Getting your foot in the door of farming
As challenging as farming might be these days, there are still young folks lined up to get a foot in the door. Iowa State University’s Beginning Farmer Center (BFC) lists 700 prospective beginning farmers on its Ag Link database. The Ag Link program serves to match beginning farmers seeking access to land and farming opportunities with retiring farmers hoping to transition their operations into the hands of younger operators.
“The beginning farmers on our database come mainly from Iowa, but about 25% come from out of state,” says BFC director Dave Baker. “Some come from overseas, and many are veterans. These young people would love to have an opportunity to get started farming.”
A common age of these beginning farmer applicants is 35, and many have backgrounds as farm employees.
Retiring farmers listed on the Ag Link database number 40 to 45.
“We’re able to facilitate three or four successful matches in a year,” says Baker. “A number of years ago we had 10 to 11 matches each year. But we’ve been experiencing some rough years for farming.”
Who’s Getting Started?
Farming may indeed be tough, but in Minnesota, the Land Stewardship Project sees a steady annual enrollment of “20 families” in its Farm Beginnings Program, says program organizer Karen Stettler.
“The participants have varied backgrounds, with ages ranging from mid- to late 20s, to 40s,” she says. “They may have a few years of farming-related experience, or they may have been interning on a farm. In some cases they have a small acreage that has become available to them in various ways.”
The agricultural enterprises the participants envision tend to be small-scale and diverse. “They commonly focus on vegetable and small-livestock enterprises,” says Stettler. “Participants are particularly interested in gaining information about direct marketing.”
About 60% of Farm Beginnings graduates go on to operate their own agricultural enterprises.
Business planning is a key component of the Farm Beginnings curriculum. “The course helps participants put together a realistic plan for what their enterprise might look like and how it might operate,” she says. “Farmers have to work on their business plan as much as they work on their business. They have to plan how their farming activity is going to become a business.”
Start with an Education
A well-crafted business plan can open doors with lenders. “Financing is available for beginning farmers,” says Baker. “The USDA’s Farm Service Agency offers loans to beginning farmers, as does Farm Credit Services.” Some state agencies also offer beginning farmer loans, as well as tax incentives.
First obtaining “a good education” is a strength Baker sees in beginners who indeed succeed in getting started farming. “Most of our successful applicants on the Ag Link database are college educated,” he says. “They have the professional manner needed to pursue a successful farming career. They know they will have to work hard in order to expand and improve the business they are undertaking.”
Many of the successful applicants in the Ag Link program are also married. “In the case of marriage relationships, I like to see a real partnership between husband and wife,” says Baker. “It helps for spouses to be supportive of each other’s interests.”
When beginners consider relocating in order to get started farming, Baker says those who are successful in this transition are those who have put a lot of thought into the practicality of relocating. Relocating often means uprooting long-standing relationships with family, friends, and community.
Relocation can also carry young families into rural settings presenting special challenges. Winters in states such as North Dakota and Montana, for instance, can be particularly harsh and even dangerous for young farm families living in relatively remote areas and who are unaccustomed to the weather.
Beginning farmers who succeed in transitioning into established farms or ranches in such areas are those who have first taken the time and effort to research the winter conditions and local access to schools and medical facilities.
Relocation is not always the best route. “I get to know our applicants fairly well, and I try to encourage them to recognize that our Ag Link program is just one tool they can use to try to get started farming,” says Baker.
“They also need to learn to network with others in their present farming community,” he says. “I encourage them to go to town and introduce themselves to farmers who are having coffee. Tell something about themselves. They could even consider making ‘a cold call’ to let local farmers know who they are and that they’re interested in getting started farming.”
Make Sure it’s Sincere
Baker warns beginners to be on the lookout for retiring farmers who are simply looking for farm laborers and are not sincere about following through with the eventual transition of the farm into the hands of a successor.
Successful matches between retiring farmers and beginners are those where the exiting farmer has learned to adopt a transitional mind-set, says Baker. He encourages retiring farmers to embrace the process of transition.
“You’ve got all the assets,” he says. “Just go ahead and let a young person manage those assets. You’re selling out the business; you’ll have income from that and well-deserved time off. Just shift to a different level of activity. And part of the time you can be working for that new business owner, who could really use a mentor – not just in the management of the farm, but also in the ways of dealing with local lenders, and in living and working in your community as a farmer.”
Land Hard to Find
Access to land is perhaps one of the most challenging obstacles beginners face, and retiring farmers can help.
READ MORE: How to start the next generation
“The older generation on the land holds the power to determine what the future will look like for the land and for rural communities,” says Karen Stettler. “The older generation determines who is going to be farming in the future.
“It is important for retiring farmers to think about what they hope to see for farming in the future,” she says. “Though it can be intimidating, taking steps toward farm transition planning is the best way to ensure that their vision comes to pass,” she says.