Archive for March, 2009
January 31st, 2009, Grayling Michigan – The 10th annual Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference helps small and family farmers to learn about the newest trends, best practices, and innovations that help their agricultural businesses find success. This year was no different, except for the addition of a special track of sessions for the under-18 crowd, designed specifically for the young future farmer.
The Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference has always been a family affair, drawing farming families from all over the state, but this was the first year the conference planners decided to include a full day of speakers and learning sessions designed specifically for the young attendees. Conference planner and Cheboygan County MSU Extension Director, BJ Bartlett said the conference planning decided to incorporate the Youth Sessions because there is a real demand to help young people stay in farming.
The youth sessions began with presentations from several young entrepreneurs, from age 14 to 17, on their farming business. The presenters represented a diverse cross section of agricultural businesses, such as horse training/boarding, rabbit breeding, maple syrup production, poultry, and even strawberries and sweet corn. Each shared their unique approach to getting started, their marketing techniques, and many lessons they have learned along the way. Other session included a business planning workshop and a panel discussion were the youth presenters responded to questions from their peers about starting a farm business.
The spirit of the day was ignited by the key note presentation, “Mom, Dad, I Want to Farm!,” delivered by 27-year-old Virginia farmer, Daniel Salatin, son of notable writer, innovative farmer and speaker, Joel Salatin (Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front, Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, Salad Bar Beef, and You Can Farm). Daniel shared from his experience growing up on Polyface Farm, his family’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley, and coming into his own as a young farmer.
Salatin noted that the barriers to young people entering farming is the huge overhead and start up costs of acquiring land, facilities, and the equipment to farm. Tractors, structures, land purchases and specialized equipment can put the start up cost to farming in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and saddle new farmers with impossible debts. Further, some young people are required to work with their parents on the existing family farm, and finding time and space for their own ventures can be challenging.
But Daniel encouraged young people to find ways to start farming by adding-on to their family or neighbor’s existing farm business, creating a new avenue to make income and carve a niche for one’s self in farming. For instance, if your folks own a cattle ranch, why not start a compost business using the manure. Also, considering how you might add value to a product the family farm already produces, by taking a whole product and further processing, fabricating, or distributing it, increases the dollar value one can capture.
He encouraged young people to look for ways nature can do the work of the farm for you before you invest in specialized equipment or expensive commercial solutions. On Polyface farms, they only purchase equipment that can serve many purposes, and use the instincts and behavior of their animals to assist in fertilizing and enriching the land. “It doesn’t take a salesman to make you successful at this kind of farming!” Salatin declared. Keeping overhead and impact on the land has low overhead, but high returns for Polyface.
Salatin has participated in other youth focused farming events before, but this was the youngest delegation of aspiring growers he has seen yet. He was impressed by the other youth presenters, and the great things they are doing on their own, and glad have an opportunity to be part of an event reaching out to young growers. “Farming is the last enterprise that has focused on youth”, he says. “Other industries reach out to youth, but farming hasn’t. [We] haven’t taken the time to grow the next generation”.
He had, in addition to the influence and encouragement of his father, a great deal of encouragement to stay farming from loyal customers through direct marketing. Salatin explained that when you deliver corn to the grain elevator, no one may really care if you show up with your truckload anymore. But, when you have customers who look for you every week at the farmers market for your product, you can’t quit. “Telling that customer that has come to me every week for eggs ‘oh, yeah, I quit’ would be harder than any thing else I had to do to raise those eggs. Your customers will keep you going”.
“It was good to see how other people handled their business”, said Megan Brittan, 17. Megan started her own business because her family needed her at the farm during the summers, which made it impossible to hold a summer job. She built her business by adding diversity to her parent’s existing poultry and vegetable farm by raising ducks and establishing a strawberry patch. She was able manage the work of her business with her other farm chores, and still earn extra money.
Vanessa Oliver, 17, is president of the Alcona FFA chapter, and Region VI FFA treasurer. She co-presented on the Alcona FFA Sugar Shack, a sugar bush project that produces high quality maple syrup (click here for more information on the Sugar Shack). Outside of FFA, she said they had not participated in an event quite like the youth sessions of the Northern Small Farms Conference, and said the day was really informational.
Barney, 18, and Jonathan, 15, both are growing up on family farms in Northern Michigan and plan to stay in farming. Jonathan imagines he will continue his family’s organic Dairy in Mio, because he actually likes the dairy work more than any other farm work. Barney said he wants to keep on the family land because he isn’t really interested in going to college, but thinks he’d like to do something a little different from his parents. “My dad has the horse thing, and we grow grapes. I’d actually like to do logging.”
“I would say the number of youth that turned out for this addition to the conference showed me that we need to do more for them in this arena,” said MSU Extension 4H Educator and youth session facilitator, Dee Miller. She said 112 were pre-registered for the youth sessions; however, she had to get extra chairs for the very first session. The conference sold out days in advance, and Dee said she has heard from many that wished they had known about it in time. Planning is already under way for the 2010 conference, and based on this years success, Dee will need a lot more chairs. (Click here for information on the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference.
CS Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at MSU