Posts

The National Center for Appropriate Technology will lead a regional partnership to help more than 300 beginning farmers and ranchers across the Northern Great Plains explore the value, viability, and resilience of raising organic field crops.

NCAT will lead this $600,000 three-year Preparing a Resilient Future project alongside the Montana Organic Association, Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, Center for Rural Affairs, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, International Organic Inspectors Association, North Dakota State, and University of Wyoming

“The Preparing a Resilient Future project is unique in that it will help beginning farmers and ranchers fully explore the economic and productive viability of organic systems in the Northern Great Plains,” said NCAT Agricultural and Natural Resource Economist and Project Director Jeff Schahczenski. “NCAT has long-recognized that farmers and ranchers learn best from other farmers and ranchers.”

Unlike most programs focused on beginning farmers and ranchers, the new project targets medium to large-scale field crop and livestock operations. This project was selected in a national competition under the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program funded through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Researchers often assume that beginning organic farmers are smaller-scale operations because of the challenge of finding and acquiring affordable land and high cost of larger-scale machinery. Programs that help beginning farmers tend to focus on organic specialty crops like fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and flowers. Research has shown that only about 25 percent of Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development programs train and educate beginning farmers to focus on commodity field crops such as, wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, dry peas and beans and oilseeds as well as beef livestock production.

Why Field Crops?

Interest in growing organic field crops is on the rise in the Northern Great Plains, and there appears to be good reason to think there would be markets for them.

Research shows that organic vegetable and specialty crop growers are meeting the national demand in the U.S. because there’s a net export of their products. At the same time, organically grown field crops are being imported into the U.S. at stable and sometimes increasing rates.

“Organic farming is not prescriptive,” said Jamie Ryan Lockman, Executive Director of the Montana Organic Association and Co-Project Director. “It is a system that requires diverse crops and diverse approaches subject to constant change. Montana is the number one organic wheat- and pulse-producing state in the country; it is uniquely positioned to provide education as well as opportunities to meet, learn, collaborate, mentor, do business, and more.”

Bringing in the Community

NCAT and the project collaborators will host intensive training sessions, one-on-one technical assistance, and on-farm workshops and tours. The training will be conducted in two-day “Organic Academy Road Show” sessions. Importantly, experienced organic farmers and ranchers are some of the lead trainers in this project.  

In addition to the farmers and ranchers taking part, the sessions will include other members of their agricultural communities, including civic leaders, county Extension agents and officials from USDA agencies such as the Farm Service Administration and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That outreach is vital as support for the beginning farmers and to introduce organic farming and ranching to the agricultural community in their area.

Opportunities for Diversity

Over the past seven years, NCAT has helped nearly 900 military veteran farmers through its Armed to Farm training projects around the country.

In addition, NCAT and MOA have undertaken many training workshops that have included tribal members, who make up about 2 percent of all new beginning farmers in the Northern Great Plains.

That emphasis on diversity will be reflected in the Preparing a Resilient Future project, which will include at least 50 veteran, limited-resource, tribal, and socially disadvantaged participants.

“NCAT is a longtime, trusted resource for providing accessible training to farmers and ranchers,” said NCAT Executive Director Steve Thompson. “Now we have the opportunity to formally partner with several leading organic and sustainable agriculture organizations and tribal nations to deliver high-quality training to beginning farmers, ranchers, and their community support systems across the Northern Great Plains, creating a recipe for success.”

The Preparing a Resilient Future project will serve farmers and ranchers in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

By Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director, Armed to Farm Program Director, and Agriculture Specialist

My day begins with a hot cup of coffee and a quick check of our farm. What a thrill to find a new baby calf from our Belted Galloways, to watch the antics of our pig, to have my girls gather farm-fresh eggs, and to watch the goats grazing. Livestock bring life to the farm!

Then again, livestock can bring difficulty. The bull escaped; we need to return him to the pasture and fix the fence. The processor doesn’t have a slot for the pig, the price of chicken feed rises, and the goats get into mischief.

While I can’t imagine life without livestock, I recognize that they don’t fit on every farm or for every farm family. Let’s consider the benefits and some of the challenges of living with livestock.

 Benefits of Livestock

Goats and pigs eating discarded pumpkins.

Livestock can turn your over-ripe or excess vegetables into meat. On the Hale farm, goats and pigs take care of the discarded Halloween pumpkins. Photo: Margo Hale, NCAT.

On our farm, and yours, livestock turn pasture and browse into healthy meat. Pasture-raised hogs and poultry need other feed as well, but the meat and eggs produced on pasture are healthier for our family and community. Those grazing animals improve the fertility of our land and boost soil health. And during the garden season our livestock “recycle” excess or over-ripe vegetables, turning waste into meat or eggs. Farms that already have a customer base will find that adding farm-raised meat or eggs can really boost sales and bring in new customers.

There are also many intangible, but real, benefits, as we have learned. Livestock are fun to watch and interesting to raise. They’re valuable for teaching children to be responsible, observant, and curious. They teach kids how science and nature work and how food is grown. These life-long lessons were given to me as a child, and it is satisfying to pass them on to my children, as well.

Assessing Resources

For our family, livestock are a perfect fit. Are they for you?

Before getting started with any enterprise, it is important to consider the goals you have for your farm, family, and lifestyle. How will livestock help you meet your farm goals? Your farm goals, including financial goals, will impact the livestock species you choose, your scale of production, and marketing streams.

A black chicken exits a wire enclosure.

Chickens are easier to contain and need much less space than cattle, so they can be a good fit on small acreage. Photo: Robyn Metzger, NCAT.

Next, what are your available resources? Consider land, money, infrastructure, and time. Some enterprises lend themselves best to smaller acreages: poultry, rabbits, and bees take little space. Grazing livestock need more area so that you can protect soil and pastures and keep livestock healthy.   If you have sufficient acreage to raise larger livestock, then the type of forages may influence your decisions. Woodlots are a good fit for hogs and goats, whereas farms with mostly grass pastures best suit sheep and cattle.

Another factor that influences your choice of enterprise is the money you have available to invest in livestock and infrastructure. You can start small with any enterprise, but some are easier and cheaper to contain, such as poultry and rabbits. Grazing livestock need a larger enclosure and are therefore more expensive to start. If there is existing infrastructure, that is very helpful. If not, you will need to budget funds for fence, water, and needed equipment. These up-front costs can be significant, but they are vital. You don’t want an angry phone call from your neighbor about your goats killing their fruit trees!

Having a way to deliver adequate quantities of water to your livestock is also imperative and can be tricky to figure out. In addition, livestock usually need supplementary feed. Poultry, rabbits, and hogs need grain, while grazing animals need hay in winter. Where can you source feed, for what price?  Where can you store feed to keep it dry and protected from livestock and rodents? Feed goes into the budget, as all feed costs are paid before you get meat to sell.

Shelter may be an issue. In our moderate climate and with our choice of hardy cattle and goats, we rarely need shelter. However, baby goats born in a cold rain will suffer. If they get too chilled to nurse, they will die. Therefore, we need a plan for circumstances where the livestock do need shelter.

Local markets and processing may also influence your choice. Pasture-raised eggs are always popular, but what is the selling price for a dozen in your area? Can you make money selling at that price, given your feed cost? Similarly, meat enterprises may be feasible or not, depending on the local prices, processing, and feed costs. You will need to do some homework, investigating the local situation and plugging the numbers into a budget to see if the enterprise makes sense. The sample budgets in ATTRA’s Small Scale Livestock Production publication can serve as a starting point. Also see publications on the ATTRA livestock page about whatever enterprise you are considering. Know before you begin what you can produce and for what cost—this knowledge can help guide your choice of livestock enterprise and save your family from a costly mistake.

Time is a precious resource and your farm setup and the enterprises you choose must take this into consideration. Our family includes two children and two full-time, off-farm jobs; therefore, one of our goals is to have easy-to-manage enterprises that don’t take much time. That is important when we need to leave the farm; also, our farm sitter needs the chores to be low-stress and easy to complete. We accomplish that by being intentional in our enterprise selection, infrastructure setup, and our management. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by taking on more than you can easily manage in the time you have available.

In next week’s blog, I will share some of the strategies and infrastructure we use on our farm to save time and money. Stay tuned!

Learning More

No matter what livestock you choose, it is best to start small. Learn with a few animals so your mistakes—and you will make mistakes—won’t be as costly. Continuously monitor your enterprise and adjust as needed. Remember to keep your farm and family or lifestyle goals in mind. Is this livestock enterprise helping you meet those goals? For example, while our sheep were profitable, we found that we didn’t enjoy raising them and they took too much time. In contrast, my coworker, NCAT Livestock Specialist Linda Coffey, found that sheep worked better than meat goats on their farm. Their customers wanted lamb and the sheep made best use of the pastures. We sold our sheep, and Linda sold the meat goats. Both of us are happier.

There is much to learn about raising and marketing livestock. I would suggest finding a mentor who you can learn from and lean on for advice. Connecting with local producer or grazing groups is a great way to find a mentor. ATTRA has many resources (linked below), and our Livestock Specialists are available to answer questions and talk with you about these considerations. Linda and I will be discussing species specific considerations in an upcoming podcast. Send your questions to us at  margoh@ncat.org and lindac@ncat.org.

ATTRA Resources

Getting Started with Livestock Podcast

Small Scale Livestock Production

ATTRA Livestock and Pasture resources

Livestock as a Tool: Improving Soil Health, Boosting Crops

Integrating Livestock and Crops

Managed Grazing Tutorial

Healthy Animals, Happy Farm

Working With Your Meat Processor

A Recap of the Young Farmer National Leadership Convergence

By Luke Freeman, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

Photo at right: Luke enjoying the Colorado snow!

In November I attended the National Leadership Convergence in Boulder, Colorado, hosted by the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC). This was a fantastic opportunity to meet other young farmer leaders from across the country and learn about the common issues young and beginning farmers face. This post is long overdue, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences from the Convergence. I also wanted to share some ideas on how to support beginning farmers.

This was the fifth Annual National Leadership Convergence. The event brought 120 farmers and 19 NYFC staff members together from across the country. It was truly amazing to see a diverse group of so many young farmer leaders in one place. The group represented over half of the states in the union. I have been involved with the Arkansas Young Farmers Coalition since 2017 and was happy to meet other chapter members from other states in the Southeast – Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Young farmer leaders from across the country gathered in Boulder, CO. Photo by Erin McCarley, 2019.

Acknowledging the Past, Focusing on the Future

Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists gave a powerful keynote address, “Why the Future of Food and Agriculture Cannot Resemble the History of Food and Agriculture.” He described how the history of agriculture in the United States is stained by injustice and exploitation. But he returned to this message: We cannot make decisions about the past – only the future.

Salvador explained the economics principle that the factors of production include land, labor, and capital; those who own or have access to these resources accumulate wealth. The history of agriculture in America is littered with examples of land being forcibly taken from indigenous people groups. Labor has been appropriated through slavery or exploited through immigration policies. Access to capital has been denied to communities of color. These uncomfortable aspects of our history have caused disparities in wealth accumulation and land ownership, resulting in unequal opportunities for young people who wish to farm.

Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists delivering the keynote. Photo by Erin McCarley, 2019.

Salvador emphasized that if we wish to create an equitable food system we must perform agriculture differently going forward. Applying this framework to the next generation of farmers means we would insure that beginning farmers have access to land, that they receive fair compensation for their labor, and that they can access capital. I’ve interacted with many young and aspiring farmers. I can confirm that access to land and capital are two of the biggest hurtles for new farmers to overcome. Ensuring equal access to land and capital is an important part of creating a more equitable agricultural system.

Services and Programs for Young and Beginning Farmers

I also attended a workshop on business services offered by NYFC and local chapters. NYFC has put a lot of energy into developing resources on land access for young and beginning farmers. NYFC hopes to continue to expand the scope of its business services for young and beginning farmers. During the breakout session, members of other local chapters shared successful business support programs they have led for farmers in their regions. The Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition hosted a business accelerator where beginning farmers met with a long-range planner, tax advisor, and loan officer. Other chapters have collected wholesale and retail price lists to give beginning farmers examples of how to price their produce. Chapters also have connected beginning farmers with accounting and business planning support at local universities.

Further Information

At NCAT our agriculture specialists often host trainings for beginning farmers on whole farm planning, recordkeeping, accessing USDA resources, and applying for farm loans. Over the years we have developed dozens of resources for beginning farmers on running the business side of a farm. These are available on our ATTRA Marketing and Business topic page.

One of my take-aways from the conference was that young and beginning farmers continue to need business training and farm planning services. The diverse group of young farmers emerging today needs these resources to help them access the federal programs created to serve them. Fewer barriers can lead to more equitable distribution of land and capital among new farmers.

Are you a beginning farmer who has questions about marketing, business, or production? Please don’t hesitate to contact me or one of the other ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture specialists. You can call our help line at 800-346-9140 or email askanag@ncat.org. We’re here to help!