Community Farmers: The Pathways and Opportunities to Success for New, Innovative Farmers in Michigan

Final Report for GNC04-037

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2004: $9,720.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Jim Bingen
Michigan State University
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Project Information


This ongoing research has focused on the impetuses, mechanisms, resources, and innovations that new (first generation) farmers utilize to enter the profession of farming, and identify the most efficient ways in which to provide for, facilitate, and encourage others to follow in their path. Through the collection and analysis of economic, ethnographic, and sociological data, we have continued to gain a more complete and useful understanding of the ideas, perceptions, knowledge and skills held by new growers who have, through novel and innovative as well as time tested means, become successful local, community-based farmers.

This grant was initially awarded in 2004 to Lamar Kendall for a somewhat similar project. Kendall decided to change his plans for graduate work, and a request to amend his project was approved on March 6, 2006.


Over the last 100 years, the United States has transitioned from a being a nation primarily made up of farmers, to a nation primarily made up of consumers. According to the USDA, in 2005 the United States is likely to become a net food importer for the first time in 50 years (Guebert, 2004). The average age of an American farmer is 55 years, and almost 20% are over the age of 65 (USDA-NASS, 2002). Declines in the number of new people becoming farmers which have raised further concerns about American food security, agricultural sustainability, and the effectiveness of existing programs meant to help new entrants begin farming (Dodson and Koenig, 1995). and there has been a decline recent in the There is little doubt that if American farming is to be successful and sustainable, and our food supply is to continue to be secure, then new, young farmers need to enter the profession. At a time when many existing farms are struggling, the challenges and barriers that face new farmers without family knowledge, infrastructure, or resources are especially acute. Despite these challenges, there are a number of new, innovative farmers who are defying the odds through diverse alternative approaches to growing and marketing. In order to successfully encourage new farmers to enter the profession and to help them succeed, it is essential that we understand their fundamental challenges and needs, and how they are able to overcome them.

A number of publications and resources have focused on identifying and evaluating the financial resources that are available to new farmers (Dodson and Koenig, 1995, Iowa State University Beginning Farmer Center -, Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer Program - Although these resources and studies are clearly useful and important they tell us little about the new innovative practices that new farmers are employing in order to overcome the myriad and formidable obstacles they face. Other publications on beginning farmer education and learning have focused mostly on conventional farmers in mainstream organizations such as Future Farmers of America (Trede and Whitaker, 2000). In contrast, our focus will be on innovative new farmers and the strategies and resources they use to learn how to grow and market their products.

Dodson, Charles, and Steve Koenig.1995. “Young Commercial Farmers: Their Financial Structure and Credit Sources.” Agricultural Income and Finance: 56, pp 40-44.

Guebert, Alan. 2004. “White House Can’t Explain Lurking Trade Imbalance”. Peoria Journal Star, Tuesday, December 7.

Trede, Larry D. and B. Scott Whitaker. 2000. “Educational Needs and Perceptions of Iowa Beginning Farmers Toward their Education.” Journal of Agricultural Education: 41 (1), pp 39-48.

United States Department of Agriculture-National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2002. Census of Agriculture.

Project Objectives:

This project has sought a clearer understanding of the ways in which new (first generation) “community-based” farmers overcome the many barriers to entry in a difficult and troubled profession. To gain this insight I pursue three basic lines of inquiry:

What are the basic motivations that compel new farmers to enter the profession? Through a better understanding of the personal, philosophical, religious, and ethical factors that have led new growers into a life of farming, we will gain a clearer understanding of who our new farmers are, and what they believe. By developing these profiles, we may be able to better target education, aid programs, and other resources to those with the most potential for becoming our new generation of community farmers.

What are the specific ways in which new farmers learn their production and business strategies? Both the production and marketing of agricultural crops require a specific degree of knowledge as well as determination and intuition. Through this project we will investigate and catalogue the resources that new growers have used and the specific ways in which new farmers learn their craft. Understanding this process will help us to compile a list of resources and to provide information more efficiently effectively for potential new farmers interested in entering the profession.

What are new, innovative, “community-based” farmers perceptions of the future of American agriculture? By understanding how our most resourceful and resilient growers view the future of their profession, we hope to better understand the ideas and practices that will guide American agriculture in the direction of success and sustainability in the future.


Materials and methods:

With the help of individuals and organizations such as Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) and Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA), several dozen first-generation farmers were identified and contacted about their interest in the project. Over 20 short interviews with first-generation farmers, potential farmers, and farming educators were conducted during visits to farms, farmer’s markets, conferences, and other events between November of 2005 and June of 2006. This helped to develop a broad understanding of the range of farming systems, educational opportunities, and networking activities in which first-generation Michigan farmers engage, and to identify participants in further research. A core group of 4 farm families was identified for intensive ethnographic studies. Criteria for this group includes at least 5 years of farming experience, no significant source of off-farm income, ownership and sole-proprietorship of farms ranging from 20-80 acres in size, and income generated primarily from at least one form of direct local marketing.

Research methods include both participant observations, and interviews with first generation farmers. The core group of 4 farmers was studied intensively with up to 10 day-long participant observations, and between two and five 1-2 hour interviews. Field notes were taken following participant observations, and all interviews were recorded and transcribed.

A broader group of 15 farmers were interviewed or observed 1-2 times. Field notes were taken from observations, and interviews were recorded and transcribed.

Currently all data from participant observations and interviews are being reviewed and analyzed for common themes and information related to the basic research questions. We are in the process of developing specific codes which will identify the important and novel information on these subjects contained within the data. The qualitative data gathered through this process will be analyzed using NVivo Quantitative Analysis Software.

The major categories within which potential codes are being developed include:
1) Motivations for becoming a farmer/choosing a farm lifestyle;
2) The learning processes, innovations, challenges and evolution of first generation farmers; and
3) Farmer perceptions of the problems, changes, and future of American agriculture.

Research results and discussion:

1) Motivations:
In general, the most important motivations tend to include autonomy, security, closeness to family, environmental stewardship, and personal fulfillment. We have found that it takes a very specific kind of person to engage successfully in this work. They tend to be extremely hard-working and driven, to be good at many different things (not specialists), and good at managing multiple tasks simultaneously. They tend to be driven by a strong ideological commitment to improving their community and the world at large. They tend to have difficulty with conventional jobs which require specific hours, and hierarchical or bureaucratic work environments. They tend to be comfortable with solitude but also adept at social interaction. They tend to enjoy the challenges associated with making it on their own, and are not easily discouraged or risk-averse. And they tend to see farming as a viable economic enterprise, if managed carefully and diligently. Although these are generalizations and tend to apply to individual farmers to a greater or lesser extent, this individualism itself seems to be an important part of the appeal to those within our study group, almost without exception.

2) Learning Processes:
Results indicate a broad range of strategies used by first generation Michigan farmers to learn farming techniques, find land, produce their crops, and market them. In learning to farm, there is little substitute for personal experience. Although books, business plans, websites, Extension programs, and advice from or observations of other farmers may be helpful, there is no substitute for direct experience, trial and error learning. Apprenticeship programs seem to be the most useful organized learning experiences. Most farmers make many mistakes before they establish the techniques that work best for them. And a willingness to experiment with different production and marketing techniques appears to be essential.

3) Views on the future of American Agriculture:
These tend to span a particularly broad range. Many farmers are optimistic, especially about the local food systems being developed within their own localities. Yet many remain concerned about the direction of mainstream American agriculture toward monoculture based on genetically modified organisms, the effects of corn ethanol development, longer food chains, and a disconnection between people from their food.

Because the method of data collection and analysis is qualitative, no quantitative statistical methods have been used to develop these conclusions. Instead they are based on the analysis of observations and interview transcripts which point to patterns and generalized experiences.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

To date the project has resulted in:

One refereed journal article accepted for publication:

Wright, W., and Reid, T. 2008. Dangling Promises of Riches and Rural Development:
Framing, Fault Lines, and the Re-emergence of U.S. Biofuels. Rural Sociology:
Accepted pending revision.

The publication of a biographical essay describing the work of a first-generation farmer and farming educator:

Reid, T. 2007. Walking the Talk with Both Feet on the Earth: A Biography of Maynard
Kaufman, Organic Pioneer – Part I. Michigan Organic Connections: 12:4, pp. 7

Reid, T. 2007. Walking the Talk with Both Feet on the Earth: A Biography of Maynard
Kaufman, Organic Pioneer – Part II. Michigan Organic Connections: 13:1, pp. 4

Five outreach presentations:

Reid, T . 2008. Workshop - The Basics of Small Farm Shiitake Mushroom Cultivation.
MSU Student Organic Farm, September 13th.

Reid, T., and Wright, W. 2007. Talking Transition: Biofuels Advocacy and Challenges
to Sustainability. Presentation and poster given at Michigan State University
Extension Community Development Research Day. East Lansing, MI, November

Reid T. 2007. How to Start Your Farm: Lessons from Organic and First Generation
Farmers. Presentation given in Sustainable Farming 101, West Michigan CRAFT
(Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training), Grand Rapids, MI. March

Reid, T, Howard, P., Whetham, P, and Bingen. 2007. Consumer Education Session:
What’s Really Organic? Presentation given at the 2007 Michigan Organic
Conference. Michigan State University, March 3rd.

Reid, T . 2005. Workshop - Shiitake Mushroom Cultivation for the Beginning Farmer.
MSU Student Organic Farm, September 13th.

Five academic conference presentations:

Reid, T., and Bingen, J. 2008. Tumult, Tenacity, Toil, and Tile: The Arduous Journey of
a Michigan Organic Farm Family from the City to the Soil. Poster presentation
given at Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) Organic Research
Symposium. Lacrosse, WI, February.

Howard, P., Montri, D, Campbell-Aravi, V., Reid, T., Bingen, J., and Delind, L. 2007. In
Everyone’s Best Interest? Food Regulations, Scale, and Legitimation. Panel
presentation to be given at 2007 Meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human
Values Society, University of Victoria, May 31-June 2nd.

Wright, W., Reid, T., and Bingen, J. 2007. Considerations for Energy Feedstock
Production on the Structure of Agriculture. Presentation given at Meetings of the
Rural Sociology Society. Santa Clara, CA, August 2-5th.

Reid, T. Wright, W, and Bingen, J. 2007. Ethanol: A Threat to Small Farms, Local
Food, and Agricultural Diversity? Presentation given at Meetings of the
Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society. Victoria, BC, May 31-June 2nd.

Reid, T., and Bingen, J. 2006. Making a Life Back on the Land: Learning, Values and
Practices of First Generation Farmers in Michigan. Poster Presentation.
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) National Conference.
August 15-17, Oconomowoc, WI. Available at:

A Website:

This website is an effort to create a knowledge and networking resource for farmers and potential farmers, educators, activists, and policy makers interested in promoting small, diverse, locally-based, sustainable farm enterprises. By bringing together information and individuals we hope to provide a forum for sharing and disseminating ideas which facilitate the process of starting new farms.


This project is also the foundation for my doctoral dissertation in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies at Michigan State University.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The results of this project have begun to provide data for potential and current farmers, educators, and policy makers which will be useful for them in establishing programs, making decisions, and implementing practices which will help with the process of encouraging new farmers to enter the profession, and assist in giving them the tools to be successful in their farming endeavors. Through understanding and communicating the experiences of successful first generation farmers, we hope to provide useful information and templates what will help these parties to avoid common mistakes and focus on the aspects of starting a farm which are most important to long-term success.

By providing information which helps to give potential new farmers and those who work with them the confidence and practical information to enter this profession, we hope to encourage more new farmers to consider entry, and to assist those who have already chosen this path by supplying useful practical information based on real-world experience.

Specifically, we hope to
1) bring together the educational resources which will be most useful to them;
2) offer practical forms of advice on financing, production, and marketing techniques which have proven successful for others, and
3) bring attention to the need for, and the needs of new farmers to replace our rapidly aging farm population.

We have begun this process in several ways. First, we have presented the information we have been gathering at a number of conferences, training programs, and in both academic and non-academic settings. Second, we have established a website ( which brings together disparate pieces of information on funding opportunities, training programs, internships, publications, and web resources, and uses a discussion board and blog format to continue to provide timely up to date information on research and learning opportunities for farmers and potential farmers. We hope this website will grow into a useful and well-used source of information and a forum for discussion and networking.

Economic Analysis

It is difficult to quantify the specific returns, since they differ from year to year, and are highly dependent upon the scale of the operation. The purpose of the project was to minimize the risks and maximize the use of techniques that farmers who have successfully entered the field have adopted. The largest economic investment for new farmers is the purchase of land. The size of the investment is dependent upon the size of the parcel they purchase, the existing infrastructure, and the location.

Within our study group, those who have made an investment in mid-sized farms (20-50 acres) generally assume the least risk, and the most consistent return. Investment in equipment (tractors, cultivators, and irrigation) and labor is also essential. Access to and choice of markets is a key factor as well. Farmers who take on a ‘reasonable’ debt load relative to their production capability generally experience the lowest risk.

In general, direct markets such as community supported agriculture and farmers markets provide the best return for new farmers. Organic certification can open more lucrative markets as well. Annual crops which provide a quick return also tend to provide

Farmer Adoption

This research project is geared toward understanding the ways in which new technologies, production methods and systems have been developed by new farmers. It is my hope that by analyzing, synthesizing, and disseminating this information, I can provide a resource base that new farmers can utilize to make their farming operations successful. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which farmers have benefited from the project to this point, since we don’t know how many farmers have used the information from our website, publications, and presentations. I will to continue to provide information resulting from this project in the hope that it will be accessed by, and beneficial to as many farmers (and potential farmers) as possible.

Specific recommendations to new farmers, and those considering farming include the following:

Check my website for continually updated information regarding farmer training programs, educational resources, conferences, apprenticeship opportunities, funding sources, new research, and other information.

Choose educational programs carefully. Make the most of these opportunities by choosing training programs appropriate for the kind of farming you want to do, the area in which you want to do it, and which provide information suited to your particular needs and weaknesses.

Apprentice with a successful farmer who is experienced in and qualified as a teacher, not simply one who is looking for cheap labor.

Take advantage of loan programs established specifically for beginning farmers. Both national programs, and those specific to individual states can be found on our website:

Be organized, and treat your farm operation as a business. Developing a formal business plan can be extremely helpful in choosing the production and marketing practices that will work best for you.

Don’t be discouraged by challenges or ‘failures’. These should be treated as learning experiences, and are part of every farmer’s learning experience.

Consider production and marketing as equally important aspects of the farming enterprise. Many farmers have made the mistake of focusing on one over the other, and this often leads to problems.

Don’t get into deeper debt than your operation can handle. Be sure that the debt you take on is reasonable for the income you can reasonably expect to generate, even in a bad year.

Engage with the local community including other farmers who may be able to provide useful information, may be willing to share equipment or collaborate in marketing enterprises, as well as organizations, businesses, and individuals who can often be important allies in developing markets.

Diversify. Multiple approaches to both production and marketing can mitigate risk and allow farming operations to absorb individual challenges and difficulties.


Areas needing additional study

Because of our broad, multidisciplinary approach, there are many areas in which this study could be expanded or built upon.

These include, but are not limited to:

An exploration of the existing beginning farmer training programs and their usefulness and potential to develop new farmers successfully.

An exploration of ways in which to best educate the public about the need for new farmers, and their contribution to the social, ecological, and economic sustainability of local communities, as well as the country as a whole.

An exploration of the ways in which different organizations are promoting the development of new farms through political activism on both the national and local level.

A comparison of the ‘back to the land movement’ with the new farmers of today. Preliminary research within this project suggests that there are many interesting overlaps, as well as differences between these two groups.

Quantitative analysis regarding the number of new farmers who are entering the profession, their demographics, and their potential to develop alternatives to the conventional industrial food system.

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.