Second Career Farmers Reveal Secrets

On average, people change careers three times in their lifetimes, and that’s not counting about ten different jobs across those careers. Whether through choice or circumstance, people are on the move to different employment opportunities, and it’s not surprising to find a number of people starting out in farming after abandoning a completely different career path. Do these new older farmers have a head start based on prior work experience?Or, do they have lots of catching up to do having spent no time on a farm and too much time in an office?

We posed these questions to several second career farmers and also asked what advice they’d give to those starting out farming later in life.

Jon Turner on farm

Jon on his farm, Wild Roots

Jon Turner started out in the military and as a marine served three tours of duty. Returning home, he first found solace and meaning in writing and then turned to farming which he describes as “more of a way of life rather than a career.”

What skills and experience from the military did Jon find helpful for his new life in farming?

A good farmer has a healthy relationship with their land and is capable of recognizing patterns both good and bad. Being in the military forced me to develop an understanding of situational awareness and attention to detail.  As a marine in combat, these two factors could save a life and are entirely translatable in the agricultural field. To be adaptable to change while knowing how to navigate difficult circumstances – a concept first introduced to me in boot camp 14 years ago – is everything we as farmers, as land stewards are currently being confronted by.

As Jon describes the challenges of farming on his farm, Wild Roots Farm, “Anyone can take a seed and place it into the ground. What happens afterwards will determine whether you eat a nourishing meal or not.  Our first garden put me on a path to understand living systems, their relationship to each other, and our relationship with them.  My desire to learn how to read the landscape and how its patterns would influence the design process followed a few years later.”

Yves Gonnet, owner of Midnight Goat Farm found himself on a different battleground. As Yves explains, “My decision to farm was by choice as a result of circumstances – my renewed sense of mortality after a bout with blindness and the new found question, ‘If not now when?’ ” Farming provided “the physical exercise of manual labor, the mental exercise of constant challenge, the depth of life and death activities, and the satisfaction of growing something delicious.”

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Yves on his farm, Midnight Goat

From a career in technology and software in the 1980s, Yves brought a number of transferable skills to farming including troubleshooting, creativity, patience, inventory management, marketing, sales, customer service, accounting, procurement, vendor relations, cash management, and knowing how to learn.

As an IT entrepreneur, Yves knew how to transform and grow businesses, “it was an amazing time moving from paper to machines.”  In farming, he’s finding the skills and knowledge he needs keeps growing including:

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Yves and a kid goat, Midnight Farm

  • How to save a life;
  • Read the weather;
  • How to grow and harvest plants;
  • Curing, fertilizing, and packaging;
  • Building with available materials;
  • Electrical work, and plumbing; and,
  • Regulatory compliance.

Terry Marron would have started her first career in farming if the conditions had been different in the 1980s. Having studied animal science in college, the career she’d imagined wasn’t there upon graduation.  “In 1983 it was either big dairy or you didn’t farm; there were no niche farms,” she says. Terry found a career with the US Postal Service, which provided job security and full-time employment. After a 20-years, she was ready for change. Brushing up on her college accounting, and building on her gardening hobby, Terry discovered that her people skills from working with the public and customers prepared her well for going out to talk to local food buyers and pitching her farm product. In addition, as a postmaster, she’d been accountable for large sums of money, balancing sums daily with a computer program so moving onto Quickbooks for her farm, Windstone Farm, was a smooth transition.

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Terry’s Windstone Farm

All three farmers have made good use of the variety of programs offered by the network of agricultural agencies and service provider organizations in Vermont. In developing the Vermont Chapter of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Jon learned about specific programs and resources by meeting with people at state and federal organizations including the USDA, FSA and NRCSNOFA-VT, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM), UVM Extension Center of Sustainable Agriculture, among others. Terry availed herself of UVM Extension’s Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN) and New Farmer program and also tapped into UVM Ext. listservs such as Veg & Berry News to build up her skills and knowledge. Starting a small goat dairy in 2012, Yves has relied on the Dairy section of VAAFM and workshops at NOFA and is now finding the listening to his customers, vendors, other farmers, and employees are teaching him the most. Jon has a favorite book – Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway, his go-to guide for permaculture and regenerative agriculture.

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Terry hones her tractor skills

Since making a shift to farming, Terry, Jon, and Yves find their lives evolving. Yves was focused on business building and lifestyle and today’s he’s leaning towards self-sufficiency, sustainability and community building. Terry has recently re-evaluated the long hours she devotes to farming.

Like many jobs working at the Post Office was 9 to 5, “I closed the door, it was gone. With farming, you’re living in it, any downtime that you have it’s so easy to go out and before you know it, it’s 9 pm.” If your partner isn’t in farming, this can affect personal relationships. For me, it’s important to set up some boundaries so your partner doesn’t resent your business.”

Here are some words of wisdom which Terry, Jon, and Yves pass on for people considering a change to farming:

  • Plan as well as you can, and prepare to learn the most you can from failures.
  • Don’t be shy to ask for help.
  • Make the most of naps.  If you forgot how to nap, relearn it.
  • Don’t take on too much at once: there is a lot to learn and you need the time to absorb.
  • Find farmers — experts and old-timers — to speak with.
  • Try to learn from other people’s experience whenever possible.
  • Be safe.  There are really no sick days.
  • Work on someone else’s farm for one or two years.
  • Don’t try to do it alone.
  • Set boundaries for personal time.
  • If you don’t like doing a task (e.g. payroll), hire it out.
  • Have the numbers – farm viability is crucial
  • Work smart not hard.
  • Sing while you work.

Jon adds that for those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, traumatic brain injuries (TBI) or other physical disabilities, farming is one of the most valuable solutions for re-integration.  “Farming has provided meaning, worth, value and community, all things that we had in the military and lost once getting out,” he says.

Beyond “how-to” practical and farming preparation skills, some eureka moments have come from posing existential questions – many of us ask ourselves these questions at some point in our lives. But before plunging into farming, these questions can take on particular significance:

  • What do you I enjoy the most?
  • What do I need to know – or don’t I need to know?
  • How much can I manage and how much do I need to control?
  • Where do I want to go?
  • What’s important?

In listening to Terry, Jon, and Yves, it’s clear that they’ve thought about such questions. In their own words:

We are never bored and almost always working on useful satisfying tasks. What we do is real work, which feels great. I used to work 80-100 hour weeks with little time off, now I just live.

I want to stay connected with growing.

As difficult as farming can be, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that you are taking every effort to feed your family and community.

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Goals, Quality of Life, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Scaling up, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Safety Net Widens for the Whole Farm

Jake Jacobs, University of Vermont Risk Management Education

Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) allows producers, who previously had limited access to a risk management safety net, to now insure all of their farm’s commodities at one time. This coverage protects crop diversity on the farm, which directly supports the production of a wider variety of food. As the first crop insurance policy available nationwide, WFRP is tailored for any farm with up to $8.5 million in insured revenue, including farms with specialty or organic commodities (both crops and livestock), or those marketing to local, regional, farm-identity preserved, specialty, or direct markets.

To make participation easier for more beginning farmers and ranchers, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) has reduced the number of required records from five to three historical years, plus farming records from the past year. Additionally, any beginning farmer and rancher may qualify by using the former farm operator’s federal farm tax records if the beginning farmer or rancher assumes at least 90 percent of the farm operation.

And to address expanding operations, RMA increased the cap on historical revenue to 35 percent from its previous 10 percent, to better allow growing farms the opportunity to cover their growth in the insurance guarantee.

RMA’s Whole-Farm Revenue Protection pilot program was introduced in the 2015 insurance year. Starting with the 2016 insurance year, the new program was expanded and became available in all counties in the United States, a first for the federal crop insurance program. For more information, see this program fact sheet and to discuss options, see a crop insurance agent.

Posted in Insurance, Resources for Beginning Farmers, risk management, Uncategorized | Tagged

Working your Way on Farms

Considering farming as a career? If you’re like a great number of aspiring farmers, you’re on the look-out for ways to build hands-on skills and knowledge about running a farm enterprise. On-the-job learning — working on a farm, especially one that’s similar to the kind of operation you’re considering — can be a great way to gain experience, expertise and insight into what it takes to succeed as a farmer.

Spring is right around the corner, and farmers are hiring. A range of jobs are available starting soon. Some positions last the length of the growing season — and sometimes beyond, while others are shorter term, for key times during planting and harvesting.

Take Westminster Organics/Harlow Farm with 150 acres under cultivation in Westminster, Vermont. Currently, the farm is looking for a specialty grower to start as soon as possible and for the spring and summer, the farm is looking for employees to join their production crew, both part-time and full-time. As farm owner Paul Harlow explains, “We usually hire temporary employees starting in May or June depending on the weather. The job generally goes through October or November. We also hire college students who are only available for the summer.”

Last Resort Family & Sign

Doyle-Burrs family, Last Resort Farm

Unsurprisingly, most farms are advertising for employees with farming experience. But other experiences, skills, and approaches to work are just as important including:

  • Leadership,
  • Organization and reliability,
  • Equipment and machinery operation,
  • Website and social media marketing.
  • Team working and positive outlook.

We are looking for people who are excited to be here, are interested in farming, can take direction as well as show initiative. Students of agriculture, botany, or soil science can add a useful perspective. And people who are able to lead small groups of workers on specific tasks are useful. – Paul Harlow, Westminster Organics

Some farms explicitly acknowledge the role they have in educating the future farmers of New England. At Last Resort Farm in Monkton, farm owners, the Doyle-Burrs, hire local students to the extent possible. As Eugenie Doyle says,

We’re committed to educating young people about farming, as so few grow up on farms these days. Some of our best all-time workers have started as high school students who have stayed with us throughout college. What’s important is a strong work ethic, positive outlook, and eagerness to learn.

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Brittany & Drew, Shakey Ground Farm

A learning environment is what many young people new to farming are looking for. Drew Slabaugh, currently co-manager with his wife Brittany at Shakey Ground Farm, looks back on his choice to take a temporary employee route at New Leaf Organics Farm in Bristol. At the time, he and Brittany weren’t completely sure about farming as a career. As Drew puts it,

There’s less time commitment than applying to an incubator program and it’s probably better if you’re still exploring what type of farming you’d like to delve into but you’re willing to work hard. It’s a good combination of gaining education and experience while living on the farm and having access to food. While there are a range of abilities and attitudes to work among employees, you’ll be fine if you work hard and can take directions.

Employee openings can be found on most farms’ websites and on NOFA-Vermont and NOFA-MA for classifieds. For positions around the country, check out ATTRA’s Internship and Apprenticeship Directory.

In deciding which farm job could be right for you, consider your interests and skills.  If it’s customer-facing work in a retail setting, you may prefer a job where help is needed at farmers’ markets or a farm store or coordinating CSA pick-up. If you prefer using equipment, you may prefer being part of a large farm’s production crew where you’ll need some proficiency with agricultural equipment including tractors and implements.

Some questions to ask yourself and potential employers:

  • Teamwork – Will I be working solo or as part of a team? Will I be directly supervised?
  • Time demands – how many hours do employees work in a typical day? Is weekend work needed? What types of tasks will need to be completed by the end of the day?
  • Physical demands – how many pounds will I need to be able to lift?
  • Room for creativity – will there be opportunities to help with marketing e.g, farm display at farmers markets, marketing leaflets, website and social media presence?
  • Opportunities for communication-oriented work – does the farm get visitors and how many on a typical work day? Are farm tours offered?
  • Opportunities to gain management experience – will I get a chance to supervise others and lead weeding and picking teams?

For more recommendations on setting up a work/learning arrangement, consider the suggestions at NOFA-VT’s “Recommendations for Farm Workers/Apprentices” webpage.

The good news for aspiring farmers with no or limited experience, is that many of the larger farmers in New England will consider hiring you. As Paul at Westminster Organics says, “We hire people with no experience every year. As long as people are motivated and willing to learn, we will train them.”

Farm worker classification

Since the classifications of workers on farms can be confusing, it’s important for jobseekers and farm owners/managers to recognize that farm workers by default are classified as employees, that is, if someone performs work for a for-profit business, the assumption is that he or she is an employee.  This means that state and federal minimum wage laws do apply. Typically, compensation for employees is advertised as an hourly rate, but perks such as fresh vegetables are available with most farms saying, “We’ll make excess produce available to all employees.” And sometimes housing is available and the use of vehicle is permitted. Farmers are allowed to pay their employees in room and board to meet any minimum wage requirements.

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Resources for Beginning Farmers

Time is ripe to purchase crop insurance

Jake Jacobs, University of Vermont RMA Risk Management Education

DEADLINE IS NEAR! The application deadline to purchase crop insurance for spring-planted crops is March 15. In Vermont, this includes corn, forage seeding, sweet corn, soybeans, spring barley and spring wheat. The application deadline for the Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program is also March 15. Find a USDA-licensed agent and talk with your crop insurance agent to make sure you are signed up for the right coverage for your operation.

In the  January 6 posting, you read a little about special crop insurance provisions for new and beginning farmers and ranchers. This time, let’s take a look at NAP.

The Non-Insured Assistance Program (NAP) is another USDA tool available to protect against production losses. Administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), NAP covers crops for which traditional insurance is not available, providing financial assistance to participating producers when low yields, loss of inventory, or prevented planting occur due to natural disasters.

Beginning, limited resource and targeted underserved farmers or ranchers are eligible for a waiver of the service fee and a 50 percent premium reduction when they file form CCC-860, “Socially Disadvantaged, Limited Resource and Beginning Farmer or Rancher Certification.” To be eligible for a service fee waiver or premium reduction, the NAP covered producer must qualify as one of the following:

Beginning farmer or rancher – a person or legal entity who:

  • Has not operated a farm or ranch for more than 10 years; and
  • Materially and substantially participates in the operation.

For legal entities to be considered a beginning farmer, all members must be related by blood or marriage and must be beginning farmers.

Limited resource farmer or rancher – a person or legal entity that:

  • Earns no more than $173,600 in each of the two calendar years that precede the complete taxable year before the program year, to be adjusted upwards in later years for inflation; and
  • Has a total household income at or below the national poverty level for a family of four, or less than 50 percent of county median household income for both of the previous two years.

Limited resource producer status may be determined using the USDA Limited Resource Farmer and Rancher Online Self Determination Tool. The automated system calculates and displays adjusted gross farm sales per year and the higher of the national poverty level or county median household income. For legal entities requesting to be considered Limited Resource Farmer or Rancher, the sum of gross sales and household income must be considered for all members.

Targeted underserved farmer or rancher – a farmer or a rancher who is a member of a group whose members have been subject to racial, ethnic or gender prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities. Groups include:

  • American Indians or Alaskan Natives;
  • Asians or Asian Americans;
  • Blacks or African Americans;
  • Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders;
  • Hispanics; and
  • Women.

For legal entities to be considered targeted underserved, the majority interest must be held by targeted underserved individuals.

For more information about NAP, visit your local FSA office or go to their website.  And for more information on risk management and crop insurance, visit the USDA Risk Management Agency and talk with your crop insurance agent.

Posted in Uncategorized

Thinking about a new farm business? Is an incubator program for you?

As the average age of farmers nudges 60 years, it’s clear that we need new and younger farmers. Incubator programs have sprouted up to meet this need, typically offering  training and support on a dedicated site, with mentor farmers available to help guide new farmers. By providing training opportunities and access to land and infrastructure, incubator programs strive to increase the odds that aspiring farmers can attain the skills and capacity to develop new successful farm businesses.

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Photo courtesy of Intervale Center

There are currently 60+ incubator programs across the US, with no two incubator programs are identical. There are distinct differences among programs in what training and support is offered, and what experience, skills, and financial commitment is expected of applicants at the program start.

Other differences relate to the land available. The size of parcels can range from ¼ acre to 1+ acres and the suitability of soils and topography for different types of farm enterprises will vary. Consequently, the type of equipment and infrastructure available for use will be different. Programs with larger plots are likely to have tractors available while those with smaller plots will be limited to walk-behind equipment.

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Learning tractor operation skills, photo credit: Suzy Hodgson

Moreover, the location of the incubator program and proximity to urban areas will affect the market conditions for locally grown food.

Here are some options.  Founded in 1990, Vermont’s Intervale incubator program has a long track record of helping new farmers start their own farms in Vermont. For entry to this program, competent production skills and experience are needed as well as an entrepreneurial spirit to be ready to start a business in a a fairly competitive local food scene.

At least one year’s farming experience and a sound business plan are part of the Intervale application process. The Intervale Center expects a three-year commitment to its program, and after five years, incubator farms will need to relocate their farm off of the Intervale, though on a specific basis, land may be available for continued one to two-year leases at the Intervale location.

As Maggie Donin, Beginning Farmer Specialist, describes the Intervale program, “Our program is unique because it allows people to really launch their business in a realistic setting. We require a full business plan and financial projections from applicants so we expect someone who is really ready to launch a serious farm business and see the true cost of doing business. We provide people with parcels large enough to produce a significant amount of product. Our minimum plot size for lease is usually 1 acre.”

Intervale’s location within the city of Burlington provides quick access to Burlington’s residents, companies, schools, and other organizations. Maggie points out the main differences between the Intervale program and many other incubator programs:

We are more hands off with our participants; we want to give them the opportunity to really dive in to their business fully. In addition, they get access to seven very knowledgeable mentor farms, who are on site and running their own farm businesses. And our incubator participants get access to the Intervale Center farm business planners who works all over the state with farms on issues around financing, land access, and overall business planning.”

Some incubator farms and graduates at the Intervale include:

  • a farmer that grows medicinal herbs
  • farmer raising vegetables and herbs for his juice business.
  • incubator farm graduate experimenting with feeding food scraps to laying hens.
  • incubator farm graduate raising laying hens for eggs (now 1500 hens)
Besteyfield Farm

Ben Butterfield of Besteyfield Farm, a graduate of Intervale’s incubator program. photo courtesy of Intervale Center.

Maggie’s advice to farmers considering an incubator program is,

Go out and get more experience farming. It can be easy to work for another farm for one season and feel like you are an expert farming and could run a better operation yourself. But there is so much to learn. I don’t want people to rush in to farming and then realize they feel too young, still want to travel and not be tied down, or wished they had worked on a different type of farm business but didn’t get the chance.”

Details about the Intervale plots available and application process are outlined in this pdf packet.  Questions about Intervale’s incubator program and application process, contact Maggie Donin, Beginning Farmer Specialist at maggie@intervale.org or (802) 660-0440 ext. 116

In Massachusetts. Jennifer Hashley, Director of New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, describes her program, as a “collaborative, field-based training with a strong peer network, which gives adults opportunities to test new farm ideas. Newbies can learn as much from other newbies as they learn from staff.” New Entry caters for working adults, most of whom, are interested in vegetable production.

Training opportunities cover topics such as production planning, crop scheduling, and marketing. Field-based training in Lowell, Massachusetts includes:

  • field planning and layout,
  • greenhouse propagation,
  • tillage practices,
  • irrigation practices,
  • nutrient management,
  • pest management.

For farmers interested in New Entry, the program starts with a farm business planning course, one evening each week over eight weeks.  This course structure is designed to appeal to adults who have full-time jobs or other commitments. After successful completion of this course, you can apply to New Entry’s incubator program. The key part of the farm business program is writing your own farm business. Jennifer says,

About 70% of participants make it to this next stage. The learning curve is steep if you have no experience.

New Entry has small parcels available, about ¼ acre, which are too small for animal production, but lend themselves to vegetable production. Recent new farm businesses have included bees, pilot poultry, medicinal herbs, cut flowers, ethnic crops, and “growing food to give away”. While not a requirement, most of the successful farmers have had several years experience before participating. There are options to stay at New Entry for up to 3 years after which farmers are eligible for FSA loan

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Photo credit: yourfarmstand

If you’re looking for an incubator program for dairy, the one farm program in the northeast offering dairy training is Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. This program offers a two-year residential apprenticeship program for new and transitioning commercial organic dairy farmers. This first-of-its kind program allows apprentices to get a well-rounded experience in all aspects of organic dairy cow operations and management.

Glynwood Center in the Hudson Valley region in New York is one of the few incubator farm programs for livestock production. Located in New Paltz, Glynwood Farm program’s rolling hills are best suited for grazing livestock, specifically small ruminants, poultry and pork but the program also accepts applicants for mixed/diverse enterprises.

With all the options and locations available, where do you start? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How much training and support do I need?
  • How much land do I want to cultivate?
  • What type of infrastructure and equipment do I need (eg, tractor, washing and packing facility)?
  • What level of time and financial commitment am I willing to make?
  • Who will be my customers for my product and how will I reach them?
  • What is the competition for my product (i.e. can I grow and produce my product at price point customers are willing to pay)?
  • Where do I want to start developing relationships and my network for future business development and success.

Once you’ve addressed these questions, you’ll be able to narrow down your options for incubator programs and other professional development and training opportunities in local agriculture. For each program and at each incubator farm location, there is a farm coordinator or program manager, who can answer your specific questions once you have an idea of the type of farm business you’d like to pursue. You can also check out the National Incubator Farming Training Initiative (NIFTI) map to see where the incubator programs are located throughout the northeast and beyond.

In next month’s post, we’ll talk about the apprentice route for gaining experience, a step to starting your own farm.

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Land access, Marketing, Resources for Beginning Farmers, Scaling up, Uncategorized | Tagged