Beginning Farmer Program: Evaluation and Expansion

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $96,430.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Federal Funds: $1,560.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $106,660.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Karen Stettler
Land Stewardship Project

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: decision support system, focus group, mentoring, networking, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: holistic management
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, social networks


    Farm Beginnings™, begun in southeast Minnesota, was successfully expanded to western Minnesota. Combined, a total of 102 participants have enrolled over the course of the grant. Over 60% of the graduates are actively farming. The on-farm mentor program has been designed to accommodate different needs through farm tours, peer groups and one-on-one mentorships. A third party evaluation of Farm Beginnings™ was conducted. Past Farm Beginnings™ participants and Steering Committee members interviewed stated the program exceeded their expectations. They also gave feedback to further enhance the program. A comprehensive Farm Beginnings curriculum has been completed.


    Farm Beginnings™ focuses on building long-term networks of beginning and established farmers to ensure the future of family farming. In Nebraska, the Beginning Farmer Sustainable Agriculture Project (BFSAP) has provided training in order to increase the ability of beginning farmers and ranchers to become established beginning farmers (Fraas, 1993). Participation in programs such as these and others has led to an increase in the success of beginning farmers and an increase in the use of sustainable agricultural practices (Fraas, 1993, Schwartau, 1997). These programs reach beginning farmers before they have already committed to a specific form of production. Consequently, they are more likely to choose resource-conserving practices (Center for Rural Affairs, 2000b). This has also been substantiated through the involvement of mentors. The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Mentor (SAM) program found that 70% of the mentored farmers changed their operation as a result of working with a project mentor (Dowell, 1993).

    In addition to the advances made by these programs, limited research efforts have also contributed to the understanding of beginning farmer educational needs and preferences. In one study, beginning farmers ranked multi-generational farming and farm and business management higher in importance than crop and livestock production as educational topics (Trede and Whitaker, 2000). The study also found that beginning farmers preferred experiential learning, problem solving and critical thinking as modes of learning (Trede and Whitaker, 2000). Integrating and adding to this type of understanding is key to the success of future beginning farmer programs.

    While positive steps have been taken toward improving the situation for beginning farmers, the widening gap between exiting and beginning farmers remains an overlooked issue nationally (Center for Rural Affairs, 2000a). USDA has yet to provide funding and/ or staff to follow through with the department-wide Beginning Farmer Initiative that was recommended by the National Commission on Small Farms (Center for Rural Affairs, 2000a).

    In response to the gap in federal action and the need for dissemination of successful models, it is increasingly important that community organizations, universities and other agencies continue to strengthen and replicate successful programs (USDA, 1998). This will allow a wider audience of farmers, beginning and established, to succeed in the future.

    Farm Beginnings™, sponsored by LSP has proven its ability to help beginning farmers be successful in southeast Minnesota (Schwartau, 1997). The next phase of development for the program will be incorporating lessons learned while reaching out to a new geographical audience of both beginning and established farmers and other organizations who serve beginning farmers. A program evaluation will provide insights that can help others adapt and replicate it across the US in the critical struggle to protect our environment, save family farming, and revitalize the economy and quality of life of rural America.

    Project objectives:

    OBJECTIVE 1: Strengthen the Farm Beginnings™ Program and disseminate information to others.
    Evaluation design and administration

    An Advisory Evaluation Team was convened to select a person to take the lead on designing the evaluation. Throughout the evaluation, the Advisory Team oversaw the design and implementation of the survey, including developing surveys, interview questions and timeline. The team was made up of established farmers, specialists with financial training, representatives from other partner organizations and LSP staff.

    A formal evaluation of the Farm Beginnings™ program was designed in the summer of 2002. The purpose of the evaluation was to discover the significance of the Farm Beginnings program for the families and individuals who participated in the program.

    The evaluation also was designed to discover what works in the current Farm Beginnings™ program and to recommend any changes or enhancements to improve the program. Open-ended interviews were conducted with participants from all FB™ classes. In addition to participant interviews, a written survey was sent to all former Farm Beginnings™ participants.

    Compile and prepare an evaluation report and support documents

    A survey was prepared and disseminated at the National Farm Transition Network meeting seeking guidance with regard to interest/need content wise and best ways for the information to be shared. Most people indicated a website download to be the most effective. The “Instructor Resources” draft document written by LSP staff members addresses the nuts and bolts of starting and maintaining a Farm Beginnings™ program.

    The full evaluation will be available at the Land Stewardship website.

    Disseminate information to others nation-wide

    Information has been disseminated at the National Farm Transition Network meeting in VA, CA and VT, the Missouri Small Farm Conference, in Columbia, and at a national meeting with USDA’s Risk Management Agency’s Community Outreach Community Outreach / Civil Rights Conference in Kansas City, MO. As we refine our materials and methods of sharing, we will continue seeking out other disseminating opportunities.

    OBJECTIVE 2: Implement a two-tiered mentor component
    Engage and expand the network of mentors

    The network of mentors has continued to be engaged and expanded. A mentor training was initiated bringing mentors together to 1. learn more about Farm Beginnings™ and what the beginning farmers have experienced in the class, 2. learn more about who attends Farm Beginnings™, 3. develop a more formal mentor network, and 4. develop tools for their “Mentor Toolkit.” A mailing with general Farm Beginnings™ information was sent to a number of farmers without previous connections to Farm Beginnings™ and Land Stewardship Project with the aim to invite them to a field day and encourage their eventual involvement. Twenty- six new mentors have joined the initial network. We are continuing to develop the network by sending more information and offering an opportunity to come to a class or farm tour.

    Organize and integrate 80 Farm Beginnings™ participants into support networks

    Each year there is a community resources class in which a variety of community organizations address the class participants. Many participants have become involved with community organizations such as Sustainable Farming Association, Farm Business Management, Small Business Development Centers, local marketing groups, Natural Resources and Conservation Service, grazing groups and a long term mentorship/advisor relationship. Additionally, we are encouraging peer groups to form. A peer group would be self- directed and could be used for either support and/or education. LSP and other organizations would be resources to help them accomplish their goals. Forty beginning farmers have participated or are currently participating in support networks.

    Facilitate formal mentoring relationship between 10 pairs of mentors and protégés

    Ten pairs have engaged in a formal mentorship. The relationship, kicked off with a mentor/protégé meeting, has been very effective in helping everyone feel a part of a larger program and movement, as well as giving the mentor/protégé an opportunity to talk about the details of the mentorship. Due to the short duration of the mentorship, (in most cases, April- August), we determined that two visits weren’t practical. In lieu of two visits, using the phone and email has worked well to make contact with the mentor and protégé to make sure everything is going alright. If there is a specific need for an LSP staff to visit, that can be arranged.

    A formal evaluation of the mentorship program was conducted by a graduate student through the University of Minnesota’s Community Assistantship Program (CAP). The evaluation included questionnaires and interviews.

    OBJECTIVE 3: Expand the program in western Minnesota and adapt the program in southeastern Minnesota
    Continue to provide support and oversight to steering committees for Southeastern and Western offices

    The Farm Beginnings™ Steering Committees, totaling over fifteen members, are active and involved in the guidance and support of the program. The first ever combined steering committee meeting was held in Mankato in the fall with a great deal of input generated toward future planning. The committees remain strong and are one of the reasons Farm Beginnings™ is so grounded and successful.

    Recruit and graduate up to 80 people by the completion of the 2003 funding cycle

    Class 2001 - SE - 27 people W- 16
    Class 2002 - SE - 22 W- 9
    Class 2003 - SE - 18 W- 10

    TOTAL: 102

    Prepare a comprehensive curriculum for the program and hold workshops

    Each year in two locations, comprehensive curriculum has been prepared and presented to the Farm Beginnings™ participants. Class participants’ interests and needs help to guide the specifics of the course. The adaptation of Farm Beginnings from SE MN to Western, MN went quite well, which is encouraging in thinking about the transferring of this model to other places. The monitoring component (funded through a proposal to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation) was also successfully completed and is an important part of the overall curriculum for Farm Beginnings™.

    The last few years has been devoted to combining and developing the curriculum from each office into a synthesized curriculum The grant extension has allowed for the completion of our comprehensive curriculum entitled: A Guide to Farm Beginnings™: Raising New Farmers to the Trade. There is a section called Instructor Resources which defines the nuts and bolts of the program and developing the community. There is also a section that specifically addresses each session topic in detail. This curriculum will be used, with training, to help other interested groups get their own Farm Beginnings™ off the ground.

    Administer the livestock loan program

    The initial two livestock loans continue to help two dairy farmers make their start. Ten additional families have received livestock loans during the course of the grant. There are dairy, beef, sheep, meat goat, and chicken loans. To help ensure the beginning farmers are receiving the information and support they need, there are quarterly site visits in the first year and biannual visits throughout the remainder of the loan. The Livestock Loan committee, made up of SE and Western farmer members and other agricultural professionals, continues to meet, do interviews, review recommendations for loans, approve animals for purchase, attend site visits and help to review and revise documents to reflect what is happening in the field. There is at least one meeting per year with Heifer International to review what has happened and to plan ahead.

    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.