Today, the average age of an American farmer is 58.3 years, an increase of 8.3 years since 1980. The steady rise in average farmer age over the past three decades underscores the need to bring new farmers into the U.S. agricultural sector.
To help attract the next generation of American farmers, Congress created the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), the only federal program that focuses on training the next generation of farmers and ranchers. BFRDP operates as a federal grant program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), that provides funding to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions to establish new farmer training programs.
Each year, the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), a member organization of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), in conjunction with NSAC, issues a progress report that analyzes and measures BFRDP’s successes and areas for future development. The 2015 BFRDP Progress Report was published last week and is available on LSP’s website.
Key findings from the report are summarized below. A detailed list of the projects funded in 2015 can be found in our previous blog post.
Demand for BFRDP support has steadily increased since its inception in 2009. The 2015 funding year saw the highest number of applications to date (221), but with a relatively constant funding stream, that increased demand translated into the lowest success (acceptance) rate since the first year of the program.
BFRDP Funding and Demand
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) evaluates proposed BFRDP projects and determines funding priorities using statutory evaluation criteria and an external peer review process. In 2015, 139 applications, or 63 percent of all applications, were rated highly enough to be recommended for funding. However, only a quarter of those projects were awarded due to lack of available funding.
Breakdown of 2015 Funding
In fiscal year (FY) 2015, just over $17.7 million was awarded. Of this total:
- 61 percent supported projects led by community-based organizations (CBOs) or non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
- 39 percent supported projects led by universities and academic institutions
This funding distribution represents a return to historical programmatic funding trends, and stands in stark comparison to last year, in which a majority of funding went to academic institutions. While USDA is required by statute to prioritize funding for projects that “partner with” CBOs and NGOs, they have not always prioritized projects “led by” CBOs and NGOs.
LSP and NSAC applaud USDA’s return a focus on CBO and NGO-led projects. We have strongly advocated for increased funding and prioritization of these projects, as projects with CBO and NGO leadership are significantly more likely to involve direct input from farmers and rural community members.
We were also pleased that BFRDP underscored the requirement that CBO/NGO partnerships be priorities in their 2015 Request for Applications. This year, 24 projects (about 75 percent) reported partnership with one or more CBO/NGO or academic institution. This is up by 25 percent compared to 2014.
The difference in average award size between grants led by academic institutions and CBO/NGOs was the lowest in BFRDP history in 2015, though the average award for academic institutions is still $100,000 greater than any project led by a CBO/NGO.
In general, grants were slightly smaller in size this year, with 80 percent of total funding (21 grants) made in excess of $500,000. Last year 83 percent of total funding supported grants over $500,000.
Socially Disadvantaged and Limited Resource Farmers
Of the 31 projects for which data was collected, 21 specifically direct outreach towards socially disadvantaged and limited resource farmers – including ethnic minorities, farmworkers, and tribal producers. The vast majority (65 percent) of awardees interviewed will target a portion of their programming to these underserved farmers, committing a total of $7.6 million (43 percent of total BFRDP funds) for 2015. While this is well above the minimum 5 percent statutory requirement for projects supporting socially disadvantaged farmers, the funding in 2015 is down by 3 percent compared to last year’s funding levels, and down 15 percent from 2012.
Military Veteran Farmers
Military veteran farmers are also included in the mandatory 5 percent set-aside. Fourteen of this year’s funded BFRDP projects target a portion of their programming to farmer veterans. Of the 14 projects with a veteran farmer focus, two have committed 100 percent of their outreach and programming to this group. In total, 10 percent of BFRDP 2015 funding, or $1.7 million, will go towards supporting veteran farmers, slightly lower than the amount in FY 2014.
BFRDP is a critical part of ensuring the success of American agriculture for the generations to come. That is why LSP and NSAC continuously assess the program and look for ways it can be strengthened. In order to increase the effectiveness of BFRDP and its impact on American farmers, NSAC and LSP have made the following recommendations:
- Increase Funding: As the data clearly shows, demand for BFRDP grants far exceeds available funds. For this reason we recommend that Congress substantially increase BFRDP funding in the 2018 Farm Bill. Only a quarter of eligible applications received funding this year, meaning that 75 percent of those applicants had to scramble to find additional funding sources, or in many cases were not able to bring their project to fruition at all.
- Reduce Maximum Grant Size: LSP and NSAC also urge USDA to reduce the maximum award amount to $500,000 over three years. This will spread the available funding to a wider pool of applicants, allowing more well deserving projects to get off the ground.
- Continue Focus on Underserved Farmers: BFRDP is particularly valuable in communities that have been historically underserved by existing agricultural education structures. So that BFRDP continues to serve these communities of high need, LSP and NSAC recommend that USDA continue to target at least 25 percent of total BFRDP funding to projects serving these populations.
A more detailed list of recommendations can be found in the full report.