With BFRDP, Grassworks Resists Corporate Dairying by Training Young Ranchers

In Wisconsin, as in most of the country, the path to becoming a teacher or a lawyer is well defined. But suppose you want to become a dairy farmer without a farm to inherit: That career path is less certain. And, with an aging population of farmers, it’s more important than ever to educate the next generation of ranchers. Many farms without successors are being sold to become large animal confinement operations. Wisconsin’s Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards and GrassWorks Inc, a non-profit that provides leadership, education and resources for grass-based farmers, are offering an alternative. Their apprenticeship program is graduating a group of beginning ranchers trained in “managed grazing” and ready to own their own dairy farms.

Nate in the field

The Grassworks Apprenticeship Program, thanks to funding from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP,) hires beginning ranchers to work for a “Master Dairy Grazier” for a two-year, 4000 paid-hours program that includes 288 hours of off-farm instruction, from classes in technical schools to training on herd nutrition and holistic management. During these two years, the apprentices are working towards their goal of farm ownership, whether it is moving into an equity earning system or initiating a farm transfer. Program manager Joe Tomandl reports these individual farm businesses based on managed grazing “…have real success, and they make money. They keep local communities going. They make upper middle class business people and a lot of quality jobs. There’s a real potential for rural economic development here too. And that isn’t saying anything about the environmental benefits.”

Nate Weisenfeld, one of the 11 apprentices in the 2010-12 cohort, fell in love with agriculture on his grandparent’s dairy farm. He worked on a dairy while earning a degree in dairy science and, after graduation, began buying a half-calf each paycheck instead of being paid in cash. After four years he was able to leave the dairy and start milking his own cows. In 2010, he bought a house and 80 acres. Nate serves as a model beginning rancher for the Grassworks Apprenticeship Program. Although he was on track to starting his own business before participating in the program, he has benefited greatly from its resources, especially the network. This summer, when he had some issues he was able to call upon the group for help. “I have a whole Rolodex of experienced farmers… They come out in the field, walk through the pastures and say ‘Here is what I think.’”

Without the BFRDP and the Grassworks Apprenticeship Program, Nate believes he would be working at a factory punching a button. Nate struggled with obtaining loans from regular commercial banks before receiving training from the program. Starting a farm is just too difficult to do alone, he says “It’s absolutely crucial that we have this program.”

Have you signed the petition to support a better Farm Bill?  It’s not too late: sign up now.

South Dakota Trains a Network of Beginning Ranchers with Help from BFRDP Funding

Ken Olson is the extension beef specialist at South Dakota State’s West River Agricultural Center. He came to South Dakota from Montana, where he grew up on a farm that ultimately wasn’t large enough to support both him and his brother. Though he teaches agricultural science for a living at SDSU, the highlight of his career has been his work developing an exciting rancher training program funded by the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers’ Development Program (BFRDP.) The program has allowed him to expand his reach to beginning ranchers with fledgling businesses who need more technical assistance and connections. The program, called BEEFSD, is a partnership between the SDSU extension and the South Dakota Farm Bureau. When the project received funding in 2010, 46 individuals representing 30 operations began a three year training program which includes classroom time, field trips to established ranches, guest speaker lectures, and networking opportunities.

The most satisfying aspect of the program for Ken is the creation of a close community among the cohort. “It’s a bright young bunch of people,” Ken says. “We have helped them establish a network among themselves and we are really promoting networking and learning from each other.” The education they receive is exponentially increased, as each rancher is quick to share new knowledge with the others. Ken explains, “…the time on the bus is almost as valuable as the trip because of all that networking.” The program also introduces participants to mid to late-life successful ranchers who have a lot of wisdom and experience to draw from. Through visits to their ranches and guest lectures, participants are given an opportunity to create a support network of experienced mentors.

You can help strengthen programs like BEEFSD:

Tell Congress to support the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program today.

Ken and his colleagues would love to continue the program with a new cohort of beginning ranchers, but without BFRDP funding the future of the program is bleak. BEEFSD even has some money left over from their 2010 grant, but because BFRDP funding doesn’t roll over after three years, the team needs to start from scratch. For Ken, it’s essential the program and funding for farmer training programs continue. “It doesn’t seem like a lot of people. But it’s 46 people whose futures have been positively impacted. If we can keep this thing going we can build on what we’ve started here. These 46 people are young, excited and motivated. They are active learners, they really energize me. They are going to be the future leaders of South Dakota.”

If you would like to help programs like BEEFSD succeed in the future, please help advocate for the BFRDP in the next Farm Bill. If you haven’t yet signed the petition, click here to join the call!

The Farm Bill’s Real Impact – BFRDP Helps Train the Next Generation

My name is Sophie Ackoff, I have been an apprentice at Glynwood Farm.  Like so many other beginning farmers today, I don’t come from a farming family and I have no land or agricultural skills to inherit from my parents. 

I believe that the government needs to support beginning farmers and shouldn’t short-change farmer training programs.  Please act now to send that message to Congress.

Sophie in the fields at Glywood

I grew up in suburban Southern California, a region historically filled with citrus groves that ultimately succumbed to pressure from developers.  Our family vacations always involved driving past the confined beef and dairy operations of the Central Valley, and at a young age I became active in the fight against industrial farming.

Still, I did not witness how broccoli and Brussels sprouts grew until I went to college.  At Wesleyan University, I discovered my love of farming at the student-run organic farm, Long Lane.  Despite having few academic opportunities in sustainable agriculture, an incredible number of Wesleyan students are starting to farm thanks to alternative training programs such as farm apprenticeships and incubators.  Seeing several friends graduate and begin farming, I realized a career in the field was a feasible possibility for young, idealistic kids like me who are eager to transform our broken food system.

I believe the BFRDP is a major reason why my friends and I are optimistic about having a future in farming.

Tell Congress to support the BFRDP in the next Farm Bill today.

In 2008, the federal government finally recognized the need to support beginning farmer training programs – that build future farmers like me – and provided $75 million in direct farm bill funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  In just a few years, this program has helped launch pioneering farmer training programs across the country, such as  Holistic Management International’s Beginning Women Farmers program, Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings, and the Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana’s Farmer Incubator.  The programs funded by the BFRDP are creating unique opportunities for young people who might not otherwise have had access to affordable farm training.

For my first full-season apprenticeship, I chose the Glynwood Center because of the organization’s dedication to helping to train the next generation of farmers.  Glynwood is a non-profit organization located in New York’s Hudson Valley, whose mission is to “save farming by strengthening farming communities and regional food systems.”  We have a working farm in Cold Spring, NY that has a hundred-member CSA and a pasture-based livestock operation.  After receiving a grant for a feasibility study from the BFRDP, the organization has now leased additional land to launch a farmer training program that expands our current apprenticeship program.

In the Northeast, there are many first-year apprenticeship opportunities.  Glynwood hopes to grow farmers by nurturing the business and management skills that complement on-farm, hands-on apprenticeships, from budgeting to navigating loans and leases.  There is a real need for programs that cultivate those apprentices in subsequent seasons and help young farmers transition to management roles, so they can ultimately operate their own farm enterprise.  Glynwood’s BFRDP-funded program will expand the number of apprentices they train each year, and include ample classroom time devoted to strengthening skills needed for the business side of farming.  After a season or two, beginning farmers have a solid skill set but lack access to affordable farmland and capital, and could benefit from mentorship and equipment sharing.  These are critical next steps.

As of October 1st, the BFRDP has no renewed farm bill funding and the future of emerging, established, and new beginning farmer training programs is now in jeopardy.  I am a young farmer, and an organizer for NYFC because I believe the entire country has a vital stake in the future of America’s young farmers.

If the BFRDP’s future is uncertain, so is ours, and so is our nation’s food security.  Tell Congress not to slash America’s agricultural future today.

(This post also appeared on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s blog earlier this month as a part of their “Stories from the Field” series documenting the real impact of the Farm Bill.)


NYFC Signs on to Call for Investing in Beginning and Underserved Farmers

LSP logoNYFC has joined with the Land Stewardship Project and other agriculture organizations around the country in signing on to an organizational letter to Congress calling for proper investment in USDA programs supporting a bright future for American agriculture when they reconvene after the election.

The letter urges action on a new farm bill along with inclusion/investment in two key programs: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Rancher Program.  Both of these programs are included in the draft Senate and House Ag Committee bills but both have also expired and have no future funding.  As popular and in high-demand programs to lose them in the next year would be a travesty.

If you work with another ag-based organization, please consider signing on as well!  The petition is available here. The deadline to join is November 2, 2012.  The LSP will deliver the letter to House and Senate agriculture leadership the week of November 12.

The Importance of Farmer Training Programs

UCSC ApprenticeshipThousands of farmers and ranchers from around the country have benefited from trainings and educational events paid for by the USDA’s funding initiative, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. 

However, all these trainings are at risk unless Congress backs down on its attempt to use the program as a budgetary scapegoat: in the next couple weeks, they will most likely put together a temporary Farm Bill, and the BFRDP may be pulled onto the chopping block.

The program is widely considered one of the USDA’s most successful programs – since it received funding in 2008, this program has supported 145 different training programs, from apprenticeship programs in Illinois to legal aid for farmers in Nebraska.  This year alone, forty programs, from Mississippi to Nebraska to Washington, have worked to inspire and train the next generation of American farmers with the help of the BFRDP.   More information and a complete list of funded programs is available at NYFC’s Spotlight on the BFRDP.

That is why we created a Change.org petition to let Congress know where their priorities should lie.  We need a sensible Farm Bill – one that addresses the drought crisis of the midwest – without shortsightedly slashing funding for the nation’s agricultural future.

Could you take a minute to tell your representative to support this program today?

For the Native and the New

It was less than 90 years ago when the perfect storm of environmental destruction culminated from the combination of poor farming practices and brutal drought conditions. The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s is the reminder of what consequences result from the work of over-ambitious, newly settled farmers. In return for neglecting the delicate balance of the ecosystem, they reaped what they had sowed in excess.  The careless exploitation of the soil resulted in large-scale erosion and the native grasses that were so very effective in retaining moisture and renewing soil nutrients were stripped away. In retrospect, the Dust Bowl really cannot be classified as a big surprise, given these details.


The droughts this summer are a relatively gentle reminder of what can happen if we neglect the land that sustains us. According to recent reports, “nearly 90 percent of the corn and soybeans on American farms have been damaged or destroyed” due to the weather. Although farming practices have certainly been re-evaluated and improved upon since the Dirty Thirties, another tipping point of agricultural reform is in currently our hands. The conservation of native grasses has often been overlooked amidst the ambition of large scale farming, as well as the demand for cheap and easy food.


Here is where Amendment #55 of the Farm Bill comes into play. The SodSaver provision was designed to “conserve critical natural and economic resources by reducing crop insurance premium subsidies on native prairie acres that are planted to crops.” So far, this legislation only applies to a small part of the Great Plains, specifically the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). The goal of the recent amendment was to extend it to be nationwide, and to result in a 10-year savings of $66 million, which would be contributed towards the reduction of the deficit as well as the Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).


The native grasses of South Dakota

Native grasslands are very critical, but very threatened. The grasses provide invaluable ecological benefits including “wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, erosion control.” If the valuable native lands are neglected and legislature allows too much land to be used for agricultural production, the long-term costs of erosion and nutrient loss will ultimately be evident in a loss of water quality and reduced capacity to mitigate water flow. The “50 percent point reduction in the subsidy” was proposed to prevent people from relying on insurance coverage to plant as much as they could without care for the consequences to the soil, as well as to prevent the unchecked allocation of taxpayer’s dollars towards this expense. Recent reports have clearly stated, “as federal crop insurance subsidies continue to grow, soil continues to erode on 100 million acres at unsustainable levels, and wetlands continue to be lost.” This amendment has never been more essential since the majority of the endangered prairie territory lies outside of the region covered currently.


Additionally, this amendment proposes increased support for beginning farmers. Currently, over 50% of the nation’s farmers will be reaching retirement age in 10 years or less, resulting in the critical need to start expanding farming programs for the young now. The BFRDP provides training and assistance through grants and community organizations, all of which have been shown to be successful and very effective. Yet its funding has been cut from $19 to $10 million per year. The amendment aims for a compromise of $17 million per year.


But unfortunately, Amendment #55 failed to pass. The main opposition stated that the provision would infringe upon the American individual’s rights to do what he pleases with his own land. However, considering both the environmental and economic ramifications of the Sodsaver amendment, it is what makes practical sense in the long term. There were some critical amendments that did pass, including ones for organic crop insurance and microloans for beginning farmers. Though this progress should not be devalued, there are still issues that have the potential to grow and influence change on a larger scale.


Amendment #55 of the 2012 Farm Bill is critical to the conservation of important lands that preserve the ecological and historical balance of America, as well as supporting the next generation of farmers who have the onus of shaping the future of farming. Careless farming, of course, is not the sole culprit of environmental destruction, but neglecting its effect would be just as harmful as actively encouraging pollution in air and water.  You can still show your support by reaching out to your Senator’s office directly via their direct lines. You can ask about speaking to the staff responsible for agricultural issues or by leaving a message. Voicing your support can result in a synergistic effect; it is what you can do to contribute to the fate of ecological conservation and American agriculture.

North Carolina is Building its Local Food Economy by Supporting Beginning Farmers

In North Carolina, there is no shortage of support for local food but there is a real need for young farmers able to produce it. In 2007, North Carolina’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was struck by how much food the state imports from far away places. CEFS, which provides agricultural research and education for the state asked the question: Can we build a sustainable local food economy from farm to fork? To explore this question, a statewide Farm-to-Fork Summit was held and a campaign was born. The 10% Campaign is based on a simple idea. If just 10% of consumers’ food dollars are spent supporting local food producers, that money will stay in the state and lead to more economically and environmentally sustainable communities.

Mike Morris of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) became involved in the project when he joined the consumer outreach and marketing subcommittee at the Farm-to-Fork Summit. The committee decided that forces in the local food movement should be marshaled in support of beginning farmers. A coalition composed of the CEFS, NCAT, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Counciland the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service came together to create a project that would both harness the passion and power of the local food movement in North Carolina and turn peoples’ attention to the issues beginning farmers face.  North Carolina is a place blessed with direct market potential, Mike Morris explains. It offers a unique combination of fairly large cities in close proximity to farmland. And for an Eastern state, it enjoys a relatively intact farming base. There are also excellent farmer training programs and a grassroots farming association already in place.

Mike Morris applied to the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) in its second year to launch the program Bringing New Farmers to the Table. Bringing New Farmers to the Table’s goal is to make support for beginning farmers an integral part of North Carolina’s 10% Campaign. The Farm-to-Fork Summit had established an impressive system of 100 cooperative extension “local food coordinators” in each of the state’s counties to connect farmers with markets. Instead of training young farmers one by one, the Bringing New Farmers to the Table trains these coordinators who then train farmers in issues from business planning to risk management to accessing farmland. 

Jacksonville/Onslow County is one of the five communities selected statewide to establish incubator farms

The program is multi-pronged, but when asked its most exciting aspect, Mike immediately points to the incubator program. The program works with communities who have vacant public land and who are interested in turning that land into training grounds for farmers. To date, they have chosen to support five very diverse communities, including an incubator project of the non-profit LINC: Leading into New Communities that works with individuals returning from incarceration in New Hanover County.

Bringing New Farmers to the Table wouldn’t exist without BFRDP funding. Thanks to this farm bill grant, a diverse group of partners has been brought together to strengthen support for beginning farmers in the state.  The program is able to support a full time staffer, Joann Lelekacs who works on the incubator initiative and who is constantly brainstorming ways to support beginning farmers. An attorney Andrew Branan is able to provide legal education services to dozens of beginning farmers each year. And the BFRDP funding provides scholarships for farmers and cooperative extension agents to attend the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s annual conference. Mike told me “…there is a real crisis going on. People want to see lots of new farmers. It’s a hard thing to deliver or prove in a short time period.” But Mike feels really good about the work that Bringing Farmers to the Table has already accomplished. Work, he believes, “absolutely couldn’t exist without the BFRDP funding.”

Pioneering Latino Farmer Training in Louisiana

Kathia Duran and three LFCL members

When Kathia Duran, now the Executive Director of the Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana, began selling her cheeses at farmers’ markets in the New Orleans area, she was one of only three Latino vendors. Although many of her fellow Latinos were also agriculturalists in the region,  they did not have opportunities to access the direct sales market. She recognized within the Latino community a great interest in getting involved in agricultural projects, but noted a lack of culturally appropriate programs and services reaching out to them. Her idea? To address both food access issues in the New Orleans area and the poor socioeconomic conditions of newly arriving Latinos with a single solution. In 2008, the Latino Farmers Cooperative of Louisiana (LFCL) was formed to provide training and access to resources so that Latino members could begin to grow healthy food and develop micro-horticulture enterprises.

The LFCL consists of 250 Latino farmer members who are active participants in the making of the organization. The cooperative caters to the needs of the Latino immigrant community, specifically those of permanent United States residents who either have experience in agriculture but no access to land, or have existing operations but are experiencing difficulties. Since the primary challenge for beginning Latino farmers is land access, the cooperative’s Farmer Incubator Program walks its farmers through the entire process, including representing the farmer to the real estate agency and the bank, filling out the loan application, and writing a business plan and budget. The LFCL also connects its beginning farmers with established farm mentors. Once in the program, participants are encouraged to come to the Cooperative for any resources he or she may need. “We are going to walk them through the entire year.” says director Kathia. 

The majority of grant funding for agricultural projects in the United States is targeted to areas–such as the Northwest and Northeast–where programs are well established and consistent funding has supported the development of successful models. In Louisiana, the Latino Farmers Cooperative is the only game in town. As a pioneer project, the cooperative has benefited immensely from a development grant under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Fund. Kathia says the organization is very unique in what it does, but cannot do it without funding. The grant money is used to initiate research and to develop the culturally appropriate curriculum. But since the grant is awarded over a three-year period ending in August 2012, Kathia is worried about funding for next year. Without a renewed grant from the USDA, “We pretty much have to stop until we find funding from another source. It’s very much needed.” She is grateful for the BFRDP and believes USDA funding should be channeled to areas and communities that have not been traditionally funded.