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Thrifty grants for start-ups

DANIEL LOOKER 09/30/2011 @ 3:16pm Business Editor

After earning an agronomy degree at Iowa State University in 2010, Nathan Anderson returned to his family's corn and soybean farm near Cherokee, Iowa, with dreams of improving an already well-run operation.

He's using time-honored approaches: swapping labor for use of his father's and uncle's machinery, renting some land, and searching for more land. In spring, cattle graze off a cover crop of winter rye before soybean planting. A string of reborn pastures provides intensive grazing for his eight-cow herd.

Anderson is one of 10 smart, innovative young farmers in a new program that could be a model for giving start-up farmers a boost. It's the Savings Incentive Program offered by Practical Farmers of Iowa (www.practicalfarmers.org). PFI matches the savings of beginning farmers who put aside $100 a month for two years. That potential $4,800 comes with mentoring from an established farmer and workshops on business planning. It won't buy a planter. But Anderson hopes to use his funds for replacement heifers.

He and his father, Randy, are clearing cedar trees from a string of 2- and 3-acre paddocks that total about 35 acres. In some of the areas, the younger Anderson is restoring native grasses. On other ground, he and his dad have seeded red clover and grasses. The goal is a herd of about 30 cows-calf pairs.

Comprehensive program

PFI's program for beginning farmers is one of many. Some, such as the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota (www.landstewardshipproject.org), offer mentoring. LSP's first-rate Farm Beginnings program includes a 10-month training and planning course. A Farm Service Agency Beginning Farmer Loan Program can finance bigger improvements than PFI. But Anderson says PFI is unusual in offering financial help, mentoring, and business planning.

“There are very few programs that combine all those assets into one single program,” he says.

According to Luke Gran, PFI Next Generation coordinator, similar projects have been tried in California and Michigan, but PFI's may be the largest. Its goal is to raise enough money to assist 90 farmers by 2016. Gran says PFI staff at first proposed making larger grants, perhaps a 3:1 match to savings, but the farmers on PFI's board see mentoring and learning as the program's key benefits.

PFI's first class of savers reflects agriculture's diversity, even in the nation's leading corn-growing state. It includes a 1-acre leafy greens farm in Des Moines and a northeast Iowa dairy herdsman who will buy into an existing herd in 2012.

To qualify for the savings program, the young farmers also must join PFI. Anderson has taken to the group's 26-year history of sharing on-farm trials and experimentation. In June, he and his family hosted a field day on improving perennial pastures. After just a year, plant diversity and density are up.

Through PFI, Anderson has studied business planning, insurance, financial management, and more. He works with the group to monitor growth of his herd's calves. His mentor is a neighbor and grass farmer, Dan Wilson.

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