Pillars of Support for Beginning Farmers
Posted: August 23, 2011
Everblossom Farm is a model for beginning farmers because, within only eight years, it has managed to become a successful CSA farm. Elaine Lemmon shared her experiences as a beginning farmer at a recent Spotlight on Ag Innovations Tour.
"I had an apprenticeship on a farm for three years where I learned everything I needed to know to start my own farm," she said. Over the years, her pumpkin patch gradually expanded to include a number of other vegetables and plants. Now, her operation is certified organic and is a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.
"What we practice here is bio-intensive agriculture because we do not have a lot of acreage at our disposal. This means that we try to maximize the amount of calories per acre," said Ms. Lemmon. "The reason I decided to become certified organic is because I am trying to create an ecosystem that sustains itself--its own biome. Everything grows on its own, I’m just the steward. I try to keep everything in balance, which is what sustainability is all about."
Everblossom Farm is a model for beginning farmers because, within only eight years, it has managed to become a successful CSA farm. "To be a CSA farm means that community members buy a share, upfront, of the products we produce on this farm and we provide them with their share of the food over a 25 week period. This ensures that my CSA customers get the freshest produce on the market and that the cost it takes to produce everything is covered," said Lemmon.
While Lemmon’s path to starting her own agricultural operation was facilitated by the fact that her family already had land available, as well as the fact that she had received hands-on training for three years, many aspiring farmers do not have the same options available. In the process of acquiring the means to operate and own a farm, various barriers present themselves and can often stop a new operation in its tracks. For this reason, local agricultural lenders and various agricultural education programs aim to reduce these barriers by providing aid in a number of ways.
The biggest barriers holding back new farmers are access to training, land, and capital. Establishing a new farm is a high-capital venture with incredibly high start-up costs and many missteps in farming occur from lack of training. Lenders such as the Farm Service Agency, or FSA, help to cut down the capital barrier by providing low interest rate loans to aspiring and socially disadvantaged farmers. “We have two different kinds of loan programs, the Farm Ownership loan and the Farm Operating loan. The Farm Ownership loans help purchase farmland, help to install permanent farm structures, and promote soil and water conservation and protection. The Farm Operating loans can be used for normal operating expenses, machinery and equipment, real estate repairs, and refinancing debt,” stated Richard Crouse, Farm Loan Manager with the USDA Farm Service Agency.
There is a heavy demand for the Farm Ownership loan in the state of Pennsylvania, and especially in Adams County, because the interest rates are very low and the term period of the loan payments is unusually long, set at 20 years. “Within the last year alone, we have given out six or seven different loans to beginning farmers,” said Mr. Crouse. “Our goal with these loans is to help replenish the supply of farmers. A lot of young people do not want to work their family farms for a living, but there are a number of other people who want to start their own farming operations. Our loan programs help these farmers succeed, by helping to remove social and financial barriers for both beginning farmers as well as socially disadvantaged farmers, like Latinos and women. We also have emergency loans, which make up the difference in losses for farms that have been hurt financially by a natural disaster. This type of loan has been very active this year because of the drought.”
To help farmers overcome training barriers, Penn State Extension and the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network offer several different educational programs touching on the basic tenets of running an agricultural operation. Penn State Extension’s ‘Start Farming’ program provides workshops, courses, and expert assistance in business planning and marketing, sustainable production and value-added processing, and stewardship of air, land, and water resources. Another program, the “Beginning Sustainability for New and Beginning Women Farmers through Peer Learning, Mentoring, and Networking” project focuses on overcoming access barriers, targeting women farmers. Like Penn State Extension’s ‘Start Farming’ program, it organizes a plethora of different learning opportunities such as field days, learning sessions, market evaluations, and comparative demonstrations of production techniques. For individuals for whom English is a second language, various programs are being developed to offer bilingual farmer training, business incubation on sustainable farmland, and collaborative marketing opportunities.
Many new and beginning farmers, like Elaine Lemmon, do not necessarily come from farming backgrounds, but they nonetheless need access to the knowledge and skills to be successful agricultural producers. There are many different obstacles to overcome when beginning a new agricultural operation, and success is not always certain. “Success ties in with experience in management. With a business plan, beginning farmers are much more successful. A business plan should cover the basics of everything on the farm, all expenses, all management sectors of the farm, everything down to the apple variety,” said Mr. Crouse. Luckily there is a great wealth of information, services, and educational opportunities provided by universities and farm agencies like Penn State Extension and the FSA that constitute the pillars of support for beginning farmers.
Amelia Jarvinen is an Ag Innovations Program Assistant at Penn State Extension serving Adams County. Penn State is committed to Affirmative Action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workplace. Penn State Extension in Adams County is located at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Suite 204, Gettysburg, PA 17325, phone 717-334-6271 or 1-888-427-0261, e-mail AdamsExt@psu.edu.