Southern VT Beginning Farmers Summit Summary

Dana Wolfson – May 25, 2011

Over the past several decades, as fewer numbers of people are directly involved in agriculture, the agricultural literacy of the citizens of the United States has sharply declined (Hamilton, Tending the Seeds,  1996). While this loss of agricultural literacy affects general public participation in the deliberation of the direction of our nation’s
agriculture policies, it also seems that the decline in agricultural literacy has affected the numbers and ages of those entering and exiting the farming profession. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, between 1992 and 2002, a half million farmers retired, which was approximately one-fourth of all farmers at that time. Today the
average age of farmers is fifty-seven, and one-third of all farmland owners are of retirement age (NSAC, Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill). In the next two decades nearly four hundred million acres of agricultural land in the United States will be passed on to heirs or sold as farmers age sixty-five and older retire (NSAC, Grassroots Guide
to the 2008 Farm Bill). These statistics illustrate that there is a current need to support and create farm businesses that are run by individuals who are trained and prepared to start today’s small farms (Zeigler, 2000).

This past Field Work term, I interned for the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, and as part of the CAPA Tutorial: Coping with Environmental Change, designed a project that would allow me to continue to learn about the issues facing young and beginning farmers today. For many beginning farmers, the prospect of successful entry into agriculture is
met with several challenges and barriers including: access to land, access to capital, access to production knowledge and access to markets (Resource guide for Vermont’s new and Aspiring Farmers, 2007 ). While groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have worked to support beginning farmers in their past sustainable agriculture agendas (as they did in “No Time for Delay, A Sustainable Agriculture Agenda for the 2007 Farm Bill”) there has not been a group whose sole focus is on the interests and needs of young and beginning farmers. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) is working to fill this gap, and to get the needs of young and beginning farmers recognized by policy makers, and put into legislation in the 2012 Farm Bill.

Throughout Field Work Term and the first half of the spring term, I decided to plan an event for young and beginning farmers that would serve as a platform for facilitating networking and idea sharing, as well as a setting to begin to discuss issues facing these beginning farmers. On April 30th, around fifteen practicing and aspiring farmers, agriculture service providers, and Bennington College students and faculty met in the Deane Carriage Barn for the Southern Vermont Beginning Farmers Summit. Attendees came from as far away as Burlington, and as close as Pownal. Several people presented on topics including working with independent financing programs like the Carrot Project, accessing land, and farming on rented land. Valerie Imbruce  and students from her
Agroecology class presented on their work with conducting energy audits
on farms.

Additionally, many more topics arose throughout the discussion that were identified  by those present at the summit as issues that are directly facing them in their work as beginning farmers.These included: alternative modes of distribution for small scale producers, tool and machinery sharing, evaluation of the effectiveness of apprenticeship programs, and making sure that they are educational and non-exploitive, how Farm to School programs can be an effective way to enter into agriculture and gain
necessary management experience, what roles can colleges and universities (in this case Bennington College) play in working with and supporting farmers and other stakeholders in our local food system? While these issues remain unsolved, this event served to bring them to the forefront of our minds, and to remind those in attendance that there
are other people in this area interested in working to better understand, and begin to solve them collaboratively. Valerie Imbruce, Director of the Environmental Studies Program, and other Bennington students are interested in finding ways to continue the conversation
started at this event, and collaborate in other ways as well. I hope that this event will serve as the beginning of a greater conversation that will continue between the various stakeholders who were involved.

Hamilton, N. “Tending the Seeds: The Emergence of a New Agriculture in the United States.” The National Agricultural Law Center (1996). Web.

“The Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill: Farming Opportunities” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Retrieved November, 2010 from the National Sustainable Agriculture coalition website: http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/grassrootsguide/farming-opportunities/

“Resource Guide for Vermont’s New and Aspiring Farmers.” (2007). The Vermont New Farmer Project. Retrieved April 2010 from the Vermont New farmer project website: http://www.uvm.edu/newfarmer/

Zeigler, K. “Who Will Teach Our Farmers: Learning the Value of Mentor Programs From State and Private Programs.” The National Agricultural Law Center (2000). Web.

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