USDA, Penn State invest in training new farmers

University Park, Pa. -- With half of all current farmers in the United States likely to retire in the next decade, federal and state agriculture officials are looking for ways to encourage and assist the new generation of farmers that will produce the nation's food and fiber in the future.

Two groups of researchers and extension educators in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences have received grants exceeding $1.3 million to help newly minted ag entrepreneurs get started in the capital-intensive business. The funding is part of more than $17 million in grants authorized in the 2008 federal farm bill under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative designed to address the education, training and technical assistance needs of this next wave of farm operators.

While the lure of "custom farming" -- raising unique animals, specialty crops or products for niche food markets -- is an upward trend appealing to many would-be farmers, both Penn State projects identify access to training, land and capital as the biggest barriers to entering the field.

Starting up a farm is a high-capital venture regardless of one's gender, but underrepresented groups have a particularly hard time getting started, according to Tianna DuPont, principal investigator for the Southeast Pennsylvania Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, which received a grant for nearly $734,000. She said the number of persons interested in the program is enormous, with very diverse reasons for getting into farming.

"There's everyone from young folks coming out of college emphasizing sustainability and organic farming, to folks who are transitioning to a different business and a second career, to people who own land and want to use it effectively," said DuPont, who is a sustainable agriculture educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension, based in Northampton County, Pa. "Others have left careers in the city and are returning to the land."

She warned, however, that despite the high degree of interest, aspiring farmers need to be cautious.

"Some people think they want to farm, and then they realize what it takes."

Missteps stemming from lack of training, she said, can be a real wake-up call to some farm dreamers.

To help sort out those questions, the program will offer "Exploring the Small Farm Dream," a program developed by the New England Small Farm Institute. This module focuses on persons who have been thinking about starting a farm but may not know where to start. It outlines how to perform a market evaluation, how to determine which product is best for that market and how to evaluate one's personal goals and resources. DuPont noted that these preliminary exercises can help avert business failures by aligning a person's business goals with a community's need for a particular product or service.

DuPont added that new farmers ready to concentrate on their new enterprise can progress to hands-on courses, including sheep management, sheep shearing, novice farmer study circles, grazing school, organic vegetables, fruit production, potato production and soils.

A partnership with the Lehigh Ag Incubator will provide a living classroom where participants will be paired with a mentor farmer for hands-on learning sessions and will be given access to land and equipment at low rental rates to help overcome some of the barriers to farm entry.

A unique feature of the incubator farm in Lehigh County is comparative demonstrations of  production techniques. Participants will compare seeding, soil preparation and weed management methods side-by-side in the market garden. "Here they can see what works well, and what works well for them," said DuPont.

Eleven extension educators from six counties, along with experienced local farmers, comprise the pool of experts to provide instruction under the project. However, DuPont said the reach of the program will be much larger, with on-the-ground courses and activities accessible to 15 counties in Pennsylvania and six counties in New Jersey.

A grant of more than $572,000 will support the University Park-based project, titled "Beginning Sustainability for New and Beginning Women Farmers through Peer Learning, Mentoring and Networking." This project will focus on surmounting access barriers and will target women farmers, according to Carolyn Sachs, professor of agricultural economics and rural sociology.

There are more than 1 million farmers in the United States who are women, and they comprise the fastest growing demographic in farming, Sachs said. She said data from 2007 shows that 30 percent of U.S. farmers are women and that 14 percent of those are not merely partners but are the principle operators of farms.

Sachs said beyond lacking access to land and capital, women also often are isolated from other farmers, tend to be isolated from educational networks and may even experience discrimination in traditional agricultural circles. She cited recent research showing that many women expressed displeasure with presentations by experts that inhibit interaction and communication.

"A unique part of our program is the whole networking approach to learning," Sachs said.  "A lot of women prefer to learn skills from other women in a less intimidating atmosphere where they could ask more questions, especially in skills traditionally associated with males."

To increase social and educational networking, Sachs said that the program also features field days with women teaching women -- pairing experienced women farmers with new and beginning farmers -- and special working-lunch "potluck learning circles" to help build particular on-farm and business skills.

Learning opportunities will be delivered around the state at various on-farm events, and case studies will be archived and made available online for participants who are unable to travel. The curriculum will include sessions on business planning and marketing, sustainable production and value-added processing, and stewardship of air, land and water resources.

The New and Beginning Women Farmers program will have statewide venues through its association with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network. Both programs will serve as information clearinghouses by participating in a national database for new and beginning farmer education.

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Last Updated December 22, 2009