Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 8, Issue 2 - December, 2015


A Comparison of Beginning Farmer Needs Assessments

Dill, S. P., Extension Educator - AGNR, University Of Maryland Extension
Beale, B., Extension Educator - AGNR, Univeristy of Maryland Extension
Shear, H., Beginning Farmer Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension
Hanson, J., Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension


The mission of Beginning Farmer Success is to increase the number of beginning farmers and acreage farmed by them in Maryland.  It also supports the continued success of beginning farmers as they navigate through the first 10 years of farm establishment. This project was funded as a part of the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and is a partnership between university, government and nonprofit agencies. As part of the project, a needs assessment was conducted to better determine the specific needs of Maryland beginning farmers’  and how they compared to the needs identified by national surveys.


In 2012 the University of Maryland was awarded an USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Project grant to educate and support beginning farmers of Maryland by providing a comprehensive education program that includes workshops, coaching, mentoring and on-farm training.  The project brings together the University of Maryland College Park, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the Southern Maryland Agriculture Development Commission and Future Harvest: A Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (FH-CASA) as partners in education and outreach. 

A decrease in the number of farmers nationwide coupled with an aging farm population and the realization that beginning farmers need support in order to contribute to the food supply led to the development of the Maryland Collaborative for Beginning Farmer Success (BFS).  The average age of farm operators in Maryland continues to rise from 55.9 in 2002, to 57.3 in 2007 to 59.0 in 2012 (USDA ERS 2012). In Maryland, there are now seven times more principal farm operators 65 and older than 34 and younger (USDA ERS 2012). Additionally, there are 2,457 beginning farmers which only represents approximately 20.5% of all farmers in the state (AFT 2012).  These statistics along with the expertise and skills of the project partners has created a team equipped to assist beginning farmers in agricultural success.


The BFS program launched in 2012 and began creating educational opportunities for beginning farmers in the state.  Since then numerous efforts have been made to create meaningful workshops and hands on trainings.  As the program expanded and identified an audience of beginning farmers it became important to better determine and measure their specific educational needs through a strategic needs assessment.

There are several studies that attempt to identify the best strategies for meeting the educational needs of beginning farmers (Trede & Whitaker 1998; Ochterski & Frenay 2010). However, there have been changes in the demographics of beginning farmers, advances in program delivery technology, and new market place opportunities which all effect educational needs and optimal delivery strategies.

Nationwide, multiple surveys have been conducted to assess needs of beginning farmers.  Our interest was to discover if the needs in Maryland were similar or different.  The National Young Farmers Coalition survey indicated that lack of capital, land access, healthcare, access to credit, business planning and marketing skills, profitable markets, and education and training were the top challenges for beginning farmers (NYFC 2011). A survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation indicated that securing adequate land, economic challenges, government regulations, and farm labor as the top concerns of beginning farmers (AFBF 2015).


In December of 2014, a needs assessment survey was conducted to determine current needs of beginning farmers in Maryland and provide validation for future programming. There were 18 questions used to determine beginning farmer needs as well as demographic information.  These questions required respondents to utilize a likert scale, rankings, and a comment section where applicable.  The process and survey was reviewed and approved by the UMD Internal Review Board (UMD IRB #443446-3).

The survey target audience was comprised of participants in past BFS events or programs and clientele who voluntarily registered to receive a BFS newsletter and other information from the BFS website. The team felt this was the best audience to survey as they are currently using the program and have shown an interest in beginning farmer education.  The needs assessment survey was administered to 133 BFS contacts residing in Maryland. The web-based survey was delivered through email which explained the purpose of the survey, estimated time to complete and provided a link to the UMD sponsored web-based Qualtrics program where the survey could be completed. The survey was available through December of 2014. Participants received multiple reminders to complete the survey.  To ensure the best response rate, adequate coverage, and minimal error and nonresponse, Dillman’s (Dillman, Smyth, & Christianson, 2009) Tailored Design Method (TMD) was used.  The survey received 56 responses representing a 42% response rate. Participants of the survey were asked to rate the priority levels of educational topics, knowledge areas and preferred educational delivery methods. One possible limitation of data collected is that the survey participants are a group of individuals that  utilized the UMD BFS program.  It is noted that there are a number of beginning farmers in Maryland not surveyed.


Of those participants that completed the needs assessment, 50% identified themselves as beginning farmers using the USDA definition of 10 years or less of active farming.  This was closely followed by 32% that identified themselves as “exploring farming options”. Explorer farmers are those that have agricultural interests but have not yet started farming. Therefore 82% of respondents may have a direct interest in beginning farmer programs.  The balance of respondents identified themselves as other (11%), an established farmer (5%) and a service provider (3%). 

Multiple demographic questions were asked to understand who was responding to the survey.  The majority of respondents were women (69%), white/non-Hispanic (86%), ages 45-54 (33%) and college graduates (53%). The survey asked questions to discover desired education topics, set priorities, rank needs, learning preferences and intentions for the future.
This article focuses on results from ranking beginning farmer needs.  Participants were asked to rank the top three needs of beginning farmers (in order 1, 2 and 3). Results indicated the top three needs were: 1) Available farmland to rent or purchase 2) Access to credit and financing and 3) Crop production information. Other substantial results include 4) Marketing assistance and 5) Legal assistance.

A number of beginning farmer studies have been conducted nationally to understand challenges, barriers and needs of beginning farmers. The comparison focused on two recent studies by the National Young Farmers Coalition and the American Farm Bureau Federation.  The BFS team wanted to see if program participant needs were similar or different.  Results indicate that needs in Maryland are very similar to the needs identified nationally. The need for adequate land and access to capital emerged as top concerns among all three surveys. Business and marketing support, regulations and legal support also emerged as important needs of beginning farmers. The need for crop production information  was indicated as important only in the Maryland survey. Table 1 summarizes the top challenges identified by each survey and groups them across studies by color. 

Table 1.










As table 1 summarizes, topics of land are the highest in terms of beginning farmer needs.  This includes the themes of land access, securing adequate land and available farmland to rent or purchase.  The second highest need is topics within financial management including capital, credit, profitability and financing. Following these needs the survey results begin to differ.  The UMD BFS survey and the American Farm Bureau Survey recognized government regulations and legal assistance as needs of beginning farmers showing that there are issues both locally and nationally in that area.  The UMD BFS survey and the National Young Farmers Coalition identified business planning and marketing as a need illustrating the importance of those topics on a local and national level. 

There are four needs identified that were specific to each survey.  The National Young Farmers Coalition identifies health care as the third highest need. It was the only survey reporting the challenge of health care. The American Farm Bureau Survey identifies farm labor and water as number four and five in their survey which was unique to other surveys.  Lastly the UMD BFS survey identifies crop production information as the third highest need.  There are a number of reasons that UMD BFS respondents may have selected this.  It can be explained through response options available as well as the idea that one of the main objectives for UMD Extension is to provide production oriented educational workshops.


In response to the survey results, BFS has developed a programming proposal that will focus on meeting the priority needs of Maryland’s beginning farmers. A special emphasis will be on the top five reported needs.  Knowing that land and capital are major issues in the state and nation is helpful as resources are allocated and programs are planned.  Further development of the statewide FarmLINK Program will help beginning farmers find, lease and/or purchase farmland.  Resources in the areas of lending, capital management, financial management and marketing will be expanded as a result of the survey as well as crop and farm production education.  BFS provides a wide selection of training opportunities to meet educational needs, including mentoring, coaching, and on-farm training. BFS will expand work to reach and target a broader demographic in the areas of race and ethnicity.  A comprehensive beginning farmer website and social media presence will help BFS connect with more beginning farmers and continue to expand the program.  The website provides online resource referrals, education learning modules, and various publications. As BFS programming moves forward it will be continuously important to stay engaged with participants needs for education to ensure successful and profitable farms.  For the full report or more about the program visit


This project was supported by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant #2010-49400-21719. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). (2014). Young Farmers Remain Concerned About Land
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American Farmland Trust (AFT). (2012). Farmland Information Center.  Available at:

Dillman, D. A., J. D. Smyth, and L. M. Christian. (2009). Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons.

National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). (2011). Building a Future with Farmers. Available at:

Ochterski, J., & Frenay, F. (2010). Best Management Practices for Beginning Farmer Support [Online], 48(3) Article 3TOT9. Available at:

Trede, L., & Whitaker, S. (1998). Beginning farmer education in Iowa: Implications to Extension [Online], 36(5) Article 5FEA3. Available at:

USDA Economic Research Service (ERS). (2012). Agriculture Census. Available at:

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