The South Dakota Beginning Farmer Training and Linking project graduated eleven aspiring/beginning farmers from a ten-month classroom and field based program in 2009/2010. Five developed formal mentoring relationships. Three began, expanded, or modified their operations, and three others changed the plans they had for their operations. Participants joined a new SD Farmer Network now including forty-one producers. Dakota Rural Action has built upon this project to tailor and expand the Farm Beginnings curriculum to meet the needs of South Dakota beginning farmers and ranchers.
The South Dakota Beginning Farmer Training and Linking project is building an educational network for beginning farmers in South Dakota that (1) links them with existing sustainable farmers as mentors, (2) trains them in goal setting and values clarification, whole farm planning, financial planning, time & money, record keeping, sustainable farming methods, marketing, business planning, and connecting to resources, and (3) helps them find the land, equipment, and other resources they need to start farming. DRA is using evaluations and feedback of this project to refine the Farm Beginnings platform, developed by the Land Stewardship Project, to meet the unique needs of beginning farmers and ranchers in South Dakota. South Dakota’s sparse population, land tenure, and relatively low numbers of existing sustainable farmers and local foods marketing outlets present unique challenges. This project will meet the need for a sustainable, practical beginning farmer training program in South Dakota.
- 1. Beginning/aspiring farm families gain knowledge and skills (short term) and begin, modify, or expand a farming/ranching business (intermediate term)
2. Beginning/aspiring farm families meet potential mentors (short term) and form mentoring relationships with experienced farmers/ranchers (intermediate term)
3. Beginning/aspiring farm families gain a larger network leading to opportunities for land, equipment, and experience transfer (short term) and are able to tap into opportunities (intermediate term
4. Dakota Rural Action gain knowledge to tailor Farm Beginnings program to South Dakota (short term), make modifications and plan additional courses (intermediate term)
Farm Beginnings Course: The first course launched in October 2009 with 13 families beginning the course. Ten sessions were offered over the course of the winter, with classes ranging from six to four hours a session, for a total of 36 hours of classroom instruction. We had 28 presenters offer instruction during the course, with 22 of those identifying primarily as farmers, and the rest coming from agricultural or business-related backgrounds. Farmers led all of the first eight sessions and agricultural or business professionals offered insights during the last two “Connecting with Resources” classes.
From March – September 2010, DRA offered the Farm Tour and Skills Sessions component of the course. The farm tours were developed based on results of a survey that gauged the participants’ interest in different types of farm enterprises. DRA offered a total of five farm tours, though one had to be cancelled because of low turn-out and one was poorly attended. For the remaining three we had good turn-out (between 6-12 participants). Most students attended at least one farm tour.
Mentoring: During the spring and summer months, participants also had the opportunity to pursue mentorships or apprenticeships with established farmers. DRA surveyed Farm Beginnings participants on their interests and needs in gaining practical farm skills and experience by working with a mentor. For those who expressed a direct interest in gaining hands-on experience the course Organizer worked with members of the Farmer Network to match participants to farmers.
SD Farmer Network: DRA actively worked to create a way for beginning and established farmers to connect with one another beyond the course. To accomplish this we formed the DRA Farmer Network, a resource book that lists the contact information for established farmers who are interested in networking with and mentoring beginning farmers. The book offers descriptions of each farm’s operations as well as information about types of opportunities available at the farm (internships, farm tours, land linking, special work projects, and more). Also included is the contact information and interests for each of the Farm Beginnings students. We provided this book to every farmer and student listed in the Network. In addition, we created an email list serve as a way for Network participants to share farm-related opportunities and information.
Tailoring Farm Beginnings to South Dakota and expanding the program: DRA’s Leadership Committee and project staff undertook evaluation of all stages of this project, reviewing and modifying each course module, surveying project participants on each class session and farm tour, and meeting with all participants during the course. In addition, DRA worked with a French agriculture student under the supervision of faculty at South Dakota State University to conduct interviews with course participants to determine impacts and course strengths and weaknesses. DRA also continued its collaboration with the Land Stewardship Project and the newly formed Farm Beginnings Collaborative to compare experiences and share ideas for modifying and expand the program.
Farm Beginnings: Eleven families graduated from the 2009-2010 South Dakota Beginning Farmer Training and Linking Program in August 2010. They received 36 hours of classroom instruction on holistic decision making, developing long and short term plans, financial planning, marketing, building a business plan, sustainable farming methods, and connecting to resources. Almost all of the students also participated in at least one Farm Tour and Skills Sessions offered during the spring/summer/fall of 2010.
Mentorships: Five participating families pursued formal mentorship experiences or were employed by established farmers during the course. The SD Farmer Network also facilitated informal mentorship for the rest of the participants by providing the opportunity for students to contact established farmers informally to ask advice, seek guidance, or troubleshoot farm-related issues.
SD Farmer Network: Forty-one farmers and students are currently participating in the Network (counting this year’s students). Farm employment, internships, and farm animals have been found via the network, thus far.
Tailoring/Expanding the program: Based on feedback, we have upped our course hours to 44 this year to accommodate more time in class for homework and networking. We have a similar number of presenters scheduled and will offer a similar curriculum, with the addition of more rigorous homework. Many of our presenters from year 1 plan to return to teach classes again this year. In addition, one of the participants from the 2009 has joined the Leadership Team to further tailor and expand the program in future years. By the end of the year we plan to have a thorough “train the trainer” course manual that details all logistics related to launching and running the Farm Beginnings class.
Follow up interviews with participants found particular increased knowledge and skills in the areas of financial and holistic planning (enterprise budgets in particular), monitoring, accounting, and development of a business plan. Farm tours increased knowledge of farm management opportunities and increased participants networks and connections with experienced farmers. Participants said they gained new goals, new marketing possibilities, and ideas for potential changes to their operations that they had not considered before. (Rapport, 2010) As a result of taking the program, three families reported modifications or expansion of their operations, including one couple that decided to strategically build their farm business by starting with a chicken operation. The couple hopes eventually to start a cow-calf operation and also get into crops, and within five years hopes to see one member working full time on the farm. Three additional families reported changing their existing or future farm plans, in ways which will be implemented beyond the scope of this grant time period.
Demand led DRA to launch a second Farm Beginnings course in the fall of 2010, which has ten participating families enrolled. DRA has secured funding to partially pay for the 2010 course, as well as expansion of the program in 2011. Our plan is offer the course in 2011 in Sioux Falls. We hope to expand the program in 2011 by offering a mini “Farm Dreams” class that provides participants an introduction to the Whole Farm Planning process. Within the next few years we plan to expand the course to the western side of the state. We will start by offering the “Farm Dreams” sessions and then move to hosting a full course West River.
Participants in the course had to make an investment financially, both in terms of the course tuition and in terms of a time commitment to 10 Saturdays over the course of 6 months and additional days for farm tours. The Leadership Team for the project raised almost $4,700 in funds to provide scholarships for up to half of the cost of tuition for participants who requested assistance. The investment was an important component of the participants taking the course seriously and getting everything out of it they could. Feedback from participants indicates that they felt the financial investment was worth the value of what they gained from this project. One participant said, “the class is an investment and paying for the tuition was difficult for us financially, but it was worth every penny.” SARE funds were instrumental in keeping course fees affordable for participants.
This project directly impacted eleven families participating in the Farm Beginnings course, and also impacted the 41 farmers participating in the SD Farm Network. As described above, at least six families have already adopted new farming practices as a result of this project, or are in the planning stages of adopting new farming practices.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Dakota Rural Action’s outreach included booths at regional sustainable agriculture conferences, local farm shows, and local environmental events. Press pieces recruiting Beginning Farmer participants to the program were picked up by daily and weekly newspapers in the area, and DRA also gave three interviews with Mick Kjar on Farm Talk Radio from Valley News Live, one of which was arranged in collaboration with NSAC’s Farm and Ag Resources for Media program.
Areas needing additional study
As Dakota Rural Action expands this project to western South Dakota, one area needing additional study is how the existing curriculum and format will meet the needs of beginning range-based livestock producers, and farmers/ranchers in a more semi-arid environment with lower population densities.