The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) joined farmworkers and cooperatives of rural America at the MAFO Conference in San Antonio recently to address issues and concerns about policies impacting farmworkers.
 
FSA Administrator Juan M. Garcia was a guest speaker during the plenary session that focused on the history and evolution of farmworker organizations from advocacy to workforce development, service and rural development.
 
The session opened with Thomas Jones, former executive director of the National Association of Farmworker Organizations (NAFO), providing the audience with a glimpse into the lives of migrant farmworkers between 1965 and 1980. He illustrated the hardships that these individuals faced on a daily basis. A particular story hit close to home for Garcia. Jones told the audience about a group of boys in South Texas near Eagle Pass who got in trouble for speaking Spanish while in class.
 
Garcia grew up in the Valley in Lyford, Texas, and was sent to the principal’s office when he was a freshman in high school for speaking Spanish at school. Since then, times have changed; Garcia is the first Hispanic FSA Administrator in Agency history and many people are learning Spanish as a second language.
 
“Farmworkers had to overcome many obstacles to get where they are today,” said Garcia.  ”The leaders of the farmworker organizations have paved a better way of life for many. With the assistance of MAFO and many similar organizations, farmworkers now have a strong support network to fall back on.”
 
Garcia spoke to the conference attendees about several FSA initiatives that help farmers and ranchers start, continue or expand their agricultural operation.
 
Within the last year, USDA launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative that focuses on strengthening local and regional food systems. This initiative allows consumers to connect with the local farmers and ranchers who grow and raise their food. Producers can benefit by marketing their agricultural products locally.
 
Garcia also discussed the new microloan program that was announced in January. The microloan program features a simpler application process that requires less paperwork than traditional operating loans.  The requirement for managerial experience and loan security has been modified to ensure that small family operations and beginning farmers and ranchers can obtain credit.
 
Eligible applicants can apply for a maximum loan amount of $35,000 to pay for initial start-up expenses such as hoop houses to extend the growing season, essential tools, irrigation, delivery vehicles and annual expenses such as seed, fertilizer, utilities, land rents and marketing and distribution expenses.
 
“Since the implementation of the Microloan two months ago, more than 1,000 loans were approved totaling more than 19 million dollars,” said Garcia. “Due to the flexibility of the Microloan program, more than half of the loans were made to first-time loan recipients.”
 
Eddie Trevino, Texas FSA farm loan chief hosted a Microloan workshop at the conference where he discussed the program details with potential applicants and agriculture cooperators who will take the information back to their rural communities.
 
FSA has taken great strides to improve representation of socially disadvantaged producers.
 
In order to make sure that FSA is reaching the minority farmer audience, a Minority Farmer Advisory Committee was developed. The committee provides ideas on how to provide outreach and assistance to socially disadvantaged producers to ensure that they have the opportunity to participate in USDA programs.
 
Additionally, a new change was implemented this year for county committees that lack fair representation for underserved producers. The committees that lack fair representation were appointed a voting member from a socially disadvantaged community.
 
“County committees serve as a direct link between the farming communities and FSA,” said Garcia. “Appointing voting members to county committees that lack representation for the socially disadvantaged will ensure that all parties have a voice in how federal farm programs are administered at the local level.”
 
FSA is dedicated to providing program information to all producers.
 
While talking about getting the word out about FSA programs, Garcia mentioned that FSA does not have an “easy button” that is seen on many television commercials. FSA relies on organizations like MAFO to be our “easy” button and help get the word out to farmers and ranchers who can benefit from FSA programs and loans.
 

By Cassie Bable, Texas FSA Public Affairs Specialist