One of our biggest opportunities to increase employment and income in rural America is to enhance the sustainability of beginning farmers. Many farmers are retiring, and coupled with a renewed interest in local foods is causing an increased demand on small and medium-sized farmers. Nearly 25 percent of U.S. farmers are 65 years and older. The average age of the farm operator is 57 years. I have noticed a shift is occurring with an increase in the number of new farm operations with many Americans interested in becoming beginning farmers and ranchers. However, these farmers face unique challenges, including rising cost of farm land, lack of knowledge about accessing farm land and the capital to buy the land, lack of training in sustainable farming practices, a lack of operating capital in their initial years, and many need experiential learning to be successful.
To address these opportunities and challenges, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) manages the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to develop education, outreach, mentoring and internship programs for beginning farmers and ranchers. This month we announced the fiscal year 2010 BFRDP awardees and released the fiscal year 2011 request for applications – due to NIFA by December 22.
Since its inception, BFRDP has funded 65 standard projects to train, educate and provide outreach and technical assistance to beginning farmers. This year, NIFA will also fund educational enhancement projects to help develop seamless beginning farmer and rancher educational programs by conducting evaluation, coordination and enhancement activities for standard projects and other non-funded beginning farmer programs. BFRDP grants are funded up to 3 years, at a maximum of $250,000, with a required 25 percent match from in-kind support from non-federal sources.
Beginning farmers and ranchers will continue to play an important role as they feed people in their local communities and, in some cases, throughout the world. The BFRDP program helps local and state organizations meet the needs of this increasingly critical part of American agriculture.
“We just want to get back to the land, because that’s just who we are,” said Denise Hamilton, a new farmer in Garrard County, Kentucky and a participant in the BFRDP-funded KyFarmStart program. “I want to be healthy, help my family and be happy. And we are.”