The 10 U.S. counties with the greatest population losses between 2000 and 2003 are located in the western United States, and small towns are scrambling to save what is left of their communities. Like many other parts of the nation, western farmers are discovering that sustainably raised livestock and crops can help revitalize economies. And these farmers have an ally, John Allen, whose life's work is helping farmers develop the skills needed to build businesses that benefit the farm and also the surrounding community.
Allen, who works with the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, says the trick is to focus on farm-based businesses that produce and hire locally. "It's the multiplier effect. When I started in this business 20 years ago, if you spent one dollar in your community, it would get used two or three times around in the same town. But now, where everything is owned externally, the money goes straight to the shareholders, who live outside the community."
Allen founded the NebraskaEDGE program in 1993 at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The program has helped thousands of people explore business opportunities. In 2000, Allen and NebraskaEDGE Associate Director Marilyn Schlake - both SARE grant recipients - led a team effort to develop what is now considered one of the important national training programs for agricultural producers, Tilling the Soil of Opportunity: NxLeveL Guide for Agricultural Entrepreneurs. The course has been offered across 20 states at universities, small business development centers, and other educational facilities. More than 50 percent of the participants complete the course with a business plan.
Tim Nissen, born and raised in Cedar County, Neb., was one farmer who took the course. Industrial agriculture was squeezing his business and he needed to make changes. Tim enrolled in the 12-week intensive Tilling the Soil program, which opened his eyes to the potential of small-scale farming. In 2003, he turned his life around by opening a vineyard with his brother Dave in the grassy hills of Bow Valley.
Today, Westphalia Vineyards offers five varietals, one made with native wild plum. Nearly 60 percent of the customer base comes from outside the area.
Allen continues to find innovative ways to help rural communities, but now he is using SARE funds to develop workshops for western farmers and ranchers. By providing technical training in processing, packaging and labeling their products, along with Internet marketing strategies, Allen continues to help grow rural businesses and maintain rural communities.
"Our project draws upon SARE's historical values of matching farmers with educators. But this time we are moving into new territory by helping farmers break into the Internet and retail markets. That's the innovation."
Want more information? See the related SARE grant: