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Mentoring requires patience and a collaborative approach

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

Helping a young farmer get started takes patience, and a willingness to learn as well as teach, experienced farmers who are mentoring others said at the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Conference in Kearney, Nebraska on Saturday, March 27.

Todd and Julie Stewart of Meadow Grove, Nebraska, have recruited a young man to help them farm in return for rent-free lodging and the use of their farm machinery in his own enterprises. And Eric and Lisa Klein of Elgin, Minnesota, share weekend chores on their grass-based livestock farm with would-be farmers.

Both families were helped themselves by programs aimed at boosting beginning farmers, so they can understand the dreams and tribulations of beginners. The Stewarts worked into an arrangement to buy the 1,500-acre farm of Bob and Gudron Warrick through the Center for Rural Affairs Land Link program. And Eric Klein was one of the early graduates of a ten months of classes and apprenticeships called Farm Beginnings, which is run by the Land Stewardship Project of Minnesota.

The Center, based in Lyons, Nebraska, and the Land Stewardship Project organized last weekend's conference, which was also sponsored by the University of Nebraska and the USDA Risk Management Agency. (Successful Farming magazine, which runs this website, also contributed to the conference.)

"Before you ever decide to be a mentor or mentee, decide to have a lot of patience," said Todd Stewart, who started farming with the Warricks after years of working for a co-op.

The Stewarts raise hogs, cattle and grains. Not too long after the Warricks moved to California to retire, they recruited a young man from Iowa to help with work on their farm. There is no contract between either party, but the Stewarts had several meetings with their future mentee, Julie said, to explain that "this is our expectation, what we want you to do. And he had his expectations."

In return for working with hogs, the Stewarts' mentee is able to retain gilts to start his own hog business. "What I've found out. You need to somehow give ownership, otherwise you just have a hired hand," Todd Stewart said.

Eric Klein is now working with a third student in through Farm Beginnings and is now on the board of that program. The program starts out in November and includes twice-a-month classes taught by farmers. The classes run through spring, then Farm Beginnings moves outdoors, visiting several farms and matching students with farmers of similar interests.

That's where Klein comes in. "I can help them with all the things I've learned and am still learning," he said.

"Most people just come out for a weekend or a day, helping on some projects," Klein said. On his grass-based livestock farm, that might mean fixing or moving fence or working with hogs or cattle.

For the young person, "it offers the opportunity to explore enterprises without the initial investment," Klein said.

Klein has also built a spread sheet that shows a one-year working cash flow for his enterprises. He shares his own results with mentees and they can use it for their own business plannning.

"I built this spreadsheet so that I can work with other producers or mentees so they can fill in their own numbers," he said.

Klein said he can't afford to pay mentees who work on his farm for the experience but some farms involved in Farm Beginnings, mainly dairies and vegetable farms, do pay wages. Nor is Klein paid for his teaching. "We're doing it for the cause," he said. Like most mentors, he'd like to see more young people getting a start in farming.

E-mail Dan: dan.looker@meredith.com

Helping a young farmer get started takes patience, and a willingness to learn as well as teach, experienced farmers who are mentoring others said at the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Conference in Kearney, Nebraska on Saturday, March 27.

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