Penn State Extension program for beginning farmers wins national accolades

With a total economic impact of nearly $136 billion annually, the agricultural industry is essential to Pennsylvania’s future. Yet, the farming population is aging, and with 16,000 Pennsylvania farmers projected to retire in the next 10 years, many are wondering who will fill their shoes.

Those concerns prompted the creation of a Penn State Extension project aimed at supporting the next generation of farmers — “Supporting Pennsylvania Farmers in the Start-Up, Re-strategizing and Establishing Years” — an initiative that recently received an award for excellence from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents during its annual conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“We are honored to be recognized by peers for what has been a transformative project for everyone involved,” said Lee Stivers, extension educator, who accepted the award on behalf of fellow team members and educators Tara Baugher, Marley Cassidy, Megan Chawner, Bob Pollock, Lynn Kime, John Esslinger and Patty Neiner. The group received support from the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences‘ Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network.

“Our goal was to increase the number and success of beginning farmers in Pennsylvania, with an emphasis on women and Hispanic and Latino farmers,” said Stivers about the three-year project, which ended in October 2017. “As a result, 52 people started farming, another 248 received assistance in starting to farm, and 454 improved their farming success. We could not be more thrilled.”

Echoing that sentiment was Carolee Bull, head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, one of many college leaders who supported the initiative. “This cohesive group of leaders has driven programming for women and Hispanic and Latino farmers through this and other projects,” Bull said. “Importantly, they are now mentoring graduate students and embracing others who want to work for a stronger and more diverse agricultural workforce.”

The project featured on-farm demonstrations that provided living classrooms where new farmers learned best management practices of working farms. Complementary study-circle learning networks provided opportunities for new farmers and educators to learn from each other, and educators provided additional instruction for those interested in commercial fruit growing. More than 700 establishing farmers attended one or more of the study circles.

“One of the highlights of this effort was to facilitate farmer-to-farmer learning,” Stivers said. “Nurturing connections between beginning and established farmers provided a higher level of learning. Another bonus of that setting is that we could share Penn State research with all of the farmers — information that was valuable to even the most experienced farmer.”

Additional study-circle networks addressed the specific needs and learning preferences of women and Hispanic/Latino farmers, according to Stivers. These growing demographics play an integral role in agriculture, noted Patreese Ingram, assistant dean for multicultural affairs for the college.

“The educators are to be commended for ensuring that this project reflected the true diversity of agriculture in Pennsylvania,” Ingram said. “Women and Hispanic farmers make invaluable contributions to sustainable agriculture, and our support will make agriculture even stronger.”

Stivers explained that this program is one of many resources that Penn State Extension and the College of Agricultural Sciences provide to support the agricultural community in the state, the nation and the world.

“As a land-grant university, it is part of our mission to support beginning and next-generation farmers,” she said. “Through this project, we have directly improved the success of participating farmers and have developed a robust and accessible library of online, research-based resources for all farmers to use.”

The “Supporting Pennsylvania Farmers in the Start-Up, Re-strategizing and Establishing Years” project received grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grant.