While the two programs will remain distinct, putting them under the umbrella of the FOTO Program will allow them to better coordinate with each other. The programs have different target populations and slightly different goals. Both grants are designed for programs that help people who might feel isolated from the dominant American-farming demographic. They also endeavor to bring into farming people who might otherwise be left behind by the often complicated regulations and bureaucracy of the USDA. “Now more than ever we need to build the bench for the future of farming,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, who was one of the primary proponents of the FOTO Program.
The FOTO Program will receive $435 million in funding over the next 10 years, small peas relative to the total cost of the farm bill, which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will be $867 billion over the same period. But for organizations working with farmers of color, veteran farmers, and new farmers, it’s a big deal.
“You typically think of agriculture subsidies as price supports going to the large commodity producers,” said Nicole Milne, whose organization, the Kohala Center in Hawaii, receives funding from both 2501 Program and the beginning-farmers program. The FOTO Program provides another form of subsidies: grants for programs offering outreach, training, and technical assistance that “are an important form of support that small-scale producers are able to access,” she said.
Both existing programs fund others within organizations such as nonprofits, universities, and community organizations that serve under-resourced farmers. Their grants help farmers in radically different climates and in areas with radically different histories, guiding them through the complex world of regulations, loans, training programs, and other assistance offered by the USDA.
“That was a huge lift, to get all of these programs permanent authority and permanent funding. That’s going to be a game changer for folks that are working with the next generation of farmers,” said Juli Obudzinski, the deputy policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The bill gives permanent funding to the program, which means that going forward, both programs will be protected from a drastic loss of funding like that which the 2501 Program suffered in 2013, and they will be at least partially insulated from the whims of an ever polarized Congress. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition expects that the beginning-farmers program will take a small cut in funding in the first few years of the FOTO Program in order to shore up 2501’s funding, which was slashed in half as part of the last farm bill, in 2014.
Though racial disparities in American farming have always existed, especially when it comes to who owns the biggest and most profitable farms, the gap wasn’t always this wide. In 1920, for example, there were 925,000 black farmers, about 14 percent of the nation’s total. Now that number is around 45,000, a little more than 2 percent of all American farmers.That’s not by chance: In a 1998 settlement, the USDA admitted to systemic discrimination against black farmers. In 2010, it acknowledged similar actions against Native Americans. In recent years, Hispanic farmers have also alleged discrimination by the federal agriculture agency.