Hope in the Next Generation of Farmers
Choosing to be a farmer does not guarantee fame, fortune or glamour. In fact, it’s often the opposite – isolating hard work for an unreliable cash flow and dirt between your nails. While farmers may not typically get much recognition for their efforts, here in the Pioneer Valley they are celebrities. Our local farmers put fresh, nutritious food on our plates, strengthen our economy, and maintain the rural character of our communities by continuing the historic tradition of farming some of the most fertile soils in the country.
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While agriculture in the region is currently strong, its future is at risk. According to the most recent 2012 Agricultural Census, the average age of principal farm operators in Massachusetts is 58 years. As aging farmers near the end of their careers, we face a huge barrier to sustaining a regional food system- the threat of existing agricultural land going out of production. For those of us who eat, this is a big deal.
But there’s hope! Through my work at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), I see a tremendous amount of interest in programs for new and beginning farmers. MDAR’s Matching Enterprise Grants for Agriculture program offers assistance and matching grants to farmers between 1 and 5 years in business who are aspiring to develop their farms into commercially viable operations. MDAR also offers the Exploring the Small Farm Dream course, developed by the New England Small Farm Institute, to provide guidance to those exploring the realities of becoming an agricultural entrepreneur.
The type of participants taking advantage of these programs varies. Some are second-generation farmers that have gained years of hands-on experience growing up on a family farm. Some have studied agriculture or a related field in college or vocational school. Others are ready to change careers or turn a hobby into a commercial business. Many opportunities exist for those who want to improve their agricultural skills and knowledge, from on-farm apprenticeships, field days, and workshops to grants, loans, and networks specifically targeted to beginning farmers. No matter what their path, an enthusiastic next generation of famers is ready to work hard to carry on the important tradition of farming the land.
The Beginning Farmer Network (BFN) of Massachusetts, coordinated by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project staff and other partners, has developed a survey to find out if the needs of beginning farmers in the state are being met. If you are a beginning farmer (0-10 years) in Massachusetts please click here to take this survey. Thank you!
Melissa Adams has been a Contractor for Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Farm Viability Programs since 2001, helping farmers develop business plans and invest capital on their farms to increase the financial viability of their farm businesses. She is a member of the PVGrows Steering Committee and the Beginning Farmers Network Advisory Team.
PVGROWS WELCOMES YOUR COMMENTS
Melissa, thanks for the post and for the link to the survey. I will send it to a few folks I know who would be interested in this. I’m thinking about the farmers and would-be farmers in the greater Holyoke and Springfield area that we want to support in entering this business, but an online survey in English might not be the most accessible. Are there other ways for folks to share their needs?
Hi Sarah! My name is Janel Wright, and I’m the Coordinator for the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts – and helping to coordinate the survey. Thanks for being willing to send the survey to folks you know would be interested! For those that would not be suited to an online English survey, I’d be happy to see if we can come up with an alternate plan (translation, or printed surveys, etc.), because I’d love to capture their thoughts. It might be best to talk specifically about the language needs of the folks you had in mind, so I’ll send you a follow up email – but I am also conducting one-on-one farmer interviews to compliment the survey – so if that’s an easier fit, let me know!