Shaping the Vision of Family Farming and Ranching from the Grassroots Up

Posted on | March 2, 2015 | No Comments

2015 NFU Policy Committee. Top row, left to right: Brett Morris, Oklahoma; David Schertz, Texas; and Kim Klose, North Dakota. Bottom row, left to right: Mardy Townsend, Ohio; Cheyenne Kenin, Indiana; Scott Hoese, Minnesota; and Tom Wingfield, Rocky Mountain.

By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president

Many Washington, DC-based organizations brag about their grassroots membership, either implying or outright claiming that they understand and are in constant contact with the pulse of the people.

But at National Farmers Union, we not only claim to be committed to being a grassroots organization, our structure and bylaws are completely written and voted on in a democratic process each year at our annual convention.  In this way, our members truly have an opportunity to help shape the vision for the future of agriculture.

We are one of the few organizations in Washington that is truly driven by its members, who meet with each other, elected officials and government agencies and then convene to discuss the organization’s overall policies and then work to craft policies important to family farmers and ranchers.

This annual process begins in late January with the meeting of the NFU Policy Committee, comprised of members, who are all considered outstanding leaders in their state/regional Farmers Union organizations and were nominated by their respective state’s president to serve on the committee. These members meet with important elected and appointed officials in the nation’s capital and in their home states to ensure that they possess a broad working knowledge of current legislative issues and political landscape as they move to revise NFU’s policy handbook.

The late January meetings of the policy committee is the first part of the process, whereby chosen leaders representing a wide swath of agriculture gather to better understand and assess current NFU policy.  During these meetings – which last nearly a full week  – the discuss and debate possible policy changes that will be brought to the voting membership during the annual convention in March.”

The second part of the process takes place at the yearly annual convention, which this year takes place March 14-17, in Wichita, Kansas. During the convention, the policy committee’s suggestions are considered and voted on, and any Farmers Union member may propose changes to the policy.

After hearing from delegates and the membership, the policy committee submits a final copy of the suggested policy to the delegates at the convention for their consideration, amendment and adoption. That is what a grassroots organization really looks like, and we are proud to say that year in and year out, we see American democracy in action, pure and simple.

A Proud Daughter-in-Law Talks about Castillo Farms

Posted on | February 10, 2015 | No Comments

By Madeline Schultz, Annie’s Project and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

“Communication is my biggest challenge,” decided Lorena Castillo, “I’m kind of proud my pickers like me.” During strawberry harvest, Lorena’s job is quality assurance and she takes it very seriously. She is just one of several family members involved in her mother-in-law’s farm business in Plant City, Florida.

Hilda Castillo (left), with Susan Sink, a 2015 Women's Conference participant

It was a privilege for me to visit Castillo Farms on a sunny day with the National Farmers Union and Annie’s Project Women’s Conference attendees. About 50 farm and ranch women from across the United States were inspired and renewed during the conference held in Clearwater Beach, Florida, January 18-21, 2015. Through a collaborative grant project, the USDA Risk Management Agency partially supported the conference as well as Annie’s Project courses in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Hilda Castillo, a first generation immigrant from Mexico, started the fruit and vegetable farm with her husband, Fidel Castillo, and one acre of strawberries. “She is a smart lady and very determined. She is always out here working. She’s my role model,” described Lorena of her mother-in-law, Hilda. “My father-in-law works very hard, but she is the manager,” Lorena confirmed.

Hilda worked as a migrant fruit and vegetable picker between Florida and Michigan for several years as she and her husband raised their four sons. “She wanted a better life for her sons. She wanted to build a business of her own for them,” explained Lorena. Hilda saved money and a farmer she worked for leased her one acre of land to grow strawberries on; that one acre turned into two, then five. Now Hilda owns 12 acres and leases 88 acres of land in Hillsborough County, outside of Tampa, Florida. The county is home to more than 12,000 acres of strawberry fields.

Hilda Castillo and her parents, who also help at the farm

“All four boys work with their mother. They are proud of her and proud of the farm. The littlest one is nine years old,” smiled Lorena with obvious pride herself. This small farm dream was built with the strength of Hilda’s family. Her brothers, sisters, parents and other family members all worked together and shared their aspirations. Now, Hilda’s brothers also successfully operate strawberry farms in the county.

Beyond the family, the Castillos had help from USDA, Farm Credit and the University of Florida Extension Service. In 2005, the Castillos applied to USDA’s Farm Service Agency to receive funding to install their own well and irrigation system. At that time, they were farming 25 acres including leased land, but with the help of USDA and Farm Credit, were able to increase their farmable acreage to approximately 50 acres by 2010.

The main crop on Castillo Farms is strawberries during the fall and winter. In the spring and summer the family grows melons, squash, peppers and okra. It takes about 40 local seasonal employees to bring in the harvests. All produce is marketed through the Sweet Life Farms company, began by the McDonald family the 1970’s. The company operates 40 refrigerated coolers in the county where individual growers aggregate their fruit and vegetable harvest.

Over time, Hilda has been able to improve soil and water quality, and reduce soil erosion. The desire to be good stewards of the land led the family to partner with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), with whom they developed a conservation plan for the farm. To further improve water and air quality, the Castillo’s follow the University of Florida’s pest and nutrient recommendations.

Lorena Castillo (left) talking with Madeline Schultz (right)

Lorena pointed to the picture of her mother-in-law with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. It brings out a funny story. Just like this wonderful visit with the NFU Women’s Conference attendees, Hilda has always been happy to show visitors around the farm business she and her family have grown. So when Secretary Vilsack reached out to possibly visit in 2010, Hilda immediately said yes. It wasn’t until his actual arrival that she realized Mr. Vilsack was the USDA Secretary. It was one of the especially happy occasions among many that this hard working American farm family has enjoyed together.

The tour day was organized by National Farmers Union and sponsored by Farm Credit. Also included on the tour was G&F Farms – Driscoll strawberry growers and plant breeders; and Keel & Curley Winery – blueberry growers, wine and beer makers, and agritourism providers.

NFU Salutes Women in Agriculture and Their Invaluable Role in Family Farming

Posted on | February 1, 2015 | No Comments

By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president

Women have always played a critical role in family farming, and that role is increasing dramatically as the number of women who are farmers in the U.S. has grown to roughly one million strong, according to the most recent U.S. Ag Census. If you look around at the success of rural America, it’s clear that the future of farming is in good hands, and that is due in no small part to the growing contributions of women in agriculture.

Of course, women have always made major contributions on America’s farms, but their role as the primary operators tripled from 1978 to 2007.  Interestingly, in some states, such as Arizona, female operators comprise nearly half the state’s farmers, although Texas boasts the most female farmers overall.

But the growing role of women in agriculture is not limited to just the United States.

Globally, it is estimated that women produce about 80 percent of the world’s food supply, which underscores the role women play now and moving forward.

Since its founding in 1902, NFU has recognized the important and growing role played by women in agriculture – both as leaders and as principal farm operators – and since 1906, has had women elected to leadership positions within the organization. NFU’s long history of having women in leadership positions and advocating for women’s voting rights, both within the organization and in local, state and national government, has allowed us to provide a more progressive and balanced voice for all family farmers for more than a century.

Over the years, NFU has developed educational programming and outreach tools to identify and empower women to help improve their farming skills. This outreach, which includes business acumen, leadership training and hands-on practical experience is helping women succeed in their growing role on the nation’s farms and in its farm organizations.

One example is NFU’s annual women’s conference, which works to give participants with the tools they need to succeed on the farm and leading farm organizations.  Internationally, NFU is also a very involved member of the World Farmers Organization (WFO), an international farm organization which aims to bring together national producer and farm cooperative organizations to develop policies which favor and support farmers’ causes in developed and developing countries around the world.

The WFO has been key in pointing out the many barriers faced by women in agriculture across the globe, including impediments to land ownership and credit and markets that are not faced by their male counterparts. NFU is committed to working with the WFO to address these disparities and make positive steps toward having these barriers removed permanently.

Interested in learning more about our Women’s Conference and opportunities for women? Visit our website.


2015 NFU Women’s Conference Recap: “Oceans of Opportunities”

Posted on | January 23, 2015 | No Comments

By Chamonix Mejia

The 2015 NFU Women’s Conference kicked off on Saturday, Jan. 17 at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Clearwater, Florida. The evening reception was an intimate gathering of the 40 participants, women eager to dive into the “Oceans of Opportunities” they would explore over the next few days.

Sunday, Jan. 18 started off with an optional morning workout. Twelve women were brave enough to take on the fun boot camp held by Wisconsin Farmers Union member Kristine Marion. After breakfast, conference attendees were welcomed and introduced to the event sponsors and one another. Each attendee gave a brief speech, with some very inspiring stories being told. The next session involved attendees figuring out their own “True Colors,” or personality styles.

During a networking lunch, Brenda Velde spoke about U.S. history and how women have changed our future. Then, there were breakout sessions that dealt with learning about financial planning for a farm. Van McCall, Gary Matteson, and Madeline Schultz did a wonderful job giving insight to the attendees. The women got a chance to tour the local beach by participating in a scavenger hunt. The winning team even got some special prizes! The groups had to be creative with the scavenger hunt, and some funny pictures can be seen using #NFUWomen15 on Facebook and Twitter.

When the ladies returned from the scavenger hunt, they were spoken to by AgrAbility and then Althea Raiford, one of the three women starring in the “Terra Firma” film. Terra Firma tells the story of three women who served in the military and found comfort in farming after coming back to civilian life. During Althea’s speech, she told attendees about how she did not come back the same way after serving our country. She fought personal battles trying to overcome the things she experienced. She spoke about her relationship with her brother and said “without farming, we would not be where we are.” She took over some family land, about 50 acres, and has helped farmed it with her brother. The attendees also received a special presentation of “Terra Firma,” a truly inspiring film that is best described by one of the stars: “I can’t fight wars anymore, but I can fight hunger.”

Monday, Jan. 19, consisted of more sessions and panels for attendees. The highlight was the evening speaker, Lilia McFarland, coordinator of the USDA New and Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program. She encouraged attendees to take leadership roles and to make their voices count. On Tuesday, January 20th, the conference moved throughout the state of Florida to tour several farms in the area. They visited Williamson Berry Farms, Castillo Farms, and Keel and Curley Winery. Williamson Berry Farms gave insight into running a strawberry farm and showed the participants the research side of the strawberry industry. At Castillo Farms, participants were shown how a first generation family farm is operating after moving their business from Mexico. Finally, at Keel and Curley Winery, attendees learned about making other products from produce. In the evening, the attendees were free to explore, with many going on a Pirate Cruise throughout the Gulf.

The final day, January 21st, consisted of a panel and a session on social media marketing by Roshanda Pratt. Roshanda gave great tips on how to create and build a brand.

Overall, the women seemed to truly enjoy their time during the conference. They left knowing about the “Oceans of Opportunities” that are out there for them and with the skills and tools that will help them. We hope you can join us at the next NFU Women’s Conference!


Growing Onions and Organizations: Tips and Successes from the Jubo Grower Association of Senegal

Posted on | January 5, 2015 | No Comments

By Erin Schneider

Farmer, Educator, Hilltop Community Farm, La Valle, WI

With heartfelt gratitude to the following individuals: Yaguemar Diop, NCBA-CLUSA Program Director in Senegal, who provided interview translation from Wolof & French to English, to Athanase, Caritas Field Program Director in Senegal for helping arrange the interview and field visits during my F2F assignment; and to Fatou Dianka for taking the time out of your very busy day to pause to let me interview her and share her success stories.

F2F Volunteer and NFU member Erin Schneider with Fatou Dianka, organic farmer and founding member of the Jubo Growers Association, Batamar, Senegal pausing for a smile after the interview. Photo by Yaguemar Diop, NCBA-CLUSA F2F Program Director

Past the cashew groves and groundnut fields, pausing to wave at the workers and to let roving donkey carts and goat herds pass, I stepped out of the truck, exchanged greetings and settled in under the canopy of neem, acknowledging warmly the curious smiles and stares of villagers. “What’s it like to farm here?” I asked Fatou Dianka, an organic farmer and founding member of the Jubo Farm Association, in Batamar, Senegal.

Gazing toward an open space where melons carpeted the ground and climbed the stray papaya tree, Fatou extended her hand, “There,” she pointed. “We needed a place to grow food and make a living during the dry season.” Her eyes lit up as she relaxed into memory and I listened attentively, scribbling notes as she told me about how she started to cultivate space, turning over the Earth and singing as seed beds were tucked—planting more than seeds that day.

The local priest saw the women working, noticed their commitment and need for space to earn extra income and sought a way to help. Soon after, Fatou found herself in Kaolack, with 20,000 CFA (just under $40) pooled together from interested farm friends in the village. She sought support from Caritas, a non-governmental organization working on agriculture and food security initiatives in and around Batamar and the Fatik region of Senegal.

Planting the seeds of the as yet to be imagined – a leap of faith from across the pond…

Back at my farm in La Valle, Wisconsin, after the last quince was harvested from our orchards and potato dug from our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) fields, I hopped across the pond, to discover what growing a farm and farm business entailed in other parts of the world. I hoped to lend a hand where I could in supporting organic vegetable production with women farmer networks as part of  National Cooperative Business Association’s Farmer to Farmer Program in Senegal. This was my fifth trip to Africa – third adventure in Senegal with the Farmer to Farmer Program. With each experience new life is danced and breathed into me.  What I love about the farmer to farmer program is its ground-up, peer to peer approach. Your work is based on the needs, skills and interests of the farmers—and not surprisingly, these needs, skills and interests are characteristic of farmers in Wisconsin, the U.S., the world over.

I hung up my tools and traded glacial till for mangrove mud, bur oaks for baobabs, and breathed in the scents of ocean, fish and Sahale heat. Next to Wisconsin, Senegal is a place I feel most at home. I ventured inland to where my assignment would begin near the village of Sokone along Sine Saloum delta just southeast of Kaolack. Much of my work with farmers and agriculture extension staff with Caritas in the region entailed discussions, demonstrations and swapping techniques such as composting and biological control of pests and diseases. We also designed a few crop rotation plans and schemed ideas for earthworks such as berms, swales and raised beds for improved water management. I think all farmers struggle with finding the balance between production, pricing, scale, and finding capital and markets to meet our farm’s and community’s needs. We are constantly tweaking, sourcing, seed saving, and experimenting as entreprenuers. How to best manage for the short term needs while at the same time balancing production systems and balance sheets for the long term is a dance that every farmer faces regardless of where you live in the world or sit on the agricultural value chain.

This search for finding balance with farming and right livelihood wove into the rhythm and cadence of song, dance, and compost that greeted me in the fields and faces of Batamar, Pakala Samthie, Toube Mouride, and Keur Momath Mbayang.

About a week into my work, I was able to pause from planting, let the compost tea discussions steep and spend a few hours in Batamar to interview Fatou. With translation, logistical help, and encouragement of Yaguemar Diop, NCBA-CLUSA program director in Senegal, I learned more about the stories of how the women farmers organize and find ways to make a living when they are up against so many challenges.

How you grow it is what you get—whether it’s onions or organizations.

I discovered that more than onion seeds were planted that day Fatou traveled to Kaolack to meet with Caritas and ask for support to build a fence for her vegetable beds.

As Fatou shared her experiences, I was reminded that to grow food, you not only need sound science and technique, but also strong relationships and inspiration from a variety of sources. A little hard work, timing and luck never hurt too! Luck and timing were on Fatou’s side and her hard work paid off.  In Kaolack, she found herself face to face with Dominique, a French nun, whose relationship would help catalyze the formation of Fatou’s farm and that of 48 other women farmers in her village.

Jubo Grower member demonstrating composting techniques as part of a farmer to farmer training in Batamar, Senegal. Photo by Erin Schneider

After initial support with fencing, Dominique encouraged and helped Fatou and others to apply for assistance from Caritas for building a well and accessing land. Both were granted and the women had funds remaining. Dominique’s advice was heeded: keep these funds in a separate account when sharing plots of land and ask every farmer to pay 1,000 CFA  (~$2.00) for membership. With strength in numbers, invested interest from farm women, and 2 hectares (~4.9 acres) of arable land granted from the village Chief, the Jubo Grower Association was born. Jubo—which means ‘people who are together’ in Serer—pooled together resources and ideas and sought formal recognition from the government to be recognized as a group. This was granted and with it the opportunity to open a bank account, access credit, as well as gain recognition from local ‘agriculture extension like groups’ from which they could receive additional technical training and business development support.

This all started by planting a seed in an open space, opening the hearts and minds of others around Fatou. It is the hope of Fatou and the Jubo farm women that every child is fed. It is their dream that their children will be strong enough to finish school and financially stand on their own two feet—propping up their own lives and those of their families.

Just how far will hopes, dreams, 1,000 CFA, and a few onion and tomato seeds stretch?

Most farm women with the Jubo Grower’s Association grow tomatoes, onions, greens, okra, eggplant, peppers, beans, mints, bissop (hibiscus) and cabbage along with other vegetables and herbs, rotated on about twenty square meters of space. Along with a steady water supply from wells, a few strategically planted papaya, mango and cashew trees and cassava, the women can earn their own money and invest it with other growers in the group. In turn, income earned is invested in their families, their children’s education and in their community.

Currently, the women are working toward financing a millet grinder through a variety of means including investment of membership dues. Member dues work in a few ways in addition to funding a piece of equipment. At the individual level, every ten days, the women get together and choose a member of the group who will receive 40,000 CFA to use. This is done through discussion and voting. This works like a no interest revolving loan fund, as members will pay back the funds over a few months time. At the end of the cyle, all members will have received support and motivation to innovate parts of their farm business. One thousand CFA, in general, will provide enough food for a day for a family of 8 in the villages. With 40,000 CFA a woman can start a business or buy a needed piece of equipment, and still support the food needs of her household.

“Gardening can and does change women’s lives,” Fatou relayed. Her eyes met mine and with a smile and intensity matched by the mid-day sun, she relayed, “Tell the world that we are willing to work hard, we know how to manage our funds and make our own decisions. We know how to work together as a group and resolve conflict through consensus. Tell your farm friends in Wisconsin and in the world, that as farmers you are stronger when you work together. Tell them that we have skills to share, such as improved composting techniques and which plants grow well together. Tell them that we want to continue to grow our farm business, learn about new techniques as well as new products, and find ways to work with others toward shared goals.”

Learning from Fatou about how she and others got started and how different women-grower groups organize in the region, I observed how much the women here – and throughout the world – could benefit simply from learning what their sister networks nearby are up to, including tool design, composting, crop rotation, seed collecting and making value added products such as bissop juice. As a farmer, I have witnessed well-intentioned experts and scientists deliver ‘best practices and technologies’ to our farm and farmer networks without an understanding of culture or practical applications to field or farm systems. The result is ‘best practicitis’ or thinking that farming, poverty, and agricultural development are entwined technical problems that we can fix through technology alone.

Farming is also a social act and we forget how much we rely each other to grow food. On our farm we look to other farmers and eaters for perspectives and advice as well as engaging expert knowledge.  You have to create space for others’ stories, ideas and questions to emerge. I have been fortunate to both participate and facilitate gatherings at our farm and around the world.

Checking insect traps with Jubo Grower members in Batamar, Senegal. Photo by Yaguemar Diop

So by meeting together, face to face, we can engage in dialogue, share stories and techniques, and question assumptions and practices that seem to make our lives easier as farmers but actually work against our long-term interests.  As a result we can find common threads to focus on wherever we might sit on the agricultural value chain.

The neem tree’s shadow stretched to make room for waning daylight, and I was reminded that it was time to stir the compost tea as I didn’t want to keep the growers of Keur Momayh Mbayang village waiting nearby. Fatou and I bid farewell with a shared understanding that our lives and stories as farmers were entwined.

So, with a spring to my step, gratitude in my heart, stories in my head, and techniques to share, I lept back across the pond to stir the pot of possibilities toward growing healthy food and building community, one guild at a time.

Erin Schneider is an organic farmer, educator and fruit lover! She co-owns Hilltop Community Farm in La Valle, Wisconsin and is a proud member of Wisconsin Farmers Union and current member representing National Farmers Union with the World Farmer Organization’s Women’s Committee. She, along with her husband Rob McClure, have supported farmer to farmer trainings and delegations at their farm, around the U.S., in Nicaragua, Senegal, Argentina, Zambia, and Ethiopia.

For U.S. Farmers interested in upcoming opportunities to engage in NCBA – CLUSA’s Farmer to Farmer program contact Jane Podolsky at or 202-383-5451.

Have a case study or farm practice to share with the world? Please send an email to for opportunities to write/contribute to the World Farmer Organization’s website, newsletter. More at


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About NFU

National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, to help the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices. NFU works to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities through advocating grassroots-driven policy positions adopted by its membership.
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