Grooming the Next Generation of Farmers

By Eileen Weber

DSC_3995To some, being a farmer means owning a few backyard chickens, a couple of goats and maybe some bees. Attend a few farmers’ markets, et voilà! But that is pretty far from the truth.

Farming is difficult, and often, thankless work. But if this is something you feel passionate about, where do you begin? In past generations, you simply followed what your parents or grandparents did. But, according to the USDA, farmers are a dying a breed with the average age around 58 years old, up 1.2 years since 2007. The face of the farm industry is aging rapidly and few are replacing them.

That’s where programs like CT NOFA’s Whole Farm Planning Certificate Course come in. Originally, the program started six years ago as the Beginning Women Farmers Program. But now the 10-week course has been remodeled to reflect all farmers—men, women, new, and experienced to groom the next generation of farmers. If you want to learn how to be a farmer, or just become a better one, this is the program for you.

nofa logo“It’s primarily a business plan,” says Sherry Simpson of Cranberry Hill Farm who coordinates and teaches the course. “Farmers love the production side, but they don’t necessarily love the business side.” She went on to say that most farmers don’t really like the idea of sitting in an office behind a computer for ten hours; that’s one reason they became farmers in the first place. But that’s also what contributes to their lack of business know-how as entrepreneurs.

Baylee Drown of Upper Pond Farm in Old Lyme, who was enrolled in the program last year, said that’s exactly what you get out of the course. They are teaching you to become a “farmer entrepreneur.” “It helped me create a framework between my business and my values,” she said. “And, it’s a fantastic networking opportunity. It provided me professional and personal support and camaraderie.”

CT NOFA’s Whole Farm Planning Certificate Course covers fundamental concepts like soil management, grazing and land planning while also exploring more esoteric business topics like financial planning, marketing, and time management. They’ve had 63 total graduates hailing from 50 different towns in Connecticut (about 30% of the state) and two towns in New York. Many of the sessions in this year’s course will take place at the CT Forest and Park Association in Rockfall while others are scheduled for individual farms. The program runs on Saturdays from December 5 through April 30. The tuition is $650 per farm. The registration deadline is November 21. So far, 14 students have already signed up. They have room for about five or six more and registration can conveniently be done online.

farmer in the fieldThis program, however, is certainly not the first of its kind. Colleges and universities throughout the East offer degree or extension programs. The University of Vermont, the University of Connecticut, the University of Maine and Virginia Tech are a few examples. Certainly Yale University has done its part with the Sustainable Food Project and their one-acre farm that provides produce for the Wooster Square Farmer’s Market, private school events, or donated to those in need. Even non-profit organizations like The New York City Watershed Agricultural Council have their whole farm programs as well. Holistic Management International, which supports CT NOFA’s program, has hosted a number of courses throughout the country including some of those mentioned here.

Holistic management, a concept of farming that has been growing in popularity, is an umbrella term for an approach to owning a farm that sees both sides of the coin. Hard work is fruitless if you don’t have a successful business model to work with.  Holistic management takes into consideration the farm as a whole—financially, environmentally, and socially.

CT NOFA’s Whole Farm Planning Certificate Course is particularly unique in this area, says Executive Director Jeff Cordulack. “In this region, there is no other multi-week program offering,” he explained. “It is the best course for farmers in Connecticut.”

Until recently, farmers had to figure it out on their own. There was no instruction manual. Whole Farm Planning essentially breaks that cycle. “Our goal is to make local, organic farmers more productive,” said Cordulack. “This will help a small farmer be more efficient.”

DSC_4040For Heather Driscoll of Green Valley Farm in Eastford, one of the largest pig farms in Connecticut, that approach was invaluable. She started with the Beginning Women Farmers Program in 2010, which was one of the first classes with about 18 members. She said her business has grown substantially since then, owing in large part to the course. Driscoll continued by saying any farmer just starting out needs to really think things through.

“It’s realizing you need to treat the farm like a business,” she said. “If you can’t make money off it, you shouldn’t be doing it. That’s why I think a lot of farmers can’t stay afloat.”

But seeing the big picture in farming goes beyond the adult, post-grad or late career changer, with a desire to get their hands dirty. The passion for farming must be instilled in the young. That’s why farms throughout the region have been hosting farm apprentice programs. Teaching basic farming skills is a lot like planting seeds and watching them grow. Ambler Farm in Wilton started their program six years ago and the student enrollment has exploded. With kids as young as fifth graders through high school students, they have a booming apprenticeship program with many of the older kids mentoring the younger ones. Devon Point Farm in Woodstock, George Hall Farm in Simsbury, Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, Wakeman Town Farm in Westport, The Hickories in Ridgefield, and Jones Family Farm in Shelton are just a sampling of the other farms that offer apprenticeship programs throughout the state.

Support for CT NOFA’s Whole Farm Planning program is being raised through a CrowdRise campaign with a $8,000 fundraising goal. As you make year-end giving plans, please consider supporting this campaign and the future of sustainable farming in Connecticut with a donation of $20 or more. Proceeds from the CrowdRise campaign, which has already raised over $1,000, will help supply partial scholarships to new and growing farmers in need.

For more information about this program or to make a direct donation, contact Deb Legge, Chief Administrative Officer of CT NOFA, at 203-308-2584.

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