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

2006 Annual Report for GNC04-037

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

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


This project seeks a clearer understanding of the ways in which new (first-generation) “community-based” farmers overcome the many barriers they face. Participant observations and interviews have been conducted with a number of growers, with special focus on four families who work full-time on their small diversified farms. Despite many shared values and traits, individual farming practices and emphases vary significantly between them. Outside support is extremely limited, and learning processes tend to be autonomous, and intuitive. Access to capital and reliable labor seem to be more often limiting than access to knowledge or markets.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Our study will develop ethnographies of 4-5 Michigan farm families as well as more general knowledge about a broader range of first-generation farmers through the use of participant observations, in-depth interviews, and focus groups.

We seek a broad, yet nuanced understanding of: 1) the personal characteristics, philosophical motivations, and ethical beliefs that have led new growers into a life of farming; 2) the strategies, resources, and techniques they have used to deal with the unique challenges and limitations they face; 3) their learning processes; and 4) their perceptions about the future of American agriculture.

Through this process we hope to gain a better understanding of the practical realities of new farmer’s experiences, and the ways in which they understand, engage, and cope with them. By developing these profiles and insights, we hope to assist policy-makers, educators, and researchers in identifying new farmer’s needs and developing programs which more effectively and directly address them. In addition, we hope to provide potential new farmers with a resource which will help them to understand the realities of farm life, and learn from the struggles and successes of others.


With the help of individuals and organizations throughout the state, several dozen first-generation farmers were identified and contacted about their interest in the project. Over 20 short interviews with first-generation farmers, potential farmers, and farming educators were conducted during visits to farms, farmer’s markets, conferences, and other events between November of 2005 and June of 2006. This helped to develop a broad understanding of the range of farming systems, educational opportunities, and networking activities in which first-generation Michigan farmers engage, and to identify participants in further research. A core group of 4 farm families was identified for intensive ethnographic studies. Criteria for this group includes at least 5 years of farming experience, no significant source of off-farm income, ownership and sole-proprietorship of farms ranging from 20-80 acres in size, and income generated primarily from at least one form of direct local marketing.

During the summer and fall of 2006 between three and seven daylong participant observations were conducted and recorded with each of these families on farms or at markets. Detailed field notes were recorded from each. During the winter and spring of 2006-7 at least one in-depth interview was conducted which each of these participants, as well as two other first-generation farmers. Interviews were recorded and have begun to be transcribed. Observations and interviews will continue through the spring of 2008. Results will be recorded, coded, and analyzed in qualitative data analysis software in order to answer the questions posed in the previous section.

To date the project has resulted in the publication of a biographical essay describing the work of a first-generation farmer and farming educator:

Reid, T. 2007. Walking the Talk with Both Feet on the Earth: A Biography of Maynard Kaufman, Organic Pioneer – Part I. Michigan Organic Connections: 12:4, pp. 7-8.

Reid, T. 2007. Walking the Talk with Both Feet on the Earth: A Biography of Maynard Kaufman, Organic Pioneer – Part II. Michigan Organic Connections: 13:1, pp. 4-5.

Two outreach presentations:

Taylor Reid. 2007. How to Start Your Farm: Lessons from Organic and First Generation Farmers. Presentation given in Sustainable Farming 101, West Michigan CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training), Grand Rapids, MI. March 22nd.

Taylor Reid, Phil Howard, Pat Whetham, and Jim Bingen. 2007. Consumer Education Session: What’s Really Organic? Presentation given at the 2007 Michigan Organic Conference. Michigan State University, March 3rd, 2007.

And two conference presentations:

Taylor Reid and Jim Bingen. 2006. Making a Life Back on the Land: Learning, Values and Practices of First Generation Farmers in Michigan. Poster Presentation. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) National Conference. SARE National Conference. August 15-17, Oconomowoc, WI. Available at:

Phil Howard, Dru Montri, Victoria Campbell-Aravi, Taylor Reid, Jim Bingen, and Laura Delind. 2007. In Everyone’s Best Interest? Food Regulations, Scale, and Legitimation. Panel presentation to be given at 2007 Meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, University of Victoria, May 31-June 2nd, 2007.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

This analysis will serve as the foundation for Mr. Reid’s Doctoral Dissertation, to be completed in the summer of 2008. The results of this project should provide a valuable and novel resource for researchers, educators, and policy makers by providing a detailed description of the way in which resource-limited first-generation farmers have managed to succeed in a difficult profession. By understanding the resources they have used, the challenges and limitations they face, and the innovations and strategies they have adopted in acquiring the knowledge, skills, land, equipment, and social networks necessary for the successful management of their farm enterprise, these individuals should be better able to identify research needs, develop programs, and allocate resources for assisting others. This will be accomplished through conference presentations and paper publications. In addition, the project should provide a valuable resource for the development of existing and potential farmers through educational presentations, and publication of extension materials and newsletter articles.