The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

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Creating a learning plan for yourself as a farmer

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 September Issue Newsletter

By Brittany Sidway Overshiner

The NOFA Summer Conference this past month was a great success.  Many beginning farmers came out to attend workshops and farm tours, meet up with friends and enjoy two very inspirational keynote speeches.

Attending conferences like ours is one of the many ways beginning farmers can build their knowledge base and skill-set, helping them further along a career path that, unlike most other careers, is not clearly laid out.

If you want to be an electrician, a doctor or a teacher, there are very well defined ways to go about obtaining the certifications and experience needed to work in those professions.  One can feel confident that after completing those requirements they have the skills needed to archive success in their field.

With farming it is not nearly that simple.  Farming is the one remaining profession where the stereotype that you need to be born into a farming family in order to work in the profession still exists.   Although there are plenty of universities that have agriculture departments, most of their programs are designed to train service providers and researchers.  There are more and more small certificate programs and undergraduate degrees popping up to help build your capacity to farm, but most gradates will tell you there is still much to be learned before or after the program.  If you want to learn to run a small, organic farm, you’ll have to put some effort into creating your own learning plan.

At the Summer Conference I lead a workshop called “Creating a Learning Plan for Yourself as a Farmer”. People come to sustainable agriculture from all walks of life.  Many are starting a second career, want to build a business slowly, or they are lucky enough to know that want to be farmers at a young age, but don’t have higher-level skill sets to bring with them into the career.

One aspect of learning how to farm that should never be forgone is the opportunity to work on other farms.  Apprenticeships and traditional farm employment opportunities provide the chance to build production skills while also learning from the systems and management decisions of the farmer(s).  Multiple work experience, and multiple seasons of farm employment provide a greater perspective and the chance to compare and contrast different farm structures.   

If committing to full-time work or apprenticeships won’t work for you, there are plenty of other options including volunteering, working for a share and WWOOFing.  These are lower risk investments, in terms of your time, but they usually do not provide the same in-depth experience.  They are a great way to get a feeling for farm work, and different farms, to decide if farming is in fact something you really want to do.

After you have had some experience on farms, or have done enough research to feel confident this is a path you truly want to commit to, it’s time to ask yourself some hard questions about who you are, how you work, what your values are and what you want your farm to be.  Taking time to set goals will help you make decisions while developing your farm plan and business, not just about what skills to develop but also about what your marketing channels will be, the scale of your farm, the location, etc.

Holistic Management International offers many courses and lots of online resources to help farmers set goals that balance financial, ecological and social success, and then provide tools to help with decision-making.  It can feel like an arduous process, especially if you take the time to really dig into what type of farm will work best for you and your family, but it can help you avoid the pitfalls of just doing what it easiest in the moment, or what is trendy, or what your farming neighbors are doing to keep your farm on track.

A part of the challenge of learning to farm is understanding what skills you need to have in order to succeed.  The other part is figuring out how to acquire those skills.   The Farm Beginnings Collaborative, an organization of non-profits dedicated to training new farmers in the Midwest, has a very useful, seemingly exhaustive list of skills needed to run successful vegetable and animal operations.  You can find those lists here on the Angelics Organics Website.  The worksheet also allows you to evaluate your current skill-set and bring awareness to areas where you need improvement.

But where to get these skills?  And how to afford them?  And in what order? And when do you have enough skills to give it a shot and try farm management, or start your own farm business?

Production related skills can be learned through working on farms, attending workshops and tours and of course, through trial and error.  A word of caution on trial and error: Make sure you have the base level of knowledge and skills needed to effectively try a technique, and have researched it first before taking the risk.  Farming is a low profit-margin business, and taking unreasonable chances can put your farm at risk of financial failure. 

Plenty of other skills, like budgeting, financial planning, record keeping, computer skills, carpentry, welding, equipment maintenance, labor management, marketing and communications (just to name a few) can be learned through more traditional avenues like technical high school and community college continuing education programs, workshops offered by organizations serving farmers, and online.  These courses are usually very affordable and are focused on building hard skills.

Until you have some of these skills, a great management plan is the hire out professionals to do the work for you.   A careful budgeting process and farm financial management can reserve funds to pay highly skills professionals to help with certain aspects of your business.  Lots of tradespeople can be open to a barter and trade system as well, so don’t be afraid to ask if that form of compensation is a possibility.

Don’t forget the value of books, online articles, magazines, and other print resources that can expand your knowledge and deepen your practical, on-farm learning.

So how do you prioritize what is most important to learn first?  A great double-question to ask yourself is: Will this skill help me save time or money, or will this skill help me improve productivity within my value set, bringing me closer to my farm goal?  You can also ask an experienced farmer or mentor to give feedback on the skills they have found most valuable.   

Once you know what skills you want to develop, and where you are going to obtain them, it’s time to evaluate what you are willing to spend on your education and how much time you are able to dedicate.  Know that money you spend on professional development is usually tax-deductible (talk to your CPA or do your research).

The table below is an example of a simple learning plan.  It’s a way to essentially create a course curriculum for yourself, like you might be provided with at a formal institution.  


In order to make a plan like this work, you must be driven.  You are responsible for your development as a farmer, and you are the only one who will be able to push you forward on your path.  Dedicating yourself to your craft and making time for education and skill building is as important as keeping the crops and animals alive.  It can be hard as a beginning farmer, especially in your first years of management, to not get caught in the trap of being so tied to the farm you don’t have space or time for learning the skills that will help you create more time for successful management.  The greater your skill set, the better manager you will be, and ultimately you will be able to spend less time putting our fires, and more time putting together effective plans and working towards your goals.



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