Chad Lee teaches a group of
beginning farmers how an ear of
corn can open their eyes to the
Denise and Jody Hamilton are teachers who dream of retiring to their own farm to grow organic vegetables and keep bees.
Mark Thomas recently graduated from UK in agricultural economics and returned to his family farm in Hardin County where he grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, grass hay, and raises cattle and a few chickens. They are part of a new trend in this country, spurred no doubt by the fact that more and more people are taking an active interest in the origin of their food. Because of this, young people are beginning to stay on the farms where they were raised, and some non-farmers are jumping at chances to leave urban careers for life on the land. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 20 percent of the 2.1 million U.S. farms are classified as beginning farms—operated by people who have farmed for 10 years or less. This is a good thing, though still not enough, considering that the average age of farmers in this country is still rising. The latest census shows that 40 percent of U.S. farmers are 55 or older.
Bringing new people into farming and keeping the next generation on the farm is essential for the future health of agriculture.
That’s the idea behind theUSDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's funding of beginning farmer/rancher programs at 29 universities and organizations in 2009. The UK College of Agriculture and Kentucky State University received nearly $750,000 for KYFarmStart, a two-year whole-farm management education designed to give beginning farmers the tools they need to be successful. Now beginning its third cycle of classes, UK and KSU threw a wide net to attract a diverse group of farmers to the program. KyFarmStart has been offered in counties from as far west as Land-Between-the-Lakes to Ashland in northeast Kentucky and has provided more than 255 participants with one source for a wide variety of information.
“The training and education provided through these grants will help ensure the success of the next generation of farmers and ranchers as they work to feed people in their local communities and throughout the world,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said when announcing the grant winners.
A farmer’s success isn’t confined to his or her own family.
“Successful beginning farmer programs might be the key to preserving agricultural land and rural communities,” said Lee Meyer, extension professor in the UK Department of Agricultural Economics. “Watching our beginning farmers gain confidence in their decisions has been very inspiring and gives me hope for the future of Kentucky agriculture.”
KyFarmStart includes face-to-face educational sessions and on-farm demonstrations covering topics such as enterprise evaluation, land-labor resources, nutrient management, farm recordkeeping, agriculture water quality plans and marketing plans, among others. During the second year of the program, Kentucky Beef Network and Kentucky Women in Agriculture help connect program participants with mentor farmers who have similar enterprise interests. With their mentors’ help, beginning farmers can take what they learned in the classroom and put it into practice on their own farms.
A Practical Impact
“We have a range of participants,” said Linda McClanahan, agriculture and natural resources extension agent in Mercer County. McClanahan was one of the agents to lead classes in the first cycle of the program. “Some of them do have farm backgrounds, but we also have a lot of people who have had other careers. They’ve bought a farm, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with it.”
Denise and Jody Hamilton fit that category to a tee. Teachers in the Jessamine County School District, they have big plans to sell their current home on a golf course and build a log home on 25 acres they own in Garrard County. There, on land that came complete with a barn and pond, they plan to get into organic production—primarily by planting a “salsa garden”—as a supplementary income for retirement. They’ll sell some produce through a farmers market and make salsa out of the rest to sell as a value-added product. It sounds easy.
It might sound too easy. Farming, whether it’s on a large or small scale, is a business enterprise, often with limited staff and cash flow. Farmers need to be bankers, accountants, electricians, veterinarians, marketers, agronomists, general laborers and even chefs.
Participants at a KyFarmStart field day examine an ear of field corn at BLT Farm in Hardin County.
“The biggest challenge beginning farmers face is that they don’t have any idea what they’re getting into, especially when there are so many rules and regulations thrown at them, plus marketing and everything else about the enterprise,” said Louie Rivers, Jr., director of the Small Farmer Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Program at Kentucky State University. “It gets complicated fast.”
Mark Thomas said he’s learned quite a bit in the eight months he’s been involved with KyFarmStart. On a day in August, participants from the three-county region of Hardin, LaRue and Meade counties, met with UK extension specialists Chad Lee and Edwin Ritchey for a field day at the Thomas family farm near Elizabethtown. Lee took them through the cornfields, sharing techniques for improving yield and growing healthier plants. Ritchey, a soil specialist, talked about the importance of soil tests and how to avoid throwing good money after bad by adding unnecessary supplements.
This is one of the advantages to the program, said Matt Adams, Hardin County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, who heard about the program and thought it would be beneficial for a lot of people in his area.
“FarmStart lets the participants interact with our extension specialists,” he said. “It gets their foot in the door, so they can have a closer working relationship with the specialists as well.”
Thomas said the program has given him many ideas on how to survive when prices might be down or weather or disease take part of that year’s crop. He also has learned how to be more efficient.
“Don’t throw fertilizer out there that we don’t need, don’t use products that we don’t need,” he said, referring to a few things he’s picked up in the classes. “It’s like Edwin (Ritchey) said, it’s not about bushels in the bin, it’s about money in the bank. If I can produce a few less bushels and get more money, it’s all about the money in the end. So long as we can keep it in the black, we’ll be fine.”
Meyer said the KyFarmStart program is having a practical impact.
“Participants tell us that they have dramatically increased their knowledge and skills,” he said. “For example, only about half considered themselves knowledgeable or expert in business planning before the program, compared to about 90 percent after the program.”
Tanka Adhikari is a refugee from the tiny Himalayan country Bhutan. There he farmed 32 acres of buckwheat, corn, okra, sweet potatoes, and more. Here he lives within Louisville’s city limits.
Bhutanese refugees Sita and Tanka Adhikari discuss their pepper crop with Wayne Long.
The inner city might not be the image most people think of when they picture farming, but Wayne Long, Jefferson County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, saw KyFarmStart as a great opportunity for refugees who had farmed in their homelands, but now found themselves living in an urban environment. He teamed up with Lauren Goldberg, project coordinator for Catholic Charities, and with the help of translators, offered KyFarmStart to more than 50 people from nine countries and four continents. During their second session at the Americana Community Center, UK horticulture specialist Tim Coolong spoke to a gathering that sounded a bit like the Tower of Babel. They learned about organic farming and composting, and compared vegetables they were familiar with to those suitable for Kentucky’s growing season.
“We’ve tried to develop this more in line with the needs of the refugee group,” Long said, referring to their particular curriculum. “This is what they did in their home countries. This is what they’re used to. And now we have the opportunity to introduce them here to that same opportunity.”
This past summer, Adhikari, his wife Sita, and sister-in-law Ajuda grew corn, beans, okra, cucumbers, and potatoes in a sizeable community garden plot on 7th Street. He’ll sell some at a local market, and use the rest to help feed his family.
“This has been a wonderful opportunity for Kentucky’s two land-grant universities to bring together their resources to provide our clientele with tremendous support and the most up-to-date research,” said Kim Holmes, associate director of KSU’s land grant program. ◆