This is a new series of blog posts to highlight the amazing programs funded by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. This grant program is slated for a 50% cut in the 2012 Farm Bill.
The Land Stewardship Project has successfully trained young farmers for the past 15 years with its farmer-led, community-based sustainable agriculture program—Farm Beginnings. The program has evolved substantially, thanks to funding from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP.) An essential funding source for beginning farmer education created by the 2008 farm bill, BFRDP is facing a proposed 50% cut in the 2012 version of the bill. If implemented, this cut would significantly restrict this organization’s—and organizations across the country—ability to grow the next generation of farmers.
Back in 1997, the Land Stewardship Project farmer members identified a great need for new farmers but saw very little infrastructure for training and support. Technical colleges just didn’t teach sustainable agriculture. LSP’s idea was to create a network of farmers that cared. Farmers that could reach out and train each other.
The key to its success, says director Amy Bacigalupo, is the program’s support of efforts already on the ground. This community-based approach allows the Farm Beginnings program to adapt itself for almost universal effectiveness. It is not a “cookie-cutter curriculum. The role of established farmers is central to its success.” Farmers are empowered to become leaders capable of recognizing issues present in their specific regions. The program is now run by 10 organizations in 7 states. This Farm Beginnings Collaborative is also supported by BFRDP funding. Using an open source approach, the Farm Beginnings Collaborative provides a place to share ideas and learn best practices.
The LSP’s most recent grant from the BFRDP supports “Farmers Growing Farmers”—which focuses on the leadership development necessary for Farm Beginnings and allows for the piloting of new approaches. All told, the program will result in increased knowledge for 1,200 beginning farmers including 168 successful farm business start-ups over three years. Graduates of the 10-month course are asked to give back once they have been farming for several years. Amy explains, “It’s a new framework for participants to think about: here you are now in this class. 3 to 5 years you’ll be farming. [The Land Stewardship Project] will come back and ask you to be in this farmer-to-farmer network. Or to fly-in to Washington to advocate for beginning farmers.” Farmers Growing Farmers not only trains new farmers, but attempts to change agriculture’s competitive culture. Many of the program’s participants, used to interacting with conventional growers, are excited to find the program cultivating collaboration, and shared learning.
The security of a three-year long BFRDP grant allows for planning time, innovation, and the piloting of new approaches. LSP found, for example, that their no-interest livestock loan program was successful, but was limited in its reach. The impressive program now called the Technical Assistance Pilot Program is modeled after the successful livestock loan program. The new approach starts for beginning farmers in years 3 to 5, a critical time in the long term success of new farms. This approach pairs a beginning farmer with a mentor and a financial management specialist several times a year, for 2 years. When this approach was a part of the livestock loan program participants said that this kind of kitchen table assistance was as valuable as receiving the animals themselves! Expanding this program to other growers can take a year just to plan– BFRDP funding allows LSP time to invest in these new systems.
Amy believes that for young farmers to continue on this path requires diligence, and it requires support. She sees the BFRDP as something our country is doing right, and she is hopeful for the future of the program. If the BFRDP is indeed cut in half in the next farm bill she believes a young farmer’s ability to learn about and implement successful ideas will be significantly weakened. The fact that we need more farmers, not fewer, challenges our society’s values and notions of progress. If we lose the BFRDP, we are no longer recognizing our great need for beginning farmers. She says, “Young people see [the BFRDP] as a positive message to send: that there are opportunities and we support
your future in agriculture.”
Check out this video featuring Betsy and Andrew from Spring Wind Farm: