New USDA Program Promotes Diversity in Agriculture

The $250 million NEXTGEN program will help minority-serving colleges and universities recruit and support students interested in agriculture-related careers.

By Melanie Lenart

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, announcing the new NEXTGEN program and other initiatives in an August 24 speech livestreamed by the USDA.

Tribally controlled and other Native-serving colleges can tap into $250 million in new USDA funding designed in part to support students in agriculture-related pathways and encourage them to view farming, ranching and other forms of food production as enticing careers. The goal is to prepare “diverse students for future careers in agriculture with an emphasis on federal sector employment.”

The “From Learning to Leading: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Food and Agriculture Professionals” program, or NEXTGEN, is part of what the USDA says is an ongoing effort within the agency to promote greater equity and diversity in American agriculture. The program will support student scholarships, internships and other forms of hands-on learning at tribal colleges and universities, historically Black land-grant universities, Alaska Native-serving institutions, Native Hawaiian-serving institutions, and certified Hispanic-serving agricultural colleges, among other eligible institutions.

“Our goal is simply to recruit, train, educate and support the brightest and best into one of the most innovative and sustainable industries in America: the food and agriculture industry,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an August 24 speech, where he announced the program along with related initiatives. “With internships and fellowships at USDA, these young leaders will also be exposed to the cutting-edge work done every day at USDA, leading to many who will pursue careers in and at USDA.”

Institutions can use the funding to engage, recruit, train and support students in food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences. The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture will distribute the funds, made available thanks to recent legislation passed by Congress, including the Inflation Reduction Act that made it into law in August. 

“The only thing that unserved and underserved populations in our country need to thrive in agriculture careers is a more equitable access to that opportunity,” Vilsack said. “With the support of the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act, this program will provide that access.”

The program defines agriculture broadly. Projects addressing food sovereignty and food culture, forestry, range management, animal health, and indigenous traditional ecological knowledge are among the many categories eligible for support.

Along with internships, funding can support fellowships, career development activities, apprenticeships, and “experiential learning opportunities, such as mentoring, shadowing, hands-on-learning, interviews, and peer-to-peer engagement.”

Scholarship support from the program can apply to students receiving certificates and credentials as well as degrees. A non-formal education component encourages non-traditional programs serving older adults returning to work or seeking jobs, and people who have done prison time as well as youth.

That said, the USDA also hopes this funding will help offset the aging of U.S. farmers, with the 2017 census indicating the average age for U.S. farmers is 57.5. As the RFA states, “One of USDA’s goals is to attract more young people overall to agriculture-related careers—both at USDA and elsewhere in agriculture-related fields—to help inject energy and vigor to the sector.”

NEXTGEN is part of a larger $550 million initiative to promote greater equity in American agriculture by enabling “underserved producers to access land, capital, and markets.” In February, the USDA released an Equity Action Plan, which is characterizes as “a framework for reckoning with USDA’s history of challenges with underserved communities, including Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and other farmers of color.”

“We have work to do, for example, in assisting economically distressed farmers, ranchers and producers to stay on the land and in farming with debt relief offered under the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Vilsack said. “And certainly, work to be done to compensate those who have suffered discrimination in the past USDA, with funds also provided under the Inflation Reduction Act.”

From meetings with stakeholders, Vilsack said, the USDA identified four key barriers faced by minority farmers: access to technical assistance about USDA programs; access to land; access to capital; and access to markets.

A series of internal sessions among USDA departments has identified 500 recommendations on how USDA might advance diversity. Vilsack noted that the agency had created a position of chief diversity and inclusion officer to improve representation of minorities within USDA. 

Unequal access to USDA programs and services inspired a 1999 lawsuit that was resolved while Vilsack was Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama Administration. The Native American Agriculture Fund continues to distribute funds from this compensation effort to help address past systemic discrimination against Indigenous farmers.

“With information gleaned from producers themselves, we can better structure our USDA programs in the future to be more effective at facilitating access to land, capital and markets,” he said.  “Access, after all, truly is the root of opportunity.”

Applications for this program, are due on October 25. Applications are available here.

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Melanie Lenart is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

Story published August 29, 2022

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