Penn State Extension 'Start Farming' program wins national award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A Penn State Extension program that is helping novice farmers to start and maintain successful farm businesses has been recognized for its efforts.

Extension's Start Farming program received the Search for Excellence in Beginning Farmer Programming award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents.

A collaboration with Pennsylvania Farm Link and The Seed Farm, an agricultural incubator project in Lehigh County, the Start Farming program offers education and hands-on training to help farmers get started, become profitable and keep going.

Tianna DuPont, sustainable agriculture extension educator based in Northampton County, said the program addresses a growing trend among consumers to buy and eat local, sustainably produced food.

"The American Restaurant Association identified the top 10 food trends driving customer choices in 2011," DuPont said. "The top three 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."

The challenge, DuPont said, is for farmers to keep up with these trends. "In Pennsylvania, like the rest of the nation, the average age of farmers is 57," she said. "Only 7 percent of operators are younger than 35, and 49 percent are older than 55. Luckily, a new generation of farmers is cropping up, and their innovative practices are making local, fresh food available to our communities."

DuPont said a passion to be stewards of the land and to participate in the fresh local food movement motivates many aspiring producers to take the next step. But 88 percent of the new-farmer hopefuls in the Start Farming program come from nonfarm backgrounds. With only 40 percent having on-farm experience, many hunger for more training to increase their chance of success, she said.

With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, DuPont partnered with 11 other regional extension educators, Pennsylvania Farm Link and The Seed Farm to offer 19 educational programs per year in production topics ranging from organic vegetables to pasture management.

The program also offers marketing, financial management, land acquisition and other resource-acquisition workshops. "The program gives beginning farmers tools they need to succeed on their own," said DuPont.

Aspiring and beginning farmers have turned out in droves, according to DuPont. "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," she said. "Ninety-six percent of program participants reported learning a good or great deal in the courses."

DuPont said program participants learned what questions to ask themselves and where to find resources to answer them. "From farm dreamers to farmers with several years under their belts, nearly everyone gained knowledge they needed to propel their farm enterprises to the next level," she said.

DuPont indicated that Start Farming students are applying what they have learned. "A year after they took the course, 89 percent of participants had applied an average of four new practices they learned," she said. "Forty-eight percent said they increased their productivity, 63 percent improved product quality and 52 percent enhanced environmental sustainability."

Ben Davies, who took a class on soils through the program, said, "I think how well the season went this year was because of the soils class. I calculated my amendments, applied the right amounts and the plants grew really well."

Last Updated October 10, 2011