The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) research initiative recently awarded UNM-Taos’ new training program a $500,000 Agricultural Workforce Training grant.

UNM-Taos and UNM-Taos Hive (Hub of Internet-Based Vocations and Education) are partnering with Not Forgotten Outreach, Inc. (NFO) and the Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC) to create the Rebuilding an Agricultural Rural Economy (RARE) workforce training certificate program, which will support the local food and small-scale farming economy in Taos.

NFO initially approached UNM-Taos about the possibility of offering an agricultural program. NFO originally partnered with the UNM-Taos Construction Technology program in 2014 to train military families in agriculture. That program became the catalyst for NFO to develop a strong agriculture training curriculum, which they hoped would become a certified educational program.

“By partnering with RARE, we become one step closer and enable NFO to include more Taoseños into the farming activities at Not Forgotten Outreach’s 28-acre farm/ranch training location,” said Yani Bunch, NFO executive director.  “This collaboration facilitates the reintegration of our veterans and their military families. We're very happy to be a part of this grant, and we think it will be a great opportunity for Northern New Mexico agriculture."

“The recent development of the HIVE program and its focus on economic development, as well as the economic focus of NIFA, seemed to provide a natural fit to include other topics of study into the program,” said Louis Moya, UNM-Taos director of development. “We refined the more general concept of including agricultural curriculum and are including economic/business skills in the program. It, then, was natural to consider the necessity of including cultural elements.”

The RARE program will train two separate cohorts of 15 student participants (30 total prospective farmers, ranchers and food producers, recruited from underserved and veteran populations) through an immersive curriculum of farming practices, safe and healthy food production, and the small business/entrepreneurial skills required to create and enhance local industry, and the next generation of small-scale sustainable farmers, ranchers and food producers in Northern New Mexico.

The part-time curriculum is 18 total credit-hours offered over 12 months that provides industry-recognized stackable certifications; a focus in traditional, sustainable and drought-condition farming methods; as well as entrepreneurial training from small business professionals and innovation experts at UNM-Taos HIVE, and commercial and industrial food producers at the TCEDC’s commercial kitchen with opportunities for internship and apprenticeship at local farm sites or food-based businesses. Participants will receive a technical certification allowing for entry into a modern, rural agrarian economy through employment or entrepreneurship.

The path forward is not through an industrial and mechanistic approach to create a farming industry but, rather, through communal small-scale, unit-centered farming — like what was done in the region’s antiquity — which will create a path forward.

“I think the integration of the other aspects of the curriculum (entrepreneurship/cultural studies) came as we developed our strategy for creating an economically oriented program (and certification) and our approach to an application,” Moya said.

The Agricultural Workforce training grant will provide the community with community college students who possess the skills and tools necessary to secure industry-accepted credentials to join the workforce.

“Community colleges provide significant workforce development nationwide,” said NIFA Director Carrie Castille. “These awards will help students earn a two-year degree or an industry-accepted credential that will create better job opportunities and fuel the talent pipeline needed in the food and agricultural sector.”

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension across the nation to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

“For this program,” Moya added, “we have had to and will have to further refine the structure of the program as we contemplate implementation post-award, as capacity and partnership considerations will sometimes require some evolution from the original concept. However, sticking to the proposed directives of the grant and the funding is a necessity.”