November 11, 2009

Backed by a nearly $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kentucky Cooperative Extension will offer a comprehensive training program for beginning farmers and those who are thinking about taking up farming.

The Kentucky's whole farm management education program, A Common Field, is a two-year course offered in 20 areas of the state. It will include face-to-face educational meetings at county extension offices, on-farm demonstrations and, in the second year, a mentor program that will connect beginning farmers with experienced producers. Program organizers are also developing an Internet-based version.

The commonwealth's two land grant institutions, the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University, are partnering in the program. Joining them in the project are Kentucky Women in Agriculture and the Kentucky Beef Network.

In announcing the USDA's funding for 29 universities and agricultural organizations, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said, "Beginning farmers and ranchers face unique challenges and need educational and training programs to enhance their profitability and long term sustainability. 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."

Lee Meyer, extension professor, and Jennifer Hunter, extension associate in the UK Department of Agricultural Economics, are the co-principal investigators on the grant. Meyer said UK has already done some work in this area, with agent training and a few county-based programs, but the USDA funding will provide the necessary resources to expand and reach many more beginning farmers in the state.

Part of the impetus for the program is the loss of farms through transitions from one generation to the next or through farm failures. Meyer sees the program as an important move to provide needed support for people currently in their early years in farming and those who might be thinking about returning to the land in the near future.

Hunter said the program would focus specifically on the producers and their interests and plans. In the first year, the course will cover topics such as enterprise evaluation, land-labor resources, nutrient management, farm record keeping, agriculture water quality plans and marketing plans, among others.

During the second year, organizers will connect program participants with mentor farmers who have similar enterprise interests. During this phase, beginning farmers will take the material they learned in the classroom and, with the help of their mentors, put it into practice on their own farms.

"This is everything the beginning farmer needs to get started and get started on the right path," Hunter said.

Kentucky State University is folding this program under their Small Farm Outreach Training and Technical Assistance Program.

"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."

A Common Field will be offered beginning in early 2010. Organizers have not determined the 20 areas yet, but will choose them based on farmer interest. Beginning farmers -- defined by the USDA as those who have been farming for 10 years or less -- or those thinking about going into farming should contact their county Cooperative Extension offices now if they are interested in participating in the program.

"I think it's exciting that we've already had interest expressed from county extension agents from as far east as Boyd and Greenup counties to as far west as Henderson," Hunter said. "I'm excited because I think we're going to be able offer a program that meets producer needs and responds to the diversity of Kentucky agriculture."

Meyer said the comprehensive online curriculum will live on well past the face-to-face part of the program. It will give access to farmers who don't have the program in their counties and will be used to support and supplement the training of those in the traditional program.

"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 very comprehensive online resource for producers to go to and continue to access in the future."

The funding for A Common Field comes from the USDA's new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

For more information about the program or to express an interest in enrolling, contact the local Kentucky Cooperative Extension office.