Colorado Governor Jared Polis’s recent State Budget Proposal includes investment in the state’s agriculture industry. The Proposal increases funding for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, allocating US$450,000 towards some of their most influential projects and programs, including the Agricultural Workforce Development Program (AWDP).
The budget’s release follows the recently signed House Bill 23-1094 to extend AWDP in Colorado. The program, established in 2018, trains interns for Colorado farmers, ranchers, and agricultural businesses and aims to build a well-trained workforce for the state’s agricultural industry. The House Bill extends the program, which was about to expire, for another five years. It also lengthens the duration of internships from six months to one year, giving apprentices experience across all seasons.
AWDP was established to encourage more young people to pursue careers in farming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers in the U.S. are getting older, with the average age of food producers over 57 years of age.
“There aren’t enough younger people deciding to choose careers in agriculture,” Colorado State Senator Dylan Roberts tells Food Tank. Roberts says that a career in the sector is becoming less financially viable for young people.
Research from the University of Colorado shows that farms are declining in number and increasing in size across the United States. And the USDA reports that there were 200,000 fewer farms in 2022 than in 2007. This shift away from family-operated farms poses challenges for young people, particularly those with high student loan debt, to establish a livelihood in rural areas, according to a report for the Colorado Rural Health Center.
“The concept around the Agricultural Workforce Development Program was to create an entryway into agriculture for young and beginning farmers and ranchers” Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture, tells Food Tank.
AWDP provides financial incentives to farms, ranches, and agricultural businesses to hire interns and provide them with the hands-on training needed to begin a career in agriculture. According to Greenberg, the program allows beginning farmers to gain experience in the field without needing to have the capital to purchase land.
“We know that access to land and capital are the top barriers young farmers face, but that also includes education, training, and workforce development,” says Greenberg.
Since the start of the program, AWDP has funded over 50 apprenticeships on Colorado farms and ranches, according to Greenberg.
“That’s 50 young people who have had that paid, hands-on experience and are being brought into agriculture in a way that they weren’t able to before because of the program,” Greenberg tells Food Tank.
According to Greenberg and Roberts, AWDP is part of a bigger strategy tackling issues around access to land, capital, and education. The Colorado Department of Agriculture initiated the NextGen Ag Leadership Grant Program, which was also included in Governor Polis’ Proposal, in the fall of 2022. The program aims to provide grants to agricultural organizations and educational institutions that support developmental opportunities for the next generation of agriculturalists.
The agency also launched a US$20 million revolving loan fund to help finance land access for beginning farmers and ranchers. They have helped more than 80 individuals access land and expand their businesses within the first year of the program, according to Greenberg.
AWDP and the Department of Agriculture’s other initiatives specially aim to support Colorado youth as farming practices change in the face of the climate crisis.
“Stewardship, succession, profitability, and resilience all go hand and hand,” Greenberg tells Food Tank. “We know young people are going to be dealing with challenges we can’t define yet because of the rate of change and variability with climate change.”
According to Roberts, AWDP also benefits farmers and ranchers as the interns are able to contribute new knowledge and strategies for climate mitigation and adaptation practices on farms.
“It gives me hope that the future generation in agriculture is much more environmentally minded and much more willing to try new things that will help with water efficiency, drought resilience, and soil health,” says Roberts. “This internship program is one of the ways that’s helping promote that in the agriculture industry.”
According to Roberts, 90 percent of the interns who have participated in AWDP now have intentions to continue with a career in agriculture.
This article was written by Liza Greene.
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Photo courtesy of the Colorado Department of Agriculture