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Most USDA new farmer trainees still in the industry, survey finds

A survey by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition found that more than half the participants in USDA-funded training programs for new farmers and ranchers are still engaged in agriculture-related careers.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on October 31, 2017 7:07AM

Rob Bennaton (center, in white t-shirt), a University of California Cooperative Extension adviser,  talks with beginning urban farmers at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. The training was paid for through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which was funded in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Courtesy UCANR

Rob Bennaton (center, in white t-shirt), a University of California Cooperative Extension adviser, talks with beginning urban farmers at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm. The training was paid for through the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which was funded in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Jennifer Sowerwine, a Cooperative Extension specialist in metropolitan agriculture and food systems at University of California-Berkeley, shows attendees of a 2015 workshop a couple of information packets on food safety. She served on an advisory board that recently gave good reviews to a USDA program for new farmers.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Jennifer Sowerwine, a Cooperative Extension specialist in metropolitan agriculture and food systems at University of California-Berkeley, shows attendees of a 2015 workshop a couple of information packets on food safety. She served on an advisory board that recently gave good reviews to a USDA program for new farmers.


BERKELEY, Calif. — More than half the participants in new farmer training projects the USDA has spent more than $150 million on since 2008 are still working in agriculture, a group’s survey has found.

Funded in the 2008 Farm Bill, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has helped more than 250 training projects across the country, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted in a report.

Among the 40 percent of projects that were led by land grant universities, several key ones are conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension, including farm business training sessions and workshops in more than a dozen counties.

The survey’s findings should encourage the UC to seek more grant funding for similar projects elsewhere, said Jennifer Sowerwine, an extension specialist based at UC-Berkeley who was on an advisory board for the USDA’s evaluation.

“As the metropolitan agriculture and food system specialist, I see several opportunities ... to expand (the UC’s) offerings to support aspiring and beginning urban and peri-urban farmers,” Sowerwine told the Capital Press in an email.

Urban agriculture is “on the rise” yet growers face numerous challenges, including securing land, marketing and distribution, implementing best practices and navigating laws that govern urban-produced foods, she said.

Over the next few years, Sowerwine and other experts will seek ways of “improving urban farming profitability, ecological sustainability and fresh food access, and will be translating that research into practical guides and educational programming,” she said.

Congress initially appropriated $75 million from fiscal 2009 through 2012 for education, training, outreach and mentoring programs for new farmers, then provided an additional $20 million per year for 2014 through 2018. The renewed interest came as the average age of U.S. farmers continued to rise and there was a projected decrease in farmers and ranchers nationwide, the USDA explained on its website.

The NSAC, a advocacy group for federal policies supporting agriculture, surveyed project leaders who estimated that more than half their participants are now engaged in a farming career and nearly three-quarters felt more prepared for successful careers after completing the programs.

Among the programs, 56 percent were led by nonprofit organizations, 40 percent by land-grant universities and 4 percent by other universities, according to a news release.

In California, the UCCE has been providing beginning farming and farm business training in Nevada and Placer counties for more than a decade. In a 2016 survey of producers in the two counties, 72 percent said they had taken a business class from UCCE and another 9 percent had taken other business training, the release stated.

Elsewhere, the university offers “Farming 101” workshops in Sonoma County on the second Tuesday of each month, and is wrapping up a three-year project for immigrant and low-income farmers that has trained 340 people in 10 counties.

Sowerwine said she hopes the success stories relayed in the survey persuade Congress to continue the beginning farmer program in the 2018 Farm Bill.

She said 100 million acres of farmland is set to change hands in the next five years.

“There is a critical need to provide ongoing support to both aspiring and retiring farmers in order to secure the transference of that land to the next generation, and equip these new farmers with the knowledge, skills and resources they need to succeed,” she said.



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