USDA grant expands an MU Extension program

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:26 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 12, 2009

*CORRECTION: One recent USDA grant will offer the winter program to members of the Columbia Farmers' Market at a discounted price. An earlier version of this article misstated the discount to members.

COLUMBIA — MU Extension was an early leader in farmer education courses. Now, a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping expand education for beginning farmers.

A $730,000 grant will fund an expansion of the Grow Your Farm program and other beginning farming services in the state. MU, Lincoln University and the Jefferson Agricultural Institute are partnering in the three-year project.

“We're seeing an increasing number of people trying to get into agriculture from a nonfarming background,” said Rob Myers, director of programs at the Jefferson Institute. “They need some good, solid assistance.”

The program will reach farmers who have less than 10 years of experience as well as those farming with limited resources. From 2008 to 2009, MU Extension’s Grow Your Farm program included a series of eight weekly seminars and three farm tours.

With the additional funds, trained Extension agents will teach the program across the state, primarily in four targeted regions of Missouri. The closest Grow Your Farm program is located in Callaway County.

Registration for the program usually costs $200, but a recent grant through the USDA will offer the winter program to members of the Columbia Farmers' Market at a discounted price*. Those interested in the winter session can register until Monday.

"Our goal is to help the farmers put together a business plan so that they can do a better job of not just growing their vegetables, but how to look at their profitability as well," said Jim Jarman, an agronomist and the contact for the Callaway County program.

The locations and registration information for existing courses are listed on the MU Extension Web site. Prospective Central Missouri participants can also contact Jarman, for registration information.

The Grow Your Farm program focuses mainly on business management skills and successful strategies for planning a farm, Myers said. With increased funding, the program will offer a second tier of training courses and workshops. According to the grant proposal, the courses will center on small acreage farmers interested in sustainability and direct marketing, such as selling at farmers’ markets.

“Participants will be given a choice of topics and can then select which workshops are most relevant to their situation,” Myers said.

These topics include developing fruits, vegetables, specialty grains and small livestock as well as honing basic farm equipment skills, Myers said.

The Jefferson Farm, an educational farm on New Haven Road, will host some of the workshops. The grant will provide new funding that will help overcome some of the challenges the institute faced in the recession, Myers said.

"We had a shortage of funds because of reduced donations from foundations and other sources," Myers said.

The grant will also fund the development of online networking tools for beginning farmers.

“If you have somebody in Kansas City who wants to grow two acres of vegetables, there are other vegetable growers near K.C. who can help,” Myers said. “It’s a way to help make sure people are linked to people doing similar things.”

Myers said he is developing Internet tools to help farmers market their produce online.

The fourth component of the program is based on a class already offered at MU. The Return to the Farm course started as an Extension project in the 1980s as a reaction to the farm financial crisis, said Kevin Moore, who teaches the class.

It is now a course in agricultural economics, and students learn business planning and management required for operating a successful farm — including transferring farm assets, acquiring farmland and developing credit. The grant will sponsor the development and statewide distribution of training modules based on this course, according to the project narrative.

"You can no longer just be a successful producer to be a successful farmer," Moore said. "You have to be a successful businessperson as well."

While Moore has witnessed numerous success stories in the course's history, he is looking forward to the grant's increased impact. Once a universal curriculum is developed, all participating institutions will be trained in the course. Moore aims to begin the training in 2011. Until then, MU students can enroll in the course.

"This will help us reach those kinds of farms that you know probably aren't as commonly represented by the students who come to MU," Moore said. "It's all really exciting."

The public will have access to the program through a page for beginning farmers on the MU Extension Web site. Myers plans to have the Web site, which will list all the courses and workshops, completed by January or February.

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