Organic Broadcaster

Young farmers benefit from mentors’ experience

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Through the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program, Rich Toebe and Kim Cassano are helping Caleb and Lauren Langworthy lay a strong foundation for successful farming.
Photo submitted.

Caleb and Lauren Langworthy have been on their own land for only a couple of years, and know that the ground work they do now will make their job easier in the future. One line they share to keep going on an especially onerous task—like removing old barbed wired fences—is: “65-year-old me will thank ‘current me’ for doing this!” As participants in the 2014 MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentor­ing Program as well as the Land Stewardship Project Journeyperson Program, Caleb and Lauren are getting advice about both produc­tion and finances to help them build a strong foundation for a successful future in farming.

Kim Cassano and Rich Toebe of Catawba, Wis., are their MOSES mentors. They are helping Caleb and Lauren with a new enterprise on their farm: raising grass-fed, dual-use sheep (meat and wool). Caleb and Lauren have had experi­ence with sheep while custom graz­ing on other farms in the past, and have always planned to add live­stock to their organic vegetable business. They currently sell produce through a CSA, farmer’s market, and wholesale markets in West Cen­tral Wisconsin and the Twin Cities. They were accepted into the MOSES mentoring program a few months after their first 50 ewes arrived on the farm.

When pairing mentors and mentees for the program, MOSES looks for individuals who are geographically close, doing the same type of farming, and working on the same size farm, when possible. These challenging parameters sometimes mean that not every applicant can be assigned a mentor, or sometimes a mentor is asked to help mentees from more than one farm. Over the program’s seven-year history, we’ve found that having mentors and mentees within a couple hours’ drive of each other contributes greatly to the success of the yearlong mentoring relationship.

Caleb and Lauren farm outside Wheeler, Wis., about an hour and 45 minutes from Rich and Kim’s farm. They’ve already visited their mentor’s farm once, and had Rich and Kim to their place a handful of times. They also keep in touch through email and phone calls.

During one of the mentor visits, Caleb and Lauren discussed their plan to reconfigure the interior of their dairy barn to prepare it for the coming spring’s lambing season. Kim and Rich encouraged them to wait, stating that in their experience, it helped to have a few years of work­ing with moveable systems. Then, they can put in something permanent once they have refined their system. The mentees took this to heart, and rather than building permanent wooden lambing pens, they purchased and modified metal hog panels. The lower cost of this option, in both dollars and labor, has proved to be a great solution. In fact, after this years’ experi­ence, Caleb and Lauren are planning to try a different configuration next year, which would have been difficult and expensive if they had installed a more permanent setup.

Rich, who is the University of Wisconsin Rusk County Extension agent, is helping Lauren and Caleb establish a strong nutrition program for their small ruminants. He has been encouraging Caleb and Lauren to pursue detailed informa­tion concerning the nutritional needs of their flock at various stages of life—for example, nurs­ing ewes have different needs than gestating ewes. Rich could see that the hay they had har­vested might not meet the needs of their preg­nant yearling flock. They had hay samples tested to understand the nutrient availability and plugged the results into a nutrition worksheet supplied by Rich. After he explained how to use the spreadsheet, Caleb and Lau­ren were able to use it themselves to balance the diet for their sheep throughout the different stages of gestation and lactation.

This first lambing season—a time of stress on any sheep farm— went quite well. Caleb and Lauren attribute much of this success to the good nutrition program they developed with Rich and Kim’s guidance. The program helped both ewes and lambs come through the birthing process with minimal problems. They plan to continue testing forage and tweaking the nutrition program accordingly in the hopes of repeating this year’s positive outcomes in future years.

Over the course of their men­torship, Caleb and Lauren have reached out to their mentors by email and phone calls to share numerous challenges. For exam­ple, they took photos of animals whose health was in question and emailed them to Kim and Rich. The mentors would call back with a few potential causes, give advice for how to narrow the diagnosis, offer various options for treatment, and comforting reassur­ance when it was not a serious issue. As they’ve gone through the year together, Kim and Rich would offer insight into what to watch for in the weeks ahead. This helped Lauren and Caleb focus their awareness and gave them the oppor­tunity to “brush up” as much as possible before encountering the major struggles of the season.

A prolapsed uterus led to a somewhat pan­icked early morning call that Kim handled graciously. She had previously talked Lauren through the steps that needed to be done to save a ewe in this situation. Kim encouraged Lauren to have confidence in her ability to manage the situation, and checked back several times over the next few days on the status of the ewe and her lamb. It was just one of the many stories that ended well thanks to the collaboration of mentee and mentor. Kim said she felt gratified to pass on knowledge gained over many years of lamb­ing. She is also sharing her knowledge of preven­tive healthcare, as well as cultural management and recognizing the early signs of illness so that organically approved remedies can be used successfully.

From the start of their interactions, Kim and Rich have provided information to allow Caleb and Lauren to make their own decisions rather than telling them what to do. This approach is typical for MOSES mentors. Mentors visit their mentee’s farm within a few months of being paired, walking the fields and homestead to discuss the mentee’s vision for the farm and current issues. The mentee also is invited to see how the mentor’s farm operates. These shared farm visits help familiarize the participants with each other’s operation. Then, when they communicate by phone or email about an issue, they each can picture where and why a problem may be occur­ring. Discussions also include building upon successes and tracking the positive occurrences on the farm. ­

MOSES mentors help their mentees with many aspects of their operation in addition to production. They might discuss infrastructure and capital improvements, marketing, and business planning. The LSP Journeyperson Program provides a financial manager to gradu­ates of the LSP Farm Beginnings program at the same time they are getting advice from a MOSES mentor. Caleb and Lauren look to the financial manager for business decisions, but also take advantage of Kim and Rich’s years of experience with direct marketing meat.

This is Rich and Kim’s second time as men­tors in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Men­toring Program. They said they find it very rewarding.

“It took us years of study and experimenta­tion to put together a set of tools that allowed us to manage our flock’s health without antibiot­ics or wormers,” Kim said. “It’s nice to be able to share those tools and to think it might help someone else starting out.”

Over the years, numerous mentees have said that the mentoring program helped their operation mature more quickly than if they had learned all of their lessons on their own. Men­tors typically say they also learn from their mentees. Kim and Rich have enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm and focus that Caleb and Lauren bring to their enterprises.

“We’ve appreciated the reminder to keep look­ing for new solutions and to try to see our own farm from new perspectives— something we did more often when we first started farming ourselves,” Kim added.

Lauren Langworthy enjoys raising sheep. Through the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program, she’s gained confidence in her ability to manager her flock.
Photo submitted.

In addition to the one-to-one benefits, the MOSES mentoring pro­gram also helps participants connect with the larger organic community.

They all recog­nize the value of a program that has helped hundreds of families become successful farmers. Mentors often say they remember being mentored by others when they started out, but in a much more informal way. They enthusias­tically enter the MOSES mentoring program, hoping to give others the benefit of their experi­ence and hard lessons they have learned over the years. By sharing their own stories with their mentees, they hope to breed success on yet another organic farm.

“I’ve been involved in this program from both sides, as a mentor and a mentee,” Kim explained. “Although our farm really benefitted from having a mentor, I think we are gaining just as much from this experience as we try to apply the things we’ve learned over the years to the different set of issues that this farm faces.”

In the future when they have more sys­tems of their own in place, Lauren and Caleb might want to come back as mentors. For now, though, they are grateful to their mentors and the program for boosting their knowledge and skills—things they appreciate now and are likely to still appreciate when their 65-year-old selves look back at today.

Information and applications to participate as a mentee or mentor in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program are on the MOSES website under Projects. To request application materials by mail, contact Harriet Behar, MOSES Organic Specialist, at 715-778-5775.

Harriet Behar is an Organic Specialist at MOSES. She manages the Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program. She is also a certified organic farmer.

From the September | October 2014 Issue

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