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Minnesota farmers host USDA Beginning Farmer grant announcement

It's not going to be easy.

That's one of the first things Lisa and Eric Klein tell young people who want to farm when they come to their workshop on direct marketing.

More than a decade ago, the Kleins were among the first students of the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program in Minnesota. Today, they run Hidden Stream Farm LLC, selling chicken, beef and pork from their grass-based farm not far from the bluffs of the Mississippi River. And, in a program that was designed to help young people with advice from a group of mentors, the Kleins have now become a source of ideas and advice for a succeeding generation.

"We're just starting, after 11 years, to feel that maybe we're a little bit successful," Lisa told Agriculture Online.

And this week, the Kleins' hard work got some recognition, when Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan paid a visit on Tuesday.

Merrigan came to announce the first $17 million in grants from a new $75-million five-year effort in the 2008 farm bill called the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The Land Stewardship Project got a $413,000 grant from that program that will be used to help spread its approach to training beginning farmers to nine other groups in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin.

"The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is there to make sure beginning farmers and ranchers have access to the resources they need to succeed," Merrigan said after touring the farm. "A lot of this is following in the footsteps of the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program."

Rising demand for locally grown foods has helped many young people get a toehold in agriculture. Merrigan, a strong advocate of local food production, got a chance to visit one of the epicenters of creating opportunity for young farmers and growing food for local markets.

The idea for the LSP Farm Beginnings started in this southeast Minnesota community and Lisa's dairy farmer father, Everett Koenig, was one of the instigators.

"They called themselves the 'Wabasha County Give A Damn,'" Lisa recalled. "They were a bunch of farmers sitting around a table trying to figure out how to get more young people into farming."

The farmers contacted LSP and by the winter of 1997-98, the first classes of the Farm Beginnings program started.

Classes start in late October and run through March, usually meeting twice a month. Local farmers and other experts are the teachers. The program also offers an on-farm component in the spring and summer months. (This year's LSP Farm Beginnings classes, in River Falls, Wisconsin and St. Joseph, Minnesota, are already full).

Lisa and Eric went through the second set of classes in 1998-99. Eric grew up on a hobby farm in New Jersey and had worked on a South Dakota cattle ranch. With the business planning they learned in Farm Beginnings, they knew that Lisa's father's dairy farm wasn't big enough for that business to support the next generation farming the same way as in the past.

"We figured out that we can't be conventional agriculture as a small farm. We'd never make it," Lisa said.

The classes they took covered planning from a multifaceted approach, looking at the farm as a lifestyle, family life, and a business.

"They promoted holistic management," Lisa said.

The classes were taught by farmers from the area, a banker, and other experts. At the end, "you've got a really nice network of people to fall back on and bounce ideas off of," she added.

One of the early lessons the Kleins learned when they began working on Lisa's parents' farm was that "it's not necessarily the animals you like that are going to make you the money."

Eric preferred cattle. Hogs paid the bills at first although today they're also raising grass-fed beef and chickens and eggs. Lisa's father is semi-retired, still helping to put up hay and sell at farmers markets.

The Kleins now sell their products throughout southeast Minnesota and in Minneapolis-St. Paul. They also sell fruits and vegetables for neighboring farmers.

"There's been a lot of talk about these local food networks, and we feel like we're starting to create one," Lisa said.

The USDA grant for spreading the Farm Beginnings model goes to the LSP program and 9 other partner groups. They include similar grassroots organizations such as Dakota Rural Action in South Dakota and The Land Connection in Illinois as well as University of Nebraska Extension and University of Illinois Extension.

Adam Warthesen, the policy program organizer for LSP, says his group doesn't have the only approach to helping young people start out in farming.

"We want to see more new farmers across the nation and this can be one of the approaches," he said. "Farm Beginnings is just one example."

Meanwhile, at the Klein farm, there's another potential generation of farmers among Lisa and Eric's five children. Andy, 10, goes to the market with his dad once a week. Ben, 8, has his own small flock of laying hens, and Katy, 6, likes to work with the broilers. Sarah, 3, and Isaac, 1, are waiting to join in the family business.

And when Merrigan visited, not only did she support what Lisa and Eric are doing, "she's a really nice lady," Lisa said. "She took a little time to play with the kids and recognize what they do."

It's not going to be easy.

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