Supporting New Farmers Through Mentoring and Membership in a Cooperative

Final report for FNC21-1266

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $25,800.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Full Circle Farm
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Valerie Dantoin
Full Circle Farm
Expand All

Project Information

Description of operation:

There are several farms working together on this project. All the farms practice grass-based, agriculture, several are certified organic. All are family farms. Each farm is described briefly here: Full Circle Farm: 200 acre organic grass-fed beef farm with 100 head, certified organic since 2003. Papes Pastures: 100 acres, 30 head of beef cattle, 20 pastured hogs, 400 pastured broilers per year. Mighty Winds Farm; 20 acres, herbs, fruit trees, 200 pastured hens. Full Circle Community Farm: 40 acres total, 10 acres organic vegetables, 1000 laying hens.


New Farmers have a steep learning curve when growing vegetable crops or animals for market.  There are many educational opportunities that teach production or marketing, but still, many startups fail.   This project asks if membership and mentorship in a Farmer  Cooperative can help new, beginning and diverse farmers (NBDFs) become more successful because a) long-term relationships are fostered and b) markets are more accessible. This should relieve two common social and economic stressors.

The synergy between mentoring and being part of a connected community (a Co-op) makes this effort different from other farmer mentoring programs. Mentors will help new farmers plan, grow, harvest, market crops and livestock, while the Cooperative helps build sustainable relationships based on cooperation and work-life balance rather than competition.  The project lowers barriers to joining the Cooperative as well,  and makes entry  into a mid-scale local food marketplace smooth, simple, and successful for NBDFs.  

This project will document whether mentored, cooperative, new farms are more successful in comparison to non-mentored, non-Co-op farms.  Since the SLO Farmers Cooperative has ecologically sound, high environmental standards for all its members, working with them in this project will naturally contribute to the stewardship of our natural resources.

Project Objectives:

Increase rate of success among new/beginning farmers.  

Provide a model for mentoring new farms as they are “incubated” in a cooperative.

Enroll 5 new farms in the Cooperative each year for 2 years.  This will include at least 4 diverse, socially disadvantaged farmers.

Determine whether the mentoring model for launching NBDF  helps these farms become more successful than comparable farms as indicated by new member product sales, financial records and through interviews and surveys about work/life balance and other stress indicators.

Share results of the project thru conference presentations, hosting field days, written articles, and social media outreach.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Andrew Adamski - Producer
  • Amanda Chu - Producer
  • Tay Fatke - Producer
  • Aaron Pape - Producer
  • Suzanne Zipperer - Producer


Materials and methods:

The SLO Farmers Cooperative (incorporated in 2014) is a successful business and is well-positioned to receive new farms into membership.  Standards and product prices are set and markets are expanding and ready to take on more products.  Current farmers stand ready to mentor new farmers.  SLO markets 250 CSA vegetable shares weekly and 80 subscription meat boxes monthly.  Sales have doubled each of the last three years.

Finding new farmers for this project.  With her dual role as a farmer and instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC), Valerie Dantoin has access to graduates who want to begin farming.  There is a pool of 25  graduates and at least a dozen other beginning farms that fit the proposal criteria from which to draw new farmers.   To be equitable, we will put out an area-wide call for all new farmers on social media etc. so anyone  can apply.  

Access and Diversity.  Valerie will work with colleagues at NWTC office of Equity/Inclusion to find diverse beginning farmers.  She also has strong connections with the Oneida and Menominee Nations and agricultural groups there.  Amanda Chu, working through the New Food Forum and Brown County Board will also offer this project to beginning farmers from the BIPOC community.  

Choosing participating farmers.  From the list of new farmers, we will invite new farms that represent diversity in gender and ethnicity.  We will choose farms that have products, practices and potential to meet standards; and who additionally want to join the Co-op and get a mentor.  

"Comparable" Farmers.   Five similar/matched,  farms will  be offered a $200 stipend each to participate in the research project.  They will also be offered financial analysis opportunities.

Incentives:  Opportunities will be available for all participants for post-season financial discussions.

Researcher:  Amanda Chu is exceptional at interview and analysis.


Research results and discussion:

This part of the project was generally a failure.  We did not do the necessary background or follow-up work to capture the data or information that was needed.   Our researcher did not fit this obligation into her (new) work schedule to get the necessary surveys built or to connect with farmers who did not come under cooperative mentorship.  I apologize for this lapse in completing the research component and as overall project manager take responsibility for the ‘incomplete’ in this area. 

We never effectively recruited beginning farms who were not mentored so there is no way to go back and collect data and report later.  Although COVID did contribute to limitations in meeting these new/beginning farmers it was really more a lack of organizational effectiveness on our part.   I did contact several new/beginning farmers about the opportunity to participate but none followed up showing interest in the project.  Perhaps their stipend for participation was too low or maybe they just did not want to share financial information at all.

At this point we only have anecdotes and stories from the farms who were mentored about their success.  Again, the starting and ending financial information was not collected.  This shortcoming in effort is reflected in the small number of hours submitted by our researcher.  I should have been more pro-active in helping her get going, meeting her obligations, and complete her part of this project.

Overall, I’d give this project a grade of D.  We did accomplish part of the expected outcomes; recruiting 7 of 10 expected new and beginning farmers, (4 underserved) and we completed a lot of mentoring in the first year of the project.  However, the core of the project, answering that research question of whether a Cooperative ‘incubator’ and mentorship help new farms succeed more than ‘un-mentored’ farms was never even close to being answered. 

I think some of the blame for the low performance can be attributed to the up-then-down market  during COVID times, but really the fault lies with me as project manager.  At the start of the project, I did send out info sheets to mentors and Co-op members and prospective new/beginning farmers telling them what their role and expectations were (see attachments).  And our mentors/mentees did great in year one, but I think people were just too busy farming to put in the follow-up effort into the success metrics we were looking for.  And I did not persist enough with my research partner to make sure we were generating and following up with data collection and surveys.  This project fell low down on the priority list for participants and the Cooperative and it was my mistake to expect that there would be more enthusiasm to answer the research question.

The project was not ‘tended’ well after the promising spring/summer 2021 start.    I began my college teaching responsibilities in Sept 2021 and left the grant follow-up and tracking in the hands of the new Co-op manager and our research person.  I did not check in with them until December after the fall 2021 growing season ended ….. but data should have been collected and reported that winter and that didn’t happen. I did disburse some payments to mentors and mentees in early 2022 after I gathered info from them on their activities. 

I knew in early 2022 that we were struggling as a Co-op with this project.  We lost our newly hired Cooperative manager (she left to start her own dairy farm after just six months with us) and this was a major setback.  Because our Co-op manager was also our sales/marketing person we were left without a way to secure new direct-market sales.  We stalled out as a Cooperative and had to pay attention to other priorities.  I had stepped off the board in 2021 and with this change in leadership I lost further contact with the Co-op operations and shepherding this grant.

In February 2022 I did reach out to SARE staff about how to improve our effort in this grant since our Cooperative had to pivot away from direct-market sales (also due to lost COVID business) and rather we moved toward bulk sales with larger orders and fewer specialty items.  This shift in markets meant less opportunity for our new farmers to contribute to sales because they had ‘micro’ amounts of more unique product more suited to direct-to-consumer sales.  It also meant we had to pause adding new farms because their small amounts of product did not fit into our new sales strategies.  With the SARE staff, I discussed options but I did not follow through with making some possible adjustment that might have helped revive the research portion of the project.  I did hold further discussions with our research person, but it was too little too late. Although COVID altered our markets and significantly curtailed the amount of direct-market sales for the Co-op in 2022, there is still little excuse for not having executed the grant research  responsibilities effectively.

Overall I am unhappy with the results of our Co-op work on this grant.  I was excited to receive it and contribute to learning something new about how to grow more sustainable farmers.  And, reflecting on the ups and downs over the past two years I guess I can see some reasons why we weren’t able to complete what we intended.  However, I still think we fell short and I apologize for that.  The bad news is that we did not contribute to new knowledge about effective ways to help new farmers get started.  The good news is that we underspend the budget by two-thirds, and we’ve helped six new farmers gain a foothold in the marketplace. 

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

104 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
1 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Wisconsin Women in Conservation pollinator habitat workshop

Participation Summary:

120 Farmers participated
12 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

This grant was all about mentoring new farmers one-on-one.  We had 7 mentors who provided over 100 hours of time to 4 mentees over the course of the growing season.  They typically provided mentoring via half hour to 45 minute sessions.


April-2021  We held a kick-off and organizing meeting with those people who will be mentors or have a role in the grant.  I wrote a press release about the grant.

April-2021  I sent emails to my professional networks asking for referrals to diverse farmers who might be interested in membership in the Cooperative and in participating in the grant.  This did not generate any reliable leads.  One contact I have at the Oneida Nation did decide to become a member of the Co-op and submitted an application.  Other applicants include a woman owned business and a poultry farm and produce farm, but these three other new members are not from diverse backgrounds.  I have not been able to recruit a fifth new farm and hope to fill that spot with a BIPOC producer.  I will be leaving that spot so that in 2023 we plan to add 6 new farms instead of five.

June 2021.  Requested new farm applicants and mentors to record their hours spent in this project and to submit documentation.  Worked with Amanda Chu to develop new farmer intake survey.

July 2021.  Downloaded “New Entry Sustainable Farming Project”  Mentoring toolkit.  This was planned as part of the grant proposal.  Plan to condense and distribute tips and best practices to our farmer-mentors.

August 2021.  Sent intake survey to our four new farms.  Followed up with Cooperative membership committee to make progress on getting the memberships approved.  Dispersed funds to mentors and mentees as well as project lead A.Chu for survey development.

Issues of note: 

1) While COVID greatly increased our Co-op sales, and thus the need for new members in 2020,  sales sagged back to pre-Covid levels in 2021.  This meant less opportunity to market products from our new members.  From the new members, we have taken product from a poultry farm and a produce farm but have yet to get product from two other farms.  Both these farms need to get Produce Safety Plans in place and get more volume before we purchase from them.  We had planned to get chickens from another one of the new farms but our local chicken processor closed and it was not cost-effective for the farmer to transport chickens 3 hours away (and back) so we let that P.O. lapse.  We will make a plan for purchases in 2022 during the winter months.  I did not actively recruit a 5th new farm because of slower than anticipated sales.

2) The Co-op hired Melissa Weyland as a new general manager but she was not able to start until early August.  This means also that sales are somewhat stagnant.  Melissa will be working to increase sales accounts and make plans for more purchases from new members in 2022.

3) Mentor farms are very slow in sending their hours to me so I can pay them for mentoring.

Public outreach:

We hosted a field day/tour for farmers and the general public in 2021 that drew about 175 people, about 50 were farmers and there were a dozen ag professionals attending as well.  I included an addition 10 farmers in the total because we had 7 mentor farmers and 3 mentee farmers present.  The SARE mentoring grant was mentioned, but was not the primary focus of the tour/field day. 

We hosted an evening workshop specifically focused on pollinator habitat on sustainable farms that drew about 60 women farmers.  There were several press articles about this event.  Again, it was not specifically about the SARE mentee grant, but it was mentioned to the group.

Each of 4 mentor farms hosted mentees on their farms as part of "on farm demonstrations."

We had 3 local TV stations visit Full Circle Farm at some point during 2021.  We sent articles to New Leaf Foods (our local Food hub outreach group) about this, and other, projects.  We sent a press release to about 20 local media outlets about receiving the SARE grant.

Final report:

Because we have no data to write up or share, we lacked the ability to complete an outreach paper detailing interesting or informative project results.

We did not fulfill any outreach activities to share results except that we included new farms in a farm field day that was held, one on June 4th, 2022.  We did not explicitly focus on the results of this project, however, so it would be disingenuous to claim this as true outreach.

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
7 New working collaborations
Success stories:

Final report:  All the farmers that were mentored had the opportunity to visit mentee farms and spend time and learn by observing best practices and asking questions.  In 2022 some of our mentors continued, as needed, mentoring 3 of the original 4 farms from 2021.  The 4th farm was still at a small enough scale that he did not feel the need to market through the Cooperative and he sold all his beef, turkeys and chickens via direct marketing to his own customers. Although he remains a Cooperative member, and had the opportunity to market through it, he was satisfied with lessons learned and mentoring he received in 2021 so that he could succeed on his own.  He did not receive a stipend in 2022.

One mentee, Greg Fox, of Foxtail Farm said “We were able to learn and lean on experienced farmers to get up to speed.  We didn’t have to go through all the trials and failures of most start up farmers.  We could focus on production and didn’t have to worry about marketing.  We would have given up if it wasn’t for SLO Farmers’ mentorship”.  Foxtail farm received stipends for participating in both 2021 and 2022.

Our fourth farm was Shannon Anderson’s farm.  She was the most active mentee recording over 30 hours of mentorship in 2021 and 60 hours in 2022.  The grant was set up to pay for only 20 hours per year of mentoring so Shannon received stipends of $400 each year even though she actually got more mentoring advice.  Her complete is available upon request but here are a few excepts:

“My first year as a beginning farmer I was able to grow and sell products to the co-op. This would not have been possible for me without being a co-op member as I have limited marketing knowledge and no customers of my own yet. Oconto county does not have a high demand for organic food and many people in this rural county grow their own gardens, so direct sales for me is a challenge. Fortunately, I was able to focus on the challenges of becoming an entrepreneur without finding customers which was a big stress relief. I was able to put all my time and energy into growing food from the start.

The second year in the co-op with mentoring I was able to grow and sell 75% more products. Even though I am nowhere near making a profit, 75% or higher sales was my goal from 2021 to 2022. Moving forward into 2023 I have set a much higher bar and hope to contribute much higher quantities. I don’t know if my farm will grow large enough to be profitable. I have decided to give it a total of 5 years and if I am not profitable I will move on to something else in the agricultural field. I can say that being a member of the co-op and having these mentors did make it possible for me to build a functional vegetable/herb business. So, in my opinion as a new farmer this was my rainbow road to success and I would not have made it on my own.”

“I did have some extenuating circumstances over the past two years….. Even with all of these challenges, I was able to grow and sell through the co-op in 2021 and 2022.. Many times these mentors held me up and went above and beyond. That sense of belonging isn’t just about growing vegetables or making money, it is a sense of family and community which we all need, especially when we are just starting out. I am grateful that I was included in the project and was invited to become a member of the SLO co-op. I look forward to our future together!”

Overall we were able to mentor six new and beginning farmers during the grant period.  Included were; 1 Oneida Nation farmer member (Gunkwotelakete /Kahulahele Farm), 1 farm run solely by a woman farmer,  2 farms run by Amish Community members… we did meet our goal of 4 socially disadvantaged farmers.  Also included were two other farms that were not considered socially disadvantaged. 

We had aimed for starting ten new farms selling into and becoming part of the Cooperative but we were not successful meeting that goal for several reasons.  COVID played havoc with our Cooperative sales and ability to project how much product we needed from new members.  At the time the grant was approved (late 2020), sales were rapidly increasing and we projected we’d need a lot more product, especially vegetables, than actually was needed.  Sales slowed in 2021 when we added our first four farms (out of five projected).  In late 2021 the Cooperative’s sales manager resigned (to start her own dairy farm!) and we were left without a person to develop new sales & markets.  Our 2022 overall Co-op sales increased but were uncertain at the start of the growing season, so we curtailed efforts to add five new farms in 2022, only contacting three new farms.

We completed the projected amount of mentoring for our first four farm families in 2021 spending a total of 104.5 mentoring hours, or an average of 26 hours per mentee.  This was in line with the budget for the year.

Mentoring activities included advising on the following topics: completing appropriate paperwork, production planning (how many vegetables or animals would be produced for sale) alternative enterprises (eg. Mushrooms or herbs ), farm branding and identity,  production methods (soil, fertility, seeding, weeding, etc.), produce safety rule, and organic certification.  In addition, mentors developed relationships with mentees to help them with work-life balance issues and just general new-farmer questions not related to production.  Mainly, the Cooperative stood ready to absorb and market products from the mentees, somewhat guaranteeing sales.  This relieved pressure on the new farmers to find their own markets.

In a happy note, the relationship between our SLO Cooperative and Gunkwotelakete /Kahulahele Farm paid several dividends because it helped build a bridge that allowed the Cooperative to serve a new market with the Tribal Elder Food Box.  This is important to note because Jen, the new Oneida farmer, has taught us that it often seems as if programs are structured with the expectation that “we” provide “them” (the socially disadvantaged farmers) with benefits when in fact it is a two-way street.  We learned that we need to be open to getting new ideas from our friends in underserved communities rather than just thinking we will teach them something new. 

In 2022 we mentored two Amish farms who are considering joining our cooperative producer group although they are not official Co-op members just yet.  One of our farmers (Heather) was the main mentor to these farms, spending a total of 51 mentoring hours with them.  She helped them overcome their main barrier to participation – transportation.  Their farms are about a half hour drive from Heather’s farm and she arrived at the farms, helped pack and transport their produce while discussing them proper washing, bundling, and handling procedures.  These farms will likely join our Cooperative in 2023 so they did not receive stipends in 2022.  A local Amish retail grocery store saw the progress these two farms have made - partly because of Heather’s mentorship – and now they are planning to sell to that retail store in the next growing season as well as marketing through our Cooperative.  Also mentored, but not paid was Valentine Garden Farm.  This farm is in a rapidly urbanizing area and supplied some products to the Cooperative in 2022 and will likely join the Co-op in 2023.


  Planned Project Outcome #2.  Model mentoring in a Cooperative.

We used information from the booklet  Supporting Mentors to Teach Next Generation Agrarians: A Farm/Ranch Mentor Training Toolkit.  Published online by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project | Beverly, MA | November 2020.  Much of the discussion below uses the booklet info as a framework for outlining our best “hybrid” model approach.

This booklet helped give names and definitions to methods we considered. We adapted the information for what we thought would work best for our situation. Specifically, we chose not to use a ‘training’ model because that seemed too rigid and needed a curriculum to guide it.  We used a combination of coaching and mentoring with new/beginning farmers.

We did this because we wanted to help new farmers develop existing skills and further their confidence, which coaching emphasizes.  Yet we also thought it was most important to have mentors share their experiences, which mentoring emphasizes.  Both coaching and mentoring help develop long term relationships unlike training which is shorter and more transactional.  These relationships are really important for success of new farmers.  They reported feeling less alone, socially, and like they had someone they could reliably ask questions of.

Our mentees came in with good personal skills and therefore did not really need coaching in personal development.  They already were on the path toward changing (maybe even transforming) their life work and did not need mentor farmers to further that effort.

Our mentorship model really featured the experienced farmers in the role of expert, which was appreciated by the mentees.  The mentors asked questions but also provided answers rather than letting mentees struggle with finding answers – mainly because time was such a valuable commodity that neither had time to explore as much as a coaching role might have done.

The agenda for what topics were discussed was open and evolved over time rather than being somewhat set based on previous groups of learners – coaching teaches the same skills or techniques to each new group. 

Our mentors did not particularly set goals or objectives for mentees like some more formal programs might require.  This was because the goal, or outcome was to have product ready to sell and if the mentee fell short – and this shortfall was recognized right away.  So rather than having somewhat artificial goals, the very practical goal of ‘production’ was easy to gauge and valuable to the mentee as a metric of success.

Mentees were given time to reflect and practice skills at their own pace, on their own farm rather than having set times or classes or lessons.  This seemed to work particularly well.  Mentees reported more clarity on their overall farm direction and business path because the mentors shared both successes and failures.

Our mentors did not try to provide guidance on things like ‘how to manage conflict on a farm’,  or ‘how to communicate more effectively’.  The focus was truly on production methods and delivering clean, safe products for the marketplace.  It was on very practical things like which breeds to use, or which seeds to select, or weed control methods.  Our mentors provided feedback to mentees by visiting farms and making suggestions somewhat informally as relationships strengthened. 

Because each mentee farm was its own small business, our model for mentorship is quite different from training or coaching where individuals are working together at the same farm for long periods.  Our model was that mentees could pick up the phone or send a text or email asking specific questions about, usually product methods.  It was outside the scope of this project’s mentoring to go into topics like how to manage time or how to resolve conflicts or how to be emotionally intelligent.  We respected the idea that our mentees knew how to manage other areas of their life without mentors interfering.  However, mentors could point out resources along the more ‘personal’ lines if they knew of them.

Our model of mentorship was unique because the success of the mentor farmers in the Cooperative was dependent, somewhat, on the success of the mentees.  Of course most mentors are people who like to help others, but this arrangement in which mentee farms could contribute product to the cooperative really helped mentors be more responsive, we believe.  Tying the economic success of both farms mentor and mentee together, was not really planned but it seems like an important concept.  Finding a way in which mentors can benefit other than just feeling good about mentoring is an important ‘lesson learned’.

The difficult thing about our mentoring model was getting people to write down their hours for grant reporting purposes.  Both mentees and mentors are busy people who would take time in ten or fifteen minute increments to get in touch on certain topics or with certain questions.  They often did not record their time but I have no doubt that they under-reported time spent.


Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.