USDA’s $18 Million to Help ‘Beginning Farmers’ Also Benefits a Group That Promotes Collectivism and Off-Grid Living

By Patrick Burke and Susan Jones | September 4, 2012 | 10:00 AM EDT

A corn harvesting demonstration at the Husker Harvest Days fair in Grand Island, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

( – As the worst drought in many years dries up farms in the Midwest, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last Thursday announced $18 million in grants intended help beginning farmers and ranchers with the training and resources needed to run “productive, sustainable farms.”

Aside from colleges and universities, organizations getting the money include a few nonprofits that are only marginally involved in farming. And some grant recipients are more into gardening than farming.

The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable, Renewable Living, which is located in Chicago and Pembroke Township, Illinois, is getting $390,000 of the grant money.

The Center describes its values as collectivism: "We must weave a new way of life that is collective; cooperatively sharing and efficiently utilizing the resources we have; honoring the sacredness of life; working for the greater good of the whole.”

According to its website, the Center is about to open a "Betty Shabazz Community Yurt," a "Collective Cabin" and campsites where “students, families, businesses, churches, mosques and civic organizations can come experience off-grid, low carbon living.”

The Center says it offers lessons in “sustainable agriculture,” including water conservation and organic food production, all with the goal of transitioning to a “post-carbon world.”

Another grant recipient, the Greater Lansing (Michigan) Food Bank, which is getting $365,888, assists low-income residents with their backyard gardens. “We support a network of over 90 community gardens and over 400 home gardens,” the food bank says of its “Garden Project.” It also rescues edible food from schools, restaurants and area farms for distribution.

A few of the grant recipients are involved in Community Supported Agriculture, in which consumers pay a set price at the start of the growing season for a certain amount of farm produce each week.

According to Legal Aid of Nebraska, another grant recipient, this gives consumers a greater tie to the land and, since the farmer’s profit is known upfront, allows the farmer to focus on growing food. CSAs have been growing in popularity around the country as part of the sustainable and local agriculture movements.

Vilsack said he expects the $18-million grant program to help up to 38,000 new farmers in 24 states during the next fiscal year. He also said at least 25 percent of the program's funding will help “limited resource and socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers, as well as farm workers who want to get a start in farming and ranching.

“This program is an important program that we’re announcing today for a lot of small producers, for a lot of beginning farmers, for entities and for a number of universities and colleges that are working hard to try to make sure that farming remains a viable option for young people,” said Vilsack during a conference call on Thursday.

“The reality is, we’re seeing a lot of young people expressing interest in getting into farming,” he said.

In 2007, the average age of farmers was 57, USDA said, and 30 percent of “principal operators” on farms were 65 years or older and will be retiring in the not-so-distant future.

A “beginning farmer” is defined as someone with farming experience of 10 years or less, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.

The USDA defines socially disadvantaged farmers as “those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices,” including African Americans, American Indians or Alaskan natives, Hispanics, and Asians or Pacific Islanders.

USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded the $18 million in grants through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, established in the 2008 Farm Bill. Since fiscal year 2009, the program has distributed $71,584,427 in grants to organizations that help beginning and aspiring farmers, USDA said.