Penn State Extension's Start Farming program recently nabbed the "Search for Excellence in Beginning Farmer Programming" award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents. The program helps novice farmers to start and maintain successful farm businesses.
One collaborative effort involved Pennsylvania Farm Link and The Seed Farm, an ag incubator project in Lehigh County. In April, for instance, the Start Farming program teamed up with Pennsylvania Farm Link to host a day-long program titled "Breaking the Barriers: Access to land, capital and equipment for farm start-ups" at Delaware Valley College.
"We brought together new and experienced farmers to share ideas on breaking those barriers," says Darlene Livingstone, Farm Link's executive coordinator. "We had 59 beginning farmers at that event alone."
The topics, adds Penn State Extension's John Berry, included assessing land's production value, land leasing/acquisition, used equipment evaluation, a land leasing case study, risk management and what financial institutions are looking for as well as risk management and NRCS programs. "The farmer panelists offered great insight to the pros and cons of their farm operations and challenges they've faced." adds the Extension ag marketing specialist.
Tianna DuPont, sustainable agriculture extension educator based in Northampton County, notes that the program addresses a growing trend among consumers to buy and eat local, sustainably produced food. "The American Restaurant Association identified the top 10 food trends driving customer choices in 2011," DuPont said. "The top three were locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce and sustainability as a culinary theme.
"With a new farmers' market popping up around every corner, 16% of school districts nationwide require local food purchases. That's why 'locavore' was the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year last year. "It's obvious that many consumers are looking for local food products."
The challenge, DuPont contends, is for farmers to keep up with these trends. "In Pennsylvania, like the rest of the nation, the average age of farmers is 57," she says. "Only 7% of operators are younger than 35; 49% are older than 55.
"Luckily, a new generation of farmers is cropping up. Their innovative practices are making local, fresh food available to our communities."
DuPont said a passion to be stewards of the land and to participate in the fresh local food movement motivates many aspiring producers to take the next step. But 88% of hopeful new farmers in Start Farming come from nonfarm backgrounds. With only 40% having on-farm experience, many hunger for more training to increase their chance of success.
With support from the USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Penn State Extension partnered with Farm Link and The Seed Farm to offer 19 educational programs per year in production topics ranging from organic vegetables to pasture management. The program also offers marketing, financial management, land acquisition and other resource-acquisition workshops. "The program gives beginning farmers tools they need to succeed on their own," said DuPont.
Aspiring and beginning farmers have turned out in droves, according to DuPont. "In the past 18 months, 885 aspiring and beginning farmers attended Start Farming's 33 Extension courses on farm-business exploration, grass-fed beef and organic vegetables. Some 96% reported learning a good or great deal in the courses.
Start Farming students are applying what they have learned, she adds. "A year after they took the course, 89% of participants had applied an average of four new practices they learned. About 48% increased their productivity, while 63% improved product quality and 52% enhanced environmental sustainability."
Check Start Farming out on the web at http://extension.psu.edu/start-farming.