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.

Rachel on tractor.jpeg

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.

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About Suzy Hodgson

Suzy works on and writes about issues at the intersections of risk, climate, economics, food, waste, and energy. She is based at UVM Extension's Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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