Farm Beginnings: An Educational Training and Support Program to Establish Young Dairy Farmers in Southeast Minnesota
The major goal of the Farm Beginnings program is to help young people establish profitable and environmentally sound dairy farming operations in the ecologically fragile southeast corner of Minnesota.
The program has five objectives:
1) Networking and educational efforts to support beginning farmers. We developed a year-long workshop series to provide participants with information in the following areas: goal setting; financial management; business planning; low-cost, sustainable production techniques; and financing alternatives. The workshop series was led by a variety of regional experts and highlighted local sustainable farmers. In the fall of 1997, seven families were recruited to participate the year long educational series. The group met in a formal setting 10 times throughout the year and also attended several field days and public workshops. The participants became a close-knit group and frequently call on each other for support and advice. Written evaluations show that participants from all experience levels found the educational series to be extremely valuable.
2) Educational on-farm apprenticeships for beginning farmers. 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. Apprentices completed a learning goals checklist. Because all of the participants maintained full-time jobs, apprenticeships were not as extensive as originally planned. Participants were able to work on one or two farms and to visit several others to learn about their day-to-day management. Most of the beginning farmers have developed on-going mentoring relationships with experienced local sustainable farmers, including members of the steering committee.
3) Retiring farmer education. We developed an educational series that includes sustainable farm tours, legal, financial and retirement planning information, and social/educational events for retiring and new farmers. The retiring farmer instructional series had a slower start than anticipated. In addition, we have learned that it’s necessary to go beyond working with farmers who are ready to retire in the near future, to reaching farmers who are just beginning to think about retiring. We are adjusting our focus and recruitment techniques and plan to hold retirement, estate, and land transfer planning sessions with middle-aged as well as older farmers. Two such sessions were held this year and were well-attended.
4) Developing incubation sites. We have re-focused our plans to develop incubation farms. After exploration, the steering committee agreed that developing permanent incubation farms would involve high costs and risks. Additionally, developing one or two of these farms would help only a small number of people to begin dairy farming. Through several meetings and much dialogue with interested groups, the committee has developed an alternative that will assist far more beginners to start in sustainable dairying at less cost and lower risk. We would like to develop on-farm “equity building partnerships” which will financially benefit both the beginning and established farmer, however we need more money to do so.
5) Secure program support. The program steering committee, staff and participants promoted the Farm Beginnings program and its importance to rural communities to a variety of audiences. Four new people joined the program steering committee in 1998. A relationship with Heifer Project International (HPI) was established. With HPI’s assistance we will be able to form a community-lead initiative that allows beginning farmers to borrow initial start-up livestock.
Helping people begin to farm is a slow and challenging process. Providing beginners with education, resources, and networks helps them succeed. A new generation of farmers is vital to the survival of family farming and rural communities.
North Central Region SARE 1998 Annual Report.