October 5, 2010

Rich and Michelle Hale moved to Kentucky from Indiana, bought a little spread in Anderson County and began making plans for a small Saddlebred breeding operation with a few head of cattle on the side. The Hales have been around horses for years, but beef cattle? That's unexplored territory for the couple.

"The biggest challenge beginning farmers face is that they don't have any idea what they're getting into, especially when there are so many rules and regulations thrown at them, plus marketing and everything else about the enterprise," said Louie Rivers, Jr., director of the Small Farmer Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Program at Kentucky State University. "It gets complicated for them."

Rich Hale is excited about his new endeavor, but he understands the road in front of him won't be without potholes. He just wants to avoid as many as he can.

"I'm working with live animals here. I've got to be a little bit more careful about what I'm doing, because the repercussions are not just going to be on myself. It's going to be on them, too. I want to make sure I do it right, so they're treated the way they're supposed to be treated," he said. "I'm hungry for any knowledge that would be available."

Farmers like the Hales can benefit from KyFarmStart: Beginning Farmer Program, offered by the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and backed by a nearly $750,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The University of Kentucky, Kentucky State University, Kentucky Beef Network and Kentucky Women in Agriculture are partnering to offer the two-year whole-farm management education program, which is designed to give beginning farmers-those who have been farming for 10 years or less-the tools they need to be successful. 

"Beginning farmers and ranchers face unique challenges and need educational and training programs to enhance their profitability and long term sustainability," Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said in announcing the USDA's funding in 2009 for 29 universities and agricultural organizations. "The training and education provided through these grants will help ensure the success of the next generation of farmers and ranchers as they work to feed people in their local communities and throughout the world."

And according to Lee Meyer, extension professor in UK's Department of Agricultural Economics and one of the creators of KyFarmStart, a farmer's success isn't confined to the farm.

"Successful beginning farmer programs might be the key to preserving agricultural land and rural communities," he said.

The first KyFarmStart class began in the spring of 2010 with approximately 150 participants in four locations: Western Kentucky, Somerset, Northern Bluegrass and Central Kentucky. A new class is set to begin in early 2011. The program includes face-to-face educational sessions and on-farm demonstrations covering such topics as enterprise evaluation, land-labor resources, nutrient management, farm record keeping, agriculture water quality plans and marketing plans, among others. During participants' second year in the program, Kentucky Beef Network and Kentucky Women in Agriculture will help develop the mentorship component of the program, connecting program participants with mentor farmers who have similar enterprise interests. With their mentors' help, beginning farmers will take what they learned in the first year and put it into practice on their own farms, which is critical, according to organizers, in making beginning farmers successful farmers. Participants also will be on the receiving end of cutting-edge research results from the state's two land-grant institutions through the collaboration of the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University.

"This is an opportunity for two institutions to bring together their resources for the betterment of a clientele that desperately needs good, unbiased research and support in these days of trial by fire," said Harold Benson, director of the land-grant program at Kentucky State University. "To put it simply, we want to be the best helping hand that we can be and to get these farmers to the point where they are assured that they can be a success."

Program organizers have developed an Internet-based version as well, which can be found at http://www.ca.uky/kyfarmstart. Meyer said the comprehensive online curriculum would live on well past the face-to-face part of the program. It will provide valuable information to farmers who might not have access to KyFarmStart in their counties, and it also will support and supplement the training of those who are enrolled.

"I really see that as one of the lasting legacies of this project," Meyer said. "We'll have an excellent face-to-face curriculum, but following that, we should have this comprehensive online resource for producers to go to and continue to access in the future."

Organizers of KyFarmStart expect to have programs throughout the state. Specific areas will be determined by the amount of participant interest. Beginning farmers, or even those just thinking about going into farming, should contact their county Cooperative Extension offices now if they are interested in joining the 2011 KyFarmStart class.