Farming is easy, all you have to do is go out and work the land, right? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is wrong and is making it difficult for young farmers to break into the business. Similar to any other business, there are road blocks that young farmers face when starting out that are compounded by the overall difficulties of surviving in the farming business. However, incorporating knowledgeable young farmers into the field is necessary because a whole generation of older farmers are rapidly retiring.
Fortunately, there are people like Lilia McFarland who are dedicated to ensuring farmers have the resources they need to prosper. McFarland serves as the New and Beginning Farmer and Ranch Program Coordinator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). She sat down with Christopher Dorobek on this week’s DorobekINSIDER to discuss how she is helping new farmers break into the industry.
McFarland is also a finalist in the Call to Service category for the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals, or the SAMMIES—government’s version of the Oscar’s that recognizes the best of the best from the federal workforce. McFarland answered the call to service by working towards solutions to the decrease in family farms.
The current farming climate is promising but there are some concerning trends in the decreasing number of new farms. McFarland and her colleagues at USDA noticed these trends and decided to meet the challenge by making opportunities for new farmers. She explained, “we have made enormous strides to make USDA more available for people who are looking for USDA.”
Making USDA available has recently taken the form of consolidating the wealth and breadth of USDA information. McFarland explained, “all of our work is aimed at making USDA more open, transparent and accessible for the next generation.” While many next generation farmers are younger, McFarland emphasized that new farmers are coming from all different walks of life. This includes students, second career seekers, and innovative current farmers looking for new spaces.
Despite the variety of places where new farmers are coming from, they all are in need of information on how to effectively and efficiently farm. In response to this need, McFarland and her team created New Farmers, a website that consolidates the knowledge of USDA. The website allows people to engage in USDA materials in a tailored and personalized way that allows them to break into the farming industry.
While New Farmers is an excellent start to new farmer engagement, McFarland emphasized that she wants to continue growing USDA touch points with new farmers. She explained that there are a variety of ways for people to connect with USDA but she is hoping these points of interaction will be able to continue to expand through technological innovation. “The technology has really opened a new platform for us and has given us a place that we can fill with resources and offer to the next generation,” McFarland explained.
While McFarland and her team are making impressive strides in connecting young farmers with the resources they need, this innovation would not be possible had McFarland not answered the call to service. McFarland explained, “I am from rural America and having the opportunity to give back and serve all the people who are participating in the industry that was all around me while I was growing up is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
McFarland admitted that it is often challenging to break into public service but at the end of the day it is worth it. “It is an enormous gift to wake up in the morning and know I get to work for a cause that I believe in,” she said. McFarland concluded, “the future of agriculture is exciting and at USDA we are working hard to be ready to meet the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.”
The SAMMIE’s are fast approaching! If you haven’t already get to know the other finalists and be sure to check out their stories. I know it may be hard to choose, but if you have a favorite be sure to vote for them in the People’s Choice Award.