NSAC's Blog

A Closer Look at the 2018 Farm Bill: Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program

February 19, 2019

Veteran and beginning farmers receive beginning farmer training. Photo credit: University of Arkansas
Beginning farmers and military veteran farmers participate in a skill building and training program. Photo credit: University of Arkansas

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a multi-part blog series digging deeper into some of the new programs and policies of the 2018 Farm Bill. These posts detail how the new farm bill is likely to impact core sustainable agriculture programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previous posts focused on: working lands conservation, local and regional food systems, and nutrition incentive and anti-hunger programs.

As farmers across the country scour seed catalogs and begin sketching out plans for the upcoming season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is busy scouring the new farm bill and working out how to stand up the hundreds of new programs and policies mandated by Congress. Included among those is the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) Program, a new umbrella program designed to coordinate USDA training and outreach to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers.

Thanks to the provision of $435 million in mandatory federal grant funding for FOTO over the next ten years, this new program will be able to permanently protect beginning and SD farmer resources. FOTO will also enable its component programs – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka “Section 2501”) – to better serve their constituencies by establishing consistency in grant terms, priority for non-profit and community-based organizations, regional balance in funding, external peer review, and a cap on indirect costs for both BFRDP and 2501 grants.

There are, however, some programmatic changes that are complex to navigate. It is important therefore that organizations serving beginning and SD farmer communities understand all of the changes mandated in the new farm bill that will come as part of FOTO, and that they remain active during the implementation process.

In this post, we take a deeper dive into the new FOTO program, outline what changes are in store for future grants, and highlight key questions surrounding program implementation.

What is FOTO?

FOTO is a new initiative established in the 2018 Farm Bill that combines two of USDA’s flagship training and technical assistance programs for beginning and SD producers – BFRDP and Section 2501.

For over a decade, BFRDP has served as the only federal grant program explicitly dedicated to training the next generation of farmers – including veterans and farmers of color. The Section 2501 program is dedicated to helping our nation’s historically underserved producers gain access to USDA credit, commodity, conservation and other programs and services and has been serving these communities for nearly three decades.

Section 12301 of the Agriculture Improvement Act (aka “2018 Farm Bill) establishes FOTO by combining the statutory authorities for BFRDP and 2501 into a single program (now located within the farm bill’s Miscellaneous Title). The broad purpose of FOTO is to “encourage and assist socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, veteran farmers and ranchers, and beginning farmers and ranchers in the ownership and operation of farms and ranches through (1) education and training; and (2) equitable participation in all agricultural programs of the Department” [7 U.S.C. 2279(b)].

While consolidated in law, both BFRDP and Section 2501 will maintain their historic program integrity and continue to be administered separately. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will continue to administer BFRDP, and the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE) will administer Section 2501.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) was a leading advocate for FOTO, and we were pleased to see that many of the enacted changes to BFRDP and 2501 were reflective of recommendations made in NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill Platform. Proposals from several marker bills championed by NSAC, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act and Assist Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Act, were also included in the final farm bill.

Changes to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP)

In addition to providing mandatory funding for and streamlining BFRDP and Section 2501 under FOTO, the final 2018 Farm Bill also makes several important programmatic changes to each.

As part of FOTO, several changes to BFRDP’s grant priorities and procedures have been modified (though the grant terms are unchanged). For one, BFRDP will now place a greater emphasis on projects that support farm succession planning (included as a new grant priority) and farmland transfer to new farmers. Specifically, projects may now be targeted towards retiring farmers and non-farming landowners so long as the ultimate aim of the project is to increase opportunities for beginning farmers.

Additional changes include:

  • Grantees may now be eligible to request a waiver to the matching funds requirement if their project targets an “underserved area or population.”
  • For grant projects under $50,000, USDA is required to establish a simplified grant application process.
  • Eligibility criteria remain roughly the same, though municipal agencies (as well as federal, state, and tribal governments) have been added as eligible applicants.
  • Farmers must now be involved in BFRDP project design and implementation (included as a new evaluation criteria for grant proposals).

In addition to these changes, FOTO also adds some new components to BFRDP. FOTO expands BFRDP Educational Team projects (known as “EET grants”) to support not just new farmer curriculum development, but also the development of other types of educational programs and workshops, or training and technical assistance initiatives. These may include, for example, train-the-trainer initiatives for service providers that work directly with beginning farmers.

FOTO also expands priorities for future BFRDP grants to include components on food safety and recordkeeping. With the impending compliance dates surrounding new food safety regulations (as mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act – FSMA), this new focus on beginning farmer training programs that address food safety training will provide a welcomed opportunity to support this critical (and often complicated) work of getting new farmers up to speed on food safety compliance.

The new farm bill also directs NIFA to solicit input from beginning, SD, and veteran farmers – as well as the USDA advisory committees that serve these populations – to ensure BFRDP is fully meeting the needs of farmers. All other components of the program – including cap on indirect costs, set-asides, priority for CBOs and NGOs – remain unchanged.

Changes to the Section 2501 Program

In establishing FOTO, the new farm bill also makes several changes to the underlying 2501 Program that increase the program’s transparency, accountability and responsiveness to stakeholders.

One of the most significant changes is the requirement for USDA to administer the program using an external (rather than internal) peer review process. BFRDP (and other programs administered by NIFA) use an external peer review process in order to evaluate and recommend proposals for funding. Farmers, non-profit organizations, extension agents, as well as former or prospective grantees, are eligible to serve on BFRDP’s peer review panel. The peer review panel is charged with reviewing and making funding determinations for each submitted proposal. Historically, Section 2501 has relied on USDA staff to review and evaluate funded applications, rather than external stakeholders. This “black box” approach has left farmers and organizations largely in the dark in terms of providing input into the most effective strategies and approaches to best assist farmers of color.

Additionally, the farm bill establishes a new priority for 2501 grants that are led by community-based and non-profit organizations with expertise working with socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers. The bill also requires regional balance in Section 2501 grant funding. Similar to changes made to BFRDP, USDA is now required to solicit input from organizations and institutions serving these communities to ensure that the program is responsive to their needs.

In an effort to better streamline the two FOTO programs, the farm bill also establishes grant terms for 2501 grants that are consistent with BFRDP grants. No project can receive more than $250,000 per year for a maximum of three years, and the cap on indirect costs is 10 percent.

Reporting requirements on 2501 program activities are also expanded under FOTO. In addition to requiring the program to report on the problems and barriers identified by grantees in trying to increase participation by socially disadvantaged farmers, it must now also report:

  • Number of farms started, maintained, or improved as a result of 2501 grant funding; and
  • Actions taken by USDA and 2501 grantees to enhance participation in agricultural programs by veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers, and the effectiveness of such actions.

Hopefully, this information will help to produce more effective outreach and technical assistance programs and ultimately increase usage of USDA programs by farmers of color and other underserved producer communities.

Funding Structure

In creating FOTO, the new farm bill provides permanent “baseline” funding for both BFRDP and Section 2501 – a historic victory for beginning farmers and other underserved communities. This sends an important signal that long-term investments are needed to ensure the success of the next generation of farmers and to address systemic historical inequities in accessing resources.

In total, the new farm bill provides $435 million in mandatory funding for FOTO over the next ten years, split equally between BFRDP and 2501. Initial funding starts at $30 million in fiscal years (FY) 2019 and 2020 ($15 million for each program). While this represents a $5 million increase in funding for 2501 grants (compared to current levels), it also means a $5 million decrease in funding for BFRDP grants for the next two funding cycles – increasing competition for limited funding. The FY 2019 appropriations bill recently signed into law includes an additional $3 million for Section 2501– bringing total grant funding for FY 2019 to $18 million (nearly double the amount of funding available the year prior).

By FY 2021, each program will have $17.5 million in grant funding available, $20 million in FY 2022, and funding will plateau for both programs at $25 million per year in FY 2023 and each year thereafter. Thanks to the farm bill’s designation of baseline funding, BFRDP and Section 2501 will no longer be at risk of shutting down at the end of each farm bill cycle – a historic and hard-won accomplishment.

Additionally, 5 percent of annual funding for both BFRDP and 2501 will be set aside for administration, outreach, and evaluation – including administering the peer review panels and convening annual Project Director’s meetings.

In addition to mandatory farm bill funding, Congress authorized an additional $50 million per year in discretionary funding for FOTO. At NSAC’s annual convening last month, our members approved FOTO as a top funding priority for the coming year. We will therefore be working closely with our members and supporters across the country to continue increasing funding for FOTO in order to bring BFRDP funding back to its historic levels.

Rolling out FOTO: Implementation Outlook

At present, detailed timelines or plans for how USDA will implement FOTO are still unknown. Due to the recent government shutdown, many farm bill implementation efforts have been delayed. We do, however, anticipate that BFRDP and 2501 will largely be implemented and continue to operate much in the same way they did under the 2014 Farm Bill.

Although delayed, we expect FY 2019 Requests for Applications (RFAs) to be released later this spring. NIFA intends to hold a webinar as soon as the BFRDP RFA is released, which will walk stakeholders through major changes and answer any questions from prospective applicants. Similarly, we expect OPPE to release an RFA for the 2501 program, however, the timeline for that is still uncertain.

Questions remain regarding how new authorities or functions of the programs will be implemented – chief among them, the new external peer review process within the 2501 program. No formal rulemaking is expected for either program, and information has yet to be released from USDA regarding how they will solicit stakeholder input on implementing the changes made in the farm bill.

What to Watch for As Implementation Moves Forward 

There are as yet many unknowns regarding how USDA will move forward in implementing FOTO. Key questions that NSAC will be watching (and weighing in on with USDA) include:

How will NIFA define “underserved population or area” in order for BFRDP grantees to request a waiver?  

In our review of barriers to securing BFRDP grant funding, we have heard time and time again how difficult it can be for smaller and limited capacity non-profit and community-based organizations to meet the program’s 25 percent matching funds requirement. While we hoped the 2018 Farm Bill would create consistency with Section 2501 (which doesn’t require a match), Congress instead provided a waiver option to the existing BFRDP match. NSAC urges NIFA to consider a variety of factors in determining whether or not to grant a waiver request, including giving priority to non-profit and community-based organizations that have limited capacity and/or are working with underserved communities.

What will the simplified grant application look like for BFRDP? 

Similarly, many non-profit organizations struggle with the onerous and often complicated and time-consuming grant application process for BFRDP grants. NSAC has for years pushed NIFA to develop a more streamlined and simplified process for non-profit and community-based organizations, who often lack a dedicated grants specialist to assist with the application process. We will continue to work with NIFA in order to determine ways to streamline and simplify applications for non-profit and community-based organizations.

How will OPPE stand up external peer review for the 2501 program? 

One of the most significant changes in the farm bill is the new peer review process now required for 2501 grants. It remains to be seen, however, whether OPPE has the capacity to manage and administer an external peer review process internally. If not, they may opt to partner with an agency with more capacity, infrastructure and expertise in grant making, such as NIFA.

How will OPPE implement grant terms for 2501 projects?  

Currently, 2501 applicants are only able to receive grant funding for a single year, and must reapply (and recompete) for funding every year. This is obviously an inefficient use of the often limited capacity and resources of community-based and non-profit organizations whose primary mission is to assist farmers. NSAC encourages OPPE to allow organizations to apply for the maximum three year grant authorized under the 2018 Farm Bill in order to better support longer grant projects that yield more impactful and measurable outcomes.

Farmer and Stakeholder Input Needed in 2019

As USDA moves forward with implementing the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers and service providers alike will play a critical role in ensuring that FOTO meets their needs and expectations. As an early supporter of FOTO, NSAC plans to remain active throughout the implementation process, and will publicize all opportunities for stakeholders to submit comments and recommendations to USDA.

Once the administrative details of FOTO are hammered out and the program is ready to begin accepting applications for funding, NSAC will provide detailed program and application information via our blog and our Grassroots Guide to Federal Food and Farm Programs.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill

Comments are closed.