NSAC's Blog

$16 Million Invested to Train Beginning Farmers – Where Does It Go?

October 29, 2020

Young farmers. Credit: National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC)

Beginning farmers and ranchers face a number of unique circumstances and challenges to establish themselves in the industry, and their path has become no easier in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the Economic Research Service (ERS) published a report that found beginning farmers have higher debt-to-asset ratios, are less likely to receive government support, and are more reliant on off-farm income than more established farmers.

For over a decade, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) has served as the only federal program dedicated to training the next generation of farmers. BFRDP is a grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that is pivotal to reducing these traditional barriers to entry by funding new farmer training programs and projects across the country.

The latest round of BFRDP grant awards – totaling $16.7 million in grant funding – was announced last month. 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, especially those operated by dedicated farmer and community based organizations who work directly with beginning farmers and ranchers every day. 

Program Funding 

Over the past decade, BFRDP has invested over $193 million in public funds into 400+ new farmer training projects in every state across the country and almost all U.S. territories. In the latest round of awards announced for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, BFRDP issued 48 new grants that will invest over $16 million over the next three years to support community-based organizations, cooperative extension, and other organizations to train the next generation of farmers – with a focus on underserved farmers. 

This round of grant recipients is the highest number of new BFRDP projects in a given fiscal year since the program was first established in 2009, with an additional $2 million in grant funding awarded over last year. That said, current funding levels are still below the height of historic funding in 2014, which neared $19 million. The aggregate funding cut can be traced to the 2018 Farm Bill, when Congress created an umbrella program – the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program – to streamline and coordinate USDA resources for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Congress provided permanent funding for BFRDP when creating FOTO, but simultaneously cut annual funding for the program over the next few years. This amounts to a $5 million decrease in grant funding for the 2019 and 2020 funding cycles – increasing competition for limited funding. 

Roughly 28 percent of BFRDP applicants received funding this year, a figure comparable to recent years. Clearly, increased funding is needed as nearly ¾ of projects go unfunded, thus perpetuating the obstacles which can seem insurmountable to aspiring farmers and ranchers who enter the industry without access to financial support. 

Spotlight on Grantees

BFRDP may be a relatively small federal program – doling out millions rather than billions of dollars each year – but its impact is far from small. In this post, we analyze just who received funding this year, but first we invite you to explore a sample of this year’s BFRDP projects to gain an appreciation for the much-needed services and resources provided that otherwise would not exist. 

Congratulations to the following NSAC members on their grant awards:

  • Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) (Iowa) – will use their $552,142 grant to lead the Exploring, Establishing And Enhancing Farm Entrepreneurs Through Decision-Making, Farmer-To-Farmer Training And Networking Building project to guide and equip beginning farmers as they make the journey from aspiring to beginning to intermediate farmers. Through this project, PFI will provide business planning for decision-making, farmer-to-farmer training, and farmer-to-farmer peer support tailored to help farmers explore, build and strengthen their farm businesses.

“We at Practical Farmers of Iowa are really excited to receive this award from USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program,” says Greg Padget, next generation director for Practical Farmers of Iowa. “We know that beginning farmers need different tools to build their businesses as they get more experience under their belts. This funding will allow us to better tailor our programming to individual farmers based on their experience level.”

  • Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) (Massachusetts) – will use their $600,000 grant with Berkshire Grown, Central Mass Grown, and Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership (SEMAP) to provide training and technical assistance support to beginning farmers through a comprehensive program of workshops and direct support designed to meet the needs of beginning farm businesses.

“Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) and our partner organizations are thrilled to receive funding through USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program,” said Kelly Coleman, Program Director. “This funding will enable us to provide essential marketing and business training that is tailored to the needs of individual beginning farmers in Massachusetts.”

  • Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) (Wisconsin) – will use their $539,536 BFRDP grant to strengthen the success of beginning farmers in the Midwest at three unique stages of their growth—the early years (1-3), intermediate (4-6), and advanced (7-10) — by providing farm business and production workshops, peer-to-peer support, and one-to-one mentorship from experienced farmers and farm business experts over three years. The MOSES Farmer Advancement Program will include New Farmer U trainings with our partners in Minnesota (Renewing the Countryside), Illinois (The Land Connection), and Wisconsin (Wisconsin Farmers Union), as well as supportive content at the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

“Beginning farmers must have a good understanding of farm business management as well as knowledge of soil-enhancing production practices to get through the challenging start-up years of farming,” said Audrey Alwell, MOSES Communications Director. “This grant enables MOSES and our partners to help beginning farmers build a solid foundation for successful, climate-resilient organic and sustainable farms.”  

A full listing and descriptions of 2020 BFRDP projects can be found here

FY 2020 Award Trends

In total, BFRDP awarded 48 new projects for FY 2020, totaling over $16 million in federal grant funding to help grow the next generation of farmers over the next three years. FY 2020 program data reveals a number of interesting regional, organizational, and demographic trends about BFRDP grant allocations, with a number of new patterns emerging this year. 

Regional trends

This year’s grants were split relatively equally across U.S. states and territories from a regional perspective – as required by law. The Northeast region appears the nearest exception, which received roughly half the number of awards (8) granted to projects in the South (15). The North Central, Southern, and Western regions combined received 83 percent of the awards in FY 2020. An initial representation of this year’s allocation of awards and funding by region can be found in the table below. 

RegionAwardsAmount (millions)
North Central12$4.1

Looking beyond this arguable discrepancy in this year’s awarded projects, grants have been distributed fairly equally across all regions both in terms of funding and the total number of awards when looking at BFRDP’s total history (see chart below).

Organizational trends

Last year, NSAC celebrated an increase in the number of projects led by community-based organizations (CBOs) after several years of steady decline in funding rates compared with projects led by academic institutions. This year, we report an increase in the number of BFRDP grants that were awarded to projects led by academic institutions (including land-grant universities, technical colleges, and cooperative extension), with fewer projects awarded to CBOs. Community-based organizations and non-profits will lead 60 percent of projects in FY 2020, compared to 75 percent in 2019.

These numbers have ebbed and flowed since the program’s inception, as shown in the graph above, and this year’s 60-40 split in favor of CBO projects is roughly the average over the program’s history. While the number of BFRDP recipients seems to reflect consistent favor with non-profit and community-based organizations since 2010, the hidden discrepancy lay within the funding: the average grant to university-led projects is consistently larger than those led by non-profit organizations. The average grant per academic institutions in FY 2020 is above $400,000 compared to roughly $320,000 for CBOs. 

NSAC has worked since the first days of BFRDP to ensure that CBOs – those who work most closely with farmers on the ground and have been the leaders in beginning farmer training for decades (including our members profiled above) – are fully supported through BFRDP. This preference was first affirmed by Congress in the 2002 Farm Bill, which included a legislative priority for BFRDP projects to partner with non-profit and community-based organizations in recognition of the crucial role they play in training the next generation of farmers. We are disappointed that fewer CBO-led projects are funded this year, and will continue to monitor these trends in future years to ensure that NGOs and CBOs remain a core component of this program moving forward.

Demographic trends

We have referred to the many obstacles faced by beginning farmers and ranchers throughout this blog, but it is important to recognize that the challenges experienced by socially disadvantaged (SDA) (i.e. farmers of color) and veteran beginning farmers are often magnified. In this vein and in accordance with the farm bill, BFRDP sets aside five percent of funds for projects that serve socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, a demographic which includes people of color, immigrants, and farmworkers desiring to become farmers in their own right. There is an additional 5 percent set aside for projects primarily serving military veteran farmers and ranchers. 

No quantitative threshold has been set for the purposes of this analysis to determine if a project may or may not be considered to “primarily” serve SDA or veteran farmers and ranchers. Instead, any project with explicit mention of intent to reach members of either (or both) groups in its summary or objectives is considered to primarily serve these groups. While this process may produce overly-generous estimates, we are confident that this year’s grants primarily serving SDA or veteran farmers and ranchers far exceed the mandatory minimums established above.

RegionSDA AwardsVeteran AwardsTotal Awards
North Central9112
Total34 12 48

This year, 71 percent of BFRDP projects are primarily serving SDA beginning farmers and ranchers (see graph above). This is third only to FY 2012 and FY 2019, where 83 percent and 75 percent of grants primarily served these demographics, respectively. Despite the drop in the number of grants from last year, the total funding for these projects rose considerably; a record 83 percent of total FY 2020 BFRDP funds are going to projects which support SDA beginning farmers and ranchers. 

BFRDP projects which primarily support veterans who aspire to farm, meanwhile, will account for 25 percent of total awards and 24 percent of total funding this year. While these figures are lower than the 40 to 55 percent range reported in 2018 and 2019, after veterans were included in this program, they are still far above the five percent minimum mandatory. Additionally, USDA has rolled out additional targeted funding for veterans through their AgVets program, which awarded $9.6 million to 17 projects specifically tailored to support military veterans transition to farming.  

What’s Next?

Over the past few years, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has endured noticeable cuts in grant funding. That said, the 2018 Farm Bill does provide incremental increases in available funding over the next few years. $17.5 million will be available for BFRDP grants in FY 2021 in addition to any supplemental funding included in Congress’s annual appropriations bills (which have yet to be finalized). Fiscal Years 2022 and 2023 will see $20 million and $25 million reserved, respectively, shattering the previous historic funding levels. 

This increasing, mandatory funding is a victory – there is no question about that. It is important, though, to recall just how few applicants receive grants to implement the projects which are deeply needed by the next generation of farmers to have a chance at feeding their neighbors and country. Increased support for beginning farmers and ranchers – especially those who are considered socially disadvantaged producers – is more necessary now than ever with the economic and health challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. 

It has been said that planting seeds means that you believe in a future. Farmers keep planting seeds despite a pandemic, unprecedented wildfires and storms, and a tumultuous election cycle. NSAC will, in this mold, continue to lead advocacy work alongside our members and champions in Congress to secure additional support for beginning farmers and ranchers – because they are our future. 

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Carousel, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs

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