Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors

Final report for ONC21-085

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $39,999.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Katie Brandt
Michigan State University
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Project Information


Connecting beginning and aspiring farmers with mentors is essential in an era when 60% of Michigan farmers are 55 or older. Mentors make the difference between farm entrepreneurs who overcome the formidable barriers to success and those who cannot. This project has helped to inspire a future where all beginning farmers have mentors. The Toolkit to Start a Great Farm Mentorship shares the full grant, training agendas, discussion prompts for mentorship meetings, success stories, articles and other products created as part of this grant. This grant inspired meeting agendas, activities and recommendations for mentor/mentee engagement in a full curriculum for mentorship organizers, Connecting New Farmers with Mentors. The curriculum is currently being reviewed by farmers and farm educators as part of a Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program grant and will be released in its final form in 2024. And this project has been the major influence in designing Michigan's $1.6 million mentorship program through the new USDA Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP). Further, this project inspired aspects of the 11-state Midwest TOPP program, such as the timing of pairing mentors and mentees and advocating for paying stipends to mentees. 

Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors has connected 46 mentor-mentee pairs to engage in meaningful, directed conversations. Uniquely, mentors also reviewed mentee documents to provide “positive, actionable” feedback and mentees were each paired with a peer for further discussions.

Online forms recruited three times as many mentees as we had had funds to support, allowing us to prioritize applicants based on their experience level, status as underserved farmers (BIPOC, veterans, limited resource, etc) and whether their enterprise and learning goals matched mentor skillsets. An online Meet & Greet explained program expectations, shared the pre-survey link and was an opportunity for each mentee-mentor pair to get to know each other and to set a plan for communication, meetings and learning goals. Beginning farmer pairs had five discussions. The priority was to focus on mentee needs, but where possible disussions followed the prompts created by the mentors about financial viability, environmental sustainability and social responsibility (FES sustainability). Aspiring farmer pairs discussed their needs, and often followed discussion prompts created by the mentors about land/credit access and opportunities to gain production/entrepreneurial skills.

Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors benefited mentees through collaboration with an experienced farmer and a peer to improve their triple bottom line and/or by overcoming startup barriers. Mentors often used the word "inspired" to describe how they felt after their meetings with mentees from the next generation of sustainable farmers. Mentors and mentees have all been fairly compensated. The project has strengthened triple bottom line sustainability for beginning farmers. For example, 12 of the 15 beginning farmer mentees who completed the pre/post surveys increased their understanding of farm financials and 9 reported improved soil health and better knowledge of soils. Of the five who began with poor work-life balance in year 1, three felt it improve to “average” over a year that included meetings with their mentor. One aspiring farmer mentee found land and another won a $5,000 grant for BIPOC farmers to invest in her farm. 

Project Objectives:


Objectives: Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors 2021 – 2023



Met or Exceeded 10 out of 12 Outcomes



124 Mentees applied for mentorships



46 Mentorship Pairs connected



11 Mentors paired with mentees (9 were trained as mentors)



24 Beginning Farmers connected with mentors for financial, environmental and social sustainability discussions



22 Aspiring Farmers connected with mentors to discuss land/credit access and business/production skill-building



Paired 43 mentees for peer discussions



12+ document reviews with positive, actionable feedback (5 examples are shared online)



1 document review training for farmer mentors



20 Interactive webinars invited mentors/mentees to lead project decisions



Documented success for most goals for beginning & aspiring farmers through pre/post surveys & infographic reports

See outcomes chart

Created a toolkit & curriculum for farm mentorship organizers and shared via articles and conferences 



Did not meet goal to compare impact of farmer mentors to peer mentors

Did not meet goal


Better communication with participants who did not complete the pre/post survey would have improved our ability to document success for several goals that did not have enough data. A directed discussion opportunity for people to give insights on how connecting with an experienced farm mentor compares with connecting with a peer. 


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jill Johnson (Educator)
  • Jeremy Grey Cloud Sparks (Educator)
  • Lance Kraai (Educator)
  • Joannée DeBruhl (Educator)
  • Rachel Cross (Educator)
  • Alex Cacciari (Educator)
  • James Koan (Educator)
  • Andy Chae (Educator)
  • Lindsay Daschner
  • Melissa Holohan (Educator)
  • Eli Ghaffari


Involves research:
Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

87 Consultations
8 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
8 Online trainings
7 Published press articles, newsletters
11 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

48 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Poster about starting a farm mentorship program


A webpage and newsletters marketed the program from April through May of 2021 and people were encouraged to apply using the first version of the online application form. Seven experienced farm mentors were each paired with 1 aspiring farmer and 1 beginning farmer. The aspiring farmers each planned on 2 (1 hr) meetings with their mentor and 2 (1 hr) meeting with their peer mentee. The beginning farmers were to meet with their mentors for 5 (1 hr) meetings and 5 (1 hr) meetings with their peer. All 7 beginning farmers and 6 of 7 aspiring farmers met with both their mentor and a peer.  

For the second year, a new online application form was created based on mentor and mentee feedback, to include learning goals for the mentee and allow applicants to give a first and second choice for their preferred mentor. Three new mentors and a new program evaluator were added to the project team. 

The Toolkit to Start a Great Farm Mentorship compiled resources from this project, including the signup form, mentee and mentor resources, online surveys and other resources. The Toolkit has been shared through MSU Extension Newsletters, a video tour, a poster at a conference with 3000 attendees and through various webinars. Infographics to share the results of the program were compiled by program evaluator and shared through the article Mentors Matter for New Farmers

87 Consultations

These consultations include the meetings between mentors and mentees and the meetings between peer mentees as tracked in a shared google document, reviewed on 2-28-22 as well as a second mentee tracking document reviewed on 2-28-23 and 12-19-23. Most meetings were 1-hour phone calls, but some pairs chose to connect via zoom, text or other technology. In addition, 3 online mentee peer meetings were organized, based on suggestions from year 1. 

Mentee Selection:

The original signup form was completed by 54 prospective mentees by the end of 2021 to apply to the program and another 48 by February of 2023. The revised signup form had 26 applicants, but most were duplicates who completed both forms. Both forms were converted to spreadsheets and applicants were grouped into aspiring and beginning farmers and then ranked, giving highest priority based on their level of farm experience, then prioritizing for USDA's underrepresented groups, including farmers of color, Hispanic/Latinx farmers, veterans, limited resource producers and a space for applicants to write in other underrepresented groups. The survey asked each applicant to list up to 5 farm enterprises and the seven highest ranked beginning farmers were matched to a mentor and a peer mentee with similar farm enterprises. The same process was used for aspiring farmer mentees. 

4 Trainings in Year 1

All trainings were held online via zoom. Most included use of chat, zoom reactions, full group discussions, breakout rooms and shared google documents to encourage all to participate and to learn from activities and the other mentees and mentors. All were facilitated by the project PI (Katie Brandt) except for the 2 Evaluator Trainings led by the Lead Evaluator. 

  • Evaluator Trainings: April 27, 2021 (2.5 hr) and May 4, 2021 (2.5 hr)
  • Mentor Training: May 20, 2021 (2 hr)
  • Mentee Training: August 5, 2021 (1.5 hr) and June 9, 2022 (1.5 hour)
  • Mentor Training on document review: Sep. 29 (1 hour)

3 Trainings in Year 2

  • Mentee Training: June 9, 2022 (1.5 hour)
  • Mentor Training on document review: Sep. 29 (1 hour) 
  • Evaluator Training: February 7, 2023 (1 hr) 

17 Webinars and online meetings

17 Webinars fully focused on the Mentorship were organized as part of the grant. 

  • 3 Evaluator Meetings: April 30, 2021 (1 hr); June 10, 2021 (0.75 hr); February 16, 2023 (1 hr) 
  • 2 Meet & Greet events for beginning farmers to meet mentors: June 17, 2021 (1 hr); March 25, 2022
  • 2 Meet & Greet events for aspiring farmers to meet mentors: June 24, 2021 (1 hr); March 18, 2022
  • 3 Mentor Meetings: September 16, 2021 (1 hr); December 15, 2021 (1 hr); December 15, 2022 (1 hr.)
  • 3 Peer Mentee Group Discussions: April 21, 2022 (1 hr.); May 26, 2022 (1 hr.); June 9, 2022 (1 hr.) 
  • 3 Feedback Charrettes: February 7, 2022 (1 hr.); February 16, 2022 (0.5 hr.), February 27, 2023 (1 hr.)
  • Several one-on-one feedback sessions (~15 min. each) in February 2022 and February 2023  

Promotion for the mentorship opportunity was part of several webinars and conference presentations about the Map of Michigan Beginning Farmer Resources. Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors is one of 90 resources listed on the map and the mentorship opportunity was promoted at the start of each talk as part of my introduction slide. 

    • March 15 - November 15 2021 - MSU Organic Farmer Training Program - Mentorship opportunities shared with 22 participants  
    • Sep 29, 2021 - MSU Fall Extension Conference: Tour a Map of Michigan's Beginning Farmer Programs - 10 video views/10 attendees
    • Nov. 4, 2021 - Map Educator Training -58 registered/19 attendees
    • Nov. 9, 2021 - Map Farmer Training Webinar - 40 registered/21 attendees
    • Nov. 10, 2021 - MI LandLink Conference - 71 attendees
    • Dec. 8, 2021 - Great Lakes Fruit & Vegetable EXPO - Beginning Organic session - 41
    • Dec. 8. 2021 - Great Lakes Fruit & Vegetable EXPO - Organic Marketing - 8 attendees
    • March 15 - November 15 2022 - MSU Organic Farmer Training Program - Mentorship opportunities shared with 11 participants 
    • Nov. 3, 2022 - Michigan CSA Network Visioning Session - 30 attendees
    • Dec. 6, 2022 - Great Lakes Fruit & Vegetable EXPO - Beginning Organic session - 6 educators, 20 farmers
    • Dec. 7, 2022 - Great Lakes Fruit & Vegetable EXPO - Beginning Farmer 1 session - 12 educators, 8 farmers
    • Dec. 8. 2022 - Great Lakes Fruit & Vegetable EXPO - Organic Marketing - 19 farmers, 3 educators 
    • Dec. 13, 2022 - Pollinate: Women in Ag & Conservation Workshop Series, approximately 20 farmers and 20 educators
    • Feb. 2 - Mar. 2, 2023 - Funding Your Farm: Telling your Story in a Business Plan, 4 webinars + 1 in-person event - 142 registered (average 48 live attendees per webinar, additional views by video) 
    • March 6 - November 14, 2023 - MSU Organic Farmer Training Program - mentorship opportunities shared with 21+ participants  

Outreach to educators 

  • March 2, 2022 to present - BFRDP Grant to write Beginning Farmer curriculum and make a plan for farmer mentorships and networks - 27 educators - co-lead of a workgroup on mentorship and farmer networks (~24 online meetings and 1 full-day in-person meeting) 
  • Dec. 2022 to present: USDA Midwest Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) leaders from 11 Midwest states - sharing best practices from this SARE mentor program to help plan the Michigan and Midwest TOPP mentorship program (25 online meetings with ~18 educators and a 3-day gathering in WI)
  • Jan. 10/12/23, 2023 Mentorship Committee for Midwest Transition to Organic Partnership Plan (TOPP) – Mentorship Committee – sharing experience from Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors project to help plan 11 state mentorship programs for farmers transitioning to organic – 6 educators & mentorship coordinators
  • Jan. 19, 2023 - MSU Extension – Community Food Systems work team – Share about mentorship, TOPP & beginning farmer programs
  • Jan. 19, 2023 to present (monthly): Transition Support Group – national group of organic and sustainable farm organizations involved in TOPP, mentorship and organic transition support, 23 educators & mentorship coordinators in group, average attendance is 10 per month
  • June 27, 2023 - 
  • Aug. 29, 2023 to present – Mentorship Committee for Midwest Transition to Organic Partnership Plan (TOPP) – Mentorship Committee – sharing experience from Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors project to help plan 11 state mentorship programs for farmers transitioning to organic - biweekly meetings
  • Sep. 2023 to present: USDA TOPP Mentorship Committee meetings - decision-making specific to mentorship in Midwest TOPP (9 meetings)
  • Nov. 16, 2023 – Presented Michigan Mentorship Programs slide set with Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentor data and info about other Michigan & regional mentorship programs with the Transition Support Group (National online meetings for the new USDA Organic Transition Initiative) ~ 6 farm educators
  • Dec. 13, 2023 - Presented Mentorship curriculum for Michigan Beginning Farmer Curriculum development team - received feedback from 6 farm educators  

Published Articles & Press 

Published Newsletters 

  • A link to Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors is in my email signature 
  • Emails to a "Jobs & Opportunities" list including 170+ graduates/current participants of the MSU Organic Farmer Training Program and 90 undergraduates who took MSU HRT 251 "Organic Principles & Practices" (Monthly when we were seeking mentees to apply)
  • MSU Center for Regional Food Systems Newsletter (May 2021)
  • Michigan Food & Farming Systems Newsletter (April, May 2021)
  • Tollgate Farm newsletter (May 2021)
  • West Michigan Growers' Group newsletter (May 2021)
  • Emails to 4 listservs in mid-May 2021 including Comfood, Foodspeak, MI Organic and [email protected] (1114 recipients)

Website and Social Media 

  • Website Visits
    • No data for www.msufarm.org/mentors (March - Oct. 2021)
    • 453 visitors to www.canr.msu.edu/sof/mentors.html (Nov. 2021 - Dec. 2023)
  • Website fully updated on 12-21-23 to link potential mentees to active mentorship programs and to share resources for mentees, mentors and mentorship organizers 
  • Facebook: 309 views, 8 likes, 7 site clicks, 2 shares, 1 comment to a post on May 6, 2021
  • Facebook: 130 views, 40 video views, 1 like to a post on Dec. 17, 2022

Number of Farmers  

  • 11 Farmer Mentors
  • 24 Beginning Farmer Mentees
  • 22 Aspiring Farmer Mentees 
  • 2 Farmer evaluators 


Learning Outcomes

44 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

15 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
22 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:


OUTCOMES: Michigan Sustainable Farm Mentors 2021 - 2023


Met or Exceeded 10 out of 14 Outcomes



24 beginning farmers paired with a mentor to access mentor/peer input



--All 15 beginning famers who completed pre/post surveys reported increased knowledge, attitudes, skills or awareness (KASA) of farm FES sustainability



--12 beginning farmers reported adopting new practices



--10 beginning farmers reported improvements to farm, soil, well-being, community connection, financials etc.



22 aspiring farmers paired with a mentor to access mentor/peer input 



All 7 who completed pre/post surveys reported increased KASA about land, credit or business/farm training



At least 3 attempted to access land, credit or business/farm training



At least 3 reported accessing land/credit/training (1 land, 2 credit and 2 business/farm training)



43 mentees paired with a peer mentee



2 Peer mentee Trainings offered



Several report farm/leadership KASA, but survey poorly tracked peer mentees



12 farmers mentored mentees



9 farmers received mentor training  



7 farmer mentors reported increased farm/leadership KASA (4 in surveys and 3 verbally)



Evaluation of project outcomes for years 1 and 2 has been completed. Project evaluation for the final group of mentee-mentor pairs will be completed by March of 2024.

Brief updates on the outcomes listed in the proposal are below: 

  • Recruit mentees via farm networks, social media, conferences and webinars
    • In year 1, 54 mentees applied for the 14 available slots using an online form. Mentor opportunities were marketed via networks of 170+ Organic Farmer Training Program participants, ~90 "Organic Farming Principles and Practices" students, 5 newsletters, 4 listservs, a website, social media, 3 in-person conferences and 3 webinars.
    • In year 2, 28 mentees were selected from previous 54 and 70 new applicants, many using a revised signup form 
    • Incomplete mentorships in year 2 were remedied by paying mentors to re-connect with a previous or new mentee in 2023
  • Connect 21 beginning farmers with mentors for FES sustainability discussions
    • 7 beginning farmers were connected with mentors in year 1 (7 completed the mentorship) 
    • 14 beginning farmers were connected with mentors in year 2 (9 completed the mentorship)
    • 11 beginning farmers were connected or re-connected with mentors late in 2023 
  • Connect 21 aspiring farmers with mentors to discuss land/credit access and business/production skill-building
    • In year 1, seven aspiring farmers were matched with mentors (6 completed the mentorship)
    • In year 2, fifteen aspiring farmers were matched with mentors (6 completed the mentorship)
  • Pair 42 mentees for peer discussions
    • 14 mentees were paired and 13 connected with peers in year 1
    • 29 mentees were paired in year 2
      • 10 connected 1:1 for peer mentorship 
      • 12 mentees met for 3 online peer gatherings as recommended by the 1st group of mentees to discuss topics brainstormed as a group 
  • Provide positive, actionable feedback on documents
    • This was less successful in year 1 and we took action to design a document review training for mentors to encourage more document sharing in year 2, as requested by mentors during the charrette 
    • In Dec. 2023, we used a document feedback training as a prompt to invite mentees to share documents with their mentors. Some of the documents were reviewed by the full group and others by small groups for the training webinar. Five of the 12 documents with comments are shared as part of the Toolkit to Start a Great Farm Mentorship (with consent from the document authors).
  • Train farmers as mentors and document reviewers
    • In year 1, farmer mentors had one official 2-hour training, but also contributed to and benefited from peer-to-peer learning in (2) 1-hour meetings and the 1-hour brainstorming charrette. They also learned from ~7 hours of interactions with mentees. 
    • In year 2, farmer mentors had a document feedback training, and also contributed to and benefited from peer-to-peer learning in (2) meetings and the 1-hour brainstorming charrette. They also learned from more than 31 hours of interactions with mentees. 
  • Coordinate trainings and evaluation where mentors and mentees lead project planning
    • Farmers wrote discussion prompts, contributed to editing evaluation questions and were important in providing feedback and suggestions to improve year 2 during meetings and the charrette
    • A beginning farmer with evaluation skills joined the project as an evaluator in 2022
  • Document improved FES sustainability of beginning farmers
    • The Evaluation Infographic for year 1 and Year 2 tracked success through quotes and KASA data on FES sustainability from pre/post surveys and a charrette.
    • The Mentors Matter for New Farmers article shared those results 
    • In year 1, 7 of 7 beginning farmers experienced improvements in FES sustainability  
    • In year 2, 8 of 8 beginning farmers who completed the pre/post survey reported improvements in FES sustainability 
  • Document aspiring farmer actions to access land, credit and skills
    • The Evaluation Infographic for year 1 and year 2 tracked success through quotes and KASA data from pre/post surveys and a charrette.
    • The Mentors Matter for New Farmers article shared those results 
    • In year 1, 3 of 3 aspiring farmers increased KASA about land/credit access and farm/business training options  
    • In year 2, 4 out of 4 aspiring farmers reported increased KASA about land/credit access and farm/business training options  
  • Compare impact of farmer mentors to peer discussions
    • Survey and charrette data did not adequately compare impact of farmer mentors and peers
    • Feedback from mentees was positive, but we did not have data to corroborate conversational feedback
  • Create a replicable farm mentorship model to share via conferences and articles
Success stories:


“It was great to have access to someone with so much experience and expertise in the same farming enterprise as I am in.”
-Todd H., Beginning Farmer Mentee

“Cool to meet other fellow beginning farmers across the state and my mentor who was so helpful and encouraging!”
-Jane L., Beginning Farmer Mentee

“I had some really helpful conversations with my mentor Rachel about getting into the wholesale game.”
–Dani F., Beginning Farmer Mentee


“I would like to thank you for the opportunity. The program has been a fantastic resource for me personally and our farm …Honestly just having a connection to someone that farms, but doesn't have a COI/is a competitor is huge. My mentor in the past is a great person, but we try to not talk farming because it is a complicated relationship. ”
– Austin W., Beginning Farmer Mentee
“My mentor taught me about making the farm work for me and structuring efforts with personal life in mind.”
- Sara H., Beginning Farmer Mentee
“The mentor program was crucial for me in building relationships with farmers in my area as well as helping me source materials in affordable ways for a beginning farm.”
- darien w., Beginning Farmer Mentee


“The last 5 or 10 years I have been a little discouraged with how much farm information sharing is becoming consulting that you pay for.
When I was first getting into farming, there was so much peer-to-peer sharing for free at conferences, workshops, and just meeting up. New farmers don’t really have the resources to pay for consulting or workshops. It is really encouraging that this program is happening, this sharing -helping new farmers where no one is making a ton of money. They’re doing it because they want to further sustainable farming.”
-Rachel C., Farmer Mentor

“I was surprised to find that my meetings with mentees always left me newly inspired about my own farm business”
-Alex C., Farmer Mentor

“I got inspired by my new farmers and all the new and exciting ways they want to use the land.”
–Joannée D., Farmer Mentor


“I really enjoyed trying to de-mystify the FSA and NRCS processes and paperwork with my mentees. This was something I really struggled with as a beginning farmer myself, and had to learn the hard way. I would have loved having a guiding hand through these sometimes cumbersome USDA departments.”

- Alex C., Farmer Mentor


I love being a mentor and I benefitted from having a mentor when I was starting out..”

 – Lindsay D., Farmer Mentor


“Getting matched up with Joannée was really perfect, and getting to have a continued relationship with her is invaluable. The resources Katie provided especially regarding land and credit access are also amazing. The most valuable thing I’ve come out with is confidence!”
–Rowan, Aspiring Farmer Mentee

“Connecting with established farmers and aspiring farmers has helped a lot. I think networking and having people to bounce ideas off ofis extremely helpful because farming can feel overwhelming at times. By networking, you can potentially find someone who has experience with an issue that you are facing on your farmand they can help you find a solution.”
-Andy N., Aspiring Farmer Mentee

Carly T. accessed land as a result of her mentorship

Dani F. was awarded a $5,000 grant for farm funds as a result of her mentorship



“This mentorship is helping me overcome the challenge of not knowing how to start conversations with my family about farm succession planning. My mentor has given me language and questions to ask. She has confirmed the importance and given me inspiration, encouragement, support and wisdom to move forward in succession planning for our family farm.”

 – Melissa W., Aspiring Farmer Mentee


“A success that I achieved during the mentorship program was really the sharing of ideas and information with my peer mentee Zac and his wife – they were great! ... We both took our backgrounds and our insights and we were helping to brainstorm for each other”

- Julia M., Aspiring Farmer Mentee


“This program helped me to see that things take time - the value of tenacity and keeping at it”

 - Jasmine B., Aspiring Farmer Mentee


Mentorship success would have been improved by timing the mentor pairing for fall with in-depth meetings on financials, planning and document review in the winter followed by quick questions as challenges arise during the farm season. In addition, including more coordinator time to meet with mentees and mentors one-on-one on a regular basis throughout the program would have been a good strategy for accountability, improved communication and more timely resolution of issues when the mentee or mentor is not communicating.

Feedback from mentors also indicated that aspiring farmer mentees may benefit more from hands-on learning and classes, through farmer training programs, entrepreneur and business planning courses, apprenticeships, farm volunteering or farm employment. Aspiring farmers were pleased with the program, however, and found it useful. 

Experiences from this project have been important in offering insights in planning for the USDA TOPP (Transitions to Organic Partnerships Program) mentorship project for the 11-state Midwest region. The USDA was encouraging mentee-mentor pairing in March, and my experience aligned with other mentorship program leads in the region in advocating for USDA to allow us to wait for better timing in the fall/winter. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.