As someone who has been working in agriculture for nearly sixty years, there isn’t much that I haven’t seen. We’ve tried many different things on my farm and the ones my sons and daughters farm: conservation tillage, cover cropping, GMO varieties, non-GMO varieties, precision agriculture, brewery ingredients and malting, heirloom vegetables, farmers markets. Certain trends – like the growing interest in locally grown foods and seasonal consumption – remind me of how my grandparents farmed and fed their families. In many respects, we have come full circle.
Another example is that young people are interested in agriculture again. Except now, the world is highly connected and technology is accelerating. Farmers are connected to markets in nearby cities and far flung places. They receive extension support over Skype or mobile phones and grow varieties that have been bred to resist drought, pathogens, and pests – things my grandparents could never have dreamed possible.
While America is blessed with hard working and entrepreneurial individuals, young people and others who want to go into agriculture face a number of challenges. Land and capital hurdles aside, significant numbers of new entrants to agriculture do so without the on-the-job education that farm kids historically received. There are a myriad of skills to be learned – agronomic, husbandry, financial (including business planning), weather forecasting, mechanical, and marketing skills. It is essential that we support and nurture apprenticeship and training programs that give new farmers and ranchers the skills they need to succeed.
This is why I am so pleased that USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has selected the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (New Entry) for a grant that will support the development of a national farm and ranch learning network. As New Entry Executive Director and farmer Jennifer Hashley explains, “This national learning network will strengthen the quality of apprenticeship programs and help farm and ranch mentors provide the practical skills and training new farmers and ranchers need to operate economically viable operations.”
The need for a network was identified by the AGree Initiative – an eight year effort to elevate food and agriculture as a national priority that I co-chair. For several years, AGree convened leaders from across food and agriculture and heard again and again that: 1) training and mentoring are vital; 2) many groups are doing great work; and 3) there isn’t a mechanism for groups around the country to share resources and best practices and have a collective voice for this work. So AGree and its diverse Advisors and Co-Chairs along with others working in this area called for a national network to bring diverse farmer and rancher apprenticeship programs together to develop a more coordinated approach. AGree, after a consultative process, connected with New Entry, an innovative leader in the field of farmer training with the technical capabilities to develop and grow a new national network. New Entry has established an advisory committee of over 30 farm organizations to advise and participate in the growth of the network. AGree will serve as an advisor and is pleased to see New Entry bringing life to one of its recommendations.
Now with this critical support from NIFA, New Entry and its partners are gearing up to establish a network that over time can do the following:
It’s a tall order but an important one. We must support the community and regional organizations that are training and mentoring our next generation of farmers and ranchers. NIFA’s funding support and the herculean work of New Entry and its partners are a huge step forward.