Farming and ranching is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Agriculture in the United States is a mixing bowl of diversity, and it’s most evident when comparing large- and small-scale farming operations. Having grown up on a small, family farm in Iowa, I saw first-hand not only how important our small farmers and ranchers are to the nation, but also the challenges they face daily.
There is much variation among small family farms and ranches. No one definition comes close to capturing the richness and diversity of these operations. For example, while many farmers and ranchers are loyal to their traditional production systems, others constantly seek new opportunities and experiment with alternative crops, production methods and innovative marketing approaches. As a result, the United States produces a striking range of food and fiber, from soybeans to sesame, from beef to buffalo.
Yet, with all this variation, there are common challenges they face that many large farms don’t, such as access to capital, acquiring land, opening doors to new markets, learning to manage risk and finding training and mentoring services.
USDA works every day for producers of all sizes. This week, the department announced additional support and resources for America's small and midsized farmers and ranchers, including an investment in grants from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to support research, education and Extension work at universities across the nation. This announcement is part of USDA’s continued support for America’s small and midsized producers.
The work being undertaken at these 10 universities will develop programs to assist small and medium-sized farmers grow their operations, enhance their production and become economically viable. The grants are part of NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative and focuses on developing models to assist small farmers in their decision making respect to management strategies, new technologies, sustainability, competitiveness and viability.
A few examples from this year’s funding include a project at the University of Illinois to research risk mitigation strategies for producers in the advanced biofuel industry, while Oklahoma State University is researching economic development opportunities in the local and regional food systems. The University of Vermont is studying how to improve the quality of labor management decisions for small and medium-sized farm operators. A full list of awardees is available on the NIFA website.
Small farmers and ranchers account for nearly 90 percent of all farms in the country. They are helping the United States produce the most affordable, abundant, safe, and healthy food supply in the world. With an impact that huge, we need to ensure that they have access to the resources they need to thrive.
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My sister and I manage our family farm in Sussex County Virginia. We started our current business, Cooper Farms, approximately 5 years ago with a goal of restoring our family farm, using the farm to provide healthy foods and services to our family, customers and community. We have succeeded in establishing initiatives through, CSA's, participating in Farmers Markets, local festivals and direct sales. We are currently a part of the Small Farmers Outreach Program through the VCE (Virginia Cooperative Extension, VSU/VT) and have acquired a wealth of knowledge and connection through them. I manage the farm full time as we found the need to have a full timer on the farm based on our business growth. The issue that we face is operational capital to include a salary that is lacking since I departed from my full time job. I have no regrets because as I indicated earlier on that this is a small family farm that has been in our family for 88 years. We have a passion and a responsibility to manage this farm with care as it is an inheritance to pass on to the generations to come as well as a viable entity that provides fresh natural produce to our local rural communities. Our challenge as we productively grow is capital. We've gained valuable networking resources regarding how to run our farm and grow or crops but nothing to offer us actual monetary grant dollars to help pay for salaries, equipment, laborers, educational materials to teach the youth about farming, etc. If there is something that we've missed in this area, I really wish someone will help us to know what that is. Any information or direction that you can give is most appreciated.
Carolyn Cooper Wright
Sussex County, Virginia