The U.S. government has long been in the business of supporting education for farmers. In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which formalized a system of agriculture education that is still ongoing. Known as cooperative extension, it was a partnership between the U.S Department of Agriculture and the land grant colleges. The partnership allowed the government to help those state universities get farmers the most up-to-date knowledge on the best agricultural practices in their area.
The extension system still exists today, although many grumble that it only serves large, conventional farmers. The farm bill of 1985 partially addressed that problem by creating a resource for smaller farmers looking to grow sustainably. Back then the program was called ATTRA, and although its name has changed to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, most people still refer to it by its former acronym.
Or they used to. In the recent budget bill passed by Congress, ATTRA,* a 35-year-old program that has provided knowledge and training to new and existing farmers looking for information on how to use sustainable production practices, had all of its funding eliminated. Overnight, the program went from a $2.8 million budget to $0.
"(It's a) terrible disservice to anyone who wants to farm sustainably," says Patty Bancroft, who farms 300 organic acres in Vermilion, S.D.
Bancroft relied heavily on ATTRA's services when she transitioned her family's Evergreen Farm, which grows corn, beans, and alfalfa, from conventional to organic agriculture.
"It's really difficult to make the transition. And we had a lot of trouble with weeds and we had a lot of trouble with how to apply (organic) fertilizer," says Bancroft. The information she got from ATTRA, which was based on current research, helped her family make the transition successfully, said Bancroft.
"We're the only organic farmers in our area, actually within 100 miles. So there's no other farmers really that can talk to us. I've called other people, they're harder to get a hold of and they aren't as accurate. (ATTRA) sends us information that we can study out at length and really learn what we need to learn."
ATTRA staff conducts research and gathers information on all kinds of farming, from organic wheat production to rotational livestock grazing. Their website hosts over 300 instructional publications they've published to help sustainable farmers learn how to conserve the soil, combat pests organically, and market their products so they make money. And they've done this all free of charge, since 1986.
As soon as they got word of the budget bill, ATTRA was required to make immediate cuts, says Kathy Hadley, executive director of the Butte, Mont.-based National Center for Appropriate Technology, which manages the ATTRA program. The organization has already laid off about 50 percent of its staff of horticulturalists, livestock and other agriculture specialists.
"We help people around the country and have for more than 25 years, so this was quite a shock to us," says Hadley.
Hadley says she believes the program was cut because it was considered an earmark, even though it helps farmers in all states.
Although Hadley says she hopes ATTRA can garner funding from outside sources, its future is unsure. Hadley is committed to keeping the content-rich website, which has multiple databases on sustainable agriculture information, up through the end of this summer, but after that she doesn't know what will happen.
Dan Nagengast, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center, which works to keep rural communities vibrant by promoting sustainable agriculture, calls ATTRA "a clearinghouse for how-to information having to do with specialty crops, specialty livestock production, food processing and sustainable agriculture."
ATTRA helps new farmers who cannot afford a lot of land, or who want to grow in a sustainable manner, get off the ground by offering them experience, advice, and research data for free, says Nagengast.
"I think it's a really economical way to do that to broaden and deepen the kinds of range of agriculture in the U.S. and especially those that require natural systems and those that are more entrepreneurial, sort of startup kind of businesses."
With a 14 percent cut to the overall USDA budget from 2010 spending levels, it was inevitable that some important programs got cut.
But it's a shame that a service so valuable to the small, sustainable farmer -- an already underserved member of the agriculture community -- is no more.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is High Country News's online editor
*The acronym ATTRA comes from the program's original name, Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas. Although it's new name is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, most people still refer to it by the acronym ATTRA.
Image of wheat in a farmer's hand courtesy the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)