Extension helping new farmers, veterans

It’s no secret that farmers are aging out, as they say. The 2012 United States Department of Agriculture census showed a continued 30-year upward trend of average age, at 58.3 years.

Who will carry on America’s agriculture? That is a critical question as older farmers retire, and because entry into farming poses barriers such as access to land and capital assets.

It’s also no secret that our young veterans are returning from service with skills that are interesting but may not transfer well to civilian jobs. Those returning from deployments may also be recovering from trauma. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless, and have a higher unemployment rate than the average American. No doubt our returning veterans are smart and capable, and they need a way in if they want to farm.

If experience at Hendricks County’s Blue Yonder Organic Farm or Howard County’s Next Mission Homestead are any indication, some young veterans are finding both income and healing in agricultural work. I spent a week on a bus with those folks last month, visiting diversified farms in Wisconsin. They are sharp and motivated.

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Then there are the regular civilians who call our office, at the rate of about one a week, who have 10 or 20 acres. A frequently-asked question is, “What can I raise?” Helping those individuals has gotten easier with the development of Purdue Extension’s Diversified Food and Farming Systems programs. Educational offerings in this area include the Indiana Small Farm Conference, now in its fourth year, diversified farm tours throughout Indiana (see purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2016/Q2/purdue-offers-10-beginning– farmer-tours-statewide.html). Monthly diversified farm sessions here in Bartholomew County have attracted about 12 folks each time, and they’ve been great fun. (For dates, times and locations, see our website at extension.purdue.edu/bartholomew/Pages/default.aspx).

Now about the week on that bus. A USDA SARE grant has enabled pairs of Purdue Extension Educators and farmers from their county to visit small diversified operations in Wisconsin and Maine this year. Hope resident Betsy Downey (Duck Creek Gardens) visited those farms with me in Wisconsin earlier this month.

In September, three Bartholomew County farmers will join the tour of diversified operations in Maine. (Three! I am proud of this. Two will be paired with Extension educators from other counties who had no applicants.) Liz and Nate Brownlee, from Jackson County, will go via the Bartholomew County application as well. All Bartholomew farmers who applied got a spot.

Farmers who attend these tours commit to work as programming partners to Extension, so we can bring what we learned back to our own county. Many of the sustainability strategies can apply to large and small farms alike, and even to hobby farms. Watch for more from us on what we learned during these forays into established and profitable small farms.