Farmers are the backbone of resilient local and regional food systems, yet many are aging or retiring. The FarmLASTS Project at the University of Vermont estimates that 70 percent of farmland in the United States will change hands over the next two decades. The age of the average U.S. farmer is 58.3 years old, and rural populations are declining as a percentage of the national population, according to U.S. Census Data.To create a sustainable food system, we need to cultivate young farmers. Supporting beginning farmers needs to be a collaborative effort—one that connects young people with both financial and technical resources and provides the knowledge necessary to develop a successful business. New farmers also need sustainable funding and mutual partnerships with investors, which are increasingly found outside of traditional investment models.
“When starting a business, it is very important to have accurate information that feeds into your business plan,” says beginning farmer Dan Berube. “Expectations are everything in life. Many beginning farmers are coming from families that haven’t farmed for a few generations now, so it is hard for them to know what they are getting themselves into.”
Researchers from Tufts University note that new farmers are more likely to face financial hardships than veteran farmers. Beginning farmers lack access to land, capital, and established marketplaces for their products. Moreover, new farmers often lack the technical expertise and business knowledge needed to run a successful farm.
Fortunately, food incubators and accelerator programs can offer business support from industry experts, technical assistance, introductions to markets, mentoring, and training, thereby helping new and existing farmers to overcome barriers to entering farming. These initiatives help beginning farmers to launch new businesses, expand existing operations, and increase their incomes.
Food Tank is highlighting 30 resources available for producers who are working to create food sovereignty and sustainable farm business models, ranging from food and farm incubators to sources of grant money and microloans:
ACDI/VOCA—a private, nonprofit organization—envisions a world in which empowered people can succeed in the global economy. To achieve this vision, ACDI/VOCA promotes “economic opportunities for cooperatives, enterprises, and communities through the innovative application of sound business practice.” Programs specific to agriculture include Farmer-to-Farmer, the Cooperative Development Program II (CDPII), and implementation of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID)Feed the Future.
AgDevCo is a social impact investor and agribusiness project developer that aids in the financing of sustainable agricultural business opportunities in Africa. Additionally, AgDevCo supports the development of agriculture-supporting infrastructure, such as irrigation and bulk storage. Once commercially viable, AgDevCo transfers the businesses to primarily national ownership and then reinvests funds in other early-stage agriculture development projects.
AgriBusiness Incubator (ABI) at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics(ICRISAT), founded in 2003 in India, promotes agricultural technologies developed by ICRISAT and other research and development institutions. ICRISAT focuses on five strategic areas: seeds, biofuels, ventures to develop particular innovations (products or services), farming (high-value crops), and agricultural biotechnology. Additional outreach strategy includes collaborative business incubation.
AgroEcology Fund is a “collaboration of donors working to coordinate and sustain agricultural systems that build on the existing skills and practices of local farming communities.” The Fund awards grant money to eligible projects; in 2012, the AgroEcology Fund awarded US$1 million to six partners for a two-year grant period. Supported by an advisory board of global experts, the Fund is currently working on its second round of grantmaking.
Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) Incubator Farm Project understands that access to land is one of the biggest obstacles new farmers face. To address this problem, CEFS works with communities in North Carolina to repurpose land into new farm incubators. These farmers “pay” for their land with services to the community and fresh farm products. Participants also have access to training and technical assistance opportunities in farm business and production.
Consortium for Enhancing University Responsiveness to Agribusiness Development Limited (CURAD) is one of six agribusiness innovation incubator programs in Africa aimed at generating jobs and boosting incomes within the agricultural sector. CURAD’s target clients include student startups, as well as small and medium wholesale and retail, coffee processing, and agribusiness enterprises.
Dirt Works, an incubator farm in South Carolina, provides farmers launching a new business with infrastructure and support for up to three years. For a minimal fee, participants receive acreage, access to a tractor, packing facility, walk-in cooler, tool storage, irrigation, and assistance from a mentor farmer. After farmers’ three years are up, Dirt Works helps match these farmers with prospective land on which to expand businesses.
FamilyFarmed works to increase the production, marketing, and distribution of food that is produced locally and justly. To achieve this goal, FamilyFarmed offers trainings in farming, wholesale success, and food safety; provides access to food hubs; helps expand markets for farmers and food artisans; brings together financing and innovation partners at its Good Food Conferences; and offers a Business Accelerator program that provides selected fellows with mentoring, support, and access to capital.
Farm Aid helps build a family-farm-focused agricultural system through a variety of resources. The online Farmer Resource Network allows farmers to “access new markets, transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices, and survive natural disasters.” The Grant for Family Farm Agricultureprogram provides family farm organizations from across the country with grants ranging from US$500–US$20,000 annually.
Food and Farm Communications Fund (FFCF) facilitates the strategic communication needed to create robust and resilient regional food systems. FFCF offers grants to a variety of programs, which the organization assesses for viability in market strategy and communications. Funding ranges from US$10,000–US$100,000.
Food+Tech Connect is an online platform for good food innovators that uses technology and data to improve the food system. Through resources like its weekly newsletters, Food+Tech Connect helps to launch, grow, and transform companies committed to revolutionizing the food system. Additionally, Food+Tech Meetups and Hackathons discuss and undertake “some of the food industry’s greatest challenges.”
Food-X helps companies tackling major challenges that affect the food sector through mentorship and education. During three-and-a-half-month programs, as many as 12 businesses meet in Food-X’s New York City office and receive intensive business mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs. Additionally, Food-X provides companies with US$50,000 to support them during this training and beyond.
Grameen Bank has developed a new type of banking. Instead of traditional monetary deposits and other forms of collateral, the bank relies on accountability, mutual trust, creativity, and participation to provide credit to the poorest Bangladeshis. Grameen Bank uses a small-scale microcredit lending program (usually providing a few hundred U.S. dollars) to small enterprises in a variety of industries, including agriculture. Loans are only available to the poor, with a focus on women.
GlobalGiving is a charity fundraising site that provides a fundraising platform for social entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations from all over the world. Donors can search for different projects—focusing on causes such as education, feeding the hungry, building houses, training women with job skills, and many more meaningful objectives—to make contributions. Since its creation in 2002, GlobalGiving has over USD$184 million to help support close to 13,000 projects.
Global Greengrants Fund has provided over USD$45 million in grants to people, foundations, and businesses supporting community-based projects that aim to make the world safer, healthier, and more just. These grants have addressed pressing issues—including biodiversity, climate change, energy and mining, food and agriculture, fresh water, sustainable livelihoods, marine and coastal conservation, and youth leadership—in 163 countries.
Headwaters Farm Incubator Program leases out sections of Oregon’s East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District’s (EMSWCD) land to individuals looking to launch a new farming endeavor. Headwaters Farm hopes to develop qualified, experienced young farmers to reverse the trend of the aging farming population while also keeping good farmland in production and adding to the diversity of the “farmscape.”
Hot Bread Kitchen, located in New York City, offers two culinary workforces and business incubation programs, Project Launch and HBK Incubates. These initiatives give low-income men and women access to the food industry. Hot Bread Kitchen encourages immigrants in the incubation programs to provide recipes for “multi-ethnic” bread. The organization uses the recipes for training and sells the unique bread at retail and farmers market locations.
Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) promotes ecological agriculture based on local inputs and improved natural resources management in Ethiopia. The organization works to raise crop yields for local food security and improve ecosystem services for farmers, their families, and local communities. Initiatives include soil fertility enhancement (compost), push-pull technology, agroforestry, supporting innovative farmers, and adapting to the effects of climate change.
La Cocina is an incubator kitchen based in San Francisco, CA. Focusing mainly on women from immigrant and minority communities, La Cocina aids in breaking down barriers—such as high cost of entry, fees for licensing and insurance, and availability of kitchen space—by providing commercial kitchen space and technical assistance to low-income women launching, growing, and formalizing food businesses.
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program(BFRDP) is the only federally funded program dedicated exclusively to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers. BFRDP awards grants to academic institutions, state extension services, producer groups, and community organizations to support and train new farmers and ranchers across the United States.
National Young Farmers Coalition works to secure the success of young farmers by supporting practices and policies that enable new farmers to create thriving businesses. The Coalition offers a variety of resources that help farmers overcome barriers and create strong, prosperous farming operations, including connecting farmers with land and jobs, training opportunities, a guide to findingcredit and capital, and information on the organic certification.
Navdanya Farmers Network has trained farmers across 17 Indian states in food sovereignty, seed sovereignty, and sustainable agriculture for two decades. Navdanya has set up over 100 community seed banks across India and taught food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture to over 500,000 farmers. The organization continues to promote nonviolent farming that protects biodiversity, small farmers, and the Earth.
Opportunity International Agriculture Finance Program recognizes Africa is home to 25 percent of the world’s arable land, yet generates only about 10 percent of the world’s food output. Opportunity International is looking to change that by improving African agriculture through micro-financing. By providing farmers with loans, Opportunity International can aid farmers in gaining the resources, training, and knowledge necessary to create thriving agribusinesses.
Pangea Giving for Global Change awards grants to small grassroots, community-based organizations throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Grants are given to organizations working with community members to address pertinent issues, from children’s education and women’s rights to agricultural improvements, with solutions designed to have lasting social impacts. Funding ranges from USD$1,000–US$10,000, with a maximum award of USD$5,000 for first-year grants.
Root Capital has helped grow prosperous rural economies in Latin America and Africa since 1999 by “lending capital, delivering financial training, and strengthening market connections for small and growing agricultural businesses.” Thus far, Root Capital has distributed over USD$740 million to over 530 businesses working towards building sustainable livelihoods.
RSF Social Finance Seed Fund provides grantees with small gifts, ranging from US$500–US$5,000, to provide financial support for initiatives that address specific focus areas, one being food and agriculture. RSF seeks grant proposals that are credible, feasible, and sustainable; that foster collaborative work; that provide intended results and outcomes; and that have beneficial economic, ecological, and social impacts.
Southern Oregon Farmer Incubator is a collaborative effort to train new and beginning farmers. The incubator has a three-year program with several components, including a program known as Growing Agripreneurs, which uses a one-acre teaching farm to train nine beginning farmers in designing and managing a new farm business. While working on the incubator, farmers sell their produce to the local Rogue Valley community.
Small Planet Fund supports “courageous movements bringing to life citizen-led solutions to hunger, poverty, and environmental devastation around the world.” Each year, the fund awards grants to core grantees, a select group of organizations that receive annual funding, as to organizations at a critical point of development that are dedicated to social change.
The Garden Project—based out of San Francisco and originally created to provide job training and support to former offenders—has its participants work in an intensive program learning organic horticulture and landscaping skills, preparing them for future agriculture-based jobs. The Garden Project donates all produce grown to local food pantries.
Turing Foundation offers a Nature Conservation grant, which provides money to organizations working towards marine conservation, sustainable organic agriculture, and sustainable livestock production in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Most grants are awarded to organizations proposing to work with local partners. Funds are usually over USD$33,000 (€30,000) per year, with some organizations receiving multi-million Euro grants over several years.
Know of any programs in your area that are working with beginning farmers to build sustainable business models? Share your ideas with me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
(Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank, foodtank.com)