Kelly Wilson got the confidence to start her own small, diversified vegetable farm after taking a training program at Michigan State University. Her farm, Simple Gifts Farm, is outside Oxford, Michigan, where she grows vegetables that she sells wholesale to local restaurants. The program she took is one of hundreds of training programs for young and new farmers funded through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).
Kelly’s program, the MSU Organic Farmer Training Program, is a 9-month non-degree program where farmers work full-time on a farm while also taking classes on biology, farming techniques like pest management and crop rotation, and business and marketing strategies. Over the course of the program each farmer develops a business plan for their own farms. Kelly said that “without the business program, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start my own farm, nor would I have been able to….You can know how to grow food really well, but without that marketing plan and somewhere for those crops and that food to go to, its all for nought.” Coming from a background in nutrition and a family of gardeners, Kelly’s program allowed her to transition into farming as a business rather than just a hobby.
The BFRDP is the only federal program focused on training the next generation in agriculture. It’s an important program to keep an eye on in the coming months as the Farm Bill moves into Conference Committee, where the House and Senate will negotiate the disparities between two vastly different bills. The program provides federal funding to universities, non-governmental organizations, and local community farming associations to offer trainings and workshops for new and beginning farmers across the country. These workshops cover topics from basic crop, livestock or forest management to entrepreneurship trainings, business management, and how to access federal funds for financing a business or improving conservation practices on a farm. The trainings funded range from day-long workshops to year-long programs like Kelly’s.
BFRDP funded programs don’t just provide farmers with technical skills and business training, they also help local farmers develop strong community food networks. “The business part was great but it wasn’t the only thing” Kelly says. The relationships she made were also valuable. You get “people to bounce ideas off of and to commiserate with and share resources. Like if you’re a small farm and you only need a few seeding trays not a whole pack, you can call up someone from that network and borrow from them.”
Another farmer, Adam Hall of Newberry, South Carolina, describes the advantages of his experience at Clemson University’s South Carolina New and Beginning Farmer Program (SCNBFP):
“By my estimation, the SCNBFP put me several years ahead of where my farm would have been at this point without it…. Without SCNBFP, I have no doubt that I would not have my SC meat license, SC egg license, SC agritourism membership, or a ready list of state extension and other government agents to call on when in need of information, research, or state-level information.”
Adam, and many other young and beginning farmers, explained that their programs offered not only skills and community resources, but also inner-confidence in their ability to start a successful farming business.
“SCNBFP truly gave me the confidence–built on gained knowledge–to go ahead with my plans to start a family run farm at the age of 40 after a career in social research. The land that we live on has been in my mother’s family for hundreds of years, and I am the first one to bring it back into full-time agricultural use in over 60 years.”
For Delana Lands, a cattle rancher in Georgetown, Texas, the training program she participated in through Holistic Management International allowed her the confidence not just to go out on her own in her ranch business, but also to defend her sustainable, holistic, and untraditional ranching practices. Delana participated in the Beginning Women Farmer Training Program through HMI. She applied on a whim after thinking she wouldn’t know enough to qualify after only a few years of small-scale ranching. Seven years later she still says she values what that program offered her over her college degree. Delana and the other women who trained with her remain a strong network of “empowered” and “emboldened” young farmers in a male-dominated area of US agriculture. Reflecting on her first night at the program, Delana shared how immediate the inspiration was: “Listening to these women’s stories, I was like ‘ah hell I can do this. If they can do this I can to this.” “Every time I felt overwhelmed, that group would get together and I was renewed and inspired.”
She maintains that without that program she likely would have quit ranching by now as the conventional ranching she was surrounded by was “rubbing up against [her] values” but until HMI’s training, she didn’t know enough about sustainable alternative practices. “It was just a completely different perspective of how you view the land that was right up my alley.”
After just one year of ranching in the holistic mindset she learned from HMI, Delana felt confident in standing her ground as a sustainable rancher.
“I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Just realizing how I was short changing myself. The men that were around me were hardcore ‘little lady we don’t do it that way.’… Because of what I was exposed to, because of what I learned about myself, I’ve made choices that align with my values. This is the first year that the cattle is going to pay for itself and ranch expenses and that feels good.”
Successful farming and ranching requires an immense amount of knowledge that can be difficult for new farmers to acquire, particularly those who didn’t grow up on a farm. BFRDP-funded workshops and training programs are specifically designed to address that need for easily accessible, comprehensive, and inexpensive information.
Right now, these programs are in danger of losing funding if the 2018 Farm Bill is not passed before the September 30th deadline. For young farmers like Kelly, Adam, and Delana, this funding is the difference between a profitable farm career and leaving the industry all together.