By TIM THORNBERRY
LEXINGTON, Ky. — According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of farmers is 55 and older, which means a new generation will soon have to take their place.
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded grants the past four years through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which was established through the 2008 farm bill. In fact, $75 million was appropriated for fiscal years 2009-12.
A total of $18 million was allocated this year. Last month Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the latest recipients from 24 states.
“In the past few decades, U.S. agriculture has become the second most productive sector of the American economy, thanks to farmers adopting technology, reducing debt and effectively managing risk,” he said. “Last year, America’s farmers, ranchers and producers achieved record farm income and record exports.
“To protect and sustain these successes, we must continue to build an agriculture industry diverse and successful enough to attract the smartest, hardest-working people in the nation. These grants will help beginning farmers and ranchers overcome the unique challenges they face, and gain knowledge and skills that will help them become profitable and sustainable.”
The University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture was one of those, receiving a $561,000 grant for its KyFarmStart program. Lee Meyer, extension professor in UK’s Department of Agricultural Economics and the director of KyFarmStart, said the overall driving force behind the program is to create a new generation of farmers.
“Here’s a way to rebuild a generation and have people come in with some skills so that they are likely to be successful,” he said.
According to information from UK, KyFarmStart serves as a comprehensive training program for beginning farmers and those who are considering going into farming. With its specialists and statewide network of extension agents, it delivers a cutting-edge curriculum backed by agricultural and financial experts.
“Now that we have those funds, we can put together a package of resources and a really good training program at the local level,” Meyer added.
This is the third year for the Kentucky program. He said in the past year it has really begun to go well and now with these funds to cover the next three years, it should be able to extend the impact dramatically. Meyer noted it is media attention about KyFarmStart that has driven many interested in becoming farmers to visit their local extension offices to find out more.
“We are well-connected with our traditional clientele, but there are a lot more people out there that we aren’t as well connected with, and so we’re really trying to reach out in as many ways as we can so they know about this and get the help they need,” he said.
Something unique and new about the program are the partners UK has joined with in its efforts to help new farmers. Those include the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, Community Farm Alliance, Kentucky Dairy Development Council and Catholic Charities of Louisville.
Through these groups, the program can offer training for those interested in specific areas, such as dairy or another agribusiness venture, or something connected to agritourism. The KyFarmStart initiative can help get the process started, while these individual organizations can help take that farmer to the next level through programs each offers.
‘New’ is not always young
While the idea of a new generation of farmers lends itself to the idea of young people, Meyer said that is not always the case when it comes to those getting into the beginning farmer program. The USDA defines “beginning farmer” as anyone with fewer than 10 years of experience.
“There are some 25-year-olds, but we saw two groups. One is the 25-year-olds, but the other is the second-career farmers who bring a great amount of experience, just not agricultural experience,” he said.
“Some are bringing really good information about business skills and technology and computers and information systems. But they have got to learn about agriculture, just like our traditional farmers have to learn about the business side of things to be successful.”
With this diverse group of people coming together, Meyer said it is a “neat thing” to get out of the way and just watch the interaction among them. He pointed out so far, the program has brought a wide range of ages together, from 18 to the late 60s.
Regardless of age, he is seeing more people coming into farming who are more interested in a fulfilling career as opposed to getting rich. He pointed out in the past, many farmers have told their children not to get into farming because of the lack of money and the hard work – but there is a group that has a different attitude.
“If we can support that group, that makes me feel very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Kentucky,” he said.
In addition to UK’s grant, it should be noted that Kentucky State University also received a grant in the amount of $525,646.