Laura Brookshire ’16 helps keep farmers in business

Laura Brookshire ’16 would like to “make sure not one more farmer lost his or her farm because of systemic circumstances beyond the farmer’s control.” And she’s making some headway.

At Appalachian State University, Brookshire earned a Master of Arts degree in Appalachian Studies with a concentration in sustainability and a Master of Public Administration (MPA). As the program manager at Farm Aid, she administers the non-profit’s grant program, farmer services and resource network from her office in Boston.

Music icons Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land. Since then, Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.

Part of Brookshire’s job is to allocate funds to organizations that support farmers. But, she added, “We also have a farmer hotline. One day a week I answer that hotline. That’s my biggest opportunity to work with farmers directly and I love that.” The calls cover a huge range of topics and inquiries, she said. Recently a farmer “wanted to install solar panels to power her equipment,” she recounted. “Sometimes they are dealing with a flood or a drought and are looking for disaster relief. Often they are third- or fourth-generation farmers in risk of losing their farms.”

Brookshire said she was currently reviewing the 2015 reports from Farm Aid grantees and “it’s amazing to see what they’ve accomplished, in part due to our funding.” Farm Aid grants to qualifying non-profit organizations that serve family farmers run between $500,000 and $600,000 each year. The grants are not awarded directly to individual farmers for the commercial operation of their farms.

Brookshire mentioned one resource Farm Aid regularly funds, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA) located in Pittsboro, North Carolina. RAFI-USA provides a number of resources for farmers, including information services, direct assistance and consulting. One example of support, she explained, is helping poultry farmers navigate complicated contracts that “often are abusive to the farmer or assisting farmers who are struggling with mortgage problems.”

Brookshire, a Transylvania County, North Carolina, native, said she always has been interested in Southern Appalachia. “My roots here have been important in my life. They brought me where I am and guided me. I am proud to be from Appalachia. Moving to Boston was a very big step for me. But one I’d encourage other students to take.”

Brookshire completed her undergraduate work in environmental studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. “But,” she said, “sustainable [agriculture] has always been a passion of mine. The Appalachian studies program at App is unique – it was the first to offer a master’s program and I think it’s the best.”

Brookshire said her classes with Dr. Kathryn Webb-Farley in the MPA program – two nonprofit classes, specifically – “have been vital to my knowledge and gave me a leg up during the application process for the Farm Aid job. The MPA gave me the practical everyday skills; the App studies courses gave me the broader outlook for community organization and sustainable development.”

Brookshire credits internships and work with AmeriCorps for helping her stand out when it came time to interview for a career position. During her AmeriCorps service, she worked in Polk County, North Carolina, for the agricultural economic development program. Her Appalachian Studies internship was in Knox County, Kentucky, at a host site for Grow Appalachia, administered through Berea College. “I spent the summer establishing community gardens and starting a county farmer’s market with another App alumna. I also helped home gardeners learn to use organic methods.”

For her MPA internship she worked for the Transylvania County school system in the child nutrition office. Learning about school lunch programs has been helpful for her job at Farm Aid because, “some of our grantees work on farm-to-school and school garden programs and policies.”

Brookshire found her job at Farm Aid through a listserv, a resource she said everyone should use when searching for jobs. Dr. Mark Bradbury, director of the MPA program at Appalachian, “is the No. 1 resource for public administration jobs,” she said. “Hands down, he’s the person.”

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