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Farm Beginnings, MOSES Conference key to setting new farmers on path to success

By Brian DeVore, Land Stewardship Project

When she graduated from the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) Farm Beginnings course in 2011, Hannah Breckbill had solid grounding in how to develop a business and marketing plan, set goals, and develop networks with other farmers who were interested in organic, regenerative food production. She’s not alone.

Since it was launched in 1997, 860 people have passed through Farm Beginnings classes in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the USDA has used it as a template for its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a national initiative that supports community-based farmer training. The course also spawned the Farm Beginnings Collaborative, which has brought the Farm Beginnings curriculum to communities in over 10 states.

As the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter, I’ve written dozens of profiles of Farm Beginnings grads, and they consistently credit the course with setting them on a solid agricultural path. What is clear is that the Farm Beginnings approach—community-based and steeped in the use of farmer-to-farmer education—is an effective way to pass on the management skills needed to make a go of it in regenerative agriculture.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, even the best training is not enough. Well-prepared, hardworking beginning farmers are running into a seemingly impenetrable wall when it comes to achieving their dreams: lack of access to land. Inflated real estate prices, buoyed by government policy that prioritizes the production of a handful of commodity crops, is a big reason for this barrier. Another major land access roadblock is even more vexing, and that’s because it has to do with people’s attitudes and views of the future. Policy can be reformed—getting people to believe there are opportunities for the next generation is something else.

I’ve lost count of the number of older and retiring farmers I’ve run into over the years who feel they are the last of a dying breed: entrepreneurial farmers who can make a fulltime living on the land. After all, the trend towards bigger farms operated by fewer people is a dark shadow that’s long hung over the land. Pile on top of that the extreme economic crisis agriculture is reeling from right now, and no wonder the older generation lacks optimism. More than once farmers have shared this sentiment with me: “Why help out the next generation by selling or renting them land? We’d just be setting them up for failure.”

Pretty daunting, huh? However, because of LSP’s deep experience with regenerative agriculture and beginning farmers, we believe there are opportunities available for those willing to utilize creative production, management, and marketing strategies to produce food for eaters who want to support a certain kind of agriculture.

That’s why we offer our Farm Beginnings classes, such as the one that will be convening in Menomonie, Wisconsin, this fall. It also means tackling the land access issue head-on. We are working to reform crop insurance and return it to its roots as a safety net, rather than a program that subsidizes economically and environmentally risky behavior, all while putting land out of reach for beginning farmers. We are also putting on workshops for retiring farmers seeking to transition their operations to a new generation that wants to do more than bulldoze a farmstead to expand a corn field.

One group we have been focusing on is “non-operating landowners”—they aren’t active farmers, but they control a lot of farmland. In kitchen table conversations with these folks, we’re learning that many of them are extremely interested in having their acres farmed by someone who will treat the soil well and in general is a good steward. Surveys of our Farm Beginnings graduates show the majority of them fit this description. That’s why we’ve been holding workshops and developing resources that help landowners and stewardship-minded farmers build relationships. Too often, these two groups are two ships passing in the night.

Finally, it’s become clear that new land ownership models are needed. LSP is researching alternative access scenarios that rely on trusts, community partnerships, and cooperative models, among other things. And that brings us back to Hannah Breckbill. Like other Farm Beginnings grads, Breckbill found it difficult to find land. She worked on a farm in Texas and moved her budding vegetable operation from land she borrowed in Minnesota to land she borrowed in Iowa. By 2014, she was tired of being a transient farmer. Fortunately, she connected with some folks in northeastern Iowa’s Winneshiek County who were attempting to save 22 acres from being bought by a factory hog farm.

Through a combination of luck and intentionality, Breckbill and her second cousin, Emily Fagan, are now on their way to owning that entire 22 acres, where they are already raising organic vegetables and pastured livestock. Breckbill and Fagan have made Humble Hands Harvest into a worker-owned cooperative, and they have plans to bring in other farming partners. Breckbill feels one thing that has gotten small- and medium-sized farms in trouble is that many lack an exit strategy. Forming a cooperative that has a life beyond any individual farmer is a way to create a relay system, one that avoids the problems which arise when an individual farmer moves on or dies.

“It’s just taking a big picture view of how this land looks in 50 years,” she told me recently.

Can this be a model for getting more beginning, regenerative farmers on the land? There were some unique circumstances in Winneshiek County that brought this partnership to fruition. However, when writing about this situation for LSP , what struck me was that the younger generation and the older generation each brought something to the table, and that’s something that can be replicated. For example, Breckbill had a vision for how the land could be farmed. That vision ran counter to the conventional wisdom of what is done with prime ag real estate, but it resonated with enough older residents to catch fire.

David Sliwa, a fruit producer who was one of the members of the LLC that rescued those 22 acres from factory farm purgatory, told me it was key that the person offering up a different vision for the land had already proven her farming chops.

“We had experience with farming over several years and we knew what it took to have a successful operation,” said Sliwa, who is in his late 70s.

But this isn’t just about one farmer carrying the day. Sliwa remembers attending the MOSES Organic Farming Conference three decades ago when it attracted less than 100 attendees. When he returned in 2019, there were over 3,000 participants, many of whom were young farmers who had plans similar to Breckbill’s. The young farmer’s vision for those 22 acres didn’t seem so out there after all.

Perhaps the most critical role LSP, MOSES, and other organizations interested in getting more regenerative farmers on the land can play is to provide the opportunity for the Hannah Breckbills of the world to not only have a new vision, but to take the practical steps needed to make it a reality. That’s why Farm Beginnings and the MOSES Conference play key roles, and not just for neophyte agrarians—the older generation needs access to that special combination of vision and practicality as well. Otherwise, how do we give them the kind of hope that fuels the future?

The Land Stewardship Project’s Brian DeVore is the author of the 2018 book, Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.


From the September | October 2019 Issue


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