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‘Farm Beginnings’ leads to happy endings on the land

By Brian Voerding | Tuesday, March 4, 2008
From book-learning to bookkeeping, special classes are helping budding farmers make a go of it.

Before the farm economy tanked yet again, before the golf-course-and-subdivision-hungry developers spiked cropland prices, before his parents urged him to build a better life by leaving home, and before he sold off the last of his beef cows to pay for college, all Nick Rink wanted to be was a farmer.

A series of compromises and a circuitous route to that dream led him, three years ago, to this: bleary-eyed on the road at 3 in the morning, headed to the first of the farms on his schedule. He was a relief milker, the guy who takes over for the real farmers when they go on vacation or need a helping hand.

By noon, he was back home outside Byron, Minn., having milked nearly 200 of someone else’s cows and fed nearly 200 of someone else’s calves. He would stand in his kitchen and make lunch for himself and wish that the animals were his own.

He was 26 years old and closer than he had ever been before. He was also stuck. “I needed a little more guidance or structure, point in the right direction, some motivation, a kick in the butt,” he said.

He picked up a construction job to pay the bills. He got married. He and his wife, Jamie, began raising a few chickens and bull calves on the farm Nick grew up on, which they rented from his grandfather. Three years later, they felt stuck.

Then one morning Nick picked up the Dairy Star newspaper and an advertisement caught his eye.

From the classroom to the farm
In 1996, about the time the teenage Nick sold the first of his cows, a group of Wabasha County farmers formed the “Wabasha County Give a Damns” after watching one too many talented young people leave their family farm and never return. They had one goal: Get those people back on the land.

It wouldn’t be easy. It was impossible to remove every barrier to farming, they knew this. And not everybody who left would return. But maybe, if they could get just a few, things would start to change. They approached the Land Stewardship Project with an idea: a series of survey classes to teach new farmers the basics, everything from bookkeeping to the ins and outs of daily operations. They wanted to include plenty of opportunities for new farmers to network with established ones, allowing them to tap into an existing network of friendly support and advice.

The next year, LSP launched the Farm Beginnings program, holding classes in their tiny Lewiston, Minn., main-street office. That first year focused almost solely on dairy farming, simply because that’s what it seemed folks were interested in.

“When the program got started, no one really knew what was going to happen,” said Karen Stettler, the program’s coordinator, who works out of the Lewiston office.

Two years later, Farm Beginnings was already so popular that LSP started a second program based out of its Montevideo office in western Minnesota, and classes were soon expanded to cater to all new and potential farmers, whether they were interested in growing flowers or several kinds of crops.

“Farming is challenging,” Stettler said. “There’s no way around it. But thinking everything through, knowing your plans, knowing your goals, that helps.”

The big question in the program’s nascent days was whether the graduates could make the transition from success in the classroom to success on the farm. It didn’t take long to answer. Graduate after graduate found land, found loans, found enough assistance to get started. About 60 percent of the program’s hundreds of graduates are active farmers, and new enrollees include both new farmers and established ones — ranging from teenagers to those nearing retirement — looking to learn new skills.

“This is about hope,” Stettler said. “This is really about hope for the future.”

‘So many people willing to help’
So you want to be a farmer.

If you’re planning crops, you’ll have to find some tillable land, which in some counties is going for upward of $5,000 an acre. If you’re planning anything else, you’ll still need land and it still won’t be cheap. Of course, you’ll need a loan to pay for it — and then another loan to buy livestock and equipment and anything else you need.

More likely, you’ll start off by renting a place from someone else, provided you find one. You’ll have to learn the intricacies of farming, which you may or may not understand. You won’t have much help unless you know all the neighboring farmers, and you won’t have the institutional memory to circumvent years of easily avoided mistakes.

That’s just the start.

That’s ignoring the shaky economics and the unforeseen obstacles and everything else.

It’s a little daunting, even to somebody with a master’s degree, like Ana Skemp.

Two years ago, Ana and her husband, Andrew, had just finished graduate school in Arizona. Ana had given birth to their first child. Instead of continuing to climb the academic ladder, they returned to the La Crosse, Wis., area where they grew up, to raise a family in a rural setting.

Last December, they took over all 175 acres of Andrew’s family farm outside La Crosse (just across the Mississippi from southeast Minnesota), with plans to raise grass-fed beef. They’re starting small, with just a few cattle, but they signed up for Farm Beginnings because their evolutionary biology courses in Arizona didn’t exactly cover agriculture finances and caring for sick cattle.

In the first classes, the Skemps have learned about marketing, bookkeeping, and have set holistic goals for their farm, which are basically mission statements to guide the business. The classes will continue for several months (10 in all), and include farm tours, networking with local farmers, and one-on-one mentoring.

Recently, the Skemps struggled over what organic salt supplement to buy for their cattle. It’s a decision that would seem trivial, except for this: The Skemps are preparing to have their farm certified as organic. It’s a comprehensive process, and even the supplements count. Ana called up five established beef farmers she met through Farm Beginnings, and each one sat down with her and talked about the pros and cons of different products (they eventually settled on a kelp-based supplement).

“It’s been really exciting,” she said. “So many doors have been opened up to us, so many people willing to help.”

Finding success, one class at a time
Nick and Jamie Rink needed that help. And the first time they stepped into the Farm Beginnings classroom this year, a few months after Nick saw the ad in the Dairy Star, they knew they had found it.

They were doing a bit of everything those days, bull calves and eggs and beef and pork, even milk, though they were using it for the calves instead of selling it. They were advertising roadside and selling everything right from the farm. It was working. They liked it. But there was too much trial and error, nothing was paying the bills, and they weren’t sure what the next step was.

Two months into the program, and they’ve learned ways to continue doing everything from home while building revenue. They work with local processors, selling everything in professional-looking packages. Nick’s preparing a new grazing system for the cattle this spring. They’ve upped their prices, not because they’re trying to get rich, but because they learned about markets and discovered they were significantly underselling everything.

The Rinks are busier than they’ve ever been. Nick still works full-time in construction, and when he returns home each night he spends up to three hours doing farm chores. Jamie takes care of their child.

Still, they’re content. They believe they now have the tools to one day make the farm their sole source of income. And Nick can hardly believe he spent nearly a decade away from the farm, starting when he left for college to train as a machinist.

“I should have been honest with myself 10 years ago,” he said, adding that he should have gone “for something ag-related instead of trying to make my parents happy.”

Then he laughed and added one of those wearily patient phrases you often hear weathered farmers say: “But you live and learn, I guess.”

Brian Voerding, a free-lance journalist who has written for the Rake, Minnesota Law & Politics and Minnesota Monthly, reports on agriculture and food, higher education and other topics.