Kelli Dale has been riding in tractors or combines since before she could walk. When her family moved to the eastern shore of Virginia so her father could manage a farm for a canning company, she regularly rode with him on the transplanter or tomato harvester. The family eventually came back to North Carolina when her dad took a job at a large farm in the eastern part of the state, where he farmed corn, soybeans, wheat, and sorghum. By then, Kelli was nine and says that her father deemed her old enough to drive by herself. “So I got to spend a lot of time in a tractor,” Kelli says.
Kelli is the Program Director for RAFI-USA’s Just Foods program. Just Foods’ vision is “that all who labor in agriculture are respected, protected, valued, and have the power to earn a dependable income; and where air, water, soil, and culture are preserved and protected for future generations.” These goals are achieved through direct service and technical assistance, with a commitment to “overserve” communities that have been historically underserved. Just Foods encompasses two RAFI-USA programs: Expanding Farmers Market Access and the Farmers of Color Network, and ongoing projects include the Southern Farmers Seed Cooperative, and NC Seed Stewards. Kelli also manages RAFI-USA’s affiliation with the National Organic Coalition.
Having spent the majority of her childhood in Perquimans County, NC, she knew early on that she was destined to end up working in agriculture. She was lucky to have a great extension agent, Travis Burke, who helped guide her path. “Travis got me involved in lots of things in 4-H. I showed hogs and sheep and was on the livestock judging team. When I was 15, Travis signed me up for a pilot program targeted towards teens that grew up on a farm. They taught us about different job opportunities in agriculture with the hope that we would choose an occupation in the ag field. We got to go to a lot of places and one of those was NC State, where we got to spend a week during the summer,” Kelli recalls. After that she knew she wanted to go to NC State and she went on to graduate from there with a degree in Agriculture Business Management.
Kelli Joins RAFI-USA Team
Kelli began working at RAFI-USA in 1996, taking a temporary position as a Scouting Coordinator for the Peanut Project which aimed to reduce the need for chemical pesticides in peanut production while improving or maintaining farm net returns. In 2013, another job opportunity opened up: Project Coordinator for the Breeding for Organic Production Systems. “Both of these projects center around giving farmers choices and making them an active part of the research on their farms. To me that is very important. Farmers need to have choices and who better to take a lead than farmers themselves. RAFI-USA offers farmers support in being an active part of any research happening on their farms,” she says.
National Organic Coalition and Regionally Adapted Seeds
As a founding member and the fiscal sponsor of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), RAFI-USA works on policy recommendations to ensure strong organic standards. By participating in NOC calls and sharing policy issues with RAFI-USA’s Policy Team, Kelli oversees RAFI-USA’s participation in the Coalition. This national alliance of organizations works to provide a “Washington voice” for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers, and industry members involved in organic agriculture. Kelli brings a lot of experience with organic farming to the NOC table. When her family founded their own family farm in 1987, it was one of the first in NC to be certified organic. “It was a big change for me going from big equipment to one small tractor. It worked out though. My father and brother now farm about 350 acres of organic corn, wheat, and soybeans,” she says.
When asked what advice she would give to a farmer wanting to get into organic farming, she says, ‘“Patience. The first three years of transition are going to be tough if you are transitioning from a conventional to organic farm. During this time you need to focus on new weed and pest control methods and nitrogen management. I would recommend visiting a couple of organic farms and asking lots of questions.”
Another Just Foods project Kelli oversees is focused on regionally adapted seeds. “This is important because it allows farmers to have better yields which in turn affects their bottom line. Yes, they can use varieties that are grown and produced for other regions, but growing conditions in the South are not the same as the Midwest,” she shares.
RAFI-USA helped form a regional seed co-op which is producing corn and soybeans that are regionally adapted for the Southeast. The farmers involved are active participants in testing these varieties on their farms and are now currently producing their own line of double cross corn and several varieties of non-GMO soybeans. Kelli helps facilitate a winter meeting every year to plan out who is growing what and how much. She also helps with all of the field and seed-cleaning equipment inspection forms. “There is a lot more work when you are growing commodity crops for seed. The combine and the seed cleaning equipment have to be cleaned each time a different variety is harvested, and you also have to be really diligent about where you are planting and make sure you have sufficient border areas around your seed crop,” she says.
Pollinators and Pollinator Habitat
Beginning in 2016, RAFI-USA identified pollinator habitat as essential for the preservation of biodiversity and environmental well-being. “We became involved with pollinators and the pollinator habitat program when Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation approached us about its Bring Back the Bees campaign. The first year they made a pledge to plant one billion wildflower seeds on farms across NC. We ended up planting over three billion on about 1,200 acres. The next year the goal was two million and we planted 12 billion on over another 3,000 acres. This work is important because loss of habitat is one of the causes of pollinator decline, and this was a way to increase this habitat and provide farms with the seed they needed to do that which can be quite expensive,” Kelli shares.
Evolving from this work, Kelli works on the NC Seed Stewards project. “Again, this is important because it is going to be a way to produce NC ecotypes of wildflower seeds,” says Kelli. “Farmers in our Farmers of Color Network will be planting wildflower seed plots on their farms. We learned through our work building pollinator habitat there are only a few wildflower seed companies. This project will allow us to purchase seed straight from NC Botanical Gardens that has been harvested from wildflowers here in NC and produce them on a larger scale.”
“Kelli is our resident expert on so many facets of agriculture. She is truly a tremendous resource for all of our work and we are lucky to have her expertise available to us,” says Executive Director Edna Rodriguez.
Out In the Field
“My favorite part of the job is definitely the field work,” Kelli shares. “That’s where I feel most at home and feel like we’re making a difference. The double cross corn project has been really fun. We started by just growing the inbred lines and making sure that they would grow in organic conditions. Inbred lines are not very pretty and low yielding. Starting a project with just a handful of seeds and moving to a point where farmers are now producing enough that they can use on their farms was very rewarding. Now we are at the point we need to expand in order to produce enough to sell outside the co-op. This work is not always flashy and moves pretty slow but it’s important. It is giving farmers a way to produce their own seed and seed for other farmers in the Southeast. Over the years, seed companies have become really consolidated — and the price of seed keeps going up — but the yields are not going up at the same rate. This work is a way to give more power and choices back to farmers which I find rewarding,” Kelli says.
Kelli is excited about the future of the seeds work. “I am always looking for opportunities to introduce ways for farmers to become more involved in producing seed. We recently put in a grant proposal to add a GMO-blocker to corn which would allow organic growers to be able to plant at the same time as their conventional neighbors without the fear of cross contamination. If we can make that possible it would be really exciting. Now organic farmers have to plant weeks later than their conventional neighbors because corn pollen carries a long way and those couple of weeks affect their yields. Getting that problem fixed would be very exciting.”
Kelli’s dedication to her work is evident and all of those who have the opportunity to work with her — RAFI-USA staff and farmers alike — are appreciative of her knowledge and passion. To learn more about the Just Foods program visit the Just Foods page on our website.