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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Four Organizations Offering Resources and Support that Beginning Farmers Should Know About

October 4, 2016 |

America’s farmers and ranchers are aging. Half of all current farmers are likely to retire in the next decade while the number of entry-level farmers has fallen by 30 percent since 1987, according to the Center for Rural Affairs. The average age of American farmers is 58.3 years, and new farmers are needed to carry the torch. However, for aspiring and new young farmers, challenges abound – from obtaining access to land, procuring loans and credit to being saddled with student loan debt that forces them to pursue alternate careers, and a shortage of apprenticeship programs to arm first generation farmers with the knowledge that farmers typically receive from their forbears.  

Below is a list of four organizations working to help young farmers overcome these barriers.

1. National Young Farmers Coalition

Founded by a group of young farmers in 2009, NYFC “supports practices and policies that will sustain young, independent and prosperous farmers now and in the future.” The organization has 1,500 dues-paying members and reaches more than 80,000 farmers and consumers. Dozens of farmer-led local chapters extend the network across the country.

“At NYFC, we believe there should be fewer barriers to starting a farm business in the United States,” Sophie Ackoff, the NYFC’s National Field Director told Seedstock. “As a coalition of farmers, we are identifying the barriers we face, fighting for the policy changes we need, and bringing farmers together, in person and online to learn, to share and build a stronger community.”

Much of NYFC’s work focuses on federal and state policy. They are campaigning for congress to recognize farming as public service so that farmers will be eligible for student loan forgiveness. Other policy campaigns focus on making land more accessible to new farmers, and protecting water for western agriculture. One recent success was the USDA’s decision to transfer additional funding to a farm loan program, including to a microloan program that NYFC helped create in 2013.

NYFC offers resources and training opportunities for beginning farmers including online courses, mentoring programs, farm apprenticeships, workshops and certificate programs. The organization also provides a comprehensive guide to finding capital and credit, and a directory of land-linking organizations to help farmers find land.

2. The Greenhorns

The Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote, recruit and support a new generation of farmers, began in 2007, when founder and director Severine von Tscharner Fleming decided to make a film.

The idea sprouted while Fleming was helping organize a film festival at UC Berkley. The lineup of documentaries at the festival highlighted the gloomy realities of our time: a food system in crisis; a corrupt political system; a cycle of global poverty and exploitation. The threats of global warming, soil depletion, bioengineering pitted against biodiversity and poisoned waterways appeared insurmountable onscreen. Fleming wanted to produce a film that would inspire action rather than ennui.

Fleming, who studied agroecology at UC Berkeley, is well versed in the crises of contemporary agriculture. “The agricultural sector has been losing brains, bodies and businesses for the last 30 years,” she explained to Seedstock.

The Greenhorn organization has grown into a nationwide network of young farmers working to create a more hospitable climate for aspiring agrarians. The group hosts social events for young farmers (young, in the greenhorns’ context, includes anyone under the average age of the American farmer, 57), produces a weekly radio show, keeps a blog, and has developed a Guide for Beginning Farmers. Young Farmers are invited to participate in the group’s mapping project, a visual database of farmers, food producers and agricultural service providers around the country.

The Greenhorns have organized 85 community events across the country including mixers, seed-swaps and workshops. More than 12,000 farmers and allies have participated in their online network, according to their website.

“The network of new farmers, interns, apprentices, keeps growing and growing. At each event and conference and mixer I am continually impressed with the quality of the new entrants onto the scene. It is very inclusive, but because it is a lot of work to farm, it seems to attract a strong caliber person,” said Fleming.

3. The Center for Rural Affairs

Based in Lyons, Nebraska (pop. 851), the Center for Rural Affairs describes itself as “unapologetically rural.” They support family farmers and ranchers, entrepreneurs, and rural communities. Founded in 1973 by Nebraskans concerned about the decline of rural communities, their first publication “Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow?” examined the threat that consolidation and vertical integration posed to family farms.

To aid beginning farmers, the Center has compiled a guide of land matching programs as well as a list of financial and educational resources. The Center also offers online entrepreneurship training in partnership with the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN), workshops and farm tours for beginning Latino farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, and individual financial and farm production consultations for veterans.

More recently, the Center has helped to start grocery stores to improve food access in small towns and has provided small business loans, training, and planning assistance to more than 10,000 farmers and rural small businesses. The organization advocates for crop insurance reform and against subsidies for large corporate farms. And because “rural communities are disproportionately impacted when the environment is harmed,” according to the Center’s website, they work for clean water and clean energy.

4. Cooperative Extension

Congress created Cooperative Extension in 1914 with the passage of Smith Lever Act, which served to established a partnership between the USDA and the nation’s land-grant universities to apply research and provide education in agriculture. The extension system was developed to address exclusively rural, agricultural issues as more than 50 percent of the U.S. population at the time lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming.

Drawing on the resources and knowledge of the universities, extension works to strengthen educational capacity to prepare the next generation of scientists, agricultural producers, and educators. Extension officers also help translate science into practical terms for farmers and ranchers, and conduct research on agriculture, commerce, health and other topics. Services are also provided to combat poverty, increase community health, encourage youth leadership and even respond to disasters and emergencies in their areas.

Farmers can also utilize extension offices to obtain information about grants and cost share programs, meet other farmers in their area, receive assistance in identifying pests and crop diseases.

 

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