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Farmer programs aid military veterans and 'advanced beginners'

A well-established agricultural outreach effort run by Cornell is taking on a new mission designed in part to help returning veterans find futures in farming, thanks to a grant announced today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Northeast Beginning Farmer Project, part of the Cornell Small Farms Program, was awarded $712,500 through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The money will be used to create community-based training programs and farmer-to-farmer networks to support what organizers call two underserved groups – military veterans and “advanced beginners” who have been farming from four to seven years.

“Supporting new farmers is core to the mission of the Cornell Small Farm Program and our numerous partners,” said Anusuya Rangarajan, extension associate in plant sciences and director of the Small Farms Program. “This USDA investment will allow us to build new pathways for veterans entering agriculture and for entrepreneurs growing their farming businesses.”

Rangarajan said the federal funds – to be supported by another $218,000 from the Local Economies Project of the New World Foundation and $100,000 from the New York Farm Viability Institute – will be used to create new communications tools and education strategies to attract and keep military veterans in farming. She and her team plan to create a permanent, statewide network linking veterans and their service providers to agricultural support resources. The program’s organizers also hope to develop and demonstrate new educational approaches to get veterans interested in farming.

“On behalf of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, we commend the collaborative work that will continue to make these crucial efforts successful, and we are grateful for the USDA’s support of this key program,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “This initiative reflects our land-grant mission, and its outcomes speak to our delivery of knowledge with public purpose. We are honored to play a part in serving those who have served our country.”

A second dimension of the project will support what Rangarajan calls “advanced beginners” by helping them expand or diversify to improve profitability. This part of the effort will use “New Farm Profit Teams” to improve business planning, create advanced online courses to support farm diversification and risk management, and design intensive training programs to help these farmers scale up for wholesale markets.

By the time the three-year effort concludes, Rangarajan said the team’s efforts will have improved the agricultural knowledge and skills of at least 100 veterans, 500 farmers and 100 service providers. Other goals are to help launch at least 20 new veteran-owned farms in New York and to help at least 150 advanced beginner farmers improve profitability by 20 percent.

The USDA’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program is part of an effort that began with $75 million in 2009 to offer education, training, outreach and mentoring programs to new farmers. Earlier this year, Congress provided an additional $20 million per year for 2014-18 to combat an expected 8 percent drop in the number of farmers and ranchers between 2008 and 2018, and to provide new programs to address the needs of the next generation of beginning farmers.

Additional partners working with Cornell’s Northeast Beginning Farmer Project on this effort include the New York Farm Viability Institute, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University Farmnet/Farmlink, Farmer Veteran Coalition of New York, the National Center For Appropriate Technology, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, Heroic Food Farm School, the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs and the New York State Department of Labor.

John Carberry is managing editor for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

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