A 7-page survey and selective in-depth interviews of ten years (1996-2006, inclusive) of graduates from the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF) showed that the vast majority had entered farming careers, over a third of farmer graduates owned their own farms, and satisfaction with the quality and value of the WSBDF training program was very high. Farmer graduates overcame obstacles such as little equity and difficulty finding a farm to lease or purchase in order to be successful.
To view appendices and tables associated with this report, contact the NCR-SARE office at email@example.com.
In our 1995 SARE grant project proposal which was the sole funding source for the first two years of the new Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers (WSBDF) we wrote: The practical experiment proposed (the development of the WSBDF) seeks to address a key dilemma associated with the structure of agriculture throughout the North Central Region: a serious decline over the past decades in the rate of entry of new farmers (Gale and Henderson, 1991). That trend continues; UW PATS research found that in each year from 1992 to 1997, 1860 WI farmers left dairying while only 344 started dairy farming (Buttel, et al., 1999).
This SARE project (2005-2008) allowed us to obtain a thorough and accurate understanding of the numbers of graduates farming and the successful and unsuccessful pathways our graduates used to start farming. This project helped us to gather important and timely information from the graduates which will allow us to make the program more pertinent and effective; and, most importantly, this project provided us with the kind of information, experiences, and lessons that we can share with a broader audience across the NCR. We believe that successful pathways to farm entry, as well as roadblocks and hurdles to entry are similar across the entire NCR. What we have learned and documented through this timely project will be extremely useful in the development of similar beginning farmer educational efforts and policy to foster and enhance beginning farmer success across the NCR.
Our project contributes to NCR-SARE desired outcomes by fostering a next generation of farmers in pasture-based dairying who have a chance to be profitable and environmentally conscious, while maintaining a desirable quality of life and helping to sustain a vibrant rural community. This project complemented and significantly enhanced PATS benchmark-survey research into general dairy farmer entry, as well as organic, value-added and grazing adoption research (Personal communication, Brad Barham, UW PATS).
One of the hallmarks of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers (‘Livestock’ was added in 2006, but the WSBDF acronym remained the same) is that it brings together experienced farmers, agribusiness leaders, university research and extension specialists and eager new dairy farmers in a structured and complete learning environment within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in cooperation with farmers and university extension faculty, the School sought to bring new farmers into the dairy sector through the use of sustainable, low input, reduced-cost managed grazing (pasture-based) practices (SARE LNC95-088). Combining educational opportunities with on-farm tours and extensive farm internships for those needing practical experience, the program has grown a large and committed base of mentor farmers, farmer graduates and agricultural community members.
With continuing funding, including SARE project LNC97-115, the WSBDF has been able to reach students both far and near using distance education in addition to classroom instruction. The Pasture-based Dairy/Livestock Seminar brings in farmers, extension agents and many business and research professionals to share the specific practices and strategies that entering farmers will likely find most useful. In addition, the School’s director, Richard Cates and associate director, Jennifer Taylor, have shared the mission and design of the program with other interested producer and educator groups across the country for the now thirteen years of its existence and growth.
The Beginning Farmer Sustainable Agriculture Project (SARE project LNC93-059) organized groups of farmers in the early 1990’s to discuss holistic and alternative farming practices and to attend workshops and courses sponsored by the project staff. Data was also collected on the start up strategies of a dozen families participating in the Support Network and presented through conferences and publications, including a Beginning Farmer newsletter through the Center for Rural Affairs, Nebraska. On farm field days and the documentation of organic and other low input farming systems was undertaken in the northeast (SARE project LNE-014). Other programs across the country have sought to forge cooperative relationships between farmers such as the Farmer-Farmer Mentoring Program and the subsequent Farmer-Led Learning Groups (SARE project NE04-020) to provide experienced producer mentoring to those entering or transitioning to pasture-based dairy farming. Grazing networks have also been widely utilized by farmers at all levels of experience to discuss new ideas, methods, and specific practices that work for them in a practical setting (also CIAS Research Brief #49).
In addition to the WSBDF, the other most comprehensive educational program of its kind is the Farm Beginnings Program in Minnesota. This program has served over 100 new farmers to teach sustainable farm practices, provide mentorship from experienced farmers and even to give ‘livestock loans’ to assist some families during start up (SARE project LNC01-192). Another goal of Farm Beginnings has been to share its curriculum with other regions interested in implementing similar programs. Farmers in the northeast region of the country have benefited by the formation of an agricultural service provider network in recent years which has provided several tools targeted to new farmers, including business planning materials and a land link program (SARE project LNE99-119). The project focused on bringing together farmers and agricultural agencies and organizations from twelve area states and also produced several publications including an entry workbook and a program and service directory.
Educating for and encouraging pasture-based farm practices has been one particular method of promoting sustainable livestock production practices that can also be more accessible to new farmers and enhance environmental stewardship. Specific efforts nationwide include SARE project ENE00-055 which tested a variety of ways to deliver pasture management instruction to farmers and then developed and distributed a “Grazing and Pasture Management Educator’s Kit” to extension professionals in Pennsylvania and Maryland. As Jackson-Smith et al. discuss in Grazing in Dairyland…not only are management-intensive grazing farms in Wisconsin economically competitive, but graziers are also more likely to be concerned about soil and water conservation, reduced energy inputs and the need for using methods such as crop rotations, composting and ecological pest controls. Graziers reported spending fewer hours per week doing farm work than other types of dairy farmers and were more likely to say they planned to stay in farming ‘indefinitely.’
PATS Research Report #8 followed up on the grazing dairy farm population in Wisconsin during the 1990’s and found that graziers were continuing to be profitable (also CIAS Research Brief # 50) and more satisfied with their family quality of life. In addition, while overall farm numbers in Wisconsin have declined steadily for 20 years, (Buttel, et al., 1999), the number of dairy operations using managed grazing increased. The challenges and barriers to entry into dairy farming were discussed by Barham et al. in the report Nurturing the Next Generation…which emphasized that research, educational, community and policy efforts are necessary to promote and support entry into the dairy sector. They state that there are many paths to dairy farm start-up, however there are large financial and management requirements which need to be addressed and skills that can be learned through training, mentoring and farmer networks (also CIAS Research Brief #56).
It is to meet these requirements, the particular challenges faced by entrants into the dairy and livestock industry, and to provide for their training, as well as the identification of farming opportunities and the ongoing support of mentor farmers throughout the state and beyond that the WSBDF continues to serve a unique function. Learning from the related efforts of pasture-based practitioners and educators around the country, the School has both the institutional framework within the UW-Madison and an independent advisory council and host of farmer speakers and mentors that continually reshape its design to best provide for the next generation of dairy farmers. The need for the evaluation and promotion of sustainable agricultural practices is at the heart of the School’s foundational managed grazing curriculum and the financial evaluations of pasture-based dairy operations and business plan development emphasis of the course lend additional real world support to its students. The WSBDF program will continue to have a wide-ranging impact through its connectivity with the agricultural service sector as well as good relations with the greater community of producers and consumers that have a common interest in supporting family farms, quality food and a healthy environment.
See Appendix 1. Literature Citations.
Project Outcomes: The first goal of our project was to investigate in some depth, through survey and case study research, the professional activities, life-choices and opportunities of the approximately 200 graduates from the University of Wisconsin pasture-based School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers (WSBDF) in the first ten years since the Program’s inception in 1995. The work of this project will help us in the NCR to understand how this first-of-a-kind program has been or not been effective, and how we can improve and promote the model for broader applicability and access across the NCR. The ultimate goal of the project is to help ensure that there is a next generation of new pasture-based farmers who are profitable and have a high quality of life, while sustaining and improving the environmental resource base. Such farmers and their families contribute as productive citizens and members of their rural communities and society as a whole. Our primary objectives were to learn:
-How many graduates were farming and information about their farming operations, additional employment, household, farm management, financial status and use of managed grazing (a major program emphasis, but not requirement).
-What professional activities students who were not farming were engaged in and whether they continue to want to farm; what issues have kept them from starting or continuing to farm, and how they plan to overcome these obstacles.
-For those farming, what was their pathway to start-up; what were the impediments along the way; and how the WSBDF did or did not assist in career pathway development.
-For all graduates, their evaluation of the WSBDF program, including level of satisfaction with specific program elements, most and least effective aspects, the overall quality of the program and what would they change or add to the WSBDF to make it more useful.
Short Term: Increase knowledge and awareness of:
1) what aspects of the WSBDF helped or didn’t help our graduates get started in dairy farming;
2) what were the barriers to start-up that our program helped or didn’t help our graduates to overcome;
3) increase the general awareness among the public that the WSBDF has been successful and effective at helping many individuals who have had a dream to farm to achieve their goals; and
4) change skills and attitudes through initiating, developing and implementing improvements and changes in the program structure and content to ensure that the WSBDF can best serve it’s stake holders (prospective start-up dairy and livestock farmers) and mission (‘to help aspiring dairy and livestock farmers get started’).
Medium Term: Change behavior and practices through
1) greater demand for the WSBDF Program offerings among NCR stakeholders;
2) additional financial support (GPR funding) for the WSBDF through UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Wisconsin legislature and/or private endowments;
3) increased interest and demand among educational institutions and groups to develop their own beginning farmer program effort, including to adapt or utilize the WSBDF;
4) improved accessibility to start-up farming; and
5) improved profitability, environmental practices, and quality of life for beginning farmers.
Long Term: Society will come to understand that our prosperity, our rural communities, indeed the survival of our culture are at stake. We need to ensure that bright, motivated individuals who have a passion to farm, and to serve as stewards of our public resources, have our public commitment to nurture their success.
We developed a comprehensive, yet concise, 7-page survey and mailed it to all of the graduates of the first ten years of the WSBDF (1996-2006, inclusive) for whom we had or could find contact information. This turned out to be 187 graduates, since during the course of the project we removed people from the list due to the repeated inability to be in contact with them over many years. The survey was designed by major participant Jennifer Taylor, in collaboration with the UW-Madison Program on Agriculture Technology Studies (PATS) which has extensive survey experience and with the assistance of graduate student Michael Peterson, UW-Madison Rural Sociology (see Appendix 2 . WSBDF Graduates Survey).
Using established survey methods, we sent three waves of mail survey, including the use of an incentive (a Culver’s turtle sundae coupon) enclosed with the initial mailing. In addition, we sent an electronic copy of the survey to all graduates for whom we had or found current email addresses. In addition to refining our contact information list and querying family members or last known residences, where possible, we followed up with phone calls. We called all non-respondents a minimum of three times in order to attempt to get them to return a written or electronic survey. In a few cases, by their preference, we asked the survey questions over the phone and filled the pages out accordingly.
The data were entered into an SPSS database by batches as they arrived, which was expertly set up and managed by Michael Peterson. The use of this powerful program enabled us to code missing and incorrect entries, clear up inconsistencies, create additional variables for in-depth comparisons and quantitatively analyze the final data set (see Results and Discussion).
For the case study portion of the project, the project coordinator conducted in person interviews (see Appendix 3 . WSBDF Graduate Case Studies Interview Instrument) with 7 graduate start-up farm families which were audio taped and transcribed. The names of the farmers interviewed and their families have been changed in the transcripts submitted to SARE in order to maintain confidentiality (see Appendix 4 . WSBDF Graduate Interviews & Seminar Presentations). In addition, we recorded the seminar presentations given to our 2007-2008 class by another 8 graduate farmers, edited transcripts of four of which are included with the interviews. These documents retain the graduates’ real names as they consented to give a public recorded seminar (see Appendix 4 . WSBDF Graduate Interviews & Seminar Presentations). A set of all eight 45-minute voiceover PowerPoint presentations will be available as a CD once the recordings have been edited to remove the pre-class and break chatter. Representative quotes, as well as insights gained into the experience of beginning dairy and livestock farmers from these 15 graduates’ stories are presented in the Results section and Farmer Adoption section. The main goals of the graduate interviews were to:
Document and fill-in details of their survey responses
Hear the story of their pathway to farm start up and current farm operation
Obtain farm financial information, where they were willing to share it
Crystallize important lessons learned during the start-up process
Educational and Outreach activities were and will continue to be extensive and utilized the products of this grant, particularly survey results and case-study information and quotes, in a variety of formats, including PowerPoint presentations, printed materials and displays at conferences (see Publications/Outreach).
Key inputs which were used to carry out the project activities:
-WSBDF staff time and expertise
-UW-Madison graduate student time and expertise
-SARE grant funding
-UW-PATS staff guidance and expertise in the survey development
-WSBDF graduate/farmer time and expertise
-UW-CIAS support staff time and display materials
-Audio recording equipment
-UW-Extension Instructional Communications Systems, Wisline Web conference and archived meeting services
-UW Fleet vehicle
-In-house UW-CIAS color printer and CD burner
The results from the mail survey of graduates of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF) are presented in this section. We are also submitting interview and presentation transcripts from the graduates whose stories and farms were the subject of our in-depth look at the dairy and livestock farm start-up process (see Appendix 4. WSBDF Graduate Interviews & Seminar Presentations). Seven students were interviewed in person and eight graduates gave presentations in our 2007-08 seminar class. Excerpts from these fifteen graduates’ stories are included in the Farmer Adoption and Areas Needing Additional Study sections.
We obtained results from as many graduates as we could, as described in Materials and Methods. After months of follow-up, we concluded the data gathering with a total of 127 respondents. Of 187 graduates from 1996-2006 that we attempted to reach, this yielded a very good 68% “response rate.” Since this was not a random sample survey, but an attempt to gather data from every person in a known population, the study is more accurately a census.
As such, we are not trying to infer what the general population of beginning farmers is doing, but only to describe the graduates of our particular beginning farmer training program. With nearly 7 of 10 graduates responding, we feel we have gotten a fairly accurate look at their collective experience. While we guess that non-respondents felt less connected with Wisconsin, farming, and/or their experience with the WSBDF, we did get a good representation of distance education (DE) students. About 20 percent of graduates during the first ten years had taken the seminar by individual distance education, and 16% of survey respondents were DE graduates.
Since ours is largely a descriptive study of our past graduates, their career pathways, farming practices and assessment of the WSBDF program, we are not presenting statistical variation with the results. As we defined and compared sub-populations of graduates (for example, those who owned their own farms and used managed grazing), the relatively small numbers in each category yielded results that were not statistically significant. However, our interest was to gain information and insight, thus we do not place emphasis on small differences in response. We share what we learned about our graduates and their experiences and opinions and what that might mean for our program and its goal of assisting bright and motivated individuals achieve their dream to farm.
Farming and Employment
Since the primary mission of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock farmers is to help individuals get started and succeed in farming, we were excited and gratified to find that 88% of graduates were “currently” farming (when they returned the survey in 2007). The group being studied comprised 11 classes of students graduating between 1996 and 2006, so some had been farming for a decade and others for less than a year since participating in the program. Over three-quarters of those who farmed in 2006 were farming full-time, with another 18 percent citing part-time farm work and 5 percent farming occasionally.
Of the graduates who were not farming in 2006, 90 percent of them had farmed at some time since completing the WSBDF program. That nearly all of those who responded chose to and found a way to farm, indicates that we have had a well-targeted audience of students who are highly motivated to farm. In addition, 70 percent of graduates who were no longer farming indicated that it was somewhat or highly likely that they would farm again in the future. Reasons they gave for not currently farming included changes in the family situation (marriage, children or divorce), a well-paying alternative job and the right long-term farming situation not yet being available.
Of the graduates currently farming, about one-third of them reported having a paid non-farm job in 2006, also. This indicates that the majority of graduates are able to farm as their primary and sole occupation. Somewhat surprisingly, those students who graduated earlier in the program (1996-2001) were more likely to hold a non-farm job in addition to farming, about 42% of them, compared with 30% of more recent graduates (from 2002-2006). While we see that young beginning farmers often have the time and energy to work both farm and non-farm jobs as well as the need to build equity, we are also finding more students in recent classes who are full-time employees or herdspersons at larger farming operations. Thus, their paid job is farming, though not yet for themselves, which is an eventual goal of nearly all students who go through the program.
The majority of students who go through the WSBDF reside in Wisconsin and stay in the state to farm. However, through a distance education program that was conducted for four years, individuals from anywhere in the United States could listen to, and later watch, the seminar presentations. As mentioned, we did get a nearly proportional response from distance education (DE) graduates as from in-class graduates and this group of DE grads was farming at the same frequency, 88%, as the rest of the graduates. Ranging from Florida to California, the DE graduates were also as likely to have a non-farm job as the earlier graduates, about 43% of them holding other employment.
Farm characteristics and Management
The largest sector in Wisconsin agriculture is dairy farming and consistent with this and the School’s focus, 70% of graduates farming in 2006 were involved in dairy cow enterprises. In addition to the crops and youngstock raised by and for the dairy operations, 30 percent of graduate farms raised heifers, 30% ran beef cattle operations and 28% raised cash crops. (More than one enterprise or type of livestock may be present on a farm). Eight percent of our respondents milked animals other than cows, primarily goats and sheep, although we have one DE graduate who runs a camel dairy. About 12 percent of graduates cited other livestock, including hogs, meat or laying hens, meat goats, meat sheep, and honey bees. Several graduates’ farms also raised vegetables for sale and/or made soap, cheese or maple syrup as additional value-added enterprises.
Since our program has emphasized managed grazing as a sound entry strategy and farming practice, including the components of animal health, conservation and profitability, we asked graduates about their use of pasture and managed grazing. Managed grazing specifically refers to the method of feeding livestock by rotating them frequently through subdivided pastures based on the nutritional needs of the animals and forage availability.
The vast majority, 85%, of graduates had fed pasture at some time, with 60% having used managed grazing when they were farming. Of those graduates who were “currently” farming in 2007, 55% used managed grazing. Their most important reasons for using managed grazing were for animal health and longevity, as a low capital entry into farming, and the quality of life for them and their family. Other strong reasons for using managed grazing were environmental goals and the teachings from the WSBDF classes. Graduates were less influenced by what was already in use by the farm operation or other farmers’ opinions when it came to their choice of using managed grazing.
Graduates using managed grazing reported using from 5 to 700 acres of managed pasture in 2006, with a mean of about 90 acres. Many of these farmers, 65% of them, rotated their animals to fresh pasture once or twice per day as is the recommended practice with dairy herd pasture management. Another 25% of graduates using managed grazing rotated their animals every several days to once a week, suggesting they were raising meat animals, rotating dry cows and/or supplementing with additional forage.
Another interesting feature of the farmer graduates using managed grazing was that
89% farmed full-time, 10% farmed part-time and less than 2% said they only did occasional farm work in 2006. This compared with 2/3 of graduates not using grazing who farmed full-time, 25% who farmed part-time and about 9% whose farm work was characterized as occasional. In addition, the majority of graduates using managed grazing, 72%, did not have a non-farm job. These trends suggests that by following a pasture-based farming strategy, many of the program’s graduates have been able to pursue a focused farming career.
Farm Leasing and Ownership
Of all the survey respondents, including those not currently farming, 30 percent owned their own farms (median 160 acres) and 55 percent rented or leased farmland (median 80 acres). About one in five graduates both owned and rented or leased farmland (median 177 acres total), likely for more crop or pasture ground. Nearly a third of graduates neither owned nor rented a farm or farmland; these grads are likely to be farming with their family or working as farm employees on larger farm operations.
We also found that 43 percent of earlier graduates, those who finished the program in 2001 or prior, owned their own farms, while 25 percent of those graduating in 2002 or subsequently had progressed to farm ownership. This makes sense along the path of farm business development recommended by the WSBDF and others, in which a beginning farmer first establishes equity in appreciable, productive assets such as livestock, and minimizes or delays the purchase of capital investments such as buildings, land and machinery until they can comfortably afford and cash flow these expenses.
Of the graduates who did own their own farms in 2006, more than two-thirds were pasture-based operations, indicating that managed grazing is a viable strategy to starting a farm business that includes the eventual ownership of a farm and farmland.
Income and Debt
The farm enterprises that WSBDF graduates were involved in are diverse by income, with just over one-third of operations generating gross farm revenues for 2006 of less than $20,000, one-quarter earning $20,000-99,999 annually, twenty percent of farms earning $100,000-249,999 and twenty percent grossing 250,000 or more per year. Farms using managed grazing were twice as likely than those that did not to be in the $100-249,999 category and about one-third less likely to be in the lowest farm income category of under $20,000. Farms not using managed grazing were slightly more numerous in the highest income range.
Not unexpectedly, 70 percent of grads reported that the farm operations they were involved in had debt, with 80 percent of farm-owning graduates carrying debt on their farms. In addition to students who farm with parents who have a paid-for farm, we speculate that those who reported their farm is debt-free may include grads who inherited farms, had substantial equity from prior careers, or who have been farming longer and/or with additional non-farm income. The mean debt carried by the farm business as of January 2007 was $157,000 and median debt was $53,000, indicating that most are small to moderate sized farms. There was no evidence that grads from earlier classes (1996-2001) were in less debt than recent graduates. This may be due to earlier graduates being more likely to own a farm and our not having a big enough cohort or long enough time frame to detect those who have paid down substantially on their mortgages to date.
We asked graduates to indicate their total annual household income from all sources by checking a range. For the three-quarters of respondents who chose to answer the question, incomes were different between graduates farming and those not farming. Over half of non-farming graduates (although not many in number) reported household incomes of more than $75,000 per year. The remainder were evenly distributed between $20-74,999. Currently farming graduates were most likely to report household incomes between $20,000 and $50,000 and about one-sixth of farming households earned either less than $20,000 or more than $75,000.
Of those who farmed in 2006, they estimated that 56% of their household income was from farm income, 20% from a non-farm job by the graduate, 17% from a non-farm job by the spouse or other household member and 7 percent from another source (eg. odd jobs, seasonal work, retirement income, dividends). The proportion of farm income seems low compared with what most dairy farmers in Wisconsin have reported in the past, however our sample includes 30% non-dairy farmers, as well as a younger population (median age 27) than the average dairy farmer in the state (48 in 2003).
WSBDF Program Evaluation
When asked to rate the overall quality of the WSBDF program, 97% of graduates gave it an excellent or good, 3% found it average and no one rated it fair or poor.
We also asked graduates to indicate their level of satisfaction (from a low of 1 to a high of 5) with eight different aspects of the program, focusing in particular on the weekly seminar. The lowest rating contained 0-2% of the response for all eight categories. Graduates were most satisfied with the presentations by the instructors (93% gave it a 4 or 5), the availability of the instructors and farmer speakers (90%-4 or 5) and the in-class discussions (86%-4 or 5).
While still largely favorable, graduates were the least satisfied with the farm financial training (70%-4 or 5, 21%-3 and 9%-2) and financial support available to take the class (66%-4 or 5, 29%-3 and 4%-2). This indicates two areas we can work on to improve; in recent years more emphasis has been placed on business planning in the curriculum, and the program continues to seek both scholarship and Endowment funds. These are used to support student tuition and internships as well as the continuation of the program and the expansion of its offerings to facilitated distance education sites (seven in 2008-09) beyond the Madison campus, all of which are considerably less expensive than taking the class in Madison.
When asked to assign a dollar value to the sum total of their WSBDF experience, 28% of graduates chose “can’t say,” another 22% picked values between $5,000 and $50,000, 5% thought it was worth “over $100,000” and 45% of graduates said their experience was “priceless.”
Graduate Demographics and Satisfaction
The median age of graduates at time they answered the survey (in 2007) was 27 years old. Their ages ranged from 20 to 62. Of those currently farming, the median age for farmers using managed grazing was 31 and those not grazing was 24. Since our younger students tend to join the class directly from high school and with a farm background (primarily not grazing farms, though we are now getting “second-generation” grazing farmers as well) these are the students who tend to have the longest trajectory to running their own farm businesses and becoming managers and decision-makers in the farm enterprise. Many of them are interested in using managed grazing as a way to farm on their own when the opportunity arises.
We asked a few questions about the graduates’ current family, household situation and satisfaction. Overall, 45% of respondents were married, including about 40% of those farming. The same proportion had children, with a median of 2 children per household. On the whole, graduates from the program seem to be an optimistic group, with 84 percent of them being satisfied or very satisfied with their overall quality of life. We also asked graduates to rate the importance of and their satisfaction with ten specific life and job circumstances related to farming and family.
We used this information to look at both individual choices and household dynamics. One interesting finding was the rate of non-farm work by spouses. Somewhat surprisingly, more spouses worked a non-farm job in those families with children than with no children. In over half of families with children the spouse was contributing income from a non-farm job, compared with less than a quarter of spouses in families without children. While one might guess that caring for children would tend to keep a spouse at home, the need for health insurance came up repeatedly as a reason for at least one parent to work a non-farm job. In fact, satisfaction with health insurance coverage was rated “low” or “medium low” by thirty percent of farming graduates (see also Areas Needing Additional Study).
Other factors were of more importance to earlier graduates (generally older) than more recent graduates. For example graduates from 2001 and prior were more likely to place a high importance on their total current income than recent graduates (2002-2006). Conversely, earlier graduates and older graduates were less satisfied with having enough personal and family time than more recent and younger graduates, consistent with a life cycle of marrying and having children of one’s own.
A different category, satisfaction with control over job duties, found current farm owners more than twice as likely to have high satisfaction than non-farm owners. Given that managerial control often comes slowly until one is farming independently (usually as the farm owner in our culture), this feeling mirrors the strongly held desire on the part of most WSBDF students to have their own farm one day.
It is with this dream or goal on the part of young, and not so young, beginning farmers in Wisconsin and elsewhere that we continue to offer, expand and improve the WSBDF program year by year. The findings from this survey, and the further questions it prompts us to ask of future as well as former students will help us to keep our program fresh, relevant and highly useful to the next generation of dairy and livestock farmers.
That 88% of the graduates of the WSBDF program who responded to our survey are involved in dairy and livestock farming, over a third of whom own their own farms, has tremendous meaning and significance to the state of Wisconsin, and the future of agriculture, the environment and rural life. Milk, cattle and calves are the top commodities in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, 2003) and agriculture in the state accounts for $16.8 billion in income and $1.76 billion in local and state taxes that keep rural communities strong (UW-Extension, 2004).
While we cannot put a reliable number on the combined economic impact of the many different farming activities of our graduates, we know that by their direct production of milk, meat, fiber and crops, as well as their stewardship of the land and contribution to their communities through leadership, civic activity, family, schools and spending, they are making vital contributions. In addition, many of our graduates choose to share their experiences with others through area farming networks, by speaking to WSBDF classes and at other schools and conferences, and by participating in studies such as this one. We believe that as farm numbers continue to decline and food affordability, quality and access issues remain strong, the mission of the WSBDF to help and support beginning farmers is a key to the future well-being of all our citizens.
By the indicators discussed in the Results sections and the testimonials of our graduates in the farmer Interviews and class Presentations, the WSBDF has been successful assisting many beginning farmers to get started. In addition, we have generated interest around Wisconsin and in other states, for similar programming. Through distance education –webcast and conference call technology– the WSBDF seminar has grown to be offered at first two, then four and in 2008-09 at seven additional facilitated sites across Wisconsin. Educators in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Vermont and elsewhere are also interested in duplicating or becoming involved with the WSBDF or creating a similar beginning livestock farmer training program. Sharing what we do and how it has worked to other groups with similar constituents (prospective and beginning dairy and livestock farmers) is one of our objectives that we nurture and promote by presentations, internet communication, conferences, press releases and public relations events.
We have also partnered with other state agencies and organizations to raise the level of awareness about pasture-based farm management, beginning and transitioning farmer issues and the need for continued research and funding of farmer training, support and production programs. Working with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, the NRCS and state grazing specialists, the UW-Extension, the WI Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, the statewide GrassWorks organization of grazing farmers, the WI Department of Natural Resources, the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, the WI Cattlemen’s Association, Organic Valley Family of Farms and many other dedicated groups and individuals we have helped to increase the amount of private, state and university funding and support that is directed toward pasture-based and beginning farming in Wisconsin. The WSBDF Endowment fund has grown by over $100,000 during the past three years, the Wisconsin legislature contributed $400,000 to grazing research and education each year for the past two years, and the UW-Madison College of Agriculture and Life Sciences made the WSBDF Directorship a permanent funded position in 2008.
There are many challenges continuing to face Wisconsin farmers and those across the NCR as we continue through the next decades (see also Areas Needing Additional Study and Appendix 4. WSBDF Graduate Interviews & Seminar Presentations). From the high cost of energy and land to the pressures of development and feeding the non-farming urban and rural public, agriculture will keep changing. As awareness grows among our citizens that healthy food choices are inextricably linked to healthy, environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices, the information, training and support that the WSBDF and similar programs as they develop provides are critical pieces of our future and of the prosperity of future generations.
Economic and Farm Business Start-up Analysis
There is opportunity in animal agriculture for young people who want to farm, and who are willing to do the things required for getting started and staying in business. As director of the WSBDF, I have been able to follow the progress of many of our graduates, and sometimes offer a few cents of advice and counsel. In addition, my observations and experience have been recently informed by the completed SARE grant project’s survey and case study results.
Who succeeds both financially and in creating a life for both themselves and their family?
As with any business, starting in farming requires time and sometimes living without, and today’s American culture doesn’t emphasize such patience. Those who succeed are passionate about the journey as well as the imagined end point. They are entrepreneurs. They value community, build trust in their relationships, and integrity in their word. I’ve learned from these people that communication and business planning skills are paramount for success as a farmer today.
I’ve also learned that everyone doesn’t have to have “all” of the required skills — at least as long as they have the humility to recognize their shortcomings, and the wherewithal and good fortune to reach out and build strong partnerships with those possessing the needed skills.
I’ve also seen problems develop. For instance, many times young and not-so-young folks are hampered by a parent who isn’t willing to hand over the reins. Or by their own uncertainty about leaving the neighborhood to see the world. But there’s an old bit of cowboy wisdom that goes, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.” I always tell people to go forth and learn. Get exposure to the many different ways of solving the same problem. Make lots of mistakes before you spend your own money.
Aside from those broad concepts, what do you need to be successful in starting and maintaining a farming business? A number of specific recommendations to beginning (and other) farmers are included in the Farmer Adoption section. Those regarding the financial and business planning component of starting and maintaining a successful farm operation include:
Develop a business plan, and write it down. The old adage is true: most businesses don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. You must avoid the common (and unsuccessful) American business plan: “I have to have it all, and have it all now.” Rather, put left foot in front of right, and walk in a direction that sets you up for success, one step and one financial commitment at a time.
Spend the first year(s) putting together a sound group of livestock. Work for equity in cattle as a part of your paycheck. Put together a herd that you know well, is healthy, and is bred and raised in the manner that you want to farm.
Apply your (perhaps limited) financial resources to purchase “income-producing assets.” Read: livestock. Do not over invest in assets that rust, rot, and depreciate. Read: machinery and buildings. If you spend your money wisely at first, you’ll be able to afford the comforts that you’ll need more when you are older!
You don’t need to own land to build a farm business, but you have to control land. Purchasing land first is not likely to be the soundest option. Rather, set your business up so that you can control the land you farm, preferably with a longer-term lease, maybe a lease with an option to purchase at an agreed-upon price range. Develop a good relationship with your landlord and spend as much time developing this relationship as you do on any other farming business activity before you sign the lease. Since making mortgage payments on land can make a new business very difficult — often impossible — to cash flow, approach purchasing a farm only after you have a solid financial base.
Go on your own only when you are both mentally and financially able. Only in rare circumstances can a person start out in farming today by making a mortgage payment on purchased land, cropping/raising all of their own feed, managing and/or milking a herd, and shipping a commodity-priced product. For both dairy and non-dairy livestock, it is usually best to own the herd, lease land (minimum of three years) for managed grazing, lease a milking facility (for dairy), purchase feed, discover your best market, and keep a mentor close.
Economic policy and educational efforts
It is also important to realize that broader social and economic factors affect the success of beginning farmers, in addition to their individual efforts. As a society, what do we need to do to help more farmers get started successfully? The most common answer is better access to inexpensive capital, including loans at low interest rates with low equity requirements.
But, at least in agriculture, reasonable levels of capital for beginning farmers are often available through the USDA Farm Service Agency, a state housing/economic development agency, the Farm Credit Service system, and some private lending institutions. Indeed, too often in farming the more capital one has access to, the more capital gets spent, often unwisely. This is not how we want to help our beginning farmers. The greater need is for adapting some of the current entrepreneurial aid efforts to farm business start-ups, perhaps in combination with some new assistance efforts that don’t necessarily provide low-interest loan money.
For example, SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), developed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, offers the services of teams of mentors that can provide their experience to assist a new business start-up. Many states offer assistance programs. Such models hold much promise in serving the needs of beginning farm entrepreneurs, a service that historically was provided by the extended farm families and rural neighborhoods when so many more of our citizens were actively farming. (These traditional services are still being offered within many Amish communities.)
We also need improved options and opportunities for retiring farmers to assist new farmers without giving up their lifetime investments. These include tools such as tax incentives to lease the farm to a beginning farmer, capital gains exemptions when selling to a beginning farmer, and land contract payment guarantees (now a pilot program by USDA-FSA).
Two WSBDF graduate’s actual start-up dairy budgets
Table 1. Start-up dairy with 50-cow ownership in rented barn with purchased feed
Table 2. Start-up dairy with 38-cow ownership on 120-acre rented farm with managed grazing
We are submitting interview and presentation transcripts from the graduates whose stories and farms were the subject of our in-depth look at the dairy and livestock farm start-up process (see Appendix 4. WSBDF Graduate Interviews & Seminar Presentations). Seven students were interviewed in person and eight graduates gave presentations in our 2007-08 seminar class. The names of the interviewees have been changed and locations generalized to maintain confidentiality. Since the class presentations were recorded public events, these names have been retained. Excerpts from some of these fifteen graduates’ stories are included in this section and in Areas Needing Additional Study.
Tom (2000-01): “Going to that high school was a big decision for me and a very beneficial choice for me long term, I met a lot of good people and was able to realize that agriculture is a valid career choice; unlike it was looked at the big city school as kind of a joke. Nobody thought anybody really became farmers anymore.
I’d probably have to say the most beneficial thing by far was the experience of [my WSBDF internship in] New Zealand and everything that went with that. There’s been a lot of things I’ve learned there that I have used, and a lot of things I learned there that I surely would not want to use. There probably is not a day that goes by that I don’t think or reference something to New Zealand and those 2 months that I spent there.
Close behind the New Zealand experience was the network and the people I met [at WSBDF] and the contacts I still have today that are farming or actively farming. There are some people in that class that I talk to once a week; for sure a couple times a year.”
Kathy (2003-04): “I actually signed up for the School for Beginning Dairy Farmers class on a whim. I really knew that I wasn’t ready to start farming on my own, so at the time I was like, ‘Well, this will fill my credits.’ I really am glad that I did it because I went into it thinking ‘You know, this is not what I am ready for,’ and ‘this is too early,’ and ‘this class won’t apply to me,’ but life came at me a lot faster than I expected and it helped me out in so many ways.
I remember when I went to get my loan, looking up my paperwork from that class. I know my loan officer was impressed with me when I went in because he thought it was good. With the business plan, I will let you know that it helped a lot in the beginning; and I try and stay as close as I can to the numbers but sometimes it just doesn’t always work that way. But it is very good to sit down once a year and get it all done on paper and look at it all.
My advice to the students of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers is to be a sponge and absorb as much as you can before you start because there are so many ways to farm. I try and keep current by going to all conferences that I think are necessary or workshops and meetings. I’m keeping current because like I said there are so many ways to do farming nowadays, ideas and networking with other people just goes a long way to keep you on top of the game around here.”
Fred (2000-01): “I’ve always said it to a lot of people that the lifelong friends you make; you have so many people there that all have the same interests and the same drive. I guess what I’d like to say is the people I thought were my best friends in high school; once I graduated I have[n’t] talked to very few of them since. And once I went to Short Course, many of them have become my lifelong friends. There are many of them that I still talk to even on a monthly basis. That there in itself is priceless I guess you could say.
As far as satisfaction of what we are doing as far as family and farm life, like I said earlier … as far as the passion for it; that’s the satisfaction of itself for me. …words just can’t describe it for me. As far as family, with my one son here; as much as I can see it in him already just his passion for it, the way he runs around….he’s right on my footsteps all the time trying to do the things that I just did. It’s just awesome.”
George (2002-03): “At one point I think during one month of the summer I had 3 days off all that month because I had been relief milking for other farmers that much. That was a really good experience for me because I got to see a lot of different farms and how their operations worked. So that was an opportunity I would say that helped me make a decision on whether I wanted to go farming.
I quit my job and told them I was going to start milking cows and I tell you what I had a lot of people sit there and say, ‘You’re crazy, you’re never going to make it. You don’t have anyone to help you’ or ‘There is nobody there to help back you up,’ or ‘You have no equity.’ So those were definitely some obstacles that I faced.
I took my business plan from the WSBDF class and I took it to the FSA too. It was the exact copy and …I didn’t know that but that’s exactly what I did too.
I guess what I’d like to see retained is the grass-based part of it. I knew very little about it when I got there, and now after I’ve done it on my operation for going on three and a half years now, I wouldn’t do it any other way. I firmly believe that grass-based is a very competitive way to compete in the dairy industry and it should be considered very thoroughly before disregarding it as a niche market kind of operation; I mean it’s very competitive in any kind of dairying, I believe.”
Dan (1997-98): And in all honesty I was nervous going into an internship and not knowing these people and spending two months with them. And now, looking back, I wish I could have spent six months with them; it made me feel like ‘doggone it, it’s a real pain in the butt; I gotta spend these months with these people.’ But I learned so much …
Ten years later from when I left the class, I’m finally getting started. It could have happened sooner but I wasn’t willing to stick my neck out there. I was a little bit naive; wet between the ears. So I guess what I’m saying is, be willing to stick your neck out there and take a chance.
I thought about it in class, kinda went home and thought about it, and kinda forgot about it. And then as time goes on and you are doing it on your own, you go, ‘doggone it. Hey do you remember that in Dick Cates’ class when we talked to that extension agent?” And then, “what the heck- we got ten minutes, let’s run down and talk to the extension agent down here… and if I could go back and do it all over I would have done a four-year degree in managed grazing through the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers. Not only for the coursework, learning grasses and learning about cow management, but for the association with successful people. I feel that I learned a lot from the School, and I am very thankful for it.”
Who succeeds both financially and in creating a life for themselves and their family? From thirteen years of experience and observation of the students and graduate farmers of the WSBDF, and the collective farming wisdom of decades of mentor farmers and farmer speakers in the class, we make the following specific recommendations to beginning (and other) farmers:
1. Set goals. Figure out what you really want to accomplish in life, and how your farm business can help get you there. Then write your goals down, review them and maybe change them, and write them down again.
2. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. What parts of farming do you like and don’t like? Be honest with yourself. To cover what you don’t like to do or aren’t particularly good at, develop partnerships with others who have those skills. Identify your competitive or “unfair” advantage(s). These may be your particular talents, farm location, or market opportunities, and capitalize on these strengths.
3. Develop a business plan, and write it down. The old adage is true: most businesses don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. You must avoid the common (and unsuccessful) American business plan: “I have to have it all, and have it all now.” Rather, put left foot in front of right, and walk in a direction that sets you up for success, one step and one financial commitment at a time.
4. Surround yourself with a community of mentors and those who care about your survival and success. Treat this community of wonderful people as a precious resource, and vow that you will give back in the future to those who follow you.
5. Work to develop honest and fair relationships and partnerships for both business and family with those who have a similar set of goals, but bring different and complementary sets of skills. In any partnership arrangement, make sure all partners are headed in the same direction, and communicate, communicate, communicate. Always be gentle with the feelings and opinions of your loved ones. Without them by your side, little else matters.
6. Spend the first year(s) putting together a sound group of livestock. Work for equity in cattle as a part of your paycheck. Put together a herd that you know well, is healthy, and is bred and raised in the manner that you want to farm.
7. Apply your (perhaps limited) financial resources to purchase “income-producing assets.” Read: livestock. Do not over invest in assets that rust, rot, and depreciate. Read: machinery and buildings. If you spend your money wisely at first, you’ll be able to afford the comforts that you’ll need more when you are older!
8. You don’t need to own land to build a farm business, but you have to control land. Purchasing land first is not likely to be the soundest option. Rather, set your business up so that you can control the land you farm, preferably with a longer-term lease, maybe a lease with an option to purchase at an agreed-upon price range. Develop a good relationship with your landlord, be it a family member, neighbor or person new to your acquaintance. Spend as much time developing this relationship as you do on any other farming business activity before you sign the lease. We all want to own a piece of the planet, our own home and, as farmers, land. But being in the real estate business — making mortgage payments on land — is a very different business than producing income from livestock. A large mortgage can make a new business very difficult — often impossible — to cash flow.
9. Do on-farm internships under the guidance of experienced mentors, on several farms, for a few months each. Be willing to leave your neighborhood! Internships are the single most beneficial activity an aspiring farmer can engage in. If you’re from a farm, you’ll gain valuable insight about different ways to solve a familiar set of problems. If you’re not from a farm, you’ll come to understand the stamina, routine, and problem-solving ability required to farm, and you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and learn all aspects of the business.
10. Work for other farmers. Learn what you like and what you don’t like, what you’re good at and what you’re not. When you know the kind of farm and farmer you want to associate with, consider an apprenticeship working for a longer time period and with greater responsibilities. If you can, earn a portion of your pay in young stock, and raise these animals on or near the farm where you are working. In this manner you’ll earn equity as the livestock mature and grow in value, and you’ll have healthy animals whose temperament you know well.
11. Go on your own only when you are both mentally and financially able. Only in rare circumstances can a person start out in farming today by making a mortgage payment on purchased land, cropping/raising all of their own feed, managing and/or milking a herd, and shipping a commodity-priced product. For both dairy and non-dairy livestock, it is usually best to own the herd (raised or purchased), lease land (minimum of three years) for managed grazing, lease a milking facility (for dairy), purchase feed, discover your best market, and keep a mentor close. Partner with an established/retiring farmer (family or non-family). The established farmer often provides infrastructure, experience, and/or field work to raise feed, while the start-up farmer offers passion and labor in exchange for pay and an increasing equity share.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Educational and Outreach activities were and will continue to be extensive, including a full written summary of results, a research brief publication by UW-Madison CIAS (in progress), speaking engagements, educational displays and conference attendance, expansion of the WSBDF program to additional facilitated distance education sites (seven in 2008-09), a facilitator training manual informed by the results of this project as well as classroom experience, continued use of survey results in future partnership and fundraising efforts.
Publications, Outreach/Recruitment products (see Appendix 5 . Products):
-Pasture-based Dairy & Livestock Seminar (15 two-hour sessions) CD-Rom; in process of updating to use 2007-2008 Seminar)
-Updated WSBDF Program brochure and Ride to Farm brochure and application package materials
-Mail and/or distribute brochures at public events: WSBDF program (approx. 1000), WSBDF Endowment (approx. 400), and Ride to Farm (approx. 400) brochures
-Recruitment ads Stockman Grass Farmer and Graze publications
-Co-writer, state-wide press release (May, June, October) through UW CALS Ag & Life Sciences Press
-Numerous unsolicited articles state-wide and local press: Associated Press, WI State Journal, WI Agriculturalist; The Country Today, Agri-View, WI State Farmer
-WSBDF newsletter (October)
-WSBDF distance education brochures (October)
-WSBDF Endowment Initiative
-Information/solicitation brochure (autumn)
-Pork Niche Market Working Group, Ames (March)
-Family Dairies USA Board of Directors Meeting, Madison (April)
-Keynote, Earth Day celebration, Belmont (April)
-Growing Power, Milwaukee (May)
-WI State FFA Convention (June; Brad Sirianni)
-Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome (September)
-Environmental Conservation (Geography 339; September)
One student did on-farm grass-based meat sheep farm internship (May- August)
-UW Board of Regents, Madison (April)
-FFA WI State Convention, Madison (June)
-WAAE State Convention, Madison (July)
-WI Farm Technology Days (July)
-Kickapoo Country Fair, LaFarge (August)
-World Dairy Expo, Madison (October)
-WI Grazing Conference, Stevens Point (February)
-Professional Dairy Producers of WI (March)
Radio and television interviews
Successful proposals, informed and updated by the results of the graduates survey project, have secured the following major contributions to the WSBDF Endowment Fund to date (in addition to numerous smaller and individual donations, as well as the annual Ride to Farm fundraiser). Building the Endowment Fund is a priority of the School in order to secure the program in perpetuity and continue to train and support the next generation of dairy and livestock farmers.
American Transmission Company, Culver’s Restaurants, Farm Credit-Wisconsin, United FCS, Organic Valley Family of Farms, Town & Country Electric, We Energies, and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Areas needing additional study
Quotes from our graduates help to show what else needs to be done to support them.
1) Affordable and/or group health insurance for farmers:
K: “With insurance, that’s probably one of the scariest things about farming for me. I grew up on my Mom’s insurance policy…Once I finished Short Course, I got kicked off of that and I went to very basic insurance, ….It is a very high deductible with minimal insurance…we pretty much pay out of the pocket for all dental, eye, and health reasons.”
F: “As far as specific challenges we still face, health insurance is a big one. I don’t want to get into politics either but I wish our government could figure out some kind of low-cost insurance for us that are self-employed small businesses. I mean my wife would like to be home full-time but for us to have insurance for our children you almost have to work off the farm in order to be insured the way you should be.”
D: “Health insurance. I’m going to look for a part-time job with enough hours where I can qualify for a health insurance plan. Grazing will allow me to do this as I won’t be spending as much time doing field work and feeding.”
2) Further development and support of farmer career pathways beyond training:
M: “I feel as if there should be a sister program that takes the kids that say, ‘Yeah, we want to farm, but we don’t have a farm to go back to; we’re young, we have the drive and the stamina, but can you help us from here?’ How to get to the down and dirty and actually accomplish the start-up without family backing, or an overload of debt could be very helpful. There just needs to be more input on ‘all right, you gave us these ideas, now what can we do with them?’ Because when you hit the world with ideas it’s a pretty wicked place sometimes. Usually you get stopped at a banker that doesn’t understand agriculture or doesn’t want to risk.”
M: “I don’t know what could be done to get people to start back on smaller farms, but I think that this School has started that process by teaching direct marketing/value adding concepts that are smaller instead of mega and small profit margin; small and bigger profit margins. I don’t know what that entails, more legislators becoming aware of that and jumping on it, and what the state can do to help small farmers get started.”
3) Assistance with locating and preserving farms and successful farm transfer:
F: “When we first initially in 2002 bought the cows, the biggest obstacle that we had was finding a place that was suitable. I mean there are a lot of empty dairy barns in the country but to find one that is still workable or somewhat workable that you can work with to get going is the problem. You know how that is to find a retired couple who wants to move off the farm; I think that’s a big hurdle right now. Old people who just kinda hang on to the land and they rent it out to the grain farmers and here everything sits.”
G: “Trying to find someone to rent. I must have gone to 20-25 different farmers and they all said, ‘Nope-not interested in renting, we have no ambition whatsoever to rent out to another young person looking to start.’ We had a lot of no’s before we finally got a yes. I think if I’da had maybe 2 more no’s I’da maybe quit looking. I mean I’da probably given up hope thinking, ‘This isn’t going to happen; it’s just not for me.’”
R: “Yes, I feel there is a lot of infrastructure. The only thing that worries me is when I get older, are the cities going to slowly squeeze us out? They are moving towards the lake from all directions. I wonder down the road, 20 years from now, am I just going to have to sell my land?”
T: “It’s currently a 3-way partnership between my father and my two uncles. They and their spouses own the farm. It’s a big question and a big challenge for the next generation how to start buying in or how to become owner/operator versus a family member/employee.”