International Year of Family Farming: Training for Young Farmers Is Invaluable

Training programs like the National Farmers Union’s Beginning Farmer Institute are invaluable educational resources that seek to provide support for the next generation of food leaders. (Food Tank: The Food Think Tank)

On October 24th, U.S. Food Day, the organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is bringing attention to four key areas in which food system change needs to begin: in food education, food and health, schools, and college campuses. Throughout the week leading up to Food Day, Food Tank will recognize ways in which American youth – from young children to young adults – are shaking up the food system.

As the world gears up for the International Year of Family Farming, one way to look toward the future of farming is to examine with its past. Founded in 1902, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has been advocating for the livelihood and profitability of family farms in the face of a monopolistic agricultural industry for over a hundred years. Recently, they have played a vital role in lobbying for the support of young farmers around the U.S.

The organization's explicit alignment with small farmer interests means that the NFU has a widespread application, and a pragmatic set of opinions on social, environmental, and market issues. They support sustainable production of food, fuel, fiber, and feed, and are involved in active community engagement through things like international farmer exchanges, organizing young farmers, and offering college scholarships to young members.

Recently, the NFU began a program for young farmers called the Beginning Farmer Institute. According to a NFU press release, the program kicked off in spring of 2012 with a small but diverse group of young farmers, from cattle ranchers to urban growers. NFU President Roger Johnson explains, “Farmers are entrepreneurs, conservationists, mechanics, managers and they have to do all of these things well in order to operate a farm.” Accordingly, the institute trains young farmers in financial planning, farm management, and farmer-owned cooperatives, including things like understanding government programs and local food systems.

The NFU is a crucial hub for small, spread-out populations, providing a platform to gain political clout. Their strong advocacy base has helped them to lobby for bills such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which provides competitive grants for programs like the Beginning Farmers Institute. For a list of training and support offerings similar to the Beginning Farmers Institute, check out The Young Farmers Coalition’s list of regional opportunities.

Speaking this past April about trying to improve the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, U.S. House Congressman Tim Walz said, “[W]ith the average age of the U.S. farmer at 57, ensuring that the next generation of American farmers is able to provide the world with a safe, abundant supply of food should be a top priority. To accomplish this goal, we must provide our youth with the training and tools they need to seize opportunity and take up farms of their own.”

Training programs like the NFU’s Beginning Farmer Institute are invaluable educational resources that seek to provide comprehensive support for the next generation of American farmers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has highlighted how the delay in passing a Farm Bill harms the livelihood of young farmers across the country: “BFRDP is the only federal program exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and over the past four years, has invested over US$70 million to develop and strengthen 145 innovative new farmer training programs in almost every state across the country.” With funding suspended until a new bill is passed, all of the training programs that operate on BFRDP grants are at risk, posing a major setback in supporting America’s next generation of farmers.

The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to commemorate IYFF, and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.

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