Become a Better Farmer—Educate Yourself

Workshops, field days and webinars are all ways to network with other farmers to make your operation the best it can be.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: Suzie's Farm/Flickr

When you’re working 40-plus hours per week before coming home to tend to your farm, it’s difficult to think about adding anything else to your already hectic life. Taking an evening to attend a mixer, go to a class or participate in an online course or—dream of small-scale-farmer dreams—going to a weekend-long conference might impart pangs of panic. Yet taking a break from farm chores might provide greater perspective for your farming ambitions.

You’ll learn about others’ mistakes and successes from which you can build upon, discover a new technique that can save you money and body aches, and come away realizing you’re not the only one out there struggling to make this sustainable-farming dream happen. You’ll also likely realize that networking and learning are things you should have made time for from the start.

Organizations in every state and region, as well as organizations with national and county-specific focuses, offer training—some virtual, most in-person—and mixer events. As you start researching options in your area, you might be overwhelmed by what’s available.

Online Resources

It turns out the Internet is good for a lot more than sending Facebook messages and watching cute kitten videos. Ag groups everywhere are using it to help followers become better equipped to start and maintain productive and profitable farms.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, an organization supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the USDA, offers grants to fund education and research-based projects.

“Even with projects that are more research-focused, we require our grantees to include an outreach component, which is designed to encourage sharing research results with farmers,” says Andy Zieminski, SARE communications manager. “This outreach often comes in the form of holding workshops and field days, speaking at conferences, or creating educational materials like webinars and fact sheets.”

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You’ll find fact sheets and educational reports resulting from these grants online, as well as the SARE Learning Center. “It’s a large collection of educational materials on a wide range of sustainable-agriculture topics—from books, fact sheets and webinars to videos and stories. Nearly all of these materials are free to read online,” Zieminski says.

Newsletters that focus on everything from direct marketing to farm startups, email listservs for everyone from small-acreage farmers to farmers concerned about the environment, and Facebook and LinkedIn sustainable-ag interest groups are enough to keep you in front of the computer all day.

In addition to reading materials, webinars are becoming increasingly popular as they get easier to produce and use and more people have reliable home Internet connections. “Think of [a webinar] as a virtual field day,” Zieminski says. “They’re excellent for busy farmers in two ways: One, you don’t have to get in your truck and drive somewhere; and two, you don’t have to catch it live—you can watch the online archive at your convenience.”

Find webinars by searching online for a topic that interests you, looking on websites of organizations you belong to, checking the state SARE websites and inquiring with your state cooperative extension agency.

While some online materials are region-specific, others apply to farmers nationwide, such as the ag-business online curricula “Direct Marketing of Specialty Food Products Online” and “Marketing Agritourism Online,” part of the National eCommerce Initiative funded by USDA through the Southern Rural Development Center and developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of North Dakota Cooperative Extensions.

“The curriculum is created so that a participant can come in at any point where they see their greatest need for information. The course can be taken online in the comfort of your home or used by a trained educator, i.e., extension educator, in a face-to-face class, which we believe would entail a two- to three-hour session for each module,” says Connie Hancock, UNL extension educator.

Meetups, Farm Tours & Workshops

Having education available at your fingertips is convenient, but getting to know other farmers in person is invaluable. State and regional organizations, including nonprofit ag-advocacy groups and cooperative-extension programs, are great for meeting other farmers.

One such group, Community Farm Alliance, serves small-scale and sustainable farmers in Kentucky in several capacities and, most notably, beginning farmers with its Agriculture Legacy Initiative. “The goal of this program is to provide resources to beginning farmers, which includes folks that have been farming for 10 years or less,” explains CFA executive director Martin Richards. “The Ag Legacy Initiative holds regular field days at a farm or organization that brings farmers, hobbyists and local foodies together to do a farm tour, eat a meal and do some networking. We try to create diverse programming with the field days and will tour anywhere from urban gardens to a local processing plant to an Eastern Kentucky farm.”

In fall 2013, CFA hosted its first Kentucky Beginning Farmers Conference. Many groups across the country similar to CFA host programs like these, making local educational and networking events accessible to farmers.

On a larger scale, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s annual conference offers more than 70 educational sessions, several field trips and a trade show at a location that varies each year within its 13-state coverage area.

“We also facilitate networking for the 1,100 to 1,200 participants by providing state networking sessions and networking sessions by topic,” says Keith Richards, program director for Southern SAWG. “Some of our most popular conference sessions are on high-tunnel production and marketing, soil health and soil-building, production and marketing of specific crops, organic pest and weed management, composting, intensive production methods for small spaces, how to integrate livestock into a diversified farm, innovative marketing strategies, and financial record keeping.”

Additionally, Southern SAWG offers training courses throughout the year, as do many other state and regional ag groups.

The SARE grants that Zieminski mentions above also fund events in cooperation with colleges, universities, cooperative extensions and independent organizations through SARE state coordinators. Plus, universities and cooperative extensions offer additional Master Gardener, Master Composter and ag-focused workshops in many states.

Balancing Act

With so many offerings in your community and on your computer, it’s best to focus on what’s most relevant to you right now to avoid getting overwhelmed. For example, this year you might concentrate on improving your pastures and next year strive to transition your farm to certified-organic production. If you try to attend every event, participate in every webinar and read every message on every small-scale, sustainable-farming listserv out there, you won’t get much else done. Striking a balance is the way to make these resources work best for you.

“I would encourage even busy farmers to keep an eye out for local events that might interest them and be feasible for them to attend. From there, they can often begin making the connections with other nearby farmers and ag professionals that will help them later on when specific questions arise—the kind of connections where you can just pick up the phone and call somebody when you need to,” Zieminski says.

Richards suggests writing one event on your calendar per month or one every three months so you’re sure to attend. Once you get a taste of the online and organizational offerings in your area, you’ll likely garner an immediate understanding of their value and become a regular participant.

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