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Planning, preparation lead to success for beginning farmers

Agriculture.com Staff 07/07/2010 @ 9:08am

Mark and Wendy Lange know that farming can provide the independence and quality of life that no in-town job can. But from their home near the western Minnesota community of Milan, the couple doesn't have to look far to see that even the most experienced farmers often succumb to rock-bottom commodity markets, sky-high production costs and fickle weather. So what business does a middle-aged couple -- both are 45 -- have thinking they can get a successful start on the land?

"If you do your research and homework there's no reason you can't do it," says Wendy confidently.

The Langes attribute their positive attitude to a unique beginning farmer course they recently completed. Twice a month during the winter of 2001-2002, the couple traveled to the nearby town of Montevideo and took classes through the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program. Farm Beginnings, which was started by a group of southeast Minnesota farmers in the late 1990s, uses workshops and hands-on mentoring to help people learn about low-cost, alternative production methods.

Topics covered during the series of workshops include goal setting, decision-making, establishing a business plan, financial planning, biological monitoring and innovative marketing. During the spring and summer, participants network with established farmers through one-on-one mentorships, farm tours and presentations. In the first seven years of the program, 185 people have completed the Farm Beginnings course in southeast and western Minnesota.

Over 60 percent of those graduates are farming and are engaged in a broad spectrum of farming enterprises: beef, dairy, hogs, meat goats, poultry, wholesale vegetables, Community Supported Agriculture, organic grains and specialty products such as flowers. The Langes say the program helped them decide whether farming was really a viable option for them, and if so, what form that farming enterprise should take. The couple says Farm Beginnings didn't raise expectations of farming success too high -- at the core of the course is a heavy dose of reality in the form of business planning and goal setting.

"They made it clear it wasn't going to be easy," says Wendy. "You have to have your goals and plans together before you get to a starting point."

For the Langes, having a farmer support network proved critical as they launched their farming operation soon after graduating in 2002. The couple owns an 80-acre parcel that was homesteaded by Mark's great-grandfather in 1910 (they farm 20 more acres through a sharecrop arrangement). Both come from rural backgrounds but had very little hands-on experience with production agriculture. The small size of the farm and the fact they both had town jobs meant the Langes needed enterprises that could be managed part-time, but had the potential to grow into something profitable enough to allow one of them to stay on the farm fulltime. One key Farm Beginnings workshop is a brainstorming session where participants tally-up new ideas for enterprise development. For the Lange farm, everything from strawberry production to aquaculture was offered up by fellow course participants.

"There must have been 25 ideas people had for this place," says Mark. "It gave us a little different look at the farm."

Eventually the Langes settled on meat goat and organic grains production. Goats appealed to them because they were small and relatively easy to handle (the Langes have a horse barn that serves as a good kidding area), and the market potential is good: the couple's research via the Internet and personal conversations showed that the U.S. is a net importer of goat meat and there's a demand for good breeding stock.

They bought their first goats in December 2001 and kidded 17 babies from 12 does. In November 2002, they expanded acquired 60 more does through a Heifer International no-interest revolving livestock loan program. As graduates of Farm Beginnings, the Langes qualified to apply for the loan, which must be paid off within three years. That loan provided a major stepping-stone for the Langes' livestock enterprise: this spring, they kidded 94 goats from 102 does. They market the goats at the Sioux Falls Stockyard, about a two and a half hour drive away. The Langes have also recently begun discussions with a food store in the town of Willmar, Minnesota. (about a half hour away) which caters to Somali immigrants, major consumers of goat meat.

"The demand is very high for goat meat," says Wendy. "We're excited about the marketing possibilities."

In fact, the goat enterprise has grown so much that Wendy quit her town job a year ago. She has more than the goats to keep her busy these days. Last year they acquired two stone flour mills from a farmer who had used them to process grain for some 22 years. The Langes now sell whole organic wheat flour as well as pancake and biscuit mixes under their "Dry Weather Creek" label. Area natural food co-ops and two supermarkets now carry they products. The first year they milled wheat they bought from a neighboring organic farmer. But this year the Langes have planted wheat and oats of their own that they plan on milling. Small grains such as wheat and oats fit well with their conservation-minded crop rotation.

But Wendy says they also knew from their research that marketing the grain as a raw commodity straight off their farm -- especially a farm their size -- would not be economically viable. Again the couple's research showed that there was a local market for organic flour and mixes. The flour enterprise also works well with their goat operation because they can feed screenings from the mill to the livestock.

This spring, they launched yet one more enterprise: producing eggs rich in Omega-3, a popular item among heath-conscious consumers. The Langes belong to a poultry cooperative that is marketing the eggs to natural food stores and supermarkets throughout the region.

That's not to say the energetic couple are easy marks for any new enterprise that crosses their path. When considering changes to the operation, Mark and Wendy sit down and pencil out the pros and cons, weighing such factors as market availability and how it fits with their crop rotation and work load. The egg enterprise got the thumbs up because the cooperative handles marketing, and flax fits into their cropping rotation. They also liked that the enterprise could provide a steady cash flow throughout the year.

The Langes expect to get half to two-thirds of their total income from the farm this year. But they also know from experience setbacks can pop up. For example, moving the mills and reassembling them in their garage turned out to be a major, expensive undertaking. Electrical work, health codes and problems with their well added up to a $39,000 price tag. That cost alone will probably delay the day Mark can quit his tool and die job in town.

The Langes say tapping into a network of people they first connected with through the Farm Beginnings program helps them deal with the unpleasant surprises, as well as the daily routine, of farming. This network consists of established farmers in the area, as well as other beginners that are going through similar physical, emotional and financial trials.

"Just being around other people who have done these sorts of things successfully gave us a little jumpstart," says Wendy.

And now they are helping give other wannabe farmers a leg-up. Another couple that recently graduated from the Farm Beginnings course is launching a goat enterprise, and the Langes are serving as their mentors.

"When we were starting up with goats this couple said, 'Ha, ha, how can you do goats?'" Wendy recalls with a smile. "Now that we're mentoring them on their goat operation, I can rub that in on a daily basis."

Mark and Wendy Lange know that farming can provide the independence and quality of life that no in-town job can. But from their home near the western Minnesota community of Milan, the couple doesn't have to look far to see that even the most experienced farmers often succumb to rock-bottom commodity markets, sky-high production costs and fickle weather. So what business does a middle-aged couple -- both are 45 -- have thinking they can get a successful start on the land?

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