BFRDP: Making the Most of Public Support for Beginning Farmer Education

The Land Stewardship Project today released our latest report on grants allocated through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). This is the fifth such report we've done in collaboration with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). These analyses are a measure of the success of BFRDP in providing public support for effective training, education and assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers in the United States.

LSP has long made beginning farmer training and education a top priority, both through LSP’s Farm Beginnings program, and in our priorities for public policy change. We believe there are opportunities in agriculture, and that smart, cost-effective public policy can provide the kind of support to beginning farmers that is instrumental to their success.

Starting from that conviction, LSP, working with NSAC staff and other NSAC member-organizations, helped to lead a nationwide effort to gain the passage of and funding for progressive beginning farmer policy in the 2008 Farm Bill. As a result, since 2009 BFRDP has been an important tool in supporting the next generation of American farmers.

Over the years, BFRDP has directed more than $90 million to 184 projects across the country. This represents a major public investment in beginning farmer education. We believe it is critical that these public dollars are as effective as possible, which is why we advocated for, and won, language in the last two Farm Bills that prioritizes funding projects led by community-based organizations.

Make no mistake, the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is a result of the hard work of community-based organizations and coalitions that saw the need, developed the program, and worked with Congressional leaders to push it through. BFRDP is not business as usual—its excellence as a program is the result of it being grounded in the experience, vision and skills of community leaders literally across the country who argued for and won public support for the development of new farmers for a better food system.

For most of its years in operation, BFRDP has made grant-making decisions that give real priority to community-based organizations. Such organizations are positioned to be responsive to emerging communities of new farmers and new markets, and to build the infrastructure needed to support the success and ongoing development of these new farmers over time. In our experience, community-based organizations excel at meeting the needs of beginning farmers and ranchers on the ground—they are set-up to provide the in-person, culturally-appropriate and ongoing support that leads to the success of beginning farmers.

That’s why we were concerned that in 2014 less than half of BFRDP funding went to projects led by community-based organizations. For the first time since 2009 the bulk of the funding was awarded to projects led by universities and academic institutions.

Congress recognized the critical role of community initiatives when it gave priority for funding to community-based organizations in both the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills. Congressional champions emphasized the innovative work already under way at the community level, and the need for funding dedicated to developing an enduring infrastructure for beginning farmer training and support.

Congress also recognized the need to set aside funding for socially disadvantaged and low resource farmers who have not always been well-served by federal programs. Although funding for projects targeted to socially disadvantaged farmers dropped somewhat in 2014 compared with the last few years, we’re encouraged that BFRDP continues to invest substantially—this year nearly half of overall funding—in programs that serve these producers. Immigrant communities, communities of color, farmworkers, urban farmers, refugees and women all face unique challenges in becoming farmers. This is yet another area in which community-based programs have been excelling, and are central to both short-term innovation and to developing long-term networks, markets and support structures specific to new communities of agricultural producers.

The full report contains many more details regarding the distribution of grants, as well as recommendations for the continued success and improvement of BFRDP. The number one recommendation is that the majority of funding go to projects led by community-based organizations, followed by a number of recommendations for mechanisms that could make this priority a reality. As in past years, these recommendations encourage simplifying and clarifying the application process to make it more accessible, and support USDA continuing to award high levels of funding to projects that target socially disadvantaged farmers. The complete list of recommendations can be found in the report.

BFRDP’s unique emphasis on community-based initiatives is central to its success. The top priority for coming grant cycles should be to line up the balance of the funding with the core purpose and most effective application of the program: developing the next generation of farmers through community-based programs.

LSP and NSAC staff, as well as other organizations nationwide that see the importance of supporting the start-up and success of beginning farmers and ranchers in their communities, look forward to working with USDA to accomplish this. Because of the work of community leaders, USDA staff and institutional partners, BFRDP has been an excellent program and an asset for communities nationwide. By continued attention to its unique role, it will remain so in the years to come.

LSP organizer Megan Buckingham is the author of Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program: 2014 Progress Report.