Real Farm Bill Stories: Farm School NYC
by Ed Yowell
September 3, 2011
The idea for an urban farm school was a collaborative vision, conceived by community gardeners, urban farmers, and many involved in the greening movement. Many people were asking for opportunities to learn more about growing food in New York City, and they knew that NYC has a rich history of community gardening and a wealth of urban farms. The folks at Just Food first began an official planning process in September 2007, thinking about what it would take to train new and would be farmers to grow food to make a difference in the nations’ largest city.
After considerable thought and planning, a group of over 60 different partners decided that Farm School NYC would provide comprehensive, professional training in urban agriculture with the aim of increasing the self-reliance of communities and inspiring positive, local action around issues of food access and social, economic, and racial justice. “The idea,” says Jane Hodge, director of Farm School NYC, “was to help develop new and beginning community gardeners and urban farmers to address food sovereignty in their communities.”
The U.S. agricultural population is changing. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of farm operators was 57 years, farmers over the age of 55 own more than half the farmland in the U.S., and half of current farmers are likely to retire in the next decade. And the number of new farmers and ranchers over the age of 35 is increasing, as is the number of smaller farms and ranches, and urban farming is growing significantly. To assist beginning farmers, the 2008 Farm Bill made $17.2 million available nationally through the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).
Just Food applied for a BFRDP grant and, in September 2010, received $400,000 in “seed” money, enough to cover start up and much of the first three year operating costs. In January, 2011, Farm School NYC threw open the barn door to new and beginning urban farmers ready to learn: urban agriculture growing techniques, business planning and marketing skills, community organizing, leadership skills, and urban food enterprise development, while being exposed to inside information on NYC’s political, economic, and ecological landscape and policies that affect NYC food systems…all the things needed to be successful urban farmers.
Farm School NYC offers a two-year urban ag cer¬tificate and a wide range of individual courses. Classes, held in community gardens, on urban farms, at New York Botanical Gardens, and on regional farms, are taught by experienced urban farmers, commu¬nity gardeners, and anti-hunger and food justice advocates. Presently, 15 student farmers are enrolled in the certificate program and 70 have taken individual courses. Jane Hodge says, “The Beginning Farmer grant says a lot about the USDA’s recognition of urban farming as an important form of agriculture. The grant allowed us to plow ahead, giving us the resources to start and, with real experience, grow the program to a point where we hope it will be self-sufficient.”
When asked if Just Food could have proceeded with Farm School NYC without USDA funding, Jane said, “We were determined to make it work no matter what, but the Beginning Farmer grant really helped make it happen.”