Aaron Serrano was 15 years-old when he was charged with a felony and sentenced as an adult to two years in a Chicago-area prison. Today, at age 18, he has a full-time job at FarmedHere, an aquaponics agricultural producer in Chicago, where his boss calls him “a treasure.”
Serrano’s transformation from a troubled teenager into a well-trained agricultural professional wouldn’t have been possible without the opportunities given to him by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest, which runs a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) project funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
Windy City Harvest (WCH), a community education program within the Chicago Botanic Garden, is using BFRDP funds to run three major operations: a nine-month certificate program in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture (in partnership with the Richard J. Daley City College), the Green Youth Farm student internship program, and a production and training garden at the Cook County Sheriff’s Vocational Rehab Impact Center (VRIC).
Serrano found his way into agriculture while at VRIC, and upon leaving, enrolled in the Windy City Harvest certificate program. After proving to be a skilled and dedicated worker, Serrano was selected to work as the aquaponics intern, overseeing a system with approximately 350 tilapia fish. Even before graduating, Serrano had employers interested in his skills and abilities.
Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the area where WCH operates, suffers high rates of unemployment, poverty, and childhood obesity. In this “food desert,” Windy City Harvest provides not only the education and experience needed to get beginning urban farmers started, but also high-value, nutritious produce that is available at affordable prices to local residents.
After two cycles, the WCH certificate program has graduated 29 students. While some, like Serrano, work for local-food businesses, many start farm businesses of their own. All three WCH operations teach production and management strategies that encourage land stewardship through growing food safely and sustainably, offer business management and decision support strategies, and engage beginning farmers in direct and wholesale marketing strategies.
BFRDP, funded in the 2008 Farm Bill, has awarded $75 million in grants to 148 projects in 48 states. BFRDP funds education, Extension, outreach, and technical assistance initiatives to help farmers and ranchers with less than 10 years of experience. To enhance impacts, BFRDP identifies and disseminates best practices in beginning farmer and rancher education. Project outcomes are monitored through annual outcomes reports, peer reviewed presentations at project director meetings, through webinars, and interactions with USDA staff. One of the major outcomes of 2011 was the 38,000 beginning farmers and ranchers who attended BFRDP funded training.
Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and Extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future.