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$18 Million Awarded for Vital Beginning Farmer Program, but Future Remains Uncertain

October 3, 2018


D'Quinton Robertson works on Lehman Farms examining the fields, among other things, while currently attending college studying agricultural business. There he has the opportunity to learn first hand from Aaron Lehman the ins-and-outs of farming by a conventional and certified organic corn, oats and alfalfa operation. Living with his uncle, Robertson raises horses, chickens and a sheep. He participates in rodeo competitions and is involved with racing horses. RobertsonÕs family owns an 80-acre ranch in Linden, Alabama, where he found his love for agriculture and farming. Photo credit: USDA, Preston Keres

D’Quinton Robertson works on Lehman Farms examining the fields, among other things, while attending college studying agricultural business. There he has the opportunity to learn first hand from Aaron Lehman the ins-and-outs of farming by a conventional and certified organic corn, oats and alfalfa operation. Photo credit: USDA, Preston Keres

Interest in careers in agriculture is on the rise, but many aspiring farmers and ranchers find themselves blocked from starting food and farm businesses because of the many significant barriers to entering the industry. Farmer training programs and projects, hundreds of which have emerged in the last decade alone, help aspiring and beginning producers to overcome these obstacles by arming them with the skills and resources they need to succeed. These projects, many of which are supported financially through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), are especially crucial now that we face a potential nationwide shortage of producers.

The average age of the American farmer is broaching 60, which means that many of our current producers will soon be considering retirement. Unfortunately, many of these producers currently have no succession plan in place, which means that their farms may cease operation once they retire. Although there is growing interest in careers in agriculture, many potential farmers lack the resources and skills to get new businesses off the ground – let alone the knowledge of how to connect with soon-to-retire producers for skill transfers and potentially land transitions.

Thankfully, many of these skills, resources, and connections are being made by BFRDP grant projects; the latest round of awardees was announced late last week. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds all of the awarded projects for the critical work they are doing to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers – in particular we would like to congratulate the five member organizations (highlighted below) whose projects received support in the latest funding round which was recently announced.

Program Background

In the latest round of awards (FY 2018), BFRDP issued 37 new grants, providing over $18 million in financial support to organizations and academic institutions to train the next generation of farmers. Over the past decade, the program has invested roughly $162 million in over 300 new farmer-training projects across the country.

According to a 2017 evaluation of BFRDP led by NSAC, over the last decade, BFRDP has been instrumental in building a national infrastructure, new models, and best practices to train and support new farmers.

Despite BRDRP’s track record of success and the increasing demand for beginning farmer training and resources (applications for BFRDP have increased by 40 percent since the 2014 Farm Bill), program funding has remained flat since its creation in 2002. Even after veterans were added to BFRDP, which substantially increased the number of producers the program was tasked with supporting, Congress provided no additional funding. Because funding has not kept pace with demand, BFRDP has only been able to fund 22 percent of all proposals submitted since 2014, with two out of every three proposals recommended for funding rejected.

Uncertain Future 

The 2014 Farm Bill officially expired on September 30, and Congress has now left town without a workable replacement in place. In a nutshell, Congress’ inaction has left BFRDP without any funding or legal authority to operate in the future. This means that the program is essentially “on hold” until either a new farm bill or a temporary extension is passed – both of which would need to include explicit language funding BFRDP in order for the program to resume operation. NSAC has detailed the extreme impacts a delayed farm bill without extension could have in our recent, “What’s at Stake” blog series.

NSAC – which has many members who are current or former BFRDP grantees across the nation – will continue to push Congress to swiftly pass a new farm bill that reflects the Senate bill’s strong support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. We are also advocating for the final bill to include the establishment of a new program, the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program. FOTO merges BFRDP with the “Section 2501 Program” in an attempt to streamline existing efforts to support beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers, while also permanently protecting these important resources for generations to come.

Small Program, Big Impacts – Spotlight on FY 2018 Grantees 

Compared to many other farm bill programs, BFRDP has a relatively small amount of funding. The impact of BFRDP projects, however, is anything but small. Nationwide, BFRDP provides much-needed services and resources that help to ensure that aspiring farmers can feed their neighbors and feed the nation – that kind of impact is downright monumental.

NSAC congratulates this year’s BFRDP grant recipients, especially the hard-working and dedicated farmer-based organizations who work directly with beginning farmers and ranchers every day. We would specifically like to congratulate and highlight the five NSAC member organizations that received awards this cycle:

  • Center for Rural Affairs (Iowa, Nebraska) – $325,000 grant to fund the Center’s Women on the Land Project, which aims to increase access to affordable land for women beginner farmers in Iowa and Nebraska through peer learning and connections with women landowners and farmers, trainings on business plan development and financing options, and workshops on land transfers.

“Research supports that women landowners are more likely to apply conservation measures on their land than their male counterparts. We think this pilot will show us that women landowners are also more likely to consider and follow through with land transfer to new farmers, knowing how it will impact the community in which they live,” said Kathie Starkweather, Program Director for Center for Rural Affairs.

  • Farmer Veteran Coalition (California) – $600,000 grant to carry out the organization’s mission to help veterans transition into viable and meaningful careers in farming, ranching, or fisheries. The Farmer Veteran Coalition seeks to increase the knowledge and skills of beginning veteran farmers, improve the viability and market conditions for their business, and create sustainable regional and local peer support networks.
  • Land for Good (New Hampshire) – $600,000 grant to continue their Land Access Project and launch “Phase 3” of the near decade-long endeavor. The Land Access Project seeks to improve land access for New England’s beginning and established farmers, and provide them with direct support and education through tools, guides, and workshops.

“Land For Good and our many collaborators are excited to undertake Phase 3 of our regional Land Access Project with support from USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program,” said Jim Habana Hafner, Executive Director of Land For Good. “This funding will build upon the past achievements of our regional approach to training and supporting farmers, and improving the conditions under which they access, transfer and gain secure tenure on land in New England. We will improve and expand core services to help farmers in each New England state, and the project will deepen partnerships and innovate to address key gaps identified by farm seekers and service providers.”

  • Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (Maine) – $600,000 grant to continue their successful Journeyperson Program and launch the Maine Farm Resilience Program. Both programs aim to increase the number of beginning farmers through innovative training, seasonal apprenticeships, and outreach through the establishment of peer Network Liaisons to the New American and Veteran farmer communities.

“MOFGA is proud to lead this agricultural resurgence and expand our support to a broader population of farmers engaged in the impressive undertaking. MOFGA’s farmer education programs are fueling Maine’s new agriculture economy, creating new jobs, and reinventing the face, role, and possibility of farming in Maine,” said MOFGA New Farmer Programs Coordinator Ryan Dennet in a recent press release. These innovative programs have supported thousands of people with training in production and business skills that lead to economic opportunity and growth throughout the state.”

  • World Farmers Inc. (Massachusetts) – $600,000 grant to develop a final phase of the Flats Mentor Farm program, which supports beginning immigrant and refugee farmers to transition onto independent land and increase their agricultural capacity to form a successful independent farming enterprise. The project seeks to support the farmers through trainings and workshops on general farming, business development, marketing strategies, and in land acquisition.

“Our USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grant will allow World Farmers to fill a need Flats Mentor farmers have requested for years,” said Maria Moreira, World Farmers Executive Director. “Immigrant and Refugee farmers have twice the struggle when building a farming business in this country, and access to their own land will be a huge opportunity.”

FY 2018 Award Trends

In total, BFRDP awarded 36 new projects for FY 2018, totaling over $18 million in federal grant funding to help grow the next generation of farmers over the next three years. These new projects follow similar trends as years past, with a few exceptions.

On a regional scale, this year’s grants were split relatively equally across the country. The nation’s southern and western regions accumulated the most grants – roughly a third each, while the North Central and Northeast regions received slightly fewer grants. Looking at BFRDP’s total history, however, grants have tended to be distributed fairly equally across regions.

Of the funded projects, this year’s grants include a greater number (and greater total dollars) of university-led projects than in previous years. In total, academic institutions will lead 44 percent of projects, compared to only 33 percent last year (see graph below). The remaining 56 percent of awards will support non-profit and community-based organizations in reaching and training new farmers.

While funding this year is split equally between nonprofits and universities, it is concerning that this year marks a shift back towards a greater focus on university led projects. In the creation of the program in the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress included a specific legislative priority to partnerships with non-profit and community-based organizations – recognizing the important role that these partners can play in training the next generation of farmers.

Graphic displaying Academic vs. Nonprofit-led BFRDP Projects (FY 2009-2018)

As shown in the graph above, the ratio of BFRDP academic vs. nonprofit-led projects has vacillated over the last decade, typically hovering around a 60-40 split in favor of nonprofit projects. In the first year of BFRDP, however, the pendulum swung decidedly in favor of academic-led projects – only 38 percent of grants were awarded to non-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or community benefit organization (CBO)-led initiatives in 2009.

By 2010, thanks in part to the advocacy of NSAC and other beginning farmer organizations, the number of nonprofit-led projects jumped to over 60 percent and had stayed at that level for the past 8 years. FY 2018 marks the first year since the program’s first round of grants that the number of projects led by nonprofits fell below 60 percent. This sudden shift raises concerns within the beginning farmer training community about whether or not nonprofit organizations are adequately receiving the priority intended in BFRDP’s founding legislation. Certainly, many of the projects led by universities may involve non-profit partners, but the support roles that partners play in designing and implementing a project is often very different from that of being the lead project manager.

Following the trend in recent years, the average grant to university-led projects was typically larger than those led by nonprofit organizations ($573,087 compared with $452,315), with the average project coming in roughly at $500,000. This signals that university-led projects tend to be larger than nonprofit projects and may also include additional administrative expenses (including often significant indirect costs required by most academic institutions).

Since the first days of BFRDP, NSAC has worked closely with USDA to ensure that non-profit and community-based organizations – those who work most closely with farmers on the ground and have been the leaders in beginning farmer training for decades (including those profiled above) – are fully supported through BFRDP. We will continue to lead this advocacy work going forward, as we also push for a new and improved version of BFRDP through the new FOTO program.

To view a complete list of funded projects for FY2018, click here for Standard Grants and here for Educational Enhancement Grants.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Grants and Programs


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