Community Farmers: The Pathways and Opportunities to Success for New, Innovative Farmers in Michigan

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2004: $9,720.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Jim Bingen
Michigan State University

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: extension, focus group, networking, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: marketing management
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, local and regional food systems, public policy


    This ongoing research has focused on the impetuses, mechanisms, resources, and innovations that new (first generation) farmers utilize to enter the profession of farming, and identify the most efficient ways in which to provide for, facilitate, and encourage others to follow in their path. Through the collection and analysis of economic, ethnographic, and sociological data, we have continued to gain a more complete and useful understanding of the ideas, perceptions, knowledge and skills held by new growers who have, through novel and innovative as well as time tested means, become successful local, community-based farmers.

    This grant was initially awarded in 2004 to Lamar Kendall for a somewhat similar project. Kendall decided to change his plans for graduate work, and a request to amend his project was approved on March 6, 2006.


    Over the last 100 years, the United States has transitioned from a being a nation primarily made up of farmers, to a nation primarily made up of consumers. According to the USDA, in 2005 the United States is likely to become a net food importer for the first time in 50 years (Guebert, 2004). The average age of an American farmer is 55 years, and almost 20% are over the age of 65 (USDA-NASS, 2002). Declines in the number of new people becoming farmers which have raised further concerns about American food security, agricultural sustainability, and the effectiveness of existing programs meant to help new entrants begin farming (Dodson and Koenig, 1995). and there has been a decline recent in the There is little doubt that if American farming is to be successful and sustainable, and our food supply is to continue to be secure, then new, young farmers need to enter the profession. At a time when many existing farms are struggling, the challenges and barriers that face new farmers without family knowledge, infrastructure, or resources are especially acute. Despite these challenges, there are a number of new, innovative farmers who are defying the odds through diverse alternative approaches to growing and marketing. In order to successfully encourage new farmers to enter the profession and to help them succeed, it is essential that we understand their fundamental challenges and needs, and how they are able to overcome them.

    A number of publications and resources have focused on identifying and evaluating the financial resources that are available to new farmers (Dodson and Koenig, 1995, Iowa State University Beginning Farmer Center -, Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer Program - Although these resources and studies are clearly useful and important they tell us little about the new innovative practices that new farmers are employing in order to overcome the myriad and formidable obstacles they face. Other publications on beginning farmer education and learning have focused mostly on conventional farmers in mainstream organizations such as Future Farmers of America (Trede and Whitaker, 2000). In contrast, our focus will be on innovative new farmers and the strategies and resources they use to learn how to grow and market their products.

    Dodson, Charles, and Steve Koenig.1995. “Young Commercial Farmers: Their Financial Structure and Credit Sources.” Agricultural Income and Finance: 56, pp 40-44.

    Guebert, Alan. 2004. “White House Can’t Explain Lurking Trade Imbalance”. Peoria Journal Star, Tuesday, December 7.

    Trede, Larry D. and B. Scott Whitaker. 2000. “Educational Needs and Perceptions of Iowa Beginning Farmers Toward their Education.” Journal of Agricultural Education: 41 (1), pp 39-48.

    United States Department of Agriculture-National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2002. Census of Agriculture.

    Project objectives:

    This project has sought a clearer understanding of the ways in which new (first generation) “community-based” farmers overcome the many barriers to entry in a difficult and troubled profession. To gain this insight I pursue three basic lines of inquiry:

    What are the basic motivations that compel new farmers to enter the profession? Through a better understanding of the personal, philosophical, religious, and ethical factors that have led new growers into a life of farming, we will gain a clearer understanding of who our new farmers are, and what they believe. By developing these profiles, we may be able to better target education, aid programs, and other resources to those with the most potential for becoming our new generation of community farmers.

    What are the specific ways in which new farmers learn their production and business strategies? Both the production and marketing of agricultural crops require a specific degree of knowledge as well as determination and intuition. Through this project we will investigate and catalogue the resources that new growers have used and the specific ways in which new farmers learn their craft. Understanding this process will help us to compile a list of resources and to provide information more efficiently effectively for potential new farmers interested in entering the profession.

    What are new, innovative, “community-based” farmers perceptions of the future of American agriculture? By understanding how our most resourceful and resilient growers view the future of their profession, we hope to better understand the ideas and practices that will guide American agriculture in the direction of success and sustainability in the future.

    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.