It seems that every time I turn around, I meet another person who wants to begin farming. Despite all the hard work, the financial strains and the natural disasters, there are so many folks who still want nothing more than to get some dirt under their fingernails and live a peaceful, fulfilling rural lifestyle that supports the health of the land and their communities.
Granted, unless you are born into it, it certainly is not easy to get involved in conventional production agriculture. In this age of economies of scale, it is becoming all but impossible to find a block of several hundred, let alone several thousand, acres available to farm, at least in Illinois.
Even if you find a parcel available for lease or purchase, you are going to face some stiff competition from nearby veteran producers looking to expand their own operations to stay competitive. And, even if you did manage to secure yourself some ground, the price tags on tractors, combines and other farm equipment might scare you right back where you came from. Thus, many of the folks I encounter who want to begin farming are looking to pursue ventures that are a little more, lets say, unconventional
As awareness of, and demand for, foods that are local, organic, unsprayed, humanely raised and naturally grown continues to grow, folks who have always wanted to farm are being presented with a unique opportunity. Many people have been able to begin entrepreneurial farming ventures on smaller acreages that do not require the formidable financial outlay for land and infrastructure, but can still produce fresh, nutritious, great-tasting food for people. Isnt that what its all about?
Still, even a small farming venture is not as simple as it sounds. I know how tiring and frustrating it can be just to grow a chemical-free vegetable garden for personal use, so having a production venture on which ones livelihood depends is certainly going to be a major undertaking that requires substantial planning and practice, whether its organic vegetables, tree fruits, pastured poultry, meat goats or something completely different. And, although many people have the farming dream, only a few of them have the gumption to traipse down that winding road alone. Yet, someone out there wants to help.
Farm Beginnings is a course of study and strategic planning developed by the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project and experienced farmers nearly 10 years ago. This past winter was Farm Beginnings inaugural season in Illinois, with one class in the stateline area (hosted by the CSA Learning Center at Angelic Organics and the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) and another in central Illinois (hosted by the University of Illinois and the Land Connection) . Designed for new farmers and those transitioning a conventional farm to an alternative production system, Farm Beginnings helps its students through the daunting initial stages of narrowing down farm focus, developing a business plan, outlining marketing strategies, projecting financials and setting economic and environmental goals.
I sat in on the Stateline Farm Beginnings class this past season, and aside from spirited brainstorming with like-minded individuals, careful soul-searching and the occasional homework assignment, Farm Beginnings brings real, live voices of experience into the classroom. Veteran farmer/entrepreneurs talk about practical topics, such as selecting genetics, predicting costs, efficient pest management, and, most importantly, common mistakes newbies would do well do avoid. Farmers market administrators talk about how to sell like a pro. Extension personnel talk about resources the land-grant universities have to offer. Government representatives talk about small business planning and capital assistance our elected officials make available. It is a forum for sound, practical advice and careful ideation that can turn a farm dream into a reality. In the end, most of the students in the class began or revised a farming operation this year. Those that did not, knew they should not, and deciding not to farm can be one of the most valuable realizations a person can make.
If you have an idea for an alternative farming venture, and you think you could benefit from a class such as this, I would recommend signing up sooner rather than later. The spaces are limited, and tend to fill up fast. If you are in the stateline area and would like more information, please contact Annette Meach at Annette@CSALearningCenter.org or 494-5547, or visit www.csalearningcenter.org/CRAFT.html. If you are in central Illinois, please contact Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant at email@example.com or 217-968-5512.
Starting to farm is a major choice not to be taken lightly. If you think you have the idea, the discipline, and the fortitude to make a go as a farmer, let Farm Beginnings help you find out for sure and develop the skills and the network necessary to help you out along the way.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July 5-11, 2006, issue