Sustainability

Farmer Training Program Sows Seeds of Success

Photo by OGS Staff

By Kiesa Kay

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.—Henry David Thoreau

Farm Beginnings® Farmer Training compacts decades of data and dirt into a single, intense year of learning the skills and knowledge necessary to initiate and sustain a career in farming. Applications for the program, facilitated by the Organic Growers School (OGS) and hosted at Growing Rural Opportunities (GRO), will be accepted on a rolling basis until September 15.

“It’s geared toward people who are thinking about farming as well as farmers who have been slogging through the fields and want to start making real money,” says Patrick McLendon, GRO’s executive director. The training, traditionally in Asheville, will occur at Mill Spring Agricultural Center in Polk County for the first time this year.

The more than 200 hours of training includes classes at OGS annual conferences, whole farm business planning sessions and field days on sustainable farms. Each participant pairs with an experienced mentor. “Traditionally, farm knowledge passes from family to family, parent to child,” says Nicole DelCogliano, farmer programs coordinator at OGS. “We create a new, parallel pathway, with experienced farmers teaching new farmers.”

The course costs $3,000, and Nikki Hamblin, a current student, says it is worth every penny. “The Farmer Training not only helps define what sort of business we want to have but also how we see ourselves spending our time and living sustainably,” Hamblin says. “We create learning plans, business plans and a road map to follow. It helps with practical aspects, like how to get loans.”

Farm Beginnings® has emerged nationwide to fulfill an urgent need in farmer education, DelCogliano says. “Farmers aren’t getting any younger, with the average age at 58, so training a new generation to have viable and sustainable farms is critical now more than ever,” she says.

“Starting any new business is a tough endeavor,” McLendon says. “Then you add the risks of farming, like weather, pests, plant diseases, predators, changes in customer wants, coaxing plants and animals to grow, maintaining a website, marketing and turning a profit. The success rate for farmers completing this program is good, with 70 percent of farmers still farming five years later.”

Lorri Bura, owner of Green Heart Gardens, took the training with her husband in 2015/16. Her business has expanded from five pounds of calendula sold in 2014 to more than 350 pounds of 90 herb varieties sold in 2017. Relationships, too, have grown. “We’ve stayed friends with some of the farmers we met through Farm Beginnings®,” Bura says.

Farm dreams vary vastly. Hamblin and her partner, Jess Critchlow, plan to start a business, Big Hava, raising microgreens and delivering them by bicycle to their community. “I’ve received tools I need to define and create my own systems, with templates for cash flow and budgeting,” Hamblin says. “I’m excited about farm tours and meeting people who are doing what we want to do.” Farm Beginnings®, part of the Farm Pathways project, is funded by the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, partnering with WNC Farm Link and Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. These organizations can help participants find, lease and preserve farmland.

“We encourage all farmers, especially young families interested in homesteading,” McLendon says. “We help career farmers as they settle here, building lives and families to keep our community great.”

To learn more or to apply for the program, visit organicgrowersschool. org. Information about Farm Beginnings® may be found at farmbeginningscollaborative.org. To learn more about Growing Rural Opportunities, visit growrural.org.

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