The Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition received a federal grant to address food security issues, generate economic enterprises, and build communities among beginning farmers.
Bringing new, diverse, and younger farmers into the fold of food and fiber production is increasingly critical to sustain communities locally. From 1997 to 2012, the average age of a farmer in the United States increased from 54 years old to 58.3 years old.
The grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and offers place-based and culturally appropriate education, training, and networking opportunities for farmers and ranchers with less than 10 years of experience.
The coalition will receive $724,828 over the next three years. These funds will help sustain and expand the program that established the coalition in 2010.
“These funds are an endorsement of the importance of these kinds of programs to address the challenges of food insecurity in our nation, and also the efficacy of participatory approaches to train new farmers and the educators that provide training and research support,” said Kim Niewolny, program director for the coalition, Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, and assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The program serves as a conduit, not only to educate beginning farmers, but also to connect agricultural organizations and educators with each other in order to coordinate high quality outreach, education, training, and resource support across the commonwealth.
The grant from the USDA will help to reverse the steady decline in the number of people entering farming in Virginia through numerous activities:
- Professional development to enhance the organizational coordination and collective impact of the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition;
- Regional and comprehensive training sessions for beginning farmers using the Virginia Whole Farm Planning curriculum;
- Specific “toolkit” materials and strategic trainings in critical topic areas such as access to land, markets, capital, and stewardship best practices;
- New online learning resources and webinars in the critical content areas;
- And local, peer-mentoring opportunities to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills of experienced farmers with the beginning farmer community.
The coalition is represented by a diverse, proven, and committed network that together provides a vibrant resource for beginning farmers and ranchers and service providers in a range of content areas that emphasize a holistic approach to farm start-up. Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension serves as the backbone organizations for the coalition to facilitate, manage, and evaluate program activity.
While these funds are available to all beginning farmers and ranchers in Virginia, this coalition-based and statewide Extension program gives special consideration to the needs of socially disadvantaged, limited-resource, military veteran, and young farmers as key stakeholders.
“Program funds like these allow new agricultural endeavors to germinate, and give educational and training support to farmers to develop appropriate knowledge and strategies to overcome start-up challenges,” said Niewolny. “The coalition also provides opportunities to build partnerships with educators to enhance referral services and assistance so that we can make the best impact for years to come.”
Local farmers like Casey Bartok and her husband, Justin Wisch, both 28 years old, were able to fast track their Loudoun County, Virginia, farming operation —Long Stone Farm — because of assistance they received from the coalition.
"It was during the beginning farmer class that we were able to piece together the farm-business puzzle. The whole-farm planning curriculum helped us develop a holistic plan that includes the production of beef cattle, heritage pigs, and a mixed berry and fruit permaculture orchard system," Bartok said. "We would not be at the stage we are now if it weren’t for the curriculum of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program because I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the business plan as quickly and as thoroughly."
Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grants are administered through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture and the current grant will be managed by Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension, the managing organizations of the coalition.