprise, but aspiring farmers will be encouraged to learn that they don’t have to go it alone. There are a variety of government agencies that can offer various types of assistance.

Navigating those agencies can be daunting, as there is an alphabet soup of acronyms, as well as distinct roles for each one. It can be frustrating to contact one and learn that the help you need is offered by another. In most cases, however, you will encounter friendly staff that can give you the contact information you need to move forward.

My all-time favorite government agency that offers assistance to farmers is the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Yes, it does happen to be the agency I work for, but I can assure you that in no way biases my opinion. Our services boil down to training and technical assistance. We have an office in every county and can advise new farmers on soil sampling, crop production, pest management, livestock production and many other ag related topics. Not only do we offer workshops and classes, we can also do one-on-one consults on the phone, at the office, or on your farm. Our advice is free, and our classes are usually free or low-cost.

Another important agency is the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Not only does it have the longest name, it also has over ten different departments (known as Divisions) that play a role in agriculture. One of the most important for farmers is the Agronomic Division, which provides free or low-cost analysis of soil, plant foliage, irrigation water, organic fertilizers and other materials.

The “Department of Ag” is also one of the most important regulatory authorities when it comes to farms, but fortunately they approach that role in a spirit of helping farmers comply, rather than trying to catch farmers doing something wrong. This agency can help farmers comply with the complex regulations around pesticides, plant sales, meat sales, value added processing, and much more. Generally a farmer will initiate contact with this agency by calling the appropriate division office in Raleigh, but many divisions have field staff that can assist you on-farm.

Another North Carolina agency is the Soil and Water Conservation District. With an office in almost every county, their field staff can assist with practices that protect the soil and water resources on your farm and in the community. It often starts with technical advice on topics such as how to prevent soil erosion. However, in some cases they will help farmers pay part of the cost of implementing the recommended practices.

Next is the North Carolina Forest Service. If you have trees on your farm, you would be wise to connect with them. They offer advice on how to manage your trees and can also assist with prescribed burning. Some of their services are fee-based, but the costs are very reasonable. Even better, in some cases they will help pay the cost of certain practices such as thinning trees.

There are also two important federal government agencies. First is the USDA Farm Service Agency. This may be the favorite agency for many farmers, because it’s where the money is. While their financial incentive programs have stringent guidelines, it can be well worth the effort. Programs include low cost loans, disaster assistance, cost-share for organic certification and much more. Offices are found throughout the state.

The next federal agency is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. One of their most popular initiatives is a cost-share program for high tunnels (i.e. unheated greenhouses for fruit and vegetable production). They also have financial incentives for various practices that benefit wildlife and natural resources. As with the Farm Service Agency, their program guidelines are specific and strict. However, patience and determination in navigating their processes can reap great benefits. Their friendly staff will help you every step of the way.

Landowners and aspiring farmers would be wise to connect with each of these agencies. Without exception, you will find friendly staff that are ready and willing to help you succeed.