A Boost for Young, Diverse Farmers

The farm bill on Trump’s desk funds programs that help make farming more accessible.

Omar Chombo carries a bunch of chard across a field he leases from the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association. The organization helps farmworkers, most of whom are first-generation Latinos, become independent organic-farm operators. (Gosia Wozniacka / AP)

The average American farmer, according to the most recent United States Department of Agriculture data, is white, male, and 58 years old. Just 8 percent of America’s 2.1 million farmers identify as anything other than non-Hispanic white; only 14 percent are women. And as the average age of American farmers has risen over the past 30 years, the federal government has taken small steps to address a situation that if left unaddressed, would almost certainly prove to be a crisis for American agriculture and the American food supply.

The new farm bill, which passed through both houses of Congress last week and is waiting on Donald Trump’s signature, nearly triples funding for the only two programs specifically designed to support beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers; in other words, farmers outside the current dominant—and aging—demographic. The two grant programs—the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program, often known as the 2501 Program after its original section number, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program—will exist within one new initiative, called the Farmer Opportunity Training and Outreach (FOTO) Program.

While the two programs will remain distinct, putting them under the umbrella of the FOTO Program will allow them to better coordinate with each other. The programs have different target populations and slightly different goals. Both grants are designed for programs that help people who might feel isolated from the dominant American-farming demographic. They also endeavor to bring into farming people who might otherwise be left behind by the often complicated regulations and bureaucracy of the USDA. “Now more than ever we need to build the bench for the future of farming,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, who was one of the primary proponents of the FOTO Program.

The FOTO Program will receive $435 million in funding over the next 10 years, small peas relative to the total cost of the farm bill, which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will be $867 billion over the same period. But for organizations working with farmers of color, veteran farmers, and new farmers, it’s a big deal.

“You typically think of agriculture subsidies as price supports going to the large commodity producers,” said Nicole Milne, whose organization, the Kohala Center in Hawaii, receives funding from both the 2501 Program and the beginning-farmers program. The FOTO Program provides another form of subsidies: grants for programs offering outreach, training, and technical assistance that “are an important form of support that small-scale producers are able to access,” she said.

Both existing programs fund others within organizations such as nonprofits, universities, and community organizations that serve under-resourced farmers. Their grants help farmers in radically different climates and in areas with radically different histories, guiding them through the complex world of regulations, loans, training programs, and other assistance offered by the USDA.

“That was a huge lift, to get all of these programs permanent authority and permanent funding. That’s going to be a game changer for folks that are working with the next generation of farmers,” said Juli Obudzinski, the deputy policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The bill gives permanent funding to the program, which means that going forward, both programs will be protected from a drastic loss of funding like that which the 2501 Program suffered in 2013, and they will be at least partially insulated from the whims of an ever polarized Congress. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition expects that the beginning-farmers program will take a small cut in funding in the first few years of the FOTO Program in order to shore up 2501’s funding, which was slashed in half as part of the last farm bill, in 2014.

Though racial disparities in American farming have always existed, especially when it comes to who owns the biggest and most profitable farms, the gap wasn’t always this wide. In 1920, for example, there were 925,000 black farmers, about 14 percent of the nation’s total. Now that number is around 45,000, a little more than 2 percent of all American farmers.That’s not by chance: In a 1998 settlement, the USDA admitted to systemic discrimination against black farmers. In 2010, it acknowledged similar actions against Native Americans. In recent years, Hispanic farmers have also alleged discrimination by the federal agriculture agency.

To help rebuild trust between the USDA and the farmers it’s supposed to serve, 2501 provides grants to community-based organizations, educational institutions, and nonprofits that do outreach and training for what the agency calls “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers. That’s a group that has included black, indigenous, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander farmers since the program’s inception. In 2012, the grants were expanded to also target veteran farmers. Each demographic the grant program targets has a different history requiring a different solution—many black farmers in the South need assistance getting titles for their land so they can apply for USDA programs, for example, and Native American communities in Oklahoma typically benefit from guidance in navigating the complex legal landscape that comes with farming tribal land.

Henry English, who heads the Small Farm Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an 1890s land-grant university in southern Arkansas, credits the 2501 grants with his program’s ability to connect the region’s black farmers to technical assistance for loan applications. “Before this grant, we wouldn’t say anything about the farm-loans program. We would only talk about production,” how farmers maximize their output, he told me. “With [2501], not only do we talk about the program, the money that’s available, we also help them put together the USDA loan applications.”

English and his staff help local black farmers get loans from the local USDA office, which they had viewed warily, given its history of discrimination in the region. English estimates that his staff works with about 200 farmers every grant cycle. “We have a long history of working with them, so they feel really comfortable coming” to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he said.

But the 2501 Program has struggled to maintain consistent levels of funding, and has been shifted around between a number of USDA offices. When Congress couldn’t agree on a farm bill the last time it expired, in 2012, 2501 lost funding for an entire year. When a new bill finally passed, in 2014, the program still lost half of its allocated funding, going from $20 million a year to $10 million a year. In the four years since, Obudzinski says, that’s had a major effect.

“Obviously, you expand the pool of applicants and the pool of communities that are trying to be served by a program, and you cut the funding in half—we’ve seen a number of impacts,” she told me this fall. “Some of them have had to cut their programming, some of them have had to lay off staff.” (Even with a set amount in “mandatory” annual funding, both the 2501 Program’s and the beginning-farmers program’s funding still fluctuates year to year, depending on what’s allocated in appropriations bills).

Many programs, such as the Kohala Center, which is on the largest island of Hawaii, receive funding from both 2501 and the beginning-farmers program. Milne, the center’s director of food and agriculture, told me that for nonprofits like this one, the funding allows their programs greater reach and more depth of service, especially given the relatively recent collapse of Hawaii’s plantation-style agricultural economy.

“There is a lack of experienced agricultural producers and extremely limited access to capital necessary to reinvent those lands,” she said. By matching new farmers with retiring farmers, she told me, land can be kept in use and the financial burden on farmers just starting out can be greatly reduced. In addition to that, older farmers often serve as mentors for younger ones just starting out and can help close the knowledge gap between generations. The center has graduated nearly 200 people from its Beginning Farmer-Rancher Development Program, funded by a beginning-farmers grant, and 150 high-school students have completed its high-school AgriCULTURE program, which was funded in part by 2501.

The beginning-farmers grant program is a much more recent addition to the farm bill than 2501. It was created in 2008 and targets young farmers who are new to agriculture and need guidance in building and operating a successful farm or ranch. The program is a direct response to the upward-creeping age of America’s farmers, and works to train, educate, and mentor new farmers and connect them with other USDA programs that can help them get a farm operation off the ground.

Like 2501 grants, beginning-farmers grants are used for a variety of purposes: While one program in San Francisco trains young farmers in best practices for successful, profitable small farms in an urban market, another in northeast Georgia is focused on connecting current landowners with the resources they need to begin farming on their property. The flexibility of the grants allows for programs in different regions, with different needs, to run programs specific to their communities. And like 2501, most of the farmers served by beginning-farmers grants are small- and mid-size farmers—a rare benefit in a farm bill whose subsidies overwhelmingly go to massive producers.

But even with the farm bill’s permanent funding and a guarantee that the grants won’t be interrupted by congressional inability to pass a new bill, the FOTO program still isn’t perfect. The two grant programs will remain housed in separate branches of the USDA. In the past, that’s meant they’re administered differently, with varying levels of efficiency. A common complaint is 2501’s one-year grant cycle, set not by the farm bill but by an administrative rule-making process that happens after the legislation is passed. These short cycles can be prohibitively difficult for small nonprofits that don’t have the staffing capacity to apply for new grants every year.

“One year is very, very hard for a new program,” said English, of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Showing a measurable impact in the first year, especially if the grant cycle doesn’t align with the growing season, can be very hard for new, small organizations, he said. This is, in part, why universities make up a significant portion of the program’s grantees—many of them have dedicated grant-writing staff who can put together a polished application for 2501 or beginning-farmers funding from the USDA.

Still, despite the bureaucratic hiccups, the farmers who currently benefit from organizations funded by 2501 and the beginning-farmers program can now be sure that the training and technical assistance they rely on will continue, at least for the foreseeable future. And with mandatory funding for both programs expected to hit $25 million in the next few years, more organizations—serving more communities—will have a chance to build programs on the back of FOTO dollars.