By Lindsay Rebhan
New farmers are commonly challenged in finding support for training, land and capital investments. Beginning farmers may need to consider a large amount of debt in order to start their farm business. They may not have farming backgrounds, and have much to learn about business and production. One solution to filling the diverse needs of the next generation of farmers is through incubator farm programs.
An incubator farm offers land, technical assistance and equipment for beginning farmers during the critical early years of start-up. There are only a few incubator farms in the Midwest. Organic Field School in Northfield, Minn., is one. Organic Field School (OFS) is a 501c3 nonprofit of the Wedge Community Co-op, hosted at Gardens of Eagan. Three farms are currently “incubating” at OFS: Fazenda Boa Terra, Bossy Acres, and Humble Pie. Both Bossy Acres and Humble Pie will start their first season at Organic Field School in 2013.
“We’re proud to welcome two such distinctive farms into our incubator program,” OFS Program Director, Allison Goin, said. “As OFS broadens its reach in the community, we know that farms like Bossy Acres and Humble Pie represent the future of our growing, robust organic farming community, and we’re looking forward to fostering these viable, independent farm businesses.”
Karla Pankow and Elizabeth Millard co-own Bossy Acres. This will be their second season farming, and their first at Organic Field School. An incubator program is “an environment that fosters education, experience and hands-on learning,” Karla explained. “It enables us to have the interaction, land, wealth of experience and a networking foundation. These local pioneers have opened a whole new world. Now we get to focus on farming. We can learn systems and efficiencies. It’s an umbrella of support to own and operate our business.”
John Middleton and Lidia Dungue co-own Fazenda Boa Terra. “This is our third season,” John said. “We moved in 2010 and founded the business while working at Gardens of Eagan. Our current operation is a CSA vegetable farm with 110+ varieties on five acres. We’ve done CSA farming for 10 years. There is a huge difference from being an employee to managing the books, understanding production, and running a business.”
Humble Pie Farm was started in 2012 by Jennifer Nelson and Mike Leck, both of whom gained organic farming experience as employees of Gardens of Eagan. In 2013, they will grow cut flowers and herbs at Organic Field School as a specialty add-on to CSA shares of Fazenda Boa Terra.
The incubator farm is “Land plus materials, support and resources–a safety net,” John explained. “Land access allows us to develop our business and clientle, without spending our nest egg on land, or taking out a large loan first. For example, we’ve purchased a post-harvest handling walk-in cooler and quality washable harvest totes. (Working in the incubator) allows us to do things the way we want to, and decreases our waste. We are able to invest in specialty equipment, so when we’re ready to buy a farm we’ll hit the ground running without having to do it all at once.”
An incubator farm’s available space, farm type and resources will dictate how the incubator program will operate. At Organic Field School, Fazenda Boa Terra joins with the other farms in purchasing items such as cover crop seed, row cover and irrigation supplies, to get better prices and save on shipping. John explains that the incubator farmers have easy access to supplies and are able to “pay for it as we need it.” John also appreciates being able to share greenhouse space, and being able to schedule equipment use. The opportunities for cross-pollination are great.
There’s a need for more incubator farms. The opportunity sets up a natural framework to connect experienced farms with beginning farmers. “It would be awesome to see more veteran farmers stepping up and giving an opportunity like this to new farmers,” Karla added. Gardens of Eagan was an incubator for Loon Organics, renting land, greenhouse space, tractor time, and mentoring support. “We heard about this experience, as Loon Organics was our mentor in the MOSES mentor program,” she said. “We started courting Gardens of Eagan and Organic Field School. It was a good fit and they let us on board. We are all learning together.”
This is going to be an amazing year for the Bossy ladies. “The smallest taste of this experience already has made us know we can’t imagine going back to our inefficient system of last season,” Karla said. “Driving to multiple sites, not having proper post harvest handling resources, working five times as hard. We feel like we won the lottery! Our time and energy is not diffused on extraneous things that are not farming. We’d probably be renting land, and poor land at that. It’s so much more than just land access–which was our big focus initially. Our operation last year was farming 1.5 acres inefficiently with 47 members and markets. This year at Organic Field School will be with three acres, 71 members, farmers markets and specialty markets.”
Aside from the land rental, Bossy Acres has access to high quality coolers, the pack shed, greenhouse, tractors, implements and irrigation at a subsidized cost. “We get advantages like bulk ordering. They have storage, fork lifts and we can place separate orders and get bulk volume items, compost, potting soil, vermiculite, poultry litter, organic fertilizer blends” Karla said. “Sometimes you just don’t know what you need. We are learning what parts/systems are sustainable and apply to our farm business, and what makes sense for when we leave in a few years. For example, we now have access to a $20,000 flat filler that fills 150 flats an hour. Last season we had a kiddie pool, bag compost, hand mixed with water and it took an entire day to do the same amount. We know we won’t have all the same quality equipment when we leave. For now we will marinate, gain experience, knowing what to save for, what we want and need.”
Karla reflected that “just being around experienced farmers, we have received so much knowledge. The exchange of information, sometimes just dialogue in passing and being in a like-minded community, means so much. Geography is also really important. The farming community in Northfield is bursting at the seams. The surrounding community of support and building relationships, it all trickles down and helps get resources in the hands of farmers.”
When asked about what will happen after the incubator experience, John explained that in general “everyone eventually takes the plunge, and buys a farm. In working with the incubator farm, the idea is you have more in place so transitioning to your own farm is less of a challenge. We aren’t paying a mortgage on a farm as we learn. Ideally we’ll be on solid financial ground, with established value, confidence in our production numbers, and have an existing base and market,” John pointed out. These will all be important when John and Lidia approach the Farm Service Agency for a loan for their own farm some day.
All this goodness begs the question–how can we mirror this experience for more future farmers in our community? Experienced farmers: are there beginning farmers in your area that you could help incubate in some way? Beginning farmers: we encourage you to seek out experienced farmers in your community and see how you could collaborate. In the meantime talk to your community about incubator models, check out www.organicfieldschool.org, and support the incubation happening there with donations.
Lindsay Rebhan works with Renewing the Countryside in partnership with MOSES on the New Organic Stewards project.