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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Start Farming Program in Pennsylvania Helps Beginning Farmers Chart Sustainable Path

October 11, 2011 |

Start Farming,’ a program that seeks to develop new farmers, was developed by Penn State Extension in 2009 to address the the rising average age of farmers in Pennsylvania as well as the increasing demand for local and sustainably produced food.

The program offers a variety of courses throughout the year to beginning farmers interested in learning organic farming techniques, pasture management, financial management, land acquisition and marketing. The Penn State Extension program, ‘Start Farming’, is run in collaboration with Pennsylvania Farm Link, a nonprofit dedicated to the mission of “creating farming opportunities for the next generation,” and The Seed Farm, an agricultural business incubator in Lehigh County, PA. 

“The program gives beginning farmers tools they need to succeed on their own,” said Tianna DuPont, a sustainable agriculture extension educator and the head of the ‘Start Farming’ program.

‘Start Farming’ was recently recognized for its efforts by being awarded the Search for Excellence in Beginning Farmer Programming award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents, according to a press release from Penn State Live.

DuPont emphasizes the importance of the ‘Start Farming’ program, citing a growing desire among consumers to purchase local meat and produce that’s been sustainably grown and harvested. She said three of the top ten food trends of 2011 were “locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce, and sustainability as a culinary theme.”

“With a new farmers’ market popping up around every corner, 16 percent of school districts nationwide requiring local food purchases, and ‘locavore’ being named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year last year, it is obvious that many consumers are looking for local food products,” she said in the release.

Another growing concern the program addresses is the increasing average age of farmers in the United States. Pennsylvania, like the rest of the nation, has a very low percentage of young people going into the farming industry, and those who have been farming their entire lives are less than likely to keep up with new trends in agricultural practices. According to DuPont, in Pennsylvania the average age of a farmer is 57, with 49 percent older than 55 and only 7 percent younger than 35.

“Luckily, a new generation of farmers is cropping up, and their innovative practices are making local, fresh food available to our communities,” she said.

A large majority of the people participating in the ‘Start Farming’ program come from non-farming backgrounds, and are interested in the program because of their desire to be a part of the sustainable food movement and because they feel they are responsible for being “stewards of the land.” Enrollment numbers for the program indicate there are a large number of people in Pennsylvania who feel this way.

“In the past 18 months, 885 aspiring and beginning farmers attended Start Farming’s 33 Penn State Extension courses on such topics as farm-business exploration, grass-fed beef and organic vegetables,” DuPont said.

Even more important than the large number of people participating in the program is the high percentage of farmers reporting they’ve incorporated what they’ve learned into their own farming practices. DuPont said nearly 90 percent of participants said they adopted an average of four of the practices they learned through the ‘Start Farming’ courses, and others reported an increase in productivity, product quality and enhanced environmental sustainability.

Funding for Start Farming is provided by The Penn State University, College of Agricultural Sciences, Cooperative Extension; and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant #2009-49400-05869.


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