Knowing who knows: Beginning farmers need a strong network

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An illustration of multiple farmers.
Farmers wear a lot of hats. It's not easy, but building a network of support can help.

Some would call farmers the ultimate jacks — or jills — of all trades. They don’t just grow plants or raise livestock. They create business plans. They market their products. They maintain equipment.

If that sounds overwhelming to you, you’re not the only one who thinks so. It’s a lot to learn, especially for first generation farmers, who didn’t grow up around agriculture.

But when it comes to farming, it’s not just about what you know — it’s who you know, and what they know.

“You don’t need to know everything,” said Ginnette Simko, who leads Countryside’s New Farmer Academy, in Peninsula, Ohio. “You just need to know who knows.”

Various programs and workshops aim to teach farmers the basics: how to come up with a business plan, how to get a loan, what federal or state programs they can use, how to grow a particular crop or raise livestock.

But networking and some type of on-farm experience are also incredibly important for new farmers, though paid internships and farm hand positions are hard to come by.

“I often tell people that it is much wiser to make mistakes on someone else’s farm than to make them on your own,” said Rachel Tayse, coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association’s Begin Farming program. “You can also learn a lot faster working with someone who made mistakes already.”

Building networks

As a farmer, you wear a lot of hats. But you don’t have to do it all yourself. Find an accountant, a lawyer, a financial adviser, an agronomist or partner with a farmer with similar interests.

Finding the right network can be a challenge. Megan and Tyrone Brannon, of Olde Tyme Farms, in Sugarcreek, have learned a lot through Ohio Farm Bureau Young Agricultural Professionals conferences and other events. Neither of them grew up in farming families, but they did grow up in 4-H, and their parents were farm bureau members.

But Countryside’s interns often don’t see themselves as belonging in groups like the farm bureau, Simko said. Most don’t come from rural areas and didn’t grow up around farms or in 4-H or FFA. Many plan to work on or start small, sustainable farms. They may not feel like they fit in with networks of established farmers.

“I think that on both sides there, there are some inroads that need to be made to each other,” Simko said. “I think that we need to all see that we … all have things to learn from each other.”

That’s one benefit of Farm Credit Mid-America’s Growing Forward program, said Seth Wilkerson, of Farm Credit Mid-America. On the surface, it’s about financial literacy. But, it’s also about connecting with others in the same position.

“You get 200-300 young people in the same room together, facing the same challenges,” Wilkerson said. “There were so many business partnerships that came out of that.”

That’s also a main strength of Ohio State University Extension’s New and Small Farm College program, said Tony Nye, who directs the statewide program. It brings in experts on a range of topics, focusing mainly on business management.

But participants also talk to each other about their ideas and questions. The program draws not just new farmers, but also older farmers who are looking to try something new on their farms.

“The networking and communities between participants … that’s what makes it a success,” Nye said.

Working on other farms and talking to other farmers can help aspiring farmers figure out whether farming is the right choice for them. If it isn’t, it’s better to know before getting started, Nye said.

“I had a young couple come up and say ‘we were looking at buying ground. Because of your program, we’ve decided it’s not for us,’” Nye said. “They saved themselves thousands of dollars and made a choice that they won’t regret … That, to me, is a great success.”

Business planning

Farming isn’t just a business, but it isn’t just a way of life, either. It’s both. And that means, in addition to knowing how to farm, you need to know how to run a business.

I think that farming is something that is so romanticized … that sometimes it can be hard, when you’re getting into it, to get a sense of what’s really doable.

Farm Credit Mid-America’s program offers relaxed underwriting standards and access to capital for beginning farmers. All they have to do is complete a business plan and attend a two-day financial education conference.

“When we say that, the customer’s eyes usually roll back into their heads,” said Micah Mensing, a specialist with the program. “By day two, the customers say ‘if you held another one tomorrow, I’d be back.’ It positions them to speak the same language as their financial partners.”

National Farmers Union beginning farmer programs focus on similar topics. They’re not going to teach you how to farm, but they will teach you how to run a business, said Emma Lindberg, education director with National Farmers Union.

“For some individuals and consumers, they don’t put the farm and the business together,” Lindberg said. “We want to make sure our farmers are connecting the two.”

NFU’s Beginning Farmer Institutes bring together cohorts of beginning farmers across the country to meet three times a year. They connect the new farmers with experts on insurance, labor, business formation, business planning, land access and cooperatives, Lindberg said.

There’s more than one way to build a business. Cooperatives are a big part of building up new farmers, Lindberg said. Or really, farmers of any age. They’re doing more work on cooperative development at the national level. They see it as a way to tackle many issues, like land access, lack of resources and marketing.

“If farmers come together and cooperate and build this business together, they’re able to have more control over what happens in the market and what happens in their community better,” Lindberg said. “They have more power and can stand up to other businesses that are around.”

Hands in the dirt

Ultimately, though, learning to farm takes time and real life experience. That’s why mentorship is important.

Em Evans started working as an assistant farm manager for Living City Farms, in Akron, two years ago after completing an internship through Countryside. They didn’t grow up in a farming family. They’ve been learning from the farm manager at Living City Farms, Steve Larson, in addition to staying connected with mentor farmers in the Countryside program.

“It’s so important for people to have that mentorship to ground into,” Evans said.

That’s partly why Evans decided to return to the Countryside program again, this time as a mentor.

“The only thing I say I wish I would have had is an LGBTQ mentor,” said Evans, who is a nonbinary and transgender person. “I don’t think I’ve known any older farmers who are queer, and you know, it’s hard to imagine yourself succeeding in a profession when you just don’t have anyone like you to look up to.”

Seeds sprouting in a starting tray.
Seeds sprout in a greenhouse at Living City Farms. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Knowing what you’re getting into is also important. From the outside, it’s hard to tell how successful a farm really is, as a business.

“I think that farming is something that is so romanticized … that sometimes it can be hard, when you’re getting into it, to get a sense of what’s really doable,” Evans said.

Though it isn’t necessarily hard to find farmers willing to mentor — Countryside currently has 17 mentor farmers in its network, with only six interns — it can be challenging to find people who are good at it.

The West Virginia Beginning Farmer Mentorship Program, which aims to help farmers become better mentors, was started last fall through a one-year Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, said Doolarie Singh-Knights, associate professor and extension specialist with West Virginia University.

“One of things we find is in order to grow farmers, one way to do that effectively is to connect them with people in the field,” Singh-Knights said.

There are some mentorship programs in the state, mostly informal ones. But great farmers don’t always make great mentors. So, Singh-Knights and her team are developing a formal curriculum mentors can follow to know they are covering everything a new farmer needs to know.

Creating the curriculum is just the first step. They hope to get another grant, this one for three years, to launch the program. There will be classroom time and workshops, in addition to being matched with a mentor farm to get hands-on practical experience, she said. Both mentors and mentees will be paid for their time in the program.

“It’s not like you can do a night course and learn how to farm. You have to be there, boots on the ground, hands in the dirt,” Singh-Knights said.

Cost of education

But there’s a cost to learning how to farm. Internships and apprenticeships take time, and not all of them pay interns.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do it if it hadn’t been paid,” Evans said.

We have to create conditions where farmers make enough money to pay employees.

Countryside’s program pays interns just over $10 per hour. But interns can only work a maximum of 30 hours per week from about March through November. Most either need another source of income, or support from someone else with income, while they’re in the program.

“It’s not even full time or year round,” Simko said. “We’re trying to think about models for the future that would enable year round, full time positions.”

Countryside is considering a wage sharing model with mentor farmers, and seeking more funding to expand the program. It’s hard for farms to pay interns or apprentices when they aren’t making enough money to hire workers, so the program is trying to fill that gap.

Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, tries to fill the gap in a different way, by connecting organic farmers with people interested in volunteering on organic farms. People who use the platform temporarily live and work — for room and board, but otherwise unpaid — on a farm. They stay anywhere from a few days to an entire growing season, typically working about 4-6 hours per day.

It’s a fairly popular way for small organic farms and homesteads, who may not yet be able to hire employees, to find cheap labor. About 1,700 U.S. organic farms are registered with the program, and 13,000 people are actively registered as guests. Host farmers in the network often say they rely on guests through WWOOF to get through busy parts of the year.

Lucas Williamson, of Williamson Farm, in Bethel, Ohio, spent about six months visiting farms through the program a few years ago, before starting his own farm.

Williamson treated the program like an internship. He visited several farms in western states, and one in Thailand. He knows that isn’t an option for everyone.

“In reality, I had passive income and had a way to travel for six months on an ‘extended vacation,’” he said. “The whole time, I was considering, what am I going to do on my property?”

Now, he’s on the other side of the program as a host. The program helped him learn a lot about farming, and he wants to offer that opportunity to other people. It also helps him out as a farmer, since it gives him a few extra pairs of hands for working around the farm.

But that kind of experience isn’t an option for everyone. Some can’t afford to travel, or to work only for room and board. And is it really sustainable for farmers to rely on unpaid labor long term? Or for third parties and nonprofits to subsidize interns and farm hands?

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” Simko said. “We have to create conditions where farmers make enough money to pay employees. That’s what I think it comes down to.”

(Reporter Sarah Donaldson can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com. Reporter Rachel Wagoner contributed to this story.)

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