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USDA Grants Help Send New Generation To 'Farm School'


The next generation of Montana farmers might use technologies like Facebook or YouTube to market themselves or learn a skill, but the basics of farming 101 are still the same.

A new federal grant announced this week aims to help younger farmer learn those basics.

Twenty six year old Caroline Stephens only has a few seasons under her belt, but she already knows you need a wide range of skills.

“You have to be able to keep the books, you have to be able to like grow plants or manage livestock. You have to be a husband of the land. It’s like very diverse. I’m like eager to learn.”

And Stephens is exactly the kind of young farmer the U. S. Department of Agriculture had in mind when it announced an $18 million grant to fund programs aimed at attracting the next generation of farmers.

A total of $250,000 of that grant is coming to Montana, where farming advocates say it’s sorely needed.

"The average age of the farmer is 58-years-old," notes Annie Hauscher, program director for the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, one of only 30 organizations across the country to receive funding.

"They recognize that we’re going to have a huge food issue in the next ten years if we don’t do something to start creating successful and sustainable new farm businesses," Hauscher says.

With the help of this new federal grant, the CFAC started a series of workshops throughout Western Montana, simply called “Farm School.”

On Wednesday night in Missoula, seven younger farmers joined Heuscher and a tax expert to learn how to file taxes like a farmer and avoid getting penalized by the IRS.

Future workshops will help younger farmers tackle intimidating but important skills, like how to hire workers, grow crops, and acquire farmland.

Half of the national grant is aimed at minority groups and women, and five out of the seven farmers at last night’s workshop were women.

Jill Auburn is the program leader for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Washington D.C., the agency administering the grant. Auburn says access to land and capital is the biggest barrier for younger farmers and is part of reason why the national age of farmers is 58 and getting older.

“We are concerned about who’s going to produce our food, who’s going to have those business connections in rural communities,” says Auburn.

But Auburn points to younger Americans’ growing interest in connecting with where their food comes from and who grows it.

“I think urban audiences as well as rural audiences are much more interested these days in making sure there are real people farming on the land and that those who are interested in getting into agriculture have an opportunity.”

And Montana has seen an increasing interest in agriculture from younger residents over the last five years. Missoula’s Heuscher says farmers under the age of 35 started 91 new farms in Montana between 2007 and 2012.

Heuscher says the grant will fund several more workshops over the next three years, including winter classes in Missoula and Bozeman, as well as field demonstrations during the summer on farms in several towns throughout Western Montana.

Caroline Stephens, one of the young farmers who came to Wednesday’s event, says after getting jobs working the soil on farms in Kentucky and in Montana, she’s thinking about running her own farm one day.

“I am audacious enough to want that lifestyle, I’m also fearful," Stephens explained. "Because I know that it’s a really tough one that I’m maybe choosing for myself."

And in such a tough line of work with razor-thin margins, Stephens feels it’s important to come to these workshops and learn how to efficiently manage the time and money you do have.

The USDA has moreinfo for new and beginning farmers here.

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