Whole-farm Entrepreneurship: Farmer to Farmer Education for Vegetable – Livestock Producers
The Regional Farm and Food Project developed whole-farm entrepreneurial educational programs and consulting services, which received overwhelmingly favorable evaluations from the 200-plus participating farmers.
A three-day advanced organic vegetable farming workshop led by upper-Midwest farmers provided professional training to 60 northeastern farmers. Joel Salatin’s motivational workshop drew almost 150 farmers. A four-day course assisted 20 farmers in business and marketing plan development for direct marketing their meats.
Nineteen farmers received individual attention from accomplished farmer-consultants. Many made major strides toward their farm viability goals. A booklet documenting the program was disseminated to over 100 agencies, organizations, and sustainable agriculture leaders.
To provide farmer-led whole-farm and entrepreneurial workshops for 200 farmers from audiences—organic and ecological vegetable farmers and farmers interested in direct marketing their farm-raised meat—for which few appropriate, in-depth educational opportunities exist.
To develop and implement a farmer-to-farmer consulting program to mentor 20 to 30 less experienced farmers in whole-farm analysis, planning, and entrepreneurship.
To evaluate and document the farmer-to-farmer consulting program and publicize our model to potentially interested audiences, such as sustainable farming organizations, Cooperative Extension, and land-grant university programs.
The Regional Farm and Food Project worked in collaboration with about 15 accomplished farmers to develop whole-farm entrepreneurial educational programs and consulting services. A three-day advanced organic vegetable farming workshop led by upper-Midwest farmers provided professional training to 60 northeastern farmers. Joel Salatin’s motivational workshop drew almost 150 farmers. Adele Hayes developed a four-day course in business and marketing plan development for direct marketing their meats; over 20 farmers participated. Nineteen farmers received individual attention from accomplished farmer-consultants.
These programs were each filled to capacity and received overwhelmingly favorable evaluations from the 200-plus participating farmers. We could not accommodate all applicants for the vegetable workshop or the consulting program. Each program attracted farmers from a broad region, with some farmers traveling three hours or more to take part in our unique offerings. Farmers came from 10 states and provinces for the advanced organic vegetable workshop.
In his all-day seminar, Joel Salatin stimulated a lot of excitement for a paradigm shift among a segment of the farming community. With his finely honed presentation skills, he addressed everything from biological design of farming systems to entrepreneurship and making farming family-friendly and enjoyable. To complement Joel’s talks, we presented an after-lunch panel with three area farmers (two of whom served in our consulting program) who graze animals and, in two cases, have thriving direct marketing businesses. It was valuable to be able to introduce these relatively local examples to the audience. One of these farmers, Troy Bishopp, is a contract grazier who manages 300 beef cattle (and previously dairy heifers) on rented and borrowed land in addition to holding a full-time job.
Because we were able to bring in well known farmers from another region, the organic vegetable farming workshop attracted an especially advanced group who expressed much appreciation for what they learned from the presenters and one another through the high level of discussion it stimulated. By receiving a subsidy to bring farmers in from the upper Midwest, we were able to introduce northeastern farmers to new role models for medium- to large-scale vegetable production. There are relatively few farmers achieving this scale in the Northeast, though a number are interested in doing so. This was the third year we offered a two- or three-day in-depth workshop led by several accomplished farmers, and many farmers return each year for the community and learning they find.
The farm-raised meat marketing and business development course attracted a farmers motivated to overcome their obstacles to profitable marketing. While we had expected to adapt the Branding Your Beliefs curriculum developed under a Fund for Rural America grant with Lorenz Meats in Minnesota, the course instructor quickly determined that much of that program would not be relevant in the Northeast, where large-scale commodity production of pork and cattle is rare. (Only the first of four modules of the curriculum had been developed when we wrote this SARE grant.)
Instead, the instructor developed a course that addressed most of the topics and many of the concepts covered by Branding Your Beliefs, but in a context relevant for both newer and smaller-scale farmers. She also incorporated Holistic Management concepts and procedures that she has adapted and uses on her own farm. Participants worked on their farm goals with their families and partners and also developed new skills and tools for making financial decisions and effective marketing. The class included a visit to a meat processing plant to learn about how to work with processors, and a session led by a graphic designer and public relations consultant.
The farmer-to-farmer consulting program proved to be a well designed program which met an important need. The intensity of one-to-one contact it provided was very valuable. Almost all farmer consultees reported that their consultants helped them take major steps toward their farm viability goal. Participants recommended that the program be expanded from 12 hours of contact time to up to 42 hours over two years. Almost all consultees and consultants returned a three-page questionnaire; an evaluation meeting was held, enabling us to produce and disseminate a booklet about the program to sustainable farming leaders, organizations, and agencies.
Impacts and potential contributions
A number of individuals attending the Joel Salatin program have gone on to participate in other programs we offered. His stories and presence were memorable and served as a pivotal event. Salatin’s talks planted a seed for many, enabling them to think more creatively about their options and potential in agriculture.
The organic vegetable farming workshop raised the level of discussion among organic vegetable growers and helped cement an ongoing learning community and important network in the northeast organic farming community. It also set a standard of excellence in workshops that we have to strive to meet or exceed with each of our winter workshops for that audience.
The livestock marketing and business development course was very helpful to many of the farmers who took it. It helped them clarify their goals and priorities, plan for success, and become better marketers. We have ongoing contact with the majority of class participants, and also did a late fall follow-up phone survey with some of them. We also learned how to make this sort of class more effective by revising the scheduling (the later classes conflicted with the farming season) to modifying the content. Building on the experience of this course, we are now collaborating with Cooperative Extension on a farm entrepreneurial course for vegetable growers. We are convinced of the necessity of this type of education and expect to offer another such a course, possibly an amalgamation of the livestock and vegetable courses, in 2002.
Participants in the farmer-to-farmer consulting program reported a number of positive impacts:
Improved profitability and farm viability: Consultees reduced input costs and labor time, avoided costly mistakes, expanded their productive capacity, and improved marketing. Consultants supplied a needed reality check to assist less experienced farmers in prioritizing their problems. The two accomplished farm couples who received consulting help made big strides in overcoming weak links (mechanization, and financial planning for greater profitability).
Clarifying goals, plans, and needs: Consultants were able to help some of the newer farmers develop their vision, set goals, and make plans. Even after the program’s end, some will work with their consultees in post-season evaluation and planning for next year.
Practical help: Consultants tapped their own networks to help consultees find appropriate equipment and services, and also provided instruction and helped create infrastructure.
Strengthening the social fabric in agriculture: Most of the consultees expect to stay in contact with their consultants, who will sometimes continue as mentors. Most of the consultants gained a strong sense of satisfaction from the progress made by their consultees and from the relationships themselves. One consultant wrote, “I feel that I will have a lifetime relationship with both of these farms.”
In light of its enthusiastic reception among most consultees and consultants, and its impressive success in guiding its farmer participants, the consulting program will be continued this coming year, and hopefully for many years to come.
Here’s the story of one farmer who participated in three out of four of these programs:
Judy Pangman is married to Frank Johnson, a former dairy farmer. They are purchasing a portion of his family’s former dairy farm. They have a very small maple business. While Frank currently works off the farm, their goal is for him to be able to work full-time on the farm, without dairy farming. In March 1999 they attended a RFFP-sponsored visioning day in their county that introduced them to our organization and its resources.
In November 1999, they attended the Salatin program. Through that seminar, they acquired new ideas about grazing, possible farming enterprises, and marketing, as well as hope that they would be able to achieve their dream. Thus inspired, they joined the RFFP’s new farmers’ market, 50 miles from their rural home, purchased feeder pigs and steers, and worked out a heifer grazing contract with the dairy farmer renting some of their land. Judy also took the Farm-Raised Meat Marketing course and, as a couple, they joined the farmer-to-farmer consulting program.
They had one of the best booths at the farmers’ market and had trouble meeting the demand for their pork (the beef wasn’t ready yet). They began holding occasional farm sale days in the winter when the market was not in session. In developing a management-intensive grazing system, they overcame poor grass and exceptionally wet weather with the help of their consultant. The dairy farmer with whom they have contracted to raise heifers was at first dubious about grazing, but now he is convinced, as their heifers were excellent. They will raise more this year. In short, these three programs contributed substantially to the making of a viable farming enterprise that in several years will return real income.
Reported January 2001