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Dayna Burtness, center, has opened her farm to beginning farmers Bailey Lutz, left, and Heidi Eger through an innovative incubator model. Photo by Madison Lutz

‘Incubator’ program helps beginning farmers access land, equipment, more

By Dayna Burtness

In early spring 2019, we launched an incubator farm program at our southeastern Minnesota farmstead, Nettle Valley Farm. Since I mentioned our plan to “pay it forward” when I gave a keynote talk at the 2019 MOSES Organic Farming Conference, I’m following up to share how this first year has gone.

First, let me provide some background on this program. My husband, Nick, and I have benefited from a ton of privilege, family support, and good luck in our lives. My growing, direct-marketed pastured pig enterprise is profitable and Nick has a great off-farm job with benefits. We’ve intentionally invested in extra land, house, and infrastructure (big farmhouse with barns plus 67 acres of grazeable woods and pasture) so we would have room to share our farm. How to share it has always been the question.

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d be the kind of person who’d be free of control and ego issues, feel comfortable with consensus decision-making, and banish any need for hierarchy. But I know myself well enough to know that deep down, that’s not me, not yet. When it comes to my need for security, safety, and control, I’ve got some work to do. There are too many stories out there of big utopian commune dreams dashed by these very issues and I refuse to let our farm become yet another example of good intentions ruined by poor communication and lack of self-awareness or accountability.

So, when Nick and I envisioned the program, we knew we wanted to make it clear from the get-go what this isn’t: not an internship, apprenticeship, commune, cooperative, job, collective or intentional community. (All those models are awesome, but they aren’t for us.) What it is: a place where beginning farmers with experience and their own LLCs, business insurance, funding, and markets can farm for 1-3 seasons as they prepare to secure their own farms, hopefully nearby.

Also, neither of us has the temperament or skills to manage a nonprofit; the time, money and energy spent on managing the program is our gift. The program has no formal structure outside of our farm LLC. (We did receive an amazing $800 donation from a group of generous souls despite the fact they can’t write it off. We spent it on poultry processing equipment for the incubatees and now the plucker, knives, and cones have become a community asset that we lend out to other farmers—so thank you, donors!)

Incubatees have access to land, barn/shop/storage space, electricity, and well water, power and hand tools, our UTV, big farming library, low-interest loans, joint marketing opportunities and any business/farming knowledge we’ve accumulated thus far. They can use our livestock trailers and 4WD truck for a mileage reimbursement rate. Incubatees can also rent a room in our farmhouse and join in the group food and cooking plan, but it’s not required. In return, we asked them for about 5 hours a week helping us out with our pastured pigs and projects like building perennial beds and fencing. (Read on for why we’re changing that for 2020.)

After a rough start this spring (our first incubatee didn’t work out), we settled into a great rhythm with our second and third incubatees: Bailey Lutz from Listenmore Farm and Heidi Eger from Radicle Heart Farm. Bailey found us through a mutual friend. She has a herd of Kiko goats and two flocks of heritage breed ducks (one for meat, one for eggs). Heidi, who I met at a MOSES field day, has a flock of Katahdin-Dorper hair sheep and raised two batches of 50 pastured Freedom Ranger meat chickens.

Initially, there was certainly an adjustment period for us—we were used to the UTV always being available, the ability to move our pigs everywhere in the valley, and I was out of practice when it came to getting organized enough to lead a workday with others after being a solo farmer for years.

It was an adjustment for Heidi and Bailey, too. We quickly discovered hidden expectations that hadn’t been made explicit. For instance, my philosophy for incubatees is that when it comes to an idea for an enterprise, I will share my advice and opinions, but then I will stand back and let the incubatee make their own decisions…and mistakes. Turns out Heidi was expecting an incubator farm to be more like an egg incubator—safe and protected from risk. Major difference!

I’m happy to report that overall, the first season of our incubator farm has been a success from our perspective. (Heidi and Bailey share their perspectives at the end of this story.) It has been a joy to learn about other types of livestock and have more co-conspirators around for brainstorming and problem-solving. Additionally, the pasture and woods are improving due to grazing their sheep and goats.

Honestly, the vast majority of the success can be attributed to the type of humans Bailey and Heidi are: community-oriented, communicative, self-aware, and generally delightful. Beyond that, however, there are some practices and systems that helped us have a successful first season.

First, to set the tone and build some trust before the season started, we had a full day of exercises and conversations facilitated by our friend and fellow livestock farmer Martha McFarland from Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch. We ended the day with a list of agreements about how we’d treat one another as well as a document about house and farm rules.

Second, we co-created simple systems that helped us live and farm well together on a daily basis. We started the season with formal check-ins every other week which changed to an as-needed basis by midseason.

Heidi made us a neat Google Map where we tracked of all our paddock shifts in order to manage parasites, forage regrowth, and interspecies conflicts. (Goats could follow pigs in the woods, for example, but sheep would have a hard time finding enough to eat in a pasture paddock after a week of pigs.)

Other simple tools we used included a shared online calendar as well as a whiteboard where each of us signs up for a night to cook dinner and list groceries or supplies the house needs.

Third, we asked Martha to also serve as an outside sounding board and mediator in case any really large conflicts came up that couldn’t be dealt with internally. In other words, I wanted to make sure that Heidi and Bailey had a point person to talk to if they didn’t feel comfortable discussing something with Nick and me and give that person full authority to tell us to shape up if need be.

Fourth, we made sure the farm ecosystem is made up of complementary enterprises. We are thinking of adding a third incubatee next year, but would have to be very cautious to make sure their enterprise is a good fit.

I don’t want to make it sound like it was all smooth sailing—it wasn’t. Some things didn’t work. Remember that 5 hours a week of help we asked of the incubatees? We gave them a list of tasks to work from whenever they wanted. However, with both of them working off-farm jobs and their own livestock chores, it was too easy to put those hours off. Midseason, we revamped the hours into a half a day each week during which each incubatee would work with me on projects, but between all of our work/life schedules and unpredictable weather, this was difficult as well. This fall we are going to have another facilitated session with Martha and get ideas for how to revamp this in a way that works for everyone.

Another challenge: We all started getting worn out at the same time this fall and our systems suffered. At the very moment I should have been stepping up as the incubator farm program manager to put extra time and energy into supporting our systems, I was hitting a wall. I need to plan for the End of Season Slump—that means streamlining my pastured pig systems so I have more energy, which is something I need to be doing anyway!

Even with all the challenges and risks involved, we have a long-term commitment to this incubator farm program model. If this sounds like something you’d like to try on your farm or if you have ideas for how we can improve, please get in touch: nettlevalleyfarm@gmail.com.

Dayna Burtness and her husband, Nick Nguyen, own Nettle Valley Farm in southeast Minnesota.

Perfect Solution
By Heidi Eger
I have worked and learned on other folks’ farms over the course of seven seasons. This season, I was at a point where I needed to test my skills and experience more of the stress involved with running a farm business. Could I handle the stress or would I decide farming was not actually for me? As an extrovert, I knew that just renting a patch of pasture would be disastrous. Nettle Valley’s incubator farm was the perfect solution with access to pasture plus a house full of cool people working and thinking about similar things.

I got what I asked for when one of my ewes got infections in her udder and uterus immediately after lambing. It is incredibly stressful to see an animal whose wellbeing is your responsibility suffer. I called the vet and treated the ewe. Through it all, the house community listened empathetically to me agonize over different options, kept me fed with delicious food, and distracted me with garage-sale shopping when the treatment wasn’t enough to save my ewe.

I think the Nettle Valley Farm incubator program has been successful for a number of reasons: communication skills, compatibility of enterprises, broader community network, available time resources, and luck. Our first meeting with a trained facilitator set the tone for our communication and helped us all consciously recognize that communication was key to the success of the program. Dayna and Nick are honest and straightforward and expect the same of us. I think it has also been helpful that Bailey and I bring enterprises that are not a specialty for either Nick or Dayna. We all have more to learn about grazing our respective species, but are connected by a desire to improve the health of the valley.

It has also been wonderful to be part of an incubator farm community that is an active member of the wider community. Many farms I have worked on have felt isolated from an intern’s perspective. Here, we know and visit with our neighbors, have folks over to dinner every week, and attend community events. Having fun, social reasons to get off the farm gives us all a chance to take a break from the unavoidable small interpersonal annoyances present in any house that might otherwise build up. And honestly, I think we got lucky. We are a good mix of personalities and communication styles who recognize the importance of speaking up.

Opportunity to Challenge Myself
By Bailey Lutz
Though my prior experience was limited to a workshare in exchange for my CSA one season and full-time, season-long apprenticeship the following season, I knew I wanted to continue farming, but really struggled with the idea of following someone else’s direction. When I met Dayna and Nick and learned of the incubator program they were starting, I saw an opportunity to challenge myself to work within frameworks I was solely responsible for setting. I could try my hand at being a whole farmer: a businessperson, a laborer, an observer of all life, and a philosopher. I wanted to answer only to myself and the land.

I’ve gotten everything I’ve wanted and more from living and working at Nettle Valley. I’ve been able to abandon enterprises and take on my beautiful starter herd of Kiko goats that I was able to purchase with a loan from the incubator program. There have definitely been challenges in living and working in community, but our intentionality in establishing systems with a third-party facilitator has granted us the ability to comfortably navigate tricky situations. I’m thoroughly chuffed with myself for finding Nettle Valley and convincing its inhabitants to keep me around.

The highest and lowest points of the season have, for me, been very similar. I’ve found so much goodness, thoughtfulness, and skill-building in harvests of pigs, chickens, goats, ducks, and lambs within our farm community. And in those harvests, I’ve found room to embrace the sadness and conflict I feel in a lot of the work we do as livestock farmers. Similarly, the deaths of both goat kids and young ducks made me question my ability to keep things alive. However, caring for mysterious ailments in my mature animals reassures me that, though there will be many hard lessons to learn throughout the next however-many-decades I raise animals, it’ll be worth the heartache so long as I actually learn.

I think it’s imperative that, whatever kind of incubation program a farmer or landowner would establish, they are clear and explicit about expectations (of all kinds) and only work with farmer-incubatees who can wholly work within those expectations. If it’s a collaborative community, it needs to be clear how much room there is for consensus. If it’s a very strict “landlord-leasee” kind of thing, that needs to be clear too. Clear communication is the backbone of a successful program.

 

 

From the November | December 2019 Issue

 

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