Sand County Foundation launched a free mentorship program for historically underserved farmers and ranchers.
Due to limited resources, historically underserved farmers and ranchers often operate on more environmentally sensitive land. Awareness of conservation programs is one of three key challenges historically underserved producers face, along with access to land for expansion and available credit. Because networking and knowledge-sharing about conservation practices often leads to conservation practice adoption.
Underserved producers make up approximately 40% of all U.S. farms. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, we are seeing an increase in the number of farmers under 35 years old, and they are more likely to be farmers of color or indigenous farmers, compared to the national farm average.
Due to limited resources, historically underserved farmers and ranchers often operate on more environmentally sensitive land, closer to impaired water bodies. When underserved farmers and ranchers are not using federal conservation programs, it is typically because of a lack of awareness of them.
Bridging the gap
The Sand County Foundation—a national nonprofit organization that advances agricultural conservation—is seeking to change that through a free mentorship program. The Sand County Foundation’s Land Ethic Mentorship program was designed for historically underserved farmers and ranchers and features 20 Leopold Conservation Award-winning farmers and ranchers who are eager to mentor historically underserved farmers and ranchers. These mentors share their experiences with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) cost-share programs and other conservation initiatives.
Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that has recognized nearly 150 farmers, ranchers and forestland owners nationwide for their voluntary conservation efforts to improve soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat. Award recipients are ambassadors who regularly discuss the importance of agricultural conservation with their peers and the public.
“I want to take the burden off of their shoulders and make it okay to be a conservationist,” said Ron Brooks, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who received the Leopold Conservation Award in 2016 and is serving as a pilot mentor. “When you’re beginning farming, conservation is the last thing on your mind,” he said. Brooks is excited to teach farmers about the importance of patience and to share his experiences, so others don’t make the same mistakes. “You’re worried about making ends meet, fitting in, or other things,” he said.
A $250,000 Conservation Collaboration Grant from the USDA-NRCS is supporting the two-year pilot mentorship project to allow Leopold Conservation Award recipients to share their conservation knowledge related to enrolling in NRCS cost-share programs or methods for managing agricultural systems for soil health improvement.
The “Land Ethic” Mentorship is a nod to renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land. He inspired landowners to adopt what he called “a land ethic”: a moral responsibility to treat land, water and wildlife with respect.
The Land Ethic Mentorship program offers mentees the flexibility to tailor the program to their personal needs, goals, and time. Mentees can choose a one-on-one mentoring opportunity or simply have finger-tip access to the “think-tank” of experienced, conservation-minded farmers and ranchers to ask an occasional question—especially one that requires immediate attention through a dedicated phone app. Through the app, if a mentee does not have the time to commit to a dedicated mentorship, they can still have access to the feedback and advice of the mentors. All registered mentees will have the opportunity to participate in virtual field days and webinars featuring conservation topic experts. Sand County Foundation’s program goal is to reach 200 mentees by the fall of 2022 and to show that there is a long-term need for mentorship investment.
Recently, thought leaders convened for a two-day symposium focusing on conservation success stories and economic diversification. This special event has been the first opportunity to bring together Leopold Conservation Award-winning mentors with their mentees. Seven mentees were awarded a scholarship to attend Sand County Foundation’s 2021 Symposium on resilient farming and ranching held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Farm Credit proudly sponsored the event and Todd Van Hoose, Farm Credit Council president and CEO, was honored to speak to the group during this special program bringing together the inaugural mentorship cohort.
There is often a learning curve involved when a farmer changes a practice, so it is important to have that one-on-one, in-person contact. “There is a need to transfer program knowledge to others and Sand County Foundation’s method is a great way to transfer this knowledge to underserved groups,” said Denise Coleman, Pennsylvania State Conservationist for the USDA-NRCS. “Historically underserved farmers and ranchers face many challenges. Knowing someone to ask about a conservation practice can build confidence and have a lasting impact,” said Dick Cates, a Wisconsin farmer who received the Leopold Conservation Award in 2013. “I look forward to participating as a mentor.”
Many groups can provide farmers with knowledge, but a functioning network can provide timely and effective information on new management practices. This network of engagement is what the Sand County Foundation Leopold Conservation Award recipient mentoring program will provide.
Sand County Foundation has been a trusted resource for farmers, ranchers and forestland owners since creating a successful partnership among a group of private landowners to protect the land surrounding the famous “Shack” property of Aldo Leopold, America’s foremost conservation thinker. This pioneering cooperative venture more than 50 years ago led landowners to commit to voluntary conservation. Today, Sand County Foundation’s impact spans the U.S., and is a direct reflection of what can be achieved when landowners are encouraged to lead the way to improving our nation’s natural resources.