Farming is a challenging profession. And sometimes, sorting through government resources designed to help farmers succeed can be a challenge in itself.

Nelson Brownlee and James Hartsfield, small farm management area agents with Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T, understand this problem. They know that many small and limited-income farm families are unaware of agricultural programs that could help them, what the eligibility requirements are, or how to apply.

That’s why Brownlee, who works in Robeson and Bladen counties, and Hartsfield, who serves Sampson and Duplin counties, created a program to help small and limited-resource farmers understand government programs and how they can assist in keeping their land valuable, sustainable and profitable.

The program has reached 67 farmers so far and recently earned Brownlee and Hartsfield the state Search for Excellence Award in the young, beginning, or small farmers/ranchers category from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA). Brownlee and Hartsfield were also named finalists for the national Search for Excellence Award in that category.

The winning program was developed with assistance from the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach as part of its StrikeForce Initiative. The initiative targets farmers in counties with persistent poverty so they can more effectively use farm loans, conservation programs and housing programs.

“Many of our farmers don’t have the time or the knowledge about government programs to figure out what resources are available to help them,” said Brownlee.  “They have the incentive to search for new opportunities that can help them diversify and sustain their farms, but they don’t know where to start. This is a program that helps them find the best fit for their needs.”

Bladen County farmer Albert Beatty and his wife Ada get assistance from N.C. A&T Cooperative Extension Area Farm Management Agent Nelson Brownlee on their farm in Harrells.

The agents conducted two group meetings at the Bladen County Extension Center where participants heard from representatives of several USDA agencies, including the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development, Risk Management, and the Office of Advocacy and Outreach. At the time of the meetings, many small farmers were struggling to cope with the aftermaths of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence and were able to apply for financial assistance to help them recover some of their losses.

Evaluations conducted after the workshops showed that 79 percent of the participants planned to apply for at least one USDA program. An additional follow-up with farmers about 18 months after the first class revealed that several had been approved for at least one USDA program, including NRCS-EQIP cost share grants and FSA farm programs. Ten farmers received cost share grants totaling $74,800 for high tunnel greenhouses and an irrigation system.

Brownlee and Hartsfield hope to conduct at least one workshop each year to provide updates on government programs to help small and limited-income farmers.

“This is a perfect example of Cooperative Extension, and some very talented Extension professionals, responding to a critical need in their community,” said Morris F. White III, N.C. A&T’s regional Extension director for Eastern North Carolina. “This is a region where farmers often struggle and lack resources and the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in even more stress and hardship. If we can help our farmers effectively use farm loans, conservation programs and housing programs, then we are truly helping those farmers and their communities in a time of great need.”

National winners of the NACAA Search for Excellence Awards will be announced at the group’s annual meeting and professional improvement conference scheduled for Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.