By Parker Forsell
“Contrary to popular assumption, good farmers are not in any simple way part of the ‘labor force.’ Good farmers, like good musicians, must be raised to the trade.” (Another Turn of the Crank–Wendell Berry)
The Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project (LSP) is excited to announce the Farm Beginnings Journeyperson Course, a new opportunity planned to help beginning farmers succeed through the middle years of farm start-up. Sign-up for the 2014 program closes on Sept. 16, with spots for up to 15 farms.
Identifying the Need
LSP’s Farm Beginnings® Program is a training program for new farmers that is farmer-led, community-based and focused on sustainable agriculture. Since its start in 1998 in Minnesota, Farm Beginnings has graduated 622 beginning farmers and farmers transitioning from other production models. In the 10-month course, farmers learn firsthand about whole farm planning, low-cost, sustainable farming methods, and develop a strategic farm plan. For many of these individuals, the Farm Beginnings course represents the beginning of a 5-10 year journey toward establishing a viable farm enterprise.
Although satisfied with Farm Beginnings’ success, LSP staff wanted to do more to help new farmers succeed. In July 2012 Farm Beginnings graduates completed a survey that identified their needs as they begin to farm. This survey confirmed LSP’s observation that there are unique challenges for beginning farmers in years 3 to 5 of their farm start-up. Specifically the survey showed that beginning farmers in this phase of development need one-on-one mentoring, farm-based production skills and financial management skills (recordkeeping, accounting, etc.). These three areas were closely followed by securing financing and capital.
The survey results didn’t surprise us as, in 15 years of running Farm Beginnings and over 10 years of administering a Livestock Loan program, we have learned that long-term success for beginning farmers must be based on good financial management practices. We know that the best way to learn these practices is with support from mentors and resource people who will sit down at the kitchen table to look over numbers.
For strategies on how to respond to these needs, LSP gathered ideas and inspiration from our farmer steering committee, in conversations with organizations like MOSES and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities – Farm Business Management educators, and through the Farm Beginning Collaborative, a national alliance of independent regional groups of farmers and farmer-training support organizations working together to promote Farm Beginnings. We learned about a unique approach to supporting 3-5 year beginning farmers from the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (MOFGA), a new member of the Farm Beginnings Collaborative. MOFGA’s Journeyperson Program, started in Maine in 1999, has been a core component in their success in getting more farmers on the land.
Modeled after MOFGA’s successful program, the LSP Journeyperson Course has been created to fill the continuing education gap between farm start-up and farm establishment. The goal is to provide resources and opportunities for beginning farmers who have completed some initial farm planning and have gained some experience on their own, but feel a need to further develop the skills to farm independently and successfully. The program is largely shaped by the farming interests and goals of the participants, and is intended to enable aspiring new farmers to gain advanced farming experience, skill, and perspective in the relatively safe and supportive environment of a peer-to-peer learning network. Journey people also benefit from participating in the LSP Farmer Network, which includes over 150 farms with everywhere from one year to decades of experience.
It Takes a Community
One of the successes of the Farm Beginnings training program is an intentional approach to connect participants as peers, through one-on-one and group work throughout the course. With the majority of presenters being farmers, the peer networking that happens during Farm Beginnings separates the course from other farm planning or business planning courses.
When students graduate from the course, an informal community is maintained through field days, workshops, and farm visits available through the farmer network. The new Journeyperson Course aims to build on this, creating a more formal continuing community through peer-to-peer networking and one-on-one mentoring from an experienced farmer and a financial advisor. Each participant in the program will network with another participant through monthly phone calls and periodic visits. LSP staff will organize two group retreats, one around winter planning and one around seasonal wrap-up.
The course would not be possible without the added community of other organizations that LSP has looked to for support and training in the past. The MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Organic University, Mentorship Program and field days have been invaluable to Farm Beginnings graduates. LSP is excited to further solidify our long-time partnership through the Journeyperson Course–where each farm participant will be paired with an experienced farmer mentor in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program.
Minnesota and Wisconsin Farm Business Management advisors have been a key asset for many Farm Beginnings graduates in setting up and monitoring record-keeping and financial systems. The Journeyperson Course will provide access to both a financial advisor and an experienced farmer, which will provide a solid foundation for beginning farmers ready to plan their next stage of growth.
With these key partnerships, LSP is able to do what we do best: organize the community, assure networking is occurring between mentor farmer, financial advisor, and peer farmer, and facilitate connections in a way that moves the Journeyperson nearer to his or her farming goals.
Capitalizing the Farm
Journeypeople will also be able to enroll in a Matched Savings Account through LSP, to help in building assets that can allow them to scale-up their new farm businesses. A matched savings account for Journeypersons offers a combination of money and education. Participants save a given amount during the life of the program, while completing a detailed financial plan that helps them determine where best to invest their matching fund at the end of the course. The Matched Savings Account will help beginning farmers develop good record keeping practices while saving money for an important asset and developing a record of the actual performance of their business.
The Farm Beginnings Matched Savings Account will provide a 100% match of up to $2,400. The participant is expected to save on a monthly basis, up to $100/month over a 24-month period. During that period, the participants are required to participate in and complete the educational requirements within the Farm Beginnings Journeyperson Course, and to develop financial plans for each year during the course.
Becoming a Journeyperson
LSP expects all people who go through the Journeyperson Course to enter into an agreement with us describing their goals and objectives for the course; to complete full farm plans; and to participate in a loose curriculum that includes regular mentor, financial advisor, and peer meetings and workshop attendance. Participants pay tuition and assume additional expenses for food and lodging connected to the two planning retreats.
While graduates of the LSP Farm Beginnings Course are in the best position to take the next step with the Journeyperson Course, it is not a requirement for application. Farmers with 2-3 years of production and planning experience are also encouraged to apply. The application is detailed and requires a certain level of commitment to farm planning.
The application cycle runs May to September and starts with a meeting with your Farm Business Management advisor and a winter planning retreat. Up to 15 farms will be accepted to the program each calendar year.
Anyone considering applying for the course should feel free to get in touch with LSP staff members Richard Ness (320-269-2105) or Parker Forsell (507-523-3366). Visit our website for more information on the LSP Journeyperson Course.
Parker Forsell is the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Organizer.