There are numerous ways of communicating the value society places on having more family farmers on the land, not fewer. This morning, the USDA announced it was awarding $18 million in grants to groups that are helping beginning farmers nationwide. That sends an important message that the federal government, thanks to initiatives put in the 2008 Farm Bill, thinks there are opportunities in agriculture for small- and medium-sized farmers using innovative production and marketing methods. On the other hand, there’s the message beginning farmers like Alison and Jim Deutsch have received over the years: “Pretty much everybody we talked to was pretty negative,” said Jim.
Of all the barriers put in front of beginning farmers, a negative attitude body-slams all comers, whether they be rooted in economics or public policy. As Jim told me while taking a break from grinding feed for his hogs one recent morning: “Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that.’ You listen to people long enough…and it wears on you.”
That negative attitude has its roots in the belief that the glory days of family farming are long gone, and that there are no opportunities left in the countryside for independent entrepreneurs. We no longer have a situation where hard-working newbies can make a go of it on the land with a little creativity and a whole lot of sweat equity, goes this thinking. That attitude was dramatized during recent performances of the LSP play, Look Who’s Knockin’. (It was also a common theme sounded during discussions held after each performance of the play.)
Such an attitude isn’t without basis. Lack of access to profitable markets, combined with pro-mega ag government policies, have conspired to make farming an increasingly industrialized, less human-centered venture. But there are exceptions, and those exceptions are growing in number by the year. Spend any time at a farmers’ market or any other venue featuring local food, and you’ll run into a number of energetic beginning farmers who are making agriculture a viable living without becoming employees of agribusiness giants.
But in many rural communities, a negative attitude still prevails. For example, the Deutsches didn’t grow up in farming, although they both had relatives who farmed. Both had a desire to farm early on and were drawn to livestock production, particularly dairying and pork. After settling in the southeast Minnesota community of St. Charles in the early 2000s, they began looking around for farming options.
They were repeatedly told there were none, plain and simple.
Finally, they ran into a positive vibe when Alison met Arlene and LaVerne Nelson while she was working as a meter reader in the St. Charles area. The Nelsons are Land Stewardship Project members and have a certified organic dairy operation that their son Ross is part of. LaVerne and Arlene told the Deutsches that they believe there is a bright future for young farmers, particularly if they avoid the high-input, expensive model of conventional agriculture.
The Deutsches eventually took LSP’s Farm Beginnings course in 2005-2006, where they met established farmers who were producing food using a range of alternative systems and who were also positive about the prospects of getting an operation going from scratch. Just as importantly, these veteran farmers were also realistic about what it takes to be successful.
After taking the course, Jim and Alison bounced around from one rented farm to the next for a few years. All those changes were hard on the animals—and the farmers. The Deutsches had money saved up to make a down payment on a farm, but were having a hard time finding whole, intact operations where the buildings and equipment weren’t worn down to the point where they were almost unusable—perhaps another product of a lack of confidence in the future of agriculture in numerous communities.
A broken-down farm isn’t just a sad eyesore—it’s an indicator that a former business entity is no longer part of a community’s future. And such sights tend to build on themselves, perpetuating a general malaise about an area’s prospects.
“They let the farm get run down and then say there’s no young people interested in farming,” said Alison of some of the retiring farmers they ran into. “The other misconception is that as beginning farmers we can’t pay a fair market price for the land and the equipment.”
That’s too bad, because as a recent LSP podcast featuring the Deutsches shows, these two are no slouches in the business planning and marketing department. Even while moving around from farm-to-farm, they were able to build up an impressive retail and wholesale market for their antibiotic-free pork and other products.
“It’s a business—you have to have your ducks in a row,” Alison told me.
And the Deutsches see being a positive part of a neighborhood as a key component of being successful entrepreneurs. They want to produce food for local eaters, and, in turn, spend their money on Main Street. In other words, any farm community in the Midwest would be lucky to have them as residents.
The good news is that Jim and Alison’s persistence paid off. In early 2010 they bought a farm near the western Wisconsin community of Osseo that had a lot going for it: sound buildings, good soil and relatively good accessibility to markets in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota. Even better, it was a working farm: dairy cows were being milked on it up until a week before the Deutsches moved onto it. And to top things off, at the last minute they were able to talk the owners into selling them field implements and other equipment as part of the overall deal.
“That really helped to buy a working farm and being able to buy the equipment with the farm,” said Jim. “I don’t think we would have been able to do it otherwise.”
Such a deal didn’t come about by accident. The owners of the dairy farm had an opportunity to sell it to a large cash grain farmer in the area, but they were willing to give a young pair of go-getters a chance, and thus continue the operation’s legacy as a family operation that grows crops and livestock.
Even though they’ve finally found a farm they can call their own, the Deutsches say there is still some negativity among a few rural residents about the ability of beginning farmers to contribute to the community’s future. But just within the past year, there’s been a growing interest in local foods in their region. And they’ve also been able to connect with other beginning farmers in the area— sharing equipment, knowledge, even childcare duties.
Perhaps most importantly, the business community is showing signs of seeing these newcomers as assets. Jim says when young farmers like he and Alison spend money on goods and services in town, it gets noticed.
“When Alison went into the bank to set up a checking account, the banker said we were the third young couple that had moved into the area and bought a whole farm recently,” Jim told me after giving a tour of their hog operation. “They’re starting to realize that it’s an advantage to have beginning farmers in the area.”
Such local examples of creating a welcoming environment for beginning farmers can be greatly fortified with support from agricultural policymakers in D.C. That’s why it’s so important that Congress introduce and pass a follow-up to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program: The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011. In fact, the BFROA could be introduced for the first time in Congress as early as next week.
A few calls now to your Senator and Representatives encouraging them to co-sponsor this bill would send an important message that a lot of us see having beginning farmers in the area as an advantage.