Living the small farm dream

Small Farm Conference helps producers develop farm plan

small farm conference tradeshow
Twenty-five vendors, exhibiting everything from small farm equipment to animal health products and financial resources, were on hand at the 2016 Northeast Ohio Small Farm Conference, April 2, at the OARDC, Wooster. Over 180 people attended the conference this year, a number that conference coordinator Tony Nye said continues to increase. (Catie Noyes photos)

WOOSTER, Ohio — Over 180 people attended the Small Farm Conference: Living the Small Farm Dream, April 2. Some were new to farm life while others were looking to diversify their existing operations and bring in a little extra income.

Nelson Hicks, of Orrville, said farming in his family skipped a generation after his grandfather got out of it. Hicks, who moved to Orrville from Canada during high school, wants to get something started again. “I think I have what it takes to be a larger production operation,” he said, but wants to go the small farm route, developing something sustainable for his family. The challenge: “Land is hard to come by,” he said.

Vic Yacapraro, of Wooster, on the other hand, has an established farm growing corn, soybeans and some hay. Yacapraro would like to find a way to diversify his current farm operation. “This is my second time to the conference,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn a little more.”

Tony Nye - Small Farm Conference
Tony Nye, OSU extension educator for Clinton County, and conference coordinator, welcomed over 180 guests to the Northeast Ohio Small Farm Conference. “Look at it as a small farm journey. We are here to help you on your journey,” he told conference goers, referring to the presenters covering topics on everything from berry production, to small livestock care, farm management, and niche market opportunities.

The conference

The 2016 Northeast Ohio Small Farm Conference took place at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). This was the second year for the conference to take place in Wooster. Farmers looking to start something new had their pick of livestock production sessions, fruit and vegetable production, farm management sessions and niche market opportunities, like mushroom growing and cheesemaking.

Tony Nye, OSU Extension educator in Clinton County and conference coordinator, said the conference formed out a series of Small Farm College programs offered in southern Ohio. “We found out there was an interest in things like strawberries and berry production. We just offered business analysis,” he said.

The conference offers ideas on what to produce on smaller acreage and how to be successful. “Making a living is a piece but not a priority” for those seeking small farm living, said Nye. It tends to be geared toward retirement plans or an extra source of income.

Produce safety

Government regulations lurk around every corner and can be daunting to established producers and especially first-time growers. For produce growers, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) produce safety rule was put into effect Jan. 26, and Ashley Kulhanek, Medina County Extension educator, shared the highlights with producers.

FSMA is the minimum standard for produce commonly consumed raw to reduce the risks of foodborne contamination, she said. The ruling applies to growing, handling and post-harvest techniques. While Kulhanek explained the ruling applies mostly to foods generally consumed raw, with the demand for fresh healthy produce on the rise, it is important to practice good health and safety with all vegetable production.

All it takes is two people getting sick from produce produced on the same farm for an outbreak to be declared, explained Kulhanek. And once a farm has been identified as having an outbreak, it is hard for that farm to recover.


Some areas to consider when launching a produce operation is water quality, manure application, animals, equipment use and worker and volunteer training in health and hygiene. In any part of the operation where water is coming in contact with the edible parts of produce, water should be tested for bacteria and pathogens. Surface water is a high risk for contamination while city and treated water is at a much lower risk.

Sanitation is key

The biggest thing for producers to keep in mind is keeping things clean and sanitized. “You definitely want to consider putting food safety practices on your farm,” said Kulhanek. Full guidelines are available here.

Farming the farm bill

small farm conference tradeshow
Between sessions of the Small Farm Conference, attendees could visit with vendors in the hallways of the Shisler Conference Center. Vendors catered to all aspects of farming including beekeeping, wool and fiber, soil health, organic production, finances, and USDA programs.

“The farm bill is a huge document,” said Christina Reed, public relations and outreach for Ohio Farm Service Agency. But Reed and Darren Metzger, loan specialist, showed producers how to navigate the programs available through the Farm Service Agency (FSA). FSA offers programs to help farmers just getting started and to protect farmers from unexpected losses in production. “Natural disasters happen all the time,” said Reed.

The Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance and Emergency Livestock Assistance programs are a couple of those programs that can help. Metzger pointed out it is important to make sure, as a producer, you are using best management practices to prevent loss. “If you are getting into vegetable production, have some sort of irrigation system,” said Metzger. If a producer claims a loss due to drought when it is apparent it could have been prevented with better management, it is likely the producer will not receive assistance.


FSA also provides a conservation program for areas of land on the farm that have a tendency to flood or erode. Through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), filter strips and grass waterways can be put in with FSA assistance and that land will not be farmable as long as it is in CRP. “Some farmers worry about losing crop production,” but CRP payments can provide a consistent payment on conserved land and potentially offset lean years, said Reed.


FSA also offers a variety of loan programs for beginning farms. Metzger explained these loan programs are often more affordable than traditional bank loans, but offered caution when applying. “We are a temporary source of credit and supervised credit,” he said. “We are not meant to be a permanent provider.” FSA loans tend to have a small interest rate and longer terms for payback than traditional loans. Metzger explained if you have the means to afford a traditional loan, you will be directed to do so.

A handful of conference-goers expressed their surprise at the programs available to help them get started in farming. “I liked the farm bill presentation,” said Julie Verhelst. “There are lots of great opportunities, but I didn’t know how to apply,”

Looking for a niche

Verhelst of Sunny Meade Alpacas, and Sherri Plocek, Plocek Farms, traveled from Toledo to check out the conference. “I figured I fit the description of small farm,” said Verhelst, who raises 29 alpacas on her farm. “I am interested in pasture management.”

Plocek said her family currently raises corn, bean and wheat as well as livestock for 4-H projects, but she is interested in the unique presentations like mushrooms. “I think the farm provides opportunities for lots of diversification,” she said. “We are looking for our entrepreneurial breakout.”

Chris Zoeller, Small Farm Conference
OSU Extension Educator Chris Zoller shared the importance of having a business plan to those interested in getting their small farm operations started. Zoller’s session was one of 28 special sessions presented at the conference.

Bringing it together

After a day of exploring niche ventures and management practices, how do you, as a new farmer, get started? During one of the final sessions, Chris Zoller, OSU Extension educator, Tuscarawas County, showed producers how to develop a business plan.

Business plans are important because they “set a path for the future,” he said. It’s important to identify what your goals are and how you plan to meet them in order to be able to measure your success. Zoller shared sample mission statements and business plans from other farms to help producers draft their own.

Nye encouraged producers to look at their venture into the small farm life as a journey.

“They are at point A trying to get to point B. It may take a few years to get where they want to be, but we are hoping events like this help them connect the dots and get help from the experts,” he said.


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