Farm Beginnings: An Educational Training and Support Program to Establish Young Dairy Farmers in Southeast Minnesota

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $90,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $140,700.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Chuck Schwartau
Goodhue County Extension

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: housing, feed rations, manure management, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, grazing - rotational, stockpiled forages, watering systems, winter forage, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, agricultural finance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: grass waterways, riverbank protection
  • Pest Management: biological control, chemical control, cultural control, field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management, physical control
  • Soil Management: organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, analysis of personal/family life, community services, social networks, sustainability measures


    The major goal of the Farm Beginnings program is to help young people establish profitable and environmentally sound farming operations in the ecologically fragile southeast corner of Minnesota. The program has five objectives.

    Networking and educational efforts to support beginning farmers.

    Methods: We developed a workshop series to provide participants with information in the following areas: goal setting, financial management; business planning; low-cost, sustainable production techniques; and financing and marketing alternatives. The workshop series was led by a variety of regional experts and highlighted local sustainable farmers.

    Results: Over the course of the SARE grant 30 family units, (44 individuals) have participated in the Farm Beginnings Program. Participants are driving to the course from within a four-hour range and are coming from IA, WI as well as MN. Written and verbal evaluations have indicated the networking and focusing on goal setting and communication to be of value. In its third year of recruitment, the Farm Beginnings program found an overwhelming response to the course and this year’s maximum, 15 family units have signed up.

    Educational on-farm mentorships for beginning farmers.

    Methods: We recruited sustainable farmers who manage profitable, low-cost operations to participate as farm mentors. Mentors applied to the program and were approved by the steering committee. Matches were made based on the needs and wants of each individual. Mentees completed a learning goal checklist.

    Results: Because all of the participants maintained full-time jobs, mentorships were not as extensive as originally planned. Some participants were able to visit several farms and conduct an informational interview. Others were able to visit one or two farms on a more regular basis. Most of the beginning farmers have developed on-going, mentoring relationships with experienced local sustainable farmers, including members of the steering committee. In the third year, there are participants who are interested in taking advantage of the more intensive on-farm mentorship idea, one that we continue to feel is the best way to learn.

    Retiring farmer education.

    Methods: We have developed an educational series that includes sustainable farm tours, legal, financial and retirement planning information, and social / educational events for retiring and new farmers.

    Results: After a slower start than planned, three workshops over the course of the year have taken place. The recent workshops have introduced the idea of helping to get a beginning farmer started. About 15 people were in attendance.

    Developing incubation sites.

    Methods: Networking with people and other organizations to share in the development.

    Results: There are several opportunities that exist in our area. Discussion have taken place with area environmental learning center, Eagle Bluff. The Rosemont Experiment Station is putting together a farm. We have also been talking to LSP members, several of whom would gladly donate all or part of the farm to be an on- farm demonstration project.

    Secure program support.

    Methods: The program steering committee, staff and participants promoted the Farm Beginnings Program and its importance to rural communities to a variety of audiences.

    Results: The relationship with Heifer Project International (HPI) has been nurtured and we are in the process of developing indicators and structure to provide zero interest, livestock loans to help beginning farmers build equity.

    Spin-off: In response to increased program visibility due to media coverage and word of mouth, Farm Beginnings staff has been reacting to a number of calls from established farmers interested in helping beginning farmers get started. Organizationally, the Farm Beginnings program is in the position to decide the future course of action.

    Impacts and Potential Contributions: helping people begin to farm is a slow and challenging process. Providing a new generation of farmers with education, resources, and networks to help them succeed is vital to the survival of family farming and rural communities.


    The Farm Beginnings program has shown there is a strong desire among young people to get started in low-cost, sustainable farming. Originally, the program was designed with a dairy focus, but since has expanded to include all enterprises. The premise is that any enterprise would benefit by the workshops covering goal setting, alternative marketing, business planning, etc. On-farm sustainable mentorships offer a unique learning environment for the potential beginning farmers to focus on enterprise specific, production information. Interest in the program has increased due to word of mouth and media coverage. To date 30 family units, 44 individuals have participated in the Farm Beginnings program.

    The Farm Beginnings educational programs provide vital information and valuable networking opportunities with other beginning and established farmers. The workshop series lays a good groundwork for beginning a farm business operation, including communication and goal setting. The workshops also feature other beginning and established farmers whose real-life experiences encourage and inspire the beginners to pursue their goals of ecologically sound and profitable farming.

    The educational program continues to take shape with the input of the Farm Beginnings staff, Steering Committee and participants themselves. There is continued gathering of resources and networking with like agencies to pull together the most useful information for the program and the participants. Currently there is limited information and assistance on developing a farm business plan. Farm Beginnings provides a supportive environment for potential beginning farmers to develop and refine business plans. Their plans are critiqued by several individuals, each bringing different expertise. Providing direct assistance to beginning farmers in the business planning process helps to ensure the success of a start-up operation.

    In working with beginning farmers, it has become evident that most start up operations need an extremely high level of assistance due to prohibitive land prices, high machinery costs, restrictive loan requirements, and slim profit margins. The emphasis during the second year of the SARE grant largely focused with Heifer Project International and developing a zero- interest livestock loan program. A pilot project for both organizations, a separate Livestock Loan Committee was appointed by the Farm Beginnings Steering Committee to develop the necessary guidelines and contracts. Applications will be accepted in January of 2000. Successful applicants will receive animals as early as February 2000.

    Public workshops also provide beginning and established farmers much needed networking and support. The Farm Beginning program was a vital link in the connection and creation of a working agreement whereby the beginning farmer builds equity and the established farmer has committed help. Other links are in the beginning stages.

    Despite the success of the Farm Beginnings program to date, there is still a tremendous amount of work that must be done to launch beginners on their own farms. With increased media coverage, many calls have been received from organizations also interested in the future farming generation. Further research and development in this area is needed.

    Project objectives:

    Establish a beginning farmer educational program and network.

    Implement an apprenticeship / mentoring program for beginning farmers.

    Develop a retiring farmer instructional series
    Research the possibility of establishing a farm incubation site.

    Procure commitment from a diversity of project participants to ensure continuation.

    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.