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.

intervale-photo

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

matt-carrying-veggies

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 Uncategorized

Risk Management for Beginning Farmers

Jake Jacobs, University of Vermont RMA Risk Management Education

USDA has established certain crop insurance benefits designed to help beginning farmers and ranchers start their operations. These benefits include:

  • Exemption from paying the administrative fee for catastrophic and additional coverage policies;
  • Additional 10 percentage points of premium subsidy for additional coverage policies that have premium subsidy;
  • Use of the production history of farming operations that you were previously involved in the decision-making or physical activities; and
  • An increase in the substitute Yield Adjustment, which allows you to replace a low yield due to an insured cause of loss, from 60 to 80 percent of the applicable transitional yield (T-Yield).

How to Apply for Benefits

You must apply for Beginning Farmer and Rancher benefits by your Fed­eral crop insurance policy’s sales closing date. You are required to identify any previous farming or ranching experience and any exclusionary time periods you were under the age of 18, in post-secondary education, or ac­tive duty military. Talk to your crop insurance agent for more information.  To find an agent licensed by USDA to sell crop insurance in Vermont, you can get a list at your local FSA office or go to the RMA agent locator on their web site at http://www.rma.usda.gov/tools/agent.html.

Posted in Uncategorized

Keeping Safe with a ROPS

A ROPS (Rollover Protective Structure) keeps you safe on your tractor. While it’s probably not first on your mind as you drive into your field, tractor rollovers are the leading cause of death and injury on a farm. However, having a Rollover Protective Structure (ROPS) is 99% effective.

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Overturns – the leading cause of serious injury or death can be prevented with a ROPS

Here’s what Tom Younkman of Stoney Brook Farm in Hyde Park said,“It’s a no brainer.   I’d had an accident and I didn’t want that to happen to my children, my grandchildren, or anyone. I applied online to a ROPS rebate program.

As Tom described the process, “John Deere Company furnished a ROPS that would fit my tractor and it came with everything in a box, easy to install.  I installed it on the farm in my own shop.”

While ROPS retrofit kits may be available from major tractor dealers, many are available from three or four companies that manufacture “universal” certified retrofit ROPS.

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Tom Younkman, Stoney Brook Farm, driving his tractor with the ROPS he installed himself.

A smaller ROPS weighs about 370 lbs; larger tractors mean heavier ROPS. A fold-down ROPS as Tom Youngman purchased for his John Deere has five main pieces (two lower uprights, two upper uprights, and one top crosspiece) plus the bolts, nuts, and anchor plates.

While Tom ordered his ROPS kit on-line and had the experience and tools at the ready to install the ROPS in his own shop, ease of installation may not always be the case.

ROPS parts

ROPS kit with all bolts and other pieces for assembly

As one one mechanic from Champlain Valley Equipment described the process, “it took me a long time to get the parts – they needed to be back-ordered and then I couldn’t get the bars to fit correctly so the ROPS would not bolt on.

However, don’t let the installation process put you off as help is available. George Cook, UVM Extension, explains, “Realistically, ROPS retrofits will take three to four hours, even by an experienced mechanic.” To get started, George recommends calling the ROPS Rebate hotline (1-877-ROPS-R4U or 1-877-767-7748) or go to www.ROPSR4U.com.  Not only will you receive advice for your particular tractor, you’ll also be able to receive up to 70% off the cost of getting a ROPS.

The ROPS Rebate program staff will research and provide you with key information as to:

  • Whether there is a certified ROPS available for your make and model of tractor,
  • Type of equipment needed and whether a fold-down option is available,
  • Where and from what company the ROPS is available as more than one option may be available,
  • Estimated costs including shipping.

You can order the ROPS from whichever source you choose as long as the ROPS are SAE Certified. While it is recommended that you have your roll bar be professionally installed, you have the option of self-installing if you provide a “before” and “after” photo as proof of installation.

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Howard Cook at the wheel after installing his ROPS with UVM Extension Safety specialist George Cook 

Having a ROPS on your tractor is a lifesaver, so the decision to purchase a ROPS is a “no-brainer,” as Tom Younkman tells us. Deciding where the installation will take place and who will do it is a separate decision. Certified installation at a dealership is recommended though if you’re still considering doing this yourself, read this “pause for thought

Coming soon is a National Rebates for ROPS Program, with a roll-out goal of fall, 2016. This will follow closely the program that has been conducted in New York and Vermont.

If you’re driving a tractor without a ROPS, don’t wait and risk your life. Contact 1-877-ROPS-R4U or 1-877-767-7748) or go to ROPSR4U.com. 

 

Posted in Farm labor and human resources, Quality of Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

Strong recruiting in a tight labor market

Woman berry pickerIt’s April and the activity level on your farm is increasing fast. You pulled out the standard tools you use for recruiting your seasonal farm crew…you placed a few ads, called the local employment office, put up a few posts on your Facebook page, sent off an email to your former employees (the ones you want back)…and nothing. A few half-hearted emails and a voicemail that got cut off before you could get the return number.

You’re thinking, “What happened? It’s not poetry, but it’s always worked before.” Usually by now you’ve got most of your crew lined up.

The difference this year is that you are facing increased competition for a smaller workforce. The economy is starting to regain some strength and workers that were unemployed are finding their way back into the workforce. So what’s a farmer to do?

Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this dilemma. You are hiring in a competitive market so you have to find a way to make your job stand out from the noise of all the other starting positions.

Here are a few tips that might get your farm labor opportunities noticed!

  • Put your marketing hat on. Use the same skills you use to sell a new customer on your products. It may not sit well with you but you are now in a position of competing for labor. That means you have to shift from “what are you going to do for me” to “what am I going to do for you” thinking. Review your job postings and advertisements to see if the position sounds interesting, fun, and an opportunity to grow or whether it sounds repetitive, boring and uninspiring.
  • If you are marketing your jobs to Millennials understand that a sense of purpose and mission is important to them. Share your vision and why you do what you do.
  • Keep the expectations reasonable — try to stick to eight-hour shifts, clearly identified days off, and have some scheduling flexibility.
  • Be competitive in wages. Familiarize yourself with the cost of living in your area and know what other entry-level jobs are paying. Consider incentives that provide ways employees can increase their wages — end-of-season bonuses, for example.
  • Emphasize any non-wage perks you can provide — it might be free/discounted produce, weekly staff cookouts, leadership opportunities, training events, etc.
  • Frame the expectation in a positive way — instead of “work outside in all weather” try “opportunity to be active, working outdoors” — you’ll have time to spell out the realities during the interview.

While these tips may help you recruit a larger pool of potential workers it will not necessarily yield a highly motivated field crew. You’ll have to screen carefully, interview thoroughly and follow up with reference checks. Remember, skipping any of these steps can lead you into trouble. There are worse situations than being short a few workers. But that’s a story for another time…

Posted in Farm labor and human resources | Tagged ,

Tips for a successful farm startup

Twenty years of observing new farmers has taught me that you are an enthusiastic, passionate, ambitious lot. This is a good thing because farming, especially in the early years, will take a toll — not just your body but your brain and sometimes your commitment as well. It takes a lot to get a successful farm business launched and when the results are not quite what you hoped, it can be a major blow to your dreams.

In sorting the successful start-ups from the challenging ones there are some lessons to be learned. They are not easy lessons but for your consideration:

  • Avoid the tendency to over-diversify your production. Especially in the early years when you need to focus on product quality and efficiency. Taking on too many profit centers can stretch you thin and leave you with mediocre results. In the early years concentrate on excellence in one or two areas — then expand.
  • Invest in post-harvest care. Inspecting tomatoIt is a shame to spend all that time and money on producing high-quality products that you mishandle. At the end of the day post-harvest washing, packing, and storing will impact the quality and flavor every bit as much as the careful selection of seed and your production practices.
  • Limit your market channels. It sounds counter-intuitive but in exactly the same way that over-diversifying your product line can lead to chaos, over-extending your market reach can yield bad results. If you are focusing your startup on direct marketing then choose one or two channels that will compliment one another. For example, farmers’ markets and a CSA can work well together. Once you have some production experience you can always add markets and/or leave some markets behind. Concentrate your efforts on learning your costs of production so you
  • chardbundlesListen to your customers. The hardest thing for any business owner is to hear negative feedback. I often hear farmers talking about customers’ “unreasonable” demands and lack of knowledge. Ok, some customers are clueless jerks. But, here’s the thing…the customers you have close relations with are sort of like family…they are not going to want to tell you the bad stuff. It’s the difficult customers you might hear the truth from, even if the way they deliver that truth is mean-spirited. So, even though it is hard, listen to the negative feedback and mine it for the tidbits that you can use to improve. Maybe those beans were a little past their prime. Those last steaks were really tough. And that lettuce…it was gritty and buggy.
  • Have a mechanization plan. Even though you may not have the resources to buy every piece of equipment that you need, that should not stop you from having a plan in place. Keep a list of the equipment you need and prioritize the list. What do you need first and what can wait a few years? Then start taking classes in how to maintain and repair equipment. Learning how doesn’t mean you have to do the work yourself–it means you will be better able to explain your needs to others and gauge the quality of their work.

The tricky part of farming is that you can do everything right and still not end up where you hoped to be. And that is why you need to plan carefully, proceed with caution and love what you do.

Posted in General info, Scaling up