Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Lofty Goal For a Farm

One of the readers over at the Epi-Log turned me on to an article/post from (my first trip to the site). The post is by Tom Philpott and is titled, "Da yoots take over Maverick Farms". In this short post Mr. Philpott, who is one of the founders of Maverick Farms, talks about something they are calling a "farm incubator". There is a little video included in the article that mostly talks about CSA's, but there is also an interesting link to the Farm Incubator and Grower Program on the Maverick Farms website. This is what I found most interesting ... and a bit noble!

Basically they have created (or are refining/creating) an intensive two-year internship program that is hands on in planning, farming, marketing, and everything else. Then after the people have completed the program they receive help in finding land and building their own small-scale farming business. This whole incubator idea has been around in the business world for a while now, but it does seem like the perfect fit for the small-scale farming world.

I think this is a pretty exciting opportunity, but I don't think I'm going to be able to jump in a car with my wife and two kids and join in the fun anytime soon. Nevertheless, this "Farm Incubator" idea made me think ... shouldn't all farms (especially the outside-the-box and successful ones) be "Farm Incubators"? Maybe not every farm will take on interns, I understand that isn't everyone's cup of tea, but shouldn't they all take on this lofty goal of encouraging, preparing, and helping the future generation.

The fact that many farm kids left the farm in recent and past history has been kicked around a LOT on this blog in the posts and in the comments, so I won't go into it in too much detail. But, I believe we need to make sure that our small-scale family farms are just like this "Farm Incubator" program, except we can use our own children. As a father of two I want to pass on my love of farming, my passion to work outdoors, my satisfaction in working in God's creation, and my wonder in the beauty of the business and the workings of the farm to my children so that they can share in it also.

In order to do that I think we need to be deliberate in the steps we take to help our children. Get the involved in the work, not just from the age old, "there is work to be do so you better be doing it," standpoint. But rather from the, "you can have ownership and input into this," line of thinking. If we get our children involved, connected, and excited about what is around them on the farm then we can incubate the next generation of farmers! A lofty and noble goal...


Lynnie said...

Definitely, and I hope it works. I hope we really are raising a generation of kids that can sustain themselves and appreciate the earth and teach others what they know. It can be hard to remember this goal when you're just out shoveling the barn again and again and again.

sugarcreekfarm said...

Amen, brother :)

nat said...

I don't think it's a lofty goal. This is a very do-able goal and one that many vegetable farms around my neck of the woods (Portland, OR) take. Internships abound in many farms in the area and as a result, there are quite a number of new farms run by the younger generation.

Art Blomquist said...

A great Idea. Anyone want to move to Northern B.C. and learn how to run a "Re-Tired Garden". And chop wood and carry water? Well O.K. water carrying not required.

Seriously, the article you mentioned is a good idea. What could be better than a generation that knows how to feed itself? And what better vitamins than a carrot with a little dirt still on it.

Rich said...

Something like the Farm Incubator and Grower Program sounds great, but when I go to the website

and read things like the following it causes me to question what the true goal of the program actually is, and what they are really trying to teach:

The FIG program works to address these problems by helping launch what every local-food system needs: economically sustainable small-scale farm enterprises.

Because viable local food systems are often constrained by a lack of both land under cultivation and new farmers, FIG will collaborate with local landowners, land trusts, and town and county governments to identify land that could be rented at below-market rates or deeded as common agricultural property. To this end, participants in the FIG training will not only farm, but will also be involved in a critical educational project to examine the social, political, and economic structures of land ownership that often make it difficult for farmers to retain land in agricultural production and for young aspiring farmers with limited capital to access land. While small-scale agriculture is often framed as the antithesis of economic development, the FIG initiative seeks to reframe the terms of economic development and re-place food production within communities.

The only way farming can truly be saved and expanded as a viable industry is if farmers can make a living at farming. These types of programs seem to ignore the need for profit in a farm, relying on renting land at below-market rates doesn't seem very "sustainable" to my way of thinking. It sounds more like a mild form of "peasant land reform" that is usually touted in some third world country.

I would prefer to intern with a successful (and profitable) farmer or rancher that pays the going rate for his rent and inputs, therefore having a truly "sustainable" operation, and leaving the social, political, and economic mumbo-jumbo out of the internship.

The problem of finding land doesn't seem like it would be that hard to solve. Locally, I see plenty of under-utilized grazing and abandoned crop land. The problem is a significant number of absentee landowners that have limited ties to the local farming community and the established farmers and ranchers are usually operating at "capacity" with no desire or ability to expand. A program that would enable landowners to more easily find beginning farmers (or expanding farmers) to act as reliable renters to farm their properties would benefit both parties economically without all the social restructuring policies. Some sort of mentoring program, where the beginning farmer would rent (at market value) a piece of land, and be advised by a mentor (or partner) while actually operating the farm themselves seems like a more worthwhile and valuable type of program.

Ethan Book said...

Rich - I see what you are saying, and this post wasn't as much about FIG as it was about the idea ... with that in mind though I do have a thought on the land deal.

Around here I see lots of land just sitting there owned by absentee land owners, but it just isn't available for rent for one of two reasons. They don't want it grazed because it is the hunting land or because it is in CRP. That does make it more difficult to find land ... at least it did for us, and finding land to rent ... practically out of the question!

Rich said...

"...I see lots of land just sitting there owned by absentee land owners, but it just isn't available for rent for one of two reasons. They don't want it grazed because it is the hunting land or because it is in CRP...."

I have commented before about how my grandparents farm was rented to a neighbor after my grandfather could no longer farm, and how the renter farmed in a different way than I thought it should be farmed (actually Grandpa also did some things that I wouldn't have done).

The farmer renting the farm didn't farm in an "incorrect" way, but the farm "looked" different (hard to explain in words, but easy to see and feel). Now the farm is split up and belongs to my parents and my aunts, I rent my parent's farm and my aunts rent their properties to another farmer (until I can hopefully expand).

In a purely economic sense, both of my aunts should have immediately sold their portions of the farm, but even though they might only visit the farm a few times a year, they chose to keep them. Since they are not motivated entirely by economic reasons, they (and my parents) would probably choose to NOT rent their properties rather than see it possibly altered significantly by renting it in the future to an unknown new renter.

I suspect that most idled land (either CRP or recreational land) is owned by people that have a similar "tie" to their properties, it isn't that they don't want their land farmed, they want it farmed in a way that doesn't alter the "feeling" of the land.

That is where you might have an unfair advantage as a grass-based grazing operation, it is a very real possibility that by creating an attractive farm setup, you could more easily find farmland to rent in the future (if you want to expand your farm). Spending extra time "landscaping" the wooded areas of the property (thinning, pruning, and removing trees with a chainsaw instead of a bulldozer), planning natural looking treed windbreaks (instead of tree plantation plantings), and native grass pastures (to attract a variety of wildlife) might pay future dividends in the future by opening up more land to rent (since you are displaying how the landowner's land can look under your tenancy).

Don't assume that it is impossible to find land to rent, it might be as simple as helping people "recreate or create" what they think their property should look like. You should be marketing yourself and your farm practices to possible landlords as much as you are marketing your farm products to potential consumers. It might be like the old saying that the easiest way to find a new job is to have a current job; if you have a farm, it is easier to find more farmland.

Ethan Book said...

Rich - I do see your point, and I'm not assuming that there is no land to rent in our area ... I'm looking and I know that others are looking also. But, with super high corn and beans there just isn't much out there.

Also, at least in deer country, our absentee land owners may not even live in state and aren't just owning land that is passed down to them. They are buying land (from as far away as Chicago) so the can hunt and put in food plots. As evidence my dad's neighbor is importing Jinma tractors from China specifically to sell to hunters who want to put in food plots.

But, everything is regional of course.

Mellifera said...

Has anyone read Joel Salatin's "Family-Friendly Farm"? A lot of what he had to say about passing the farm onto the next generation (within the family) really seems to apply, at least in Wisconsin where I'm more familiar with.

His basic premise was "farm kids grow up not wanting to farm because the way we farm sucks." (That being conventional, confinement agriculture- it's more filthy than inspiring.) Also a good bit about how *not* to run a family business... how to make it an opportunity for kids instead of a financial and emotional deathtrap they can't wait to get away from. I don't necessarily agree with every word in the book, but I highly highly recommend it for anyone thinking of *any* kind of family business.

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