The Multi-Cultural Farmer Mentor project supported the profitability of minority farming through identification and training of six mentor minority farmers paired with mentees by developing increased awareness and participation in SARE, other USDA projects and programs, and the development of whole farm conservation
Outcomes: 1) Mentors- developed enhanced leadership skills and visibility; 2) Mentees- increased farm management, marketing and production skills and strengthened farming community linkages; 3) Majority farming community increased awareness of minority farmers’ contributions; 4) Maintained/ enhanced current minority farming operations; 5) Increased economic viability and stability of Michigan minority farming operations; 6) Raised awareness and significantly improved their natural resource base.
The SARE 2002-2004 Mentor Farmer Project was developed to help minority farm families by pairing them with successful farmers who would address the particular needs of that struggling and/or beginner farmer. The plan was for the mentor to work with the mentee to establish goals and help them achieve these goals towards successful farming operations. Through the project all participants would become more aware of USDA, Extension, SARE and other available programs available to them. The project was also meant to give the area population awareness of the agriculture community within it.
This Multi-Cultural Farmer Mentor project supported and improved the profitability of African-American and Hispanic/Latino and small family farming operations via mentoring and increased awareness of minority farmers within Michigan. These objectives were reached by: 1) Identifying and supporting six African-American or Hispanic/Latino farmer mentors; 2) Selecting six mentee families per year for two years from identified interested families; 3) Engaging in intensive mentoring of the farm families; 4) Supporting mentors via a mentor coordinator, quarterly meetings, training, organizational involvements, and whole farm conservation plans; 5) Supporting mentees via farm visits, SARE-developed course “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity,” other training, developing and implementing business and marketing plans, increasing organizational involvement, publishing farm profile, providing information about various USDA programs, and developing whole farm conservation plans; 6)Assessing and documenting progress.
The project was undertaken with the premise that the mentors were already successful farmers with a level of expertise and that they would increase their skills and knowledge by attending workshops, seminars, tours, and conferences alone and/or with their mentees. Literature from USDA and their Agencies, SARE, and MSU Extension was provided to participants.
One family had only grown up on their Grandfather’s fruit farm in Mexico and dreamed of one day being an owner/operator of a farm. They purchased a fruit farm, relocated, and now have completed their first season on the farm. They have a farmers’ market on the property and have provided an outlet for other local farmers as well as for their own produce! This farmer and his farm and the Mentor Coordinator have been featured in southwest Michigan area newspapers and the Chicago Tribune. The Mentor Coordinator and a mentor were also noted in the National Fruit Growers News.
A second family completed the turnover of a farm estate to the mentee with a business plan, a financial plan, and a marketing and production projection. This mentee’s goal was to be able to take over the older generation’s farm and make it successful. This he achieved well. A another farmer was able to add blueberry production – achieving diversification.
The coordinator, four mentors and seven mentees completed the “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity” sessions. Participants took part in a Risk Management and Crop Insurance education program and learned more about other government programs.
This project heightened community awareness of smaller minority farmers/ranchers; we mentored more than the numbers accommodated by this project because of this awareness.
One problem which effects most small farmers/ranchers is that they, more often than not, have an off-farm job. This means that there is seldom enough time or money to have an economically viable farming operation. Also, there is seldom extra money or time to be away from their farms to travel to ag-related educational sessions when they could be working on broken equipment that they can’t afford to have repaired.
Another devastating reality was that two mentees gave up. One family sold the farm and returned to Mexico and the other family felt relief was too long in coming and they were too far behind, so they just stopped trying to farm on a bigger scale. This heightens our awareness that projects such as ours are crucial.
This project benefited mentors and mentees, producers and consumers, and the community at large.
More idle land has been put back into agricultural production. Greater awareness of our diverse population has brought about more cultural experiences and has helped reduce some of the previously existing barriers. Relationships between the general population and agricultural population are improving. More “Select Local” products are available from participants and other area producers. The number of producers benefiting from this project was more than triple the number of the target group.
A larger number of growers have become far more aware and concerned about their neighbors and the environment around them. Some have become involved in Integrated Pest Management, a safer more efficient use of chemicals, which will eventually lead to more sustainable agriculture. Benefits to growers have included more farmers’ markets, participation in USDA/Project Fresh markets, development of more CSA markets, vast amounts of education from SARE, USDA, and Extension. The Extension awareness worked both ways: producers used the services more and the Extension offices made and are making more and better services available.
The outreach from this project broadened the horizon of both the minority and majority community members. Program participants learned more about the programs available through state and federal agencies and how to participate in the programs. The state and federal agency staff learned how to work with minority farms and help them effectively participate in existing programs. The community as a whole learned more about each other through attending workshops and reading the articles published about the program.
The financial investment in this project went beyond the value of covering the cost of the actual project. Farmers discovered through the program that they were doing or planning to use practices that had the potential for personal health and/or environmental disaster which would have grave economic consequences. This resulted in the construction of chemical storage buildings on some of the sites. Another benefit involved a more economical use of crop rotation.
This program has enabled minority farm families to successfully participate in USDA programs. Six mentors provide advice and guidance for 14 mentees. Four of the six mentors now have conservation plans and approved EQIP contracts.
Five of the mentees have conservation plans with two approved and two in process for EQIP contracts. Four of the mentees have developed business plans, two have achieved a goal of starting blueberry fields, and two greenhouses were built by the group.
One family went from no knowledge of USDA/Extension/SARE programs to knowledge of many. They received intensive training on blueberry propagation, constructed their own greenhouse and propagated their own blueberry plants, cleared part of their land, and tilled their soil, and planted their first field of blueberries.
Educational & Outreach Activities
While no academic publications have been published through this project, the progress of the mentors and mentees has been documented. Articles about mentors and mentees have appeared in the MIFFS MEMO – a quarterly newsletter; one story appeared in Fruit Grower News; and newspaper articles about the project appeared in USA Today and the Chicago Tribune during 2004.
Areas needing additional study
The program could be expanded to include mentoring on other essential skills such as keeping financial records, budgeting, keeping production records, and other forms of production such as organic and other crops. Each mentor could mentor three to five mentees to create a small support network that builds upon existing networks.
There is a great need for agricultural education in the area; whenever this project sponsors educational sessions from local, state or national resources, the entire farming community is invited. This makes for a gathering of majority and minority farmers/ranchers and resource people, which brings better communication, creates bonds, develops more awareness of each other, provides cultural exchanges and helps bridge some of the barriers within our diverse society. There is still a need for one-on-one mentoring with mentoring as a hands-on component.