What with ridiculously high land prices and Washington’s inability to focus on agriculture long enough to pass a Farm Bill, it’s easy to get down about the prospects for beginning farmers these days. That’s why a national meeting held in Rochester, Minn., earlier this month was so important—not only because it proved that there are some good ideas out there for getting people on the land, but, just as importantly, that there are an impressive number of people interested in getting on that land in the first place.
The meeting, which was hosted by the Land Stewardship Project, was a chance to bring together project’s from around the country that have received funding through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Called BFRDP for short, this initiative is the only federal program exclusively dedicated to training beginning farmers and ranchers. LSP was a major player in making this competitive grants program a reality, and it was created by the 2008 Farm Bill with $75 million in mandatory funding.
When LSP and other groups were making the case for such a program in the run-up to the 2008 Farm Bill, it was argued that there was a pent-up demand for community-based programs that would help people from a variety of backgrounds learn the basics of starting and managing a farm. LSP knew from experience: since 1997 our Farm Beginnings program has trained over 600 people, and demand for class spots perennially outstrips supply.
It turns out LSP’s experience on a regional level wasn’t unique. Demand for BFRDP grants has far exceeded resources available. Since the program was launched in 2009, 528 applications have resulted in the awarding of 145 grants. In 2011 alone, the 65 BFRDP projects held 5,122 classes and other events that were attended by 38,000 beginning farmers.
“That’s a lot,” said Suresh Sureshwaran, the National Program leader for BFRDP, in a recent LSP podcast. “Even if it only results in 10,000 more farmers, that’s impressive.”
LSP’s Farm Beginnings program, which serves as a model for similar courses around the country, certainly has a success rate that supports such math. One estimate is that at least 60 percent of Farm Beginnings graduates are now established in some aspect of agriculture—everything from grass-based livestock and organic vegetables to grain and specialty products.
But Suresh brought up a question that weighed heavily on the minds of many meeting participants: “After they take the class, are they sustainable?”
That’s why BFRDP funds not just start-up farmer and rancher training courses, but also initiatives that are taking established programs one step further to help beginners in those first few critical years of a new ag enterprise. LSP’s new Journeyperson Farm Training Course is one example of a “post-grad” program that’s being funded by BFRDP.
But it’s also clear that record high land prices serve as a significant barrier to even the most well-trained beginning farmers—even ones with impressive networks and resources at their disposal.
Nick Olson talked at the meeting about how hard of a time he and his wife Joan had in finding a 33-acre farm to start their Prairie Drifter CSA vegetable operation on. As he explains in episode 126 of LSP’s podcast program, the young couple went above and beyond in their search for suitable land: they wrote letters to landowners, took out a classified ad, scanned websites, worked with realtors and even spoke at churches. The Olsons’ goal was to show potential sellers not only that they were good farmers, but would be good members of the community.
People were supportive of Nick and Joan’s farming goals, but the process was surprisingly difficult, especially given the fact that they are particularly well connected—the couple has farmed in the region for several years and Nick is a Farm Beginnings organizer, meaning he has access to good networks and resources.
“I’m coming at it from a white male perspective of someone who has access to all these programs,” Nick said. “I can’t imagine how difficult it is for socially disadvantaged people and people of color.”
Indeed, the land access issue looms large, which is why LSP is working with communities regionally and other organizations across the country to address this issue.
And Olson’s point about the extra barriers faced by people of color and other disadvantaged groups is well taken. That’s why it was good to see that several presentations during the Rochester meeting were devoted to examples of community-based groups using BFRDP money to work with African Americans, American Indians and Latinos who are interested in getting started in farming.
Sometimes the challenges such communities face are so steeped in institutional racism that even getting access to the most basic of resources is almost impossible. James Davis of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation talked in Rochester about how the African American farmers he works with need to be convinced that they have a right to seek help through their local USDA Farm Service Agency office. That’s a huge barrier, given the USDA’s long history of discrimination—as the Pigford case highligthed—when it comes to people of color and even women who are involved in agriculture.
“There is a bad taste for a lot of African American farmers when it comes to USDA,” said Davis. “We are looking at life after Pigford.”
Sometimes the farmer training initiatives are challenged by the very survival of the people they serve. Nina Altshul talked in Rochester about how her Arizona-based group, Tohono O’odham Community Action, is working on an American Indian reservation where agriculture has all disappeared. The Tohono O’odham Nation had 20,000 acres of traditional crops in 1936—by 2000 there were fewer than 2 acres.
“Farming really has a stigma,” said Altshul. “It’s associated with the traditional culture.”
But the need for more local food production is almost a case of life or death: one out of two people on the reservation have diabetes and the unemployment rate is 75 percent. The reservation’s population is extremely young, with 50 percent of residents 25-years-old or younger. That’s why Tohono O’odham Community Action is focusing some of its beginning farmer efforts on school kids—teaching them, among other things, that a major incentive for raising food is that it just plain tastes better.
“We had to overcome the idea that farming was not cool,” said Altshul. “So we start all the way back with Head Start to introduce them to traditional foods.”
Support of such a deeply-based community efforts has made BFRDP a good use of tax money, concludes LSP’s latest analysis of the program. The diversity of community based initiatives represented at the Rochester meeting seems to confirm that fact. That makes the inability of Congress to pass a Farm Bill that would fund the next round of BFRDP grants even more troubling.
“It’s a good investment of our public dollars,” said Amy Bacigalupo, director of LSP’s Farm Beginnings Program. “We need to let people know that it should continue.”