The Beginning Farmer Sustainable Agriculture Project seeks to create a more sustainable future for agriculture by enhancing opportunities for beginning farmers to start farming using sustainable farming methods. Sustainable agriculture and beginning farmers are a natural fit. Beginning farmers are generally more open to sustainable farming than established farmers who have already made emotional, intellectual and financial commitments to conventional methods. The sustainable agricultural strategy of substituting hands-on management and skilled labor for capital and other purchased inputs offers opportunities for beginning farmers, who lack finances but have time and management ability, to build the equity needed to get started farming. This project is a cooperative effort between beginning farm families, local community leadership, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Center for Holistic Resource Management, the University of Nebraska Agricultural Economics Department and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.
The project has organized beginning farm families into mutual-help networks in eastern Nebraska. A special advisory committee of beginning farm families has helped shape and guide the project. The project has supported and cooperated with beginning farm families as they practiced holistic farm management and applied sustainable agricultural practices in whole-farm strategies to get started farming. Specific support network activities included group meetings, short courses, informational workshops, construction workshops, farm tours, on-farm research and on-farm consultation with farm families. The project has gathered information for descriptive case studies of participating farm families who agreed to keep whole-farm records including finances, energy and chemical use, and other environmental measures.
1. Provide educational support to mutual-help groups of beginning farmers.
2. Collect and analyze data from cooperating farm families on their start-up strategies.
3. Publish whole-farm case studies of farm-entry strategies for cooperating farm families and publish decision case studies of critical decisions in the farm entry process.
4. Disseminate the process and results of this project.
Objective 1. Provide educational support to mutual-help groups of beginning farmers.
Six local mutual-help groups of beginning farmers/farm families were organized in 1991 and 1992 and were known collectively as the Beginning Farmer Support Network. These groups organized their own meetings and met monthly to discuss holistic farm management, low-cost strategies to begin farming, alternative crops and practices, and enterprise options. The groups requested numerous workshops and tours on sustainable agriculture topics and practices, which were attended by additional farmers from outside the groups. Farmers, some from within the groups, were featured as speakers or demonstrators for many of these activities.
Four of the groups ceased meeting after a year, due to lack of effective meeting skills within the group and due to lack of common goals and experiences to bind members together. The two longer-lived groups had cores of people who had attended a lengthy course together and had common interests and familiarity with each other. Additional group formation in three communities was attempted in 1994 based on this experience. These efforts included training sessions in goal-setting and financial planning, and workshops and farm tours on tillage options, grazing, and CRP land. These additional groups did not continue meeting after the initial series of activities.
More success was apparent when staff provided support to young farmers who started their own groups. One farmer started his own group of neighbors with similar interests. Another joined with neighbors who decided to meet locally instead of continuing to travel for meetings with an established group. Two others in one of the “second-round” communities gathered group members together themselves some months after attending BFSN-sponsored workshops. These groups have met without staff prompting and have been particularly active in addressing topics of pressing interest to the members.
The project has sponsored many workshops, courses, and farm tours that were requested by BFSN members and other area farmers. Many of the Support Network farmers attended these activities, which included in 1994-95 a marketing alternative livestock workshop, a low-input crop and livestock production conference, tours of controlled grazing demonstrations, travel to an organic grain marketing meeting, and a fruit and nut tree grafting workshop.
Project staff have served as resource people to individual beginning farmers/farm couples in the Support Network. This support has included projects such as advising on the purchase the first dairy stock for the Doug Dittman and Dan McGuire farms, advising on used farm equipment selection and purchase on the Steve and ViVi Freudenberg and Hoss and Shelly Hammond farms, discussing grazing treatment options on the Pat Steffen, Dan McGuire, and Mason Brothers farms, helping with computer familiarization on the Dave and Deb Kube and Dan McGuire farms, and advising on pastured poultry and sheep management on the Dan McGuire and Clem and Laurie Wagner farms. This alternative information is often not available through conventional information channels. Without support from project staff and local beginning farmer support groups, many of these beginning farmers/farm couples would not have received the basic advice and encouragement needed to implement more sustainable farm practices.
The project published quarterly Beginning Farmer newsletters and interim monthly Beginning Farmer updates. The newsletters contain articles on sustainable agriculture practices, alternative crops and marketing, state and federal issues affecting beginning farmers, human resources, and farm family features. The updates contain one-paragraph news stories, notices, and updates on cooperating farm families. Circulation stands at over 300 in 30 states.
Objective 2. Collect and analyze data from cooperating farm families on their start-up strategies.
The project has held two meetings of its Design/Evaluation Advisory committee, in late 1991 and summer 1993. This committee has helped develop a research plan to evaluate the progress of case study farm families in developing economically viable and environmentally sustainable farms. This research plan draws upon the latest thinking of those involved in “whole farm” research including financial, ecological and social aspects of the farm. Twelve beginning farmers/farm families volunteered to serve as case study farm families and agreed to work with us in collecting comprehensive information from their farms.
The twelve families have completed three years of record keeping, interviews and measurements of farm finances, social values, and farm practices. A summary of the first year’s information was presented to the Design/Evaluation Committee in 1993 for their review and was published in an Interim Report in early 1994 (attached).
Financial evaluation has been led by Dr. Tim Powell, Extension Agricultural Economist at the University of Nebraska Northeast Research and Extension Center. As a group, these farmers were succeeding at becoming established farmers. Owner equity increased an average of 16% for the study group in 1992. The debt-to-asset ratio (comparing total debts to total assets) was 0.35 in 1992, which was identical to a group of established farmers in northeast Nebraska, while the six least indebted farmers of the study group had a ratio of 0.11. Farm income provided only one-third of total income for the study families, and nearly all held at least one off-farm job to make ends meet. In contrast, non-farm income for established farmers in the area provided only one-third of family income. This demonstrates the need for diverse local economies to provide these off-farm jobs that allow beginning farmers to start farming. Difficulty in collecting accurate data has delayed analysis of 1994 data and summary information.
The study group held strong beliefs on stewardship of their land. They wanted to leave the land better than they found it and to be able to pass it on to their children. They reported goals such as “improving the productivity of the land”, having “a simple, sustainable lifestyle”, and “leading a peaceful family life in a clean and healthy environment”. An “exit survey” of attitudes, needs and advice was distributed in 1995, but responses have not yet been analyzed.
Objective 3. Publish whole-farm case studies of farm-entry strategies for cooperating farm families and publish decision case studies of critical decisions in the farm entry process.
We published an interim report on the project design, process and preliminary results in 1994 (see Objective 4, below), which included results of the first year’s data and interviews and short descriptions of the cooperating farm families and their farms.
Complete whole-farm case studies and decision case studies are in preparation and will be published in early 1996. Publication had been planned for fall, 1995, but difficulty in collecting and correcting financial information delayed analysis and summary of the case studies. The project budget summary reflects additional staff time spent in collecting and verifying information while printing and distribution expenses were reduced.
Objective 4. Disseminate the process and results of this project.
Project staff have used a number of media to disseminate the project design and preliminary results. These have included conference presentations, publications, an interim report, a newsletter, farmer presentations, and special farm tours. Specific events are described below:
1. “Udder $ense – Low-Cost/Sustainable Strategies of Resourceful Dairy Farmers” (July 1995, attached). This publication by Larry Krcil and Shawn Gralla, previous BFSAP staff, details low-cost methods of entering dairying and producing milk. It profiles several dairy farmers, specific farming practices and their whole-farm systems for sustainable dairy production. Thirty complimentary copies were distributed to key individuals in the North Central SARE Region and to national publications for review.
2. “Beginning Farmer Sustainable Agriculture Project Interim Report (February 1994)”. Results of this project’s first year results of interviews and records from twelve beginning farm families were presented alongside the project design and implementation techniques. Over 100 complimentary copies were distributed to sustainable agriculture organizations, agriculture libraries, and key individuals nationwide. Over 350 additional copies have been requested by mail.
3. “Fit for a Pig – Low-cost Sustainable Strategies of Resourceful Hog Farmers”. This publication focuses on low-cost hog production strategies suitable for beginning farmers. Forty complimentary copies were distributed to key individuals in the North Central LISA Region and to national publications for review. Nearly 850 copies have been requested by mail since the publication’s release in 1991, including 50 following its citation in a 1994 article in a national publication on pasture hog production.
4. Videotapes of workshops. The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society widely distributes videotapes of beginning farmer/sustainable agriculture workshops recorded under this project.
5. Special Farm tours. During the past year we have hosted or arranged tours for farmers from Lithuania, the director of a beginning farmer training center in California, high school FFA classes, and a national grazing consultant.
6. Newsletters. Our work gets routine publicity through the monthly Center for Rural Affairs Newsletter to subscribers nationwide. We have published 15 quarterly issues of a special project newsletter, entitled “The Beginning Farmer” to serve the Beginning Farmer Support Network and others interested in our beginning farmer work. In 1993 we expanded this publication to include the monthly “Beginning Farmer News and Notes”, which contained one-paragraph news stories, notices, and updates on cooperating farm families. Circulation stands at over 300 in 30 states.
7. Conferences. Descriptions of the project design and purpose have been presented at various meetings, including church and civic groups and the annual meeting of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS). Preliminary findings were presented at the Small Farmers Gathering near Carthage, MO by staff member Martin Kleinschmit in October, 1993. Cooperating farmers have talked at several conferences about their farms and their involvement with the project at the NSAS annual meeting (1993) and at the Small Farmers Gathering in Carthage, MO. Martin and Project Leader Wyatt Fraas hosted panels at the first national conference for beginning and retiring farmers, “Farmers for the Next Century” in Omaha in March, 1994, and included remarks about this project. Martin was an invited speaker on beginning farmers at the “Conservation Reserve Program and the Future of Rural Communities” conference sponsored by the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement in December, 1994 at Creston, IA. A cooperating project farmer also spoke at that conference. Wyatt presented a poster on the project design and results at the May, 1995 symposium “Planning for a Sustainable Future: The Case of the North American Great Plains”, sponsored by NOAA in Lincoln, NE. He also presented a paper on project results at the North American Association for Farming Research-Extension conference in Ames, IA in November, 1995 (abstract attached, to be published in proceedings).
Expected benefits fall into two categories: increased use of sustainable farming practices and increased success of beginning farmers in becoming established. Use of sustainable farming practices will improve rural economies, reduce use of nonrenewable resources, and reduce water and air pollution, effected by this project’s emphasis on teaching young farmers about sustainable farming practices. The improved success of beginning farmers will accrue from improved policies and services to benefit young farmers, encouragement of potential farmers to begin farming through methods with proven success, and education of existing young farmers in methods that improve their management abilities, including group support and problem-solving.
The benefits arising directly from this project are largely not quantifiable. Lessons learned from monitoring the case study families have already been disseminated to hundreds of young farmers through the project newsletter and interim report, and to several dozen beginning farmers who contacted the project staff directly. Measuring increases in productivity, efficiency or effectiveness from these lessons is beyond the scope of this project.
Based on the interest in and reception of Holistic Resource Management by the young farmers in this study (see section 5 A), we believe it offers an alternative paradigm for farm management and deserves greater attention by the agricultural community. There is no system or model that is going to make agriculture sustainable, except one that allows each farm family to approach sustainability for its own goals and resources. Application of Holistic Resource Management by some of the project cooperators has allowed them to address economic, environmental, and social sustainability in the context of their own farms.
Leadership development is a benefit of involving farmers in the education process. Both beginning and established farmers in the support network have spoken at conferences, led tours, and hosted meetings where they have presented their goals, methods, and reasoning to politicians, specialists and other farmers. This development of community leadership abilities builds upon the Center for Rural Affairs’ experiences with farmer-led education in previous projects beginning in 1976.
Another alternative paradigm that we would like to offer is the essential role that social aspects play in a sustainable agriculture. Many approach sustainable agriculture from only economic and environmental perspectives. However, people, land and community are an inseparable whole. Those of us working for a sustainable agriculture, while claiming to think holistically, often forget to see this whole. We’ve notice that those denying the importance of social aspects of a sustainable agriculture often live in cities. We hope to impress the importance of social concerns, and particularly beginning farmer concerns, to those working toward a more sustainable agriculture.
Three years of financial information have been collected from the cooperating case study farm families, and only one year has been fully analyzed. Due to the diversity within the study group, few comparisons can be made. However, a few group averages from the first year are worthy of consideration.
As a group, these farmers were succeeding at becoming established farmers. Owner equity increased an average of 16% for the study group in 1992. The debt-to-asset ratio (comparing total debts to total assets) was 0.35 in 1992, which was identical to a group of established farmers in northeast Nebraska, while the six least indebted farmers of the study group had a ratio of 0.11.
Farm income provided only one-third of total income for the study families, and nearly all held at least one off-farm job to make ends meet. In contrast, non-farm income for established farmers in the area provided only one-third of family income. This demonstrates the need for diverse local economies to provide these off-farm jobs that allow beginning farmers to start farming.
Short descriptions of the cooperating case study families are presented below, showing the variation in each family’s situation, approach and resources. Whole-farm and decision case studies are in preparation and will be published in early 1996.
Bill and Deb Burkhardt. Bill and Deb have one son, age 5. They live four miles from a town of 617. Bill ranches full-time while Deb works part-time in town. Bill is the fourth generation on this farm but Deb is from a ranch 250 miles west. Their goals include living sustainably while remaining financially solvent. They are now managing 810 acres (400 owned), with 210 under corn, oats and hay and 600 acres in native pasture. Bill took over some of his father’s land when ill health forced him into retirement, and has built his cattle herd to 100 head in the last ten years by retaining most of each year’s heifer calves. Deb’s income covers living expenses, so they have kept debt to near zero while the farm paid for its own expansion.
George and Sheryl Burkhardt. George and Sheryl were married in August 1993, two years into this project. They have two children, ages 12 and 10. Both George and Sheryl work full time off-farm, although George’s work schedule is flexible. Their 160 acre farm is four miles from a town of 82. George began by working part-time off-farm after college, buying cattle and sheep, and running them on his father’s farm. In 1994 he bought his farm from his great-aunt while working full-time, farming, and renovating the buildings. He has shared labor and equipment with his brothers, who live nearby. His goal is to farm sustainably and to build a largely self-sufficient farm.
Dan McGuire and Gayle Catinella. Dan and Gayle have five children under age 7. Dan grew up on this farm while Gayle is from suburban Chicago. Gayle works part time in a nearby town (population 5200, 16 miles away) and has begun teaching courses at the college there. Dan manages the market garden, livestock, and household. They are renting this farmstead from Dan’s mother while most of the farm is rented to neighboring farmers. Dan and Gayle hope to build a community-supported farm producing livestock, poultry, and garden produce. Off-farm work has so far subsidized their efforts to produce organic vegetable seeds, herbs, and direct-market poultry.
Doug Dittman. Doug grew up in Lincoln (pop. 170,000) but has bought 80 acres of his family’s farm three miles from a town of 179. The farm had been rented to neighbors for row crop and grain production, but Doug began to convert the farm to hay and pasture and manage it himself in 1994. He has worked for a state agency in the summer and sold firewood from the farm woodlot in the winter. Doug is building a house and barn on the farm because the original buildings were razed by a previous owner. He has financed the buildings, equipment and land with family loans, off-farm work and trading help with his neighbors.
Steve and ViVi Freudenberg. Steve and ViVi have three children, ages 10, 7 and 1. They live seven miles from a town of 1,950. Steve was born on the farm but grew up in a nearby town (pop. 20,000). ViVi also grew up there. Both have family in the area. Steve works full-time at a manufacturer (15 miles away) while ViVi manages the farm animals during the day. They own 80 acres of crop and hay ground and have 15 sows (farrow-to-finish). Their goals include being able to make their living from the farm. Steve has hired much of the crop work done due to his time constraints and lack of machinery. As the farm generates income, however, he is buying his own equipment and is expanding the livestock operation.
Shelly and Hoss Hammond. Hoss and Shelly have three children, ages 3, 1 and one month. Hoss grew up on this farm and is renting it from his mother. Shelly is from a nearby community. They now have a dairy herd of 50 cows and 25 heifers and manage 320 acres of crop and pasture land. Both Hoss and Shelly work on the farm now, but Hoss paid for much of his equipment (used) 5 years ago with an off-farm job. They hope to build the herd to 100 cows and be able to buy the farm. They have worked closely with friends, relatives, and neighbors to borrow and purchase equipment and to share labor.
Marty and Mindy Hitchcock. Marty and Mindy have two children, ages 2 and 4. Marty grew up on a midwestern farm while Mindy grew up in a small town. They began raising hogs part time on their rented farmstead in eastern Nebraska while looking for a farm to rent or buy. In early 1992 they moved onto an organic grain farm as managers, arranged through the CRA Land Link program. Marty farmed 800 acres of crop ground while renting building space on the farm for his sow herd. In late 1992, Marty and Mindy sold their sows and moved to town to finish Marty’s college degree. Marty is now part-owner of a small business and they have no plans to return to farming.
Dave and Deb Kube. Dave and Deb have three daughters, ages 6, 5 and 2. They recently purchased a farmstead six miles from a town of 950. They are both from farms in the area. They have built their sow herd over the past ten years while living on their parents’ farms and on rented acreages. Dave, a self-employed carpenter, built portable hog buildings that have moved with them and is now building his own barns. Deb has run a licensed day-care business out of their home. They plan to rent, then buy the surrounding cropland. They have shared equipment and labor with their relatives and neighbors.
Kevin and Sophie Ryan. They have one daughter, age 3. Kevin grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Council Bluffs, IA (population 54,000), while Sophie is from a suburb of Paris, France. They both work part-time and have invested in residential properties. They are renovating and selling these to pay for the 160 acre farm, which they bought in 1992. They are renting out the crop ground on shares and are cutting timber from the farm with which to build their own cordwood house. Their written goals include being financially self-supporting on the farm (primarily with livestock), building a diverse income and landscape, and having a peaceful family life.
Pat and Julie Steffen. Pat and Julie have three children, ages 5, 3 and 1, and one on the way. Their farm, where Pat’s great-grandmother was born, is 4 miles from a town of 150. Pat grew up on this farm and Julie on a farm 25 miles south. Pat’s father lost this farm during the mid-80’s farm crisis, but relatives bought it and are selling and renting portions of it to Pat and Julie. Pat has converted all the crop ground to hayland and pasture and he plans to graze the entire 400 acres. Cattle are owned in a three-way partnership with relatives while Pat and Julie own 40 sows. Julie works part time; her income supports the family while Pat builds the farm, which now supports itself after 4 years. Their goals include improving the land, owning the farm, and being able to enjoy farming with their children.
Scott Urwiler. Scott’s farm is five miles from a town of 1030. He grew up 40 miles south but is renting this farm, formerly his grandfather’s, from his father. Scott has a herd of 25 cows and 15 ewes and manages 230 acres of crop and pasture land. Scott has built his farm through 4-H livestock projects, buying good used machinery, hard work, and help from his family. He recently took a full time job at a local elevator to increase his income. Scott has no immediate plans to purchase land; he wants to be sure he can manage well enough before committing to land payments. He is trying to manage his farm to improve its use and production.
Clem and Laurie Wagner. Laurie and Clem have two children, ages 12 and 9. Their farm is 2 miles from a town of 1500. Both Clem and Laurie grew up on farms in the county and have family within 35 miles. Their goals include improving the land, giving their kids a choice to farm eventually, and keeping their operation as natural as possible. They are living on a rented farm, but are planning to buy their own farm. Clem works part-time for a neighbor while Laurie works part-time in a town 13 miles away (pop. 1300). Their current operation consists of 30 head of beef cattle, 30 sows (pigs sold as feeders), and crops grown for livestock feed. They manage over 450 acres of crop, hay, and pasture land on their rented farm and parts of two farms owned by Clem’s family. Their strategy is to keep capital purchases small, to build the livestock from within and to use livestock as an investment and savings account.
Changes in Practice
Of the numerous sustainable agriculture topics presented in 1992-1994, activities dealing with whole-farm planning and goal-setting were most enthusiastically received by beginning farmers in this project. They attended a series of workshops and multi-day courses that emphasized the importance of individual farm resources and each family’s goals in achieving success on each farm. These were based on the Holistic Resource Management model developed by the Center for Holistic Resource Management of Albuquerque, NM, and several follow-up courses were demanded by participants following an introductory course in November, 1991. Some of the participants have made such changes as identifying and writing family goals, reducing their total acres farmed to allow more intensive management on the remaining farm, diversifying the farm enterprise mix, reducing purchased supplies, planning for and identifying farmland for purchase, and increasing profitability of the farm.
Project participants adopted ideas and practices that fit their current resources or needs. Low-input livestock production, planning techniques, and low-input alternative crops and marketing were ideas that farmers tried during the project period. Many other topics requested by the cooperating families were featured in workshops, lectures and tours, but were of less immediate utility. We have found that this disparity is in part due to the resources available and farmers’ varying abilities to implement alternative techniques. For example, the techniques presented in the workshops might require planning for additional investment, specialized equipment, extra time, or a perceived need that the present practice is inadequate. “Alternative” crops or methods may also entail additional risk, since they have not been proven by these farmers on their land. And not all practices will fit all farms. Thus it may take several exposures to alternative agriculture ideas or several years of experience before new practices are applied.
This time lag between exposure and application of new ideas makes frequent and effective idea exposure more important. The cooperating farmers often read short, clear articles in newsletters and newspapers. Farmer-to-farmer discussions were effective in spreading ideas. Many of the cooperators asked to visit other farmers who were actually using such practices so they could see the practice in place and ask questions of specific details. One-on-one discussions with a friend or mentor over coffee or over the fence were also preferred methods of learning about new techniques. Some of the families took home-study courses, which allowed both partners to participate and fit the work into their busy schedules. We also believe that the process of encouraging farmers to choose their own educational topics and format improved their reception of these new ideas.
The Support Network workshops emphasized farmers as presenters. This approach seemed to convey more credibility than scientist- or educator-presented activities. This method also instilled some confidence in beginning farmers that their ideas or practices, while unusual locally, were in fact accepted practices. One young farmer, following BFSN encouragement for his grazing techniques, convinced an established neighbor to try the same practices to reduce pesticide application and improve animal performance.
This project is evaluating several areas of agriculture, and recommendations are being developed for agricultural service providers, advisors, and policymakers, as well as for beginning farmers.
Our experiences and discussions with twelve beginning farm families reveal that beginning farmers have special needs both in getting their businesses started and in running their businesses. These young families have limited financial resources. They have little borrowing power due to their low net worth and their lack of experience as farm managers and operators. Mechanisms to hasten loan approval, supplement beginning farmers’ cash down payments, and trade up-front acquisition costs for longer-term financing would help these beginners compete with their better-established neighbors.
All of the families in this project relied on off-farm employment to provide either seed money to start the farm or to cover living expenses that the small farm business couldn’t yet support. If the local communities were not able to provide these jobs, these farmers would not have been able to start farming. It would therefore appear that rural communities with diverse economies are essential to foster a new generation of farmers. Programs and policies that foster businesses and job creation in small towns would help start the next generation of farmers that would also keep the towns thriving.
Beginning farmers’ time is very limited, since they are often working at town jobs to provide for their families while also working after-hours to establish a new farm. They need access to professional, educational and extension services at non-standard times and in non-standard ways. Evening and weekend classes, home-study courses and home visits would meet some of their needs. Professionals, extension specialists, and agencies could provide evening and weekend availability, coordinated offices (such as USDA service centers with CFSA, RECD, and NRCS in the same building, not in separate towns), procedures to reduce office visits, and personal farm visits to more effectively answer beginners’ needs. Community support services such as legal aid or counselling are also hard to find after business hours.
Beginning farmers also have unique information needs. They are unable to afford state-of-the-art technology that requires high capital investments. Their financial limitations necessitate information geared toward lowest-cost and least-input methods of farming. They don’t need to know about specialized equipment as much as how to use existing equipment in an alternative manner. They don’t need to know maximum yield or maximum gain techniques for crops or livestock; they want to achieve maximum profit with their resources: e.g. “how to get the quickest gain on pigs with the crops from this farm in the buildings already in place”.
They also need information for farmers with limited practical experience. They need to know basic facts: how to dry high-moisture corn in a wet year; how to read a market sheet for per-pound or yield-grade marketing; how to project and analyze a proposed enterprise; how to adjust equipment for differing soil and crop conditions. They also need to be able to make decisions using this information in the context of their diversified, integrated farms. Extension Service publications could both address farm-entry level topics and go beyond single expert-authored articles (that consider practices in isolation of other farm practices or resources).
Project cooperators offered recommendations to other beginning farmers, such as using off-farm income to support the family while the farm becomes diverse and stable enough to support the family; keeping debt minimal, especially for machinery and facilities; finding a mentor to help with advice and to loan equipment; finding a group of like-minded farmers to share ideas, problems, and frustrations; finding a group of people to socialize with; integrating and diversifying the farm enterprises, with livestock at the core; involving the whole family in goal-setting; continuing education through all means available.
Cooperating farmers in this project felt that the group process they were participating in was valuable to their planning and decision making:
“The support group is doing a heck of a lot to help us. The year that we got involved we ended up buying the farm, and the group really helped us to say ‘Okay, it is doable, we can do it’.”
“It is really educational to meet with other people. If we have a question, we ask, and there’s an answer somewhere in the group.”
“I like being a part of the support network–it’s so valuable to have a sounding board. It keeps us from rushing into decisions by thinking them through more and getting some feedback before we go through with things.”
“I see real advantages in the group. It gives us a deadline for the next meeting, like actually writing down our goals.”
“The thing with a team is the wide array of ideas and imaginations, different views.”
The participants also supported the processes of the project, such as the continuing education, the individual contact, the sustainability emphasis, and the records they were asked to keep:
“One of the farmers I met at a course told me about biological thistle control that I was interested in. I feel I can get ideas from people associated with the project and what they have done in the past.”
“I have never had this record keeping before, where I’ve been able to sit down and look at my [net] worth and different ratios of debts to assets. It is going to give me something to compare one year to the next, and that is excellent.”
“It has helped me a lot to do these interviews twice a year, to sit down and think about our plans and decisions. It helps us replan.”
“The support network is important. I enjoy the network people and the activities, like the Farmer Holiday [picnic with all participants]. My problem is lack of skills, and I hope to gain skills from this project and the courses you put on.”
“The project staff has been really available. You certainly have bent over backwards to present workshops and information and spend time with us. You more than anyone else have helped us find answers for getting what we need.”
Farmers in attendance (1993-1995):
46 involved in monthly group meetings
250 at workshops
17 presented at conferences and workshops
Educational & Outreach Activities
Dissemination of the design, process and results of this project has been an explicit objective (see under Objective 4, above). Staff have presented at regional and national conferences. The quarterly project newsletter has been received by as many as 650 farmers, organizations, and others, while newsletter articles have been reprinted in other publications. An interim project report was published in 1994 (although it was not explicitly planned in the project proposal) and was widely distributed. Information has been collected for a summary document containing whole-farm case studies, project design, and programmatic recommendations. Interviews have been conducted for inclusion in several decision case studies. These documents will be published in early 1996 and will be distributed to beginning farmers, sustainable agriculture organizations, land grant university agriculture departments, Cooperative Extension directors, and others working with and for beginning farmers. Additional conference presentations are scheduled at this time.
Areas needing additional study
The activities with small groups and beginning farmers have been pioneering work. Our staff and resources are limited, but our efforts have been appreciated by the cooperators and have made a difference in some of these beginning farm families’ lives. All of the areas we discussed in this report need more creative effort. We have previously listed the following as critical concerns (and they remain so): continued and expanded availability of funding sources specific to beginning farmers (including alternative financing options), low-investment livestock production strategies, low-cost livestock production integrated with crops, forage feeding for livestock, whole-farm studies, support for beginning sustainable farmers, holistic farm management, family issues, group formation and maintenance, training of extension personnel in integrated farm management and sustainable farming practices, extension involvement on individual farms, basic farm business management, interrelationships between sustainable farms and rural communities.
During this final year of the project, additional topics have surfaced: the relationship between entrepreneurial business training and beginning farmers; need for directories of community resources available to beginning farmers; local community initiatives to support or encourage beginning farmers; direct marketing and adding value to crops as farm start-up or sustainable strategies.