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Stories from the Field: Making Sustainable Ag Information Accessible to Underserved Farmers

November 15, 2012


Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place.  In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.  This post is part of our 10-week blog series which will feature both program facts and stories from the field of those farmers and communities which are impacted by expired farm bill programs.  To read this week’s earlier post on socially disadvantaged farmers, click here.  

By Rex Dufour, Program Specialist, National Center for Appropriate Technology

Robert Ramming of Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland, CA, discusses with a group of Mien strawberry growers how he grows organic strawberries as part of a 2-day workshop on record keeping and sustainable strawberry production.  Photo Credit: NCAT

The 2501 program has an unwieldy name — the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program — but the program itself is flexible, useful and absolutely necessary in supporting our country’s growing population of diverse farmers and ranchers.

This long-standing program (often referred to as the “2501 Program” after the section of the Farm Bill in which it was created) allows non-profit organizations, such as the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) to develop workshops and appropriate training materials for farmers and ranchers that may not have access to the usual sources of information, such as Extension or USDA resources.

NCAT’s mission is to help people by championing small-scale, local and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources.  To accomplish its mission, NCAT has used the 2501 program to create a portfolio of information that is substantially more accessible to diverse groups of farmers (and for other non-profits that work with these farmers) than most of the huge volumes of information available from traditional information sources and the Web.

These days, with the internet and thousands of websites, facebook posts, twitter feeds, smart phone apps, etc, there’s certainly no shortage of information, but there is a shortage of information that is accessible to and appropriate for many of the farmers that the 2501 Program aims to serve.

Much of the information on agricultural production “out there” is text heavy, and fairly technical, and much of it is very focused on “conventional agriculture”.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but is not appropriate for all farming audiences.  With funding from the 2501 Program, NCAT and our partners have been able to develop user-friendly, graphics-based information in English and Spanish (and some in Hmong), as well as audio-based information and workshops about subjects like organic agriculture, ecological soil management, pasture management, biological pest management, and even food safety, record keeping and budgeting.

NCAT and our partners have used funding from this program to host several workshops on these relevant topics intended for Hmong, Mien, Latino, Native American, and Black growers in a dozen states across the U.S.  The flexible (1-5 year) time frame available to 2501-funded projects is an important component of this program, as it allows time for developing information pieces as well as conducting outreach to these communities in order to develop on-going relationships.

There are some topics that NCAT and our partners present to farmers participating in our 2501-funded projects that no one has ever talked to them about before.  For example, when talking to farmers about how organic matter affects soil function, my colleagues and I are always surprised at some of the reactions: “Nobody ever talked to me about the soil being alive”, “I had no idea about organic matter”, and many other similar comments are heard during and after these kinds of workshops.  The 2501 program allows NCAT to expose these growers to new ideas that will help them grow a successful farming operation, and also to follow up with them, so that they might access other resources available to them, such as Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) technical assistance and cost share programs, as well as USDA loan programs.

USDA’s 2501 program has allowed NCAT and its partners to work with hundreds of farmers of all colors in a dozen states stretching from the west to east coast, helping to train them and answer questions about sustainable crop and livestock production, and to provide additional hundreds of farmers (and many other non-profit organizations) with accessible information about these topics through our ATTRA project.  This incredibly valuable resource (also known as the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) provides information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, extension agents, educators, and others involved in sustainable agriculture in the U.S.

If the 2501 program were to disappear – as it has at least temporarily due to Congress’s inability to pass a new farm bill – NCAT, and many other non-profit organizations around the country would be hard-pressed to train and develop informational materials for farmers that have been historically under-served by traditional outreach and USDA resources.

With the average age of farmers in this country approaching 60, and increasing every year (for every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to Agriculture Department statistics), the 2501 program is also an investment in America’s farming future.

As the most recent election showed, the demographics of this country is changing and just as our overall population is becoming more diverse, so are America’s farmers.  The 2501 program is thus charged with training an important segment of our country’s future farmers that are growing at a faster rate than other farmers.  The millions of dollars that the 2501 program requires to continue providing support for a diverse farming population is a job-creating investment in our farming future that will pay for itself many times over.

To help us fight for a better farm bill that includes funding for socially disadvantaged producers, join our National Day of Action for a better farm bill!


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill


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