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USDA Shifts More Beginning Farmer Work to Universities

Compared to the billions of dollars devoted to commodity and crop insurance programs in the 2014 Farm Bill, $100 million over five years for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program seems tiny. It’s not the only way the farm bill helps the next generation. A large share of Farm Service Agency loans is carved out for beginners and other USDA programs offer added help. 

But the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, first funded in the 2008 Farm Bill and expanded slightly in the current law, is one of the the federal government’s biggest efforts to help farmers without a lot of resources get started in a business that’s often capital intensive.

The 2014 law requires that at least 5% of the program’s funds go to limited resource and socially disadvantaged beginning farmers. Another 5% is supposed to go to veterans, a new requirement in the law.

A new report from Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project (LSP) shows that grants awarded by USDA for training and mentoring beginning farmers devotes much more than that to both veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers. In 2014, about 46% of the funds went to disadvantaged farmers and nearly 12% of the money went to help veterans get a start in agriculture.

Yet, spending on disadvantaged farmers was down from the last year the program was in effect, in 2012, when it was 58%, the says the LSP report, which was made in cooperation with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

LSP has monitored the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) every year that it was in effect, said Mark Schultz, policy and organizing director for the group.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, BFRDP is a competitive grants program that funds community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, state cooperative extension, and producer groups to provide training and support to beginning farmers and ranchers. 

As in other years, the 2014 report pays particular attention to the Congressional intent to prioritize community-based organizations when it comes to BFRDP funding, and to set aside funding for projects that serve socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. In 2014, for the first time since 2009, less than 50 percent of the funding was awarded to projects led by community-based or nonprofit organizations. Instead, the majority of the funding was directed to projects led by land grant universities and other academic institutions.

LSP, NSAC and the groups’ allies are urging USDA to assure that the majority of BFRDP funding is allocated to projects led by community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations over the next four years, as it had been in the three previous funding cycles.

In the past, LSP has gotten BFRDP funding for its own Farm Beginnings Program that holds winter-long workshops and mentoring for young farmers, Schultz told Friday. LSP did not in 2014, but Schultz said that its monitoring of USDA funding for the program has nothing to do with that. It focuses on how well USDA’s management of the program is following the intent of Congress.

LSP was among some 20 community-based groups that got Congress to support a program to help local groups train the next generation of farmers.

“The reason was we wanted to pass good policy. We need more farmers,” Schultz recalled.

“Land grants alone weren’t doing it,” Schultz said. “They were doing some good work but we really need to be building community based work to go alongside it.”

Schultz said land grant universities such as Michigan State, also have some excellent programs. There is a need for both, but the community-based nonprofit groups are often struggling to raise funds, he said. 

Schultz said LSP’s own Farm Beginnings program will continue. The issue of how the BFRDP program runs is separate, he said.

“We’re not doing this to get LSP money. It’s for good public policy,” he said.

The report also found that the BFRDP is growing more popular; 157 applicants competed for funding, compared with 109 in 2012, the last year the grants were offered.

In 2014, USDA awarded $18.9 million in BFRDP grants to 39 projects across 28 states. 

The report showed that the grants were distributed more evenly across regions of the country than in the past. 

In addition to the report, the LSP website has a blog about the BFRDP here.  


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