By the time he was 20, Nolan Lenzen had already completed a dairy management course at a local college and launched a farming career in partnership with his father and grandfather. They were milking 90 cows in a tie-stall barn and cropping 300 acres near the south-central Minnesota community of Watertown. Some might say it was a family-farming dream come true.
“We had three generations on the farm and way more work than we knew what to do with,” recalled Nolan recently. In fact, barely two years out of high school, the young farmer was already feeling a bit burnt out. So in 2001-2002 he took the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course in hopes of picking up some innovative business management tips as he struck out on his own.
Lenzen is an example of the changing face of Farm Beginnings, according to Nick Olson, an instructor for the program. When the course was launched in southeast Minnesota 15 years ago, most of its students were young people just getting started in farming. But in recent years, the class has attracted people of various ages and backgrounds.
“We’ve found that Farm Beginnings is not just a way for young farmers to get started, but can be an effective tool for people from a variety of backgrounds who want to take a second look at where they want to go,” said Olson, who farms near Litchfield.
Olson expects the 2012-2013 Farm Beginnings class to yet again be full of people at different stages in their farming, and non-farming, careers. Farm Beginnings still has a few spots remaining for its Morris class, which will begin this fall.
Farm Beginnings participants learn goal setting, financial planning, enterprise planning, marketing and innovative production techniques. Classes are led by farmers and other agricultural professionals from the community and meet approximately twice-a-month throughout the fall and winter. They are followed by a series of on-farm tours and skills sessions.
Over the years, more than 500 people have graduated from the Minnesota-region Farm Beginnings program. Graduates are involved in a wide range of agricultural enterprises, including grass-based livestock, organic vegetables, Community Supported Agriculture and specialty products.
Even after Nolan Lenzen and his wife Vanessa found that conventional dairying produced little, if any, profits despite the great investment in time and money, they felt there was still a future for them in farming. They were looking for a way to farm that required less risk and allowed for more time with their growing family, said Nolan.
In fact, Farm Beginnings’ emphasis on business planning and creating support networks with existing farmers doing things out of the mainstream gave Nolan the confidence to eventually pursue a system of farming he had been attracted to since high school: grass-based dairying.
“I don’t think I would have started on my own if I hadn’t gone to the class,” said Nolan, who now has a successful grass-based organic dairy operation in Todd County. “It kind of gave me the push to go off on my own and do things my way.”
Kristianna Gehant also took the Farm Beginnings course in hopes of reassessing her farming goals. When she took the class in 2007 and 2008, she and her husband Nick Siddens had just wrapped up four years of running a Community Supported Agriculture vegetable operation, and they were feeling unsure if their current growth rate and workload were sustainable.
“I think there was a great deal of idealism involved–feeling like this was something very positive to do for the earth, for our family, for myself and other people,” Gehant recalled of her first foray into farming.
Farm Beginnings provided the opportunity to step back and take a look at how to proceed with a farming career from a more practical point of view, she said. Gehant and Siddens are now running a successful wholesale seed garlic operation across the border in Astoria, S. Dak.
“Farm Beginnings helped us figure out what we want out of farming and our quality of life in general,” Gehant said, adding that one of the most valuable outcomes of the course is that she and Nick were prompted to write down their long-term plans. “The course made us consider what the other was thinking and see where we agreed and where we didn’t.”