Here are a few things to think about What does a verimiculture operation in Hawaii, a cow-calf ranch in Montana, a wheat farm in South Dakota, and the owner of a CSA venture in Colorado have in common? A lot, it turns out, once they get around a table and begin sharing their concerns.
National Farmers Union’s Beginning Farmer Institute has brought together an amazing variety of producers from coast to coast, from across the nation’s heartland, and from vast ranches to urban gardens.
The transition from one generation of farmers to the next can be challenging just within families. It can be much more difficult for people who did not grow up on family farms or ranches. Here are a few of aspects of production agriculture that transcend farm types, locations, or sizes.
• Marketing: Whether producers are selling directly to consumers through a CSA or trucking cattle to a livestock ring, they wonder if they are getting a fair price and whether the buyers might bypass them tomorrow. What farmers grow and raise may appear substantially different, yet marketing for a profit has a lot in common.
• Land: Farmers and lenders know land is expensive, period. Land is not always available in the right place and at the right time for many beginning farmers. When it is available, others with deeper pockets will be lining up to buy it. Connecting beginning farmers with well-established farmers is the goal of a program called Land Link. But competition for land can be affected by urban sprawl, water rights, and, increasingly, energy development. Beginning farmers often feel as if the deck is stacked against them. They feel this way for very good reasons, but guidance is available.
• Labor: The owner-operators of any business know the work doesn’t end at 5 p.m. Farming is labor intensive, often long beyond a comfortable eight-hour day. Getting the work done can be physically and mentally exhausting. Finding, training, and managing good help who understands agriculture can be equally exhausting.
• Money: Agriculture is capital intensive, meaning most farmers depend on loans to provide cash flow. Beginning farmers and ranchers are looking for loans, but their inexperience and lack of equity count against them. USDA, Farm Credit Services, and some states have programs designed to make it easier for beginning farmers to find capital at affordable interest rates to assist farmers and ranchers during start up.
• Weather: Early frost, wet planting conditions, pounding hail, and sustained drought can kill an operation, be it a corn farm in Colorado, a CSA in New Mexico, or a ranch in Wyoming. All producers struggle with severe weather events.
• Management: There is no room for mistakes in production agriculture. The majority of decisions made by beginning farmers have to be good… very good. Some tasks, such as bookkeeping, can be outsourced. Others require self education and experience.
• Risk Management: Farmers are expected to know about fertilizer rates, crop rotations, and seed varieties, but what about OSHA or HIPPA laws for hired hands? How does crop insurance work? When and to what level is liability insurance required?
• USDA & state specific programs: USDA has numerous programs designed to assist beginning farmers. State departments of agriculture may also have beginning farmer loan programs, and land grant universities and Extension Service staff are equally interested in assisting beginning farmers. The best way to find out is to call, email, or stop by an office to learn more about the resources already available.
• Regulations: Local, county, state, and federal regulations affect all aspects of agriculture. Will a beginning farmer need permits, certifications, licenses? What about zoning issues? Again, the answers can be found by contacting a state department of agriculture or a local Farm Service Agency office.
• Institutional memory: Skills can be taught, but experience has to be acquired. For those growing up on a family farm or ranch, experience is learned on the job day by day, year by year. For others, one way to gain experience is by working as a hired hand. While this experience can be invaluable, it takes time to gain a true appreciation of the hardest numbers to understand: agriculture can be a 24 hour, 7 days a week, 365 days a year job. Planting, harvesting, calving, and milking are not put on hold for weekends, holidays, or vacations.
• Multitasking: On any given day farmers and ranchers have to be mechanics, electricians, mentors, students, veterinarians, agronomists, bookkeepers, truckers, and more. Much more. Get used to it.
• Beginning farmers are not alone: There are a surprising number of resources available to beginning farmers, as shown on the next page. As a general farm organization, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union welcomes beginning farmers regardless of the size of their operations, the crops they grow, or livestock they raise. Being a member of a farm organization opens a lot of doors. RMFU provides educational programs, helps develop member-owned cooperative businesses, and uses grassroots policy development to allow farmers and ranchers to have a real voice in setting priorities.