Auburn University received a $711,213 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to provide resources, technology and assistance to new and beginning farmers.
The University and Alabama Cooperative Extension System along with nonprofit and producer organizations collaborated to develop a three-year plan to improve outreach, curriculum, business and marketing education, hands-on training, distance learning resources, one-on-one advising and more for upcoming farmers.
The average age of the American farmer is in the late 50s, which increases every year, according to Krysta Harden, U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary. So the purpose of the grants is to prepare a bench for new and beginning farmers to bridge the gap.
Considering Alabama’s strong agricultural history, Harden said the students and infrastructure around Auburn will benefit from the grant award.
“Auburn has a very rich history at its [agriculture] school at preparing some of the finest leaders in agriculture based on the business side and the production side, so I think it’s a really good fit,” Harden said.
However, farmers face common challenges in marketing their products, treating farming as a business, getting access to land, unpredictable weather patterns and capital costs, Harden said. And in response, young farmers need to be creative, flexible and aware of consumer needs.
Michelle Bufkin, senior in agricultural communications, said the high risks of the field make people nervous to get into agriculture.
“There is a very, very high risk involved, but if you can have programs like this that are going to teach you what to do and how to do it and give you multiple opportunities, I think that’s going to help counteract that risk a lot,” Bufkin said.
The Alabama Beginning Farmers Program will strive to provide a permanent support infrastructure for new producers across diverse communities in the state, according to Ayanava Majumdar, Extension entomologist.
The program will emphasize electronic resources such as a phone app, an electronic curriculum and a website that will serve as distance learning resources, Majumdar said.
“The overall goal of the Beginning Farmer grant is to develop a collaborative, statewide educational program that will assist beginning farmers, low-resource producers and military veterans interested in commercial fruit and vegetable production as an economically and environmentally sustainable business enterprise,” Majumdar said.
The Extension System conducted surveys in existing programs and the new cohort of beginning and new farmers to match the participants’ needs and to tailor the curriculum appropriately, according to Gary Lemme, director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
In the future, they will assess the economic and social impact of the new program through personal interviews and surveys.
“It’s important to Alabama’s economy that we make sure that there’s a next generation of farmers, because agriculture and forestry is the number one industry in the state,” Lemme said. “It really takes them through that entire process of thinking about, ‘This is a new business. How am I going to make this business profitable so that it improves my economy and the quality of life of my family?’”
The Alabama Beginning Farmers program will be officially announced within the next month, according to Majumdar.