The Hippo


Feb 19, 2020








2011 USDA State Agriculture overview. *2007 census of agriculture state profile

So you want to start a farm? 

Gary Keogh shares his advice for agricultural newbies. 
1. Practice farming on whatever property you can. That can include growing containers in your backyard. 
2. Enroll in an apprenticeship program or get a part-time job working on a farm to get some hands-on knowledge.
3. Save money and get capital. Begin to think of farming as a business.  
4. Don’t expect to be able to survive on just farm income. Most farmers across the country have two sources of income. 

New farmers in town
Rising population of first-generation farmers are connecting to mentors


Depending on who you ask, the landscape for New Hampshire farming is either awful and dire or burgeoning and exciting, said Ray Conner, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire’s Beginner Farmer program coordinator. But for an increasing number of environment-minded individuals, the prospect of becoming a commercial farmer is appealing. 
“There are a lot of especially young people, but even second-career older folks who are really excited at the prospect of starting farms,” Conner said. 
While the excitement is well and good, acquiring the production and business skills needed to succeed in the industry is another story. In an effort to support people who are serious about the endeavor, NOFA-NH offers Journeyperson and Mentorship program. The deadline to apply for the 2014 Journeyperson program has been extended to Feb. 3.  
The programs are especially important because the population of U.S. farmers is aging out, Conner said. “A huge number of [farmers’] kids don’t want to farm. The first-generation farmer is happening more and more, especially in the Northeast, where farming is really intimate and direct.”
These new farming hopefuls are young people who want to be self-sufficient, closer to the land and their own bosses, or they are older people who want to get into commercial farming as a second career. 
“I speculate that it’s the lifestyle to some extent. It’s definitely not going to be for the money. It’s personal satisfaction of doing something with their hands,” said Gary Keough, statistician for the United States Department of Agriculture, New Hampshire. 
Elizabeth Morris, a former Journeyperson mentee, grew up on 40 acres in northern New Hampshire. Her family always had a noncommercial garden, but it wasn’t until she moved to bustling Tampa, came back to her home state, married and had children that she began a serious farming venture. What started as a small garden burgeoned after a friend offered her the use of  a 75-acre plot of land. Soon, she had started her own CSA. 
Morris thinks New Hampshire is on the cusp of huge agricultural improvements. 
“It can go one way or the other, and that is hugely dependant on big legislation,” she said. “The residents are wanting to have access to local food, and the farmers in New Hampshire want to offer that, but big legislation can stand in the way. It can make or break the success of New Hampshire agriculture.” 
There’s been an increase in funding and loan opportunities for New Hampshire farmers too. Last year New Hampshire Community Loan Fund began offering a Farm Food Initiative in response to a growing demand for local produce. It works with mostly first-generation farmers, said Charlene Andersen, manager of business education. 
“Most of what we’re seeing right now is folks looking for additional capital in relation to land,” she said. “They are looking at land purchases as well as some equipment. A lot of them are looking for market expansion.”
As part of the initiative, the Community Loan Fund also offers technical assistance. 
“We have farmers that are very good at what they do, but like any business owner they can’t do everything” she said. 
Andersen has seen an interest across the board in helping farmers and food producers prepare for what happens when they take out a loan and acquire more debt. 
The two-year Journeyperson Program is meant to offer people with one to three years of farming experience a chance to obtain the skills necessary to break into the business, without the high costs associated with enrolling in a university program, Conner said. 
That can be a real help for individuals who already have student loan debt. Journeyperson mentors act as consultants and are located throughout the state so mentees can conveniently access their farms for required farm visits. NOFA-NH challenges mentees to find mentors that would work best for them. Conner receives from 10 to 15 applicants a year for two spots. Participants receive $500 for education and $600 for business planning. 
Morris’ mentor helped her through a devastating rainy spring in 2013. That season, it rained non-stop during what was supposed to be the most productive growing weeks. Morris had to replant her crop three times, and her CSA was delayed. 
“We had specific business conversations, like ‘What do we do? What are the options?’ Some farmers were like, ‘Hey we’re sorry’ [to customers]. Others offered extended weeks. [My mentor] offered to renegotiate the terms of CSA share and offer refunds. She has this huge diverse background specifically in mentoring farm hands so she has a huge wealth of information. Farming can be frustrating. Organic farming in a rainy season can be destructive to a person…[having a mentor] makes you feel like you’re not facing it because you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re facing it because this is what we face. I’m not just inept.” 
While milk and greenhouse products make up roughly 30 percent of  the state’s total agricultural production, new farmers tend to start with vegetable and small fruit production. Strawberries and raspberries often generate production in a year or two. Small-scale livestock production also is popular amongst this demographic. An increased interest in local meat secured the state three new slaughterhouses last year. 
The hardest part of beginning a farm is often learning the business side of the operation. New farmers often do not make enough money because they don’t keep track of their yields and don’t know where the money is going. That paired with inflated ambitions (producing too much product for their markets or creating too much work for themselves) and a lack of education can spell failure.  
For the past three years, the NOFA-NH Journeyperson Program has been funded by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s not the case this year, as the farm bill hasn’t passed to include money for the program. Conner said she doesn’t know where money will be shifted to fund the program yet, but the program certainly will not be dropped. 
NOFA-NH is also accepting applications for its 2014 Mentorship program, which Conners affectionately called, “mentorship light.”  It is designed for pre-commercial farmers who have some on-farm experience or are starting their own farms. It doesn’t offer a stipend and follows a more relaxed mentorship model, but connects people with experienced farmers who offer education, guidance, moral support and encouragement. 
Programs like NOFA-NH that offer farmers a true community are essential to the industry, said Morris, who recently moved to South Carolina. 
“If I hadn’t had the Journeyperson program behind me, I may have thrown in the towel and ran away screaming and crying,” she said. “It’s very different without NOFA. Here there is almost no organic farming networks. The only thing I found is about three and a half hours away in another state. The work that NOFA does is altering the face of New Hampshire agriculture.” 
As seen in the January 23, 2014 issue of the hippo.

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