New Farmers Get Hands-on Business Training

The first-year participants of the Beginning Farmer Institute unite for a second round of practical farm-business instruction.

by Dani Yokhna
Beginning Farmer Institute
Courtesy Erin Schneider
The Beginning Farmer Institute brings new farmers together to learn valuable skills, such as communication skills, risk management and financial planning.

This month, first-time farmers from across the U.S. will converge in Minneapolis for the second session of the Beginning Farmer Institute, a learner-centered program sponsored by the National Farmers Union, Farm Credit, United Soybean Board, and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. This meeting follows in the footsteps of the program’s inaugural session held in September 2010 in Washington, D.C., which introduced new farmers to concepts that can’t be learned in the field.

Participants of BFI meet throughout the year to discuss topics, such as financial planning, USDA farm programs, risk management and communication skills, which they and NFU have identified as important.

“The learning process is cumulative, building on previous topics, in order to give participants a well-rounded knowledge of the ins and outs of today’s agriculture,” says Maria Miller, NFU’s education director.

Although the participants come from a cross section of agricultural backgrounds—from commodity crops to livestock to urban farms—they came out of the first BFI session energized and ready to apply the knowledge they’d gained.

“I work on a small, chemical-free farm in a New England city, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot relate to farmers from other backgrounds and learn from their experiences,” says Tess Brown-Lavoie, who farms a less-than-1-acre plot on the west end of Providence, R.I. “Fundamentally, we’re all trying to feed people, and so learning about other people’s methods and practices helped me to understand more about the politics of my own business.”

Erin Schneider agrees. In contrast to Brown-Lavoie’s small acreage, she owns a 59-acre farm and operates a 10-member CSA outside Madison, Wis. She gleaned information from the institute that she can put to work in her operation. “On a personal level, it gave me more confidence in asking for loans from the Farm Service Agency or bank,” she says.

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Each BFI session is taught by seasoned agriculture professionals, who have real-world experience with their given topic, but the support of other beginning farmers is what really made the difference, according to the participants.

“You can learn from everybody,” Schneider says. “As long as you are open to that, you can ask questions along the way.”

In fact, at the end of the first session, many participants committed to assembling financial plans in time for the January meeting for a peer-review session.
“The BFI was very useful on many fronts,” Brown-Lavoie says. “We gained exposure to institutions and vocabularies that are important in advocating for useful farm policy and learning necessary business skills.”

Each year, the BFI will welcome a new group of farmers. According to Miller, the program is likely to adapt to the needs of the participants as well as changes implemented by the 2012 Farm Bill. Nonetheless, NFU anticipates the program will influence a new generation of farmers.

“The increasing demand for locally grown food represents a change in the way consumers view agriculture,” Miller says. “We hope the first participants in the Beginning Farmer Institute will become positive role models in their respective communities.”

Applications and information on the next institute will be available later this month on the NFU website.


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