Helping Farmers Grow

Baby Annie CropLiving in Montana, we like to think of ourselves as living in farm country – big trucks, rolling hay fields, thriving farmers’ markets, and delicious, grass-fed beef.  We’ve got it all.

But for generations, farm families across the country and across our region have been sending their children away from the farm, oftentimes for good reasons.  Land prices have skyrocketed.  The global agricultural economy has experienced massive vertical and horizontal integration, meaning that the largest corporations are gaining an ever-bigger piece of the pie, while the margins on the farm get narrower and narrower.  If you’re trying to compete with grain growers in the Midwest and cattle ranchers in California, it’s a tough time to be a farmer.

Those changes have meant that we now have 28 million fewer farmers than we had in 1920, while America has 200 million more people to feed.  While it’s tough to be a farmer, this is a trend that we can’t afford to just hope will improve itself.

But luckily, the story doesn’t end there.  Thousands of young people across the country are bucking the trend by starting farms of their own.  They represent an incredible opportunity for America.  And many are farming differently – they’re raising their livestock on grass instead of corn, and growing crops with an eye towards heritage, taste, and beauty, instead of towards shelf life.  They’re building community and building an economy with new jobs and new income streams in areas that haven’t seen new industry in a long time.

Liz Yuhas is an example of one of those farmers.  Liz runs Better Root Gardens, a small farm in Target Range raising food for a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program.  In a CSA, a citizen pays a lump sum up front and receives weekly vegetable deliveries throughout the growing season.  But it’s more than a purely transactional experience; by paying the farmer a lump sum payment in the early season, when the farmer needs funding the most to pay for seeds and other costs, the farmer and citizen are bound together.  As Liz says, “being a part of a CSA brings one closer to one’s food and community.”

Hailing from Missoula originally, Liz returned recently and started her farm while working as a teacher.  She farms to add income and to take advantage of her off-time in the summer.  But beyond that, Liz loves to farm.  She loves the physical, outdoor work and the fact that it’s never the same – she’s always learning, always solving new problems.  Plus, she loves the community it brings her.

Right now, Liz’s CSA program serves four families, but she hopes to expand to 20 families in the next few years.

But Liz wasn’t raised on a farm and she didn’t go to school for agriculture, so in getting started, like many of the thousands of other young farmers across the country, Liz needs a little help.  That’s why the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, and many other partners are coming together from across the state this winter to offer classes and workshops that will help farmers build more successful, sustainable businesses.

There’s the workshop series called Planning for On-Farm Success, which will help beginning farmers like Liz get their footing – figuring out their goals and how to reach them, creating marketing plans, finding funding, and assessing and managing their risks.  Another workshop series focuses on multifunctional farming, which helps more established farmers find new enterprises they can start to add value to their operations.  Examples include adding a farm stand, a bed and breakfast, or a childrens’ day care.  Both workshops aim to inspire farmers, share expertise, and help bring great ideas to life.  For more information on the courses, visit www.MissoulaCFAC.org.

Liz is taking the series on Planning for On-Farm Success.  She realizes that she needs a plan in order to move forward and wants a more formalized introduction to learning about marketing, financing opportunities, and risk assessment.

For example, the Farm Service Agency runs a loan program to help beginning farmers buy land, but how does it work?  As her business grows, Liz may need to hire employees – what does she need to know to grow her business?  The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of reworking the nation’s food safety regulations – what rules are farmers like Liz supposed to follow?  How can she keep our food safe?  “I’m dealing with peoples’ food,” Liz says, “and I want to approach this business with my eyes wide open!”  That’s just what the workshops aim to provide. And, it’s our hope, that in helping our community’s farmers, we’ll make a better, more sustainable community for ourselves, as well.

In Missoula, I’m Annie Heuscher for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974.  Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on January 2, 2014.

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