Emily Zerkel, Michael Traxinger, Brooke Miller, Kale Van Bruggen, Timothy Reilly, Allison Condra and Elizabeth Dooley.
More than 200 participants representing 40 states attended a national conversation on how to help create America's next generation of farmers at a two-day forum this month in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Drake University's Agricultural Law Center.
"The Drake Forum on America's New Farmers: Policy Innovations and Opportunities," featured 55 presenters, including keynote speakers U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who gave the forum's opening talk, and Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who delivered a luncheon address. View a photo gallery of the forum events online.
"My goal was to use the 'power to convene' to organize a national event to generate a more robust discussion of new farmer issues -- and in so doing help elevate Drake University's presence and profile in Washington, D.C.," said professor Neil Hamilton, director of Drake Law School's Agricultural Law Center.
"I believe we accomplished our goals and in so doing tapped a rich vein of bright, energetic young people from across the nation who want to be part of America's food system," added Hamilton, who worked to organize the forum since November 2008.
Among the diverse group of participants were more than 15 senior USDA officials, representatives from 10 Congressional offices, state agricultural officials, faculty and students from 12 other universities, financial services representatives, farm policy advocates and young farmers from across the nation. More than 50 percent of attendees were women and 10 percent were minorities.
"Many attendees were impressed it took the initiative of a private University from the Midwest -- rather than a public land grant -- to organize a national forum in D.C. on this critical topic," Hamilton said. "Because of the forum, Drake University's leadership on this issue is clearly etched in their minds."
Forum prepares Drake's future lawyers, spotlights alumni
Seven Drake law students attended the forum with Hamilton and Matt Russell, food policy project coordinator at Drake's Agricultural Law Center. The students were among more than 50 attendees who received scholarships from Drake to attend the conference.
"It was important for me, as a law student, to hear what individuals and groups are doing at the grassroots level, and to think about how law and policy can help these people continue to do good work," said Allie Condra, a second-year law student.
"We were very pleased to bring so many Drake law students to Washington, D.C., to be involved in discussions with others from around the nation on this critical issue," Hamilton said. "The new farmers our nation needs will be the community members these young lawyers will serve once they graduate."
The Drake law students -- Emily Zerkel, Michael Traxinger, Kale Van Bruggen, Timothy Reilly, Beth Dooley, Brooke Miller and Allie Condra -- joined a group of recent Drake law graduates who spoke at the forum, including Bill Even, the secretary of agriculture for South Dakota, who graduated in 2005.
"It is interesting that a number of very bright young people in this generation are intrigued and excited about agriculture, even though many of them did not grow up on a farm," said Russell, who recently was appointed to the Iowa Farm Services Agency Committee by President Obama.
"There is a movement around the country for local foods, healthy foods and sustainability, and people are interested in being involved in the food system," he added.
"Farming is a big deal, and more and more people outside of the 'traditional' farming community are recognizing its importance," Condra said.
Forum explores challenges, presents solutions
The forum was designed to address inadequacies in policies and programs for new and beginning farmers.
A series of panel discussions covered obstacles facing new farmers, the challenge of access to land, the availability of finance and credit, creating new markets and implementing the 2008 Farm Bill.
"The panelists all had interesting and insightful stories to share, and all were candid about the issues facing new farmers -- including loans and other financial issues, access to land and profitability," said Condra of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Other topics covered were the needs of socially disadvantaged farmers, including women, students and minorities, the use of social media to access potential new farmers and a number of upcoming documentaries revolving around agriculture and farming.
Participants also heard about several grassroots movements for new farmers, which included:
- FarmerCorps, based on the AmeriCorps model, which places volunteers at schools to help start school gardens and farm-to-school programs.
- Yale University's Sustainable Food Project, which places six undergraduates at the Yale Farm/Garden to learn how to work and manage a farm.
- The Greening of Detroit, which is working to revitalize neighborhoods through urban gardens and educational experiences.
"Often conferences like this are comprised of mostly lawyers and other policy makers, which makes it difficult to thoroughly identify the obstacles and challenges facing beginning farmers," Condra added. "One reason the forum was such a success was that it brought together individuals who are working on this topic at the grassroots level with policy makers."
"All reports from participants indicate the forum was an outstanding event that made a valuable contribution to the national policy debate," Hamilton said.