This post was written and originally published by the Land Stewardship Project, a farmer-based NSAC member organization.
This week, the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) released their annual report on grants allocated through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). Completed now for the fifth year, in collaboration with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), these annual progress reports are a measure of the success of BFRDP in providing public support for effective training, education, and assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers throughout the United States.
LSP has long made beginning farmer training and education a top priority, both through their Farm Beginnings program, and in their priorities for public policy change. They believe that, with a lot of hard work, there is opportunity in agriculture, and that smart, cost-effective public policy can provide support to beginning farmers that can be instrumental to their success.
Starting from that conviction, LSP, working with NSAC’s policy team and other NSAC member organizations, helped lead a nationwide effort that led to the passage and funding of progressive beginning farmer policies in the 2008 Farm Bill. The creation of BFRDP was a result of that hard work, that since 2009 has been an important tool in supporting the next generation of American farmers. The program remains the only federal program exclusively dedicated to training new farmers.
Community Organizations Drive BFRDP’s Success
Since the program was first created in 2009, BFRDP has directed more than $90 million to 184 projects all across the country. This represents a major public investment in beginning farmer education and training and has supported the efforts of many NSAC member organizations and other community-based organizations who have had a long-standing history of working with beginning farmers on the ground.
With increasingly high demand for program funding, it is critical that these public dollars are used as effectively as possible and enable community-based, farmer driven organizations to provide resources and support for new farmers. That’s why NSAC and LSP and our beginning farmer allies across the country successfully advocated for a specific priority within BFRDP to target funding to projects led by community-based organizations in the last two farm bill debates.
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’s 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 gave real priority to community-based organizations, as directed to do so in statute. Such grassroots and farmer-driven organizations are often best 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. As evidenced by the hard work of many of NSAC member organizations, 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.
Concerning Program Trends
That’s why it is concerning that in 2014, as documented in LSP’s Progress Report, less than half of total 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 target funding for socially disadvantaged and low resource farmers who have not always been well-served by federal programs. Though funding for projects targeted to socially disadvantaged farmers dropped somewhat in 2014 compared with the last few years, it is encouraging that BFRDP continues to invest substantially—this year nearly half of overall funding—in programs that serve socially disadvantaged farmers. 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.
Recommendations for Improving BFRDP
The full report released this week contains many more details regarding the distribution of grants, and recommendations for the continued success and improvement of the program. 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, NSAC and 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.