North Central SARE From the Field Profile
Farm Beginnings Graduate Continues Family’s Organic Farming Tradition
Beginning farmers in South Dakota have an opportunity to learn first-hand about lowcost, sustainable methods of farming and gather the tools to successfully launch a farm enterprise thanks to Dakota Rural Action’s Farm Beginnings program.
In 2009 Tonya Haigh and Frank James with Dakota Rural Action submitted a proposal for an NCR-SARE Research and Education Grant and were awarded $25,000 to evaluate and refine the Farm Beginnings platform, which was developed by the Land Stewardship Project, in order to meet the unique needs of beginning farmers and ranchers in SD. As a result, the SD Beginning Farmer Training and Linking project was developed to build an educational network for beginning farmers in SD.
Eleven families graduated from the 2009-2010 SD Beginning Farmer Training and Linking Program in August 2010. They received 36 hours of classroom instruction on holistic decision making, developing long and short term plans, financial planning, marketing, building a business plan, sustainable farming methods, and connecting to resources. Students were able to participate in Farm Tours and Skills Sessions offered. Five participating families pursued formal mentorship experiences or were employed by established farmers during the course. The SD Farmer Network facilitated informal mentorship for the rest of the participants by providing the opportunity for students to contact established farmers informally to ask advice, seek guidance, or troubleshoot farm-related issues.
Dakota Rural Action’ staff writer Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher, recorded testimonials from the programs’ graduates. Below is an excerpt of Aaron Johnson’s story.
Aaron Johnson has farming in his blood. His family’s farm, Johnson Farms, a 2800 acre operation divided between corn, soybeans, oats, alfalfa, and stock cattle and located south of Madison, SD, has been organic since 1976. But Aaron is just now taking the first steps toward becoming the next generation of organic farmers. A few years ago he had been working contentedly selling seed and agricultural products for Hefty Seeds in Spokane, WA and then in Freeman, SD . Aaron says he would have continued happily in that line of work were it not for an invitation that would change his course of life. He was approached by his cousins, Charlie and Allan, who currently operate Johnson Farms, and presented with an opportunity to come back to the family farm. “I took a few months to consider it,” Aaron said, “and I came to the conclusion that it was a no-brainer. It’s a rare opportunity to be asked to come back to the family farm, and farming is something I have always felt called to do. After thinking about it, all signs pointed to yes.”
As he made the transition back to the farm Aaron was looking for ways to prepare to join the farm operation. That’s when he found out about Farm Beginnings. “Taking the class was a way to get my ducks in row,” said Aaron, who was also encouraged by his cousins and other family members to take the course.
Aaron and his new wife Kirstin enrolled in the Farm Beginnings course hoping to gain skills in financial management, record keeping, and general farm management. They attended the twice a month classes, taking in sessions like Whole Farm Planning, Financial Planning, Marketing, and Business Planning and Connecting with Resources. Along the way they were able to connect with other beginning farmers who were just starting out as well. “One of the great things about the class was being able to hear about the trials and tribulations of my class partners and watch as they were following their dreams toward success” said Aaron.
Aaron’s cousin Charlie even became involved the class, serving as a presenter for the Business Planning session. Aaron says that having farmers lead the classes was invaluable. “Being able to hear first hand from the experiences of established farmers was incredible. My favorite part was being able to learn about how they first started out, their thought process, their failures, and them being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They struggled through and forged ahead.”
Aaron believes taking the Farm Beginnings class is well worth the money. “It’s an eye-opening experience that really prepares you for farm management,” he said. “It’s also a really cheap lesson if you learn that farming isn’t for you.” He says the class really opened his eyes about what is possible in farming. “You can really go crazy with everything you learn in the course,” says Aaron. “You can explore options, explore crazy ideas, and learn from people who have dappled in that area.”
Aaron and Kirstin graduated from the class in August this year. Since taking the class they have seen so much more communication with family and the farm partners. And they have seen their confidence in farming grow. “I feel so much more prepared and confident about potentially becoming a partner at Johnson Farms, and potentially one day taking over the farming operation” Aaron says.
And talks are in the works to bring Aaron, who has been working up to this point as a farm laborer for his cousins, on as a farm partner. “I have the option of staying on as a laborer or possibly moving to a partner. I could come on with a 10%-20% partnership in Johnson Farms,” Aaron said. This would make him responsible for that percentage of expenses, but he would also receive the same percentage of income. Joining as a partner also makes him more appealable when applying for a loan, as having an investment in the farm makes him less of a financial risk.
When asked about his future, Aaron says, “I’ve been thinking about Johnson Farms being organic since 1976, and I would like to see it hit 100 years in organic production. I’d like to raise the next generation of family farmers at Johnson Farms.”
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) LNC09-311, South Dakota Beginning Farmer Training and Linking Project.
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Project products are developed as part of SARE grants. They are made available with support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed within project products do not necessarily reflect the view of the SARE program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.