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Entrepreneurs: Growing Local Food, and a Movement

Governments, schools, organizations help new farmers get started

November 26, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  As Wayne Kyle shifts his farm from traditional to organic blueberries, his Holland farm’s yield—and his profits—are growing.
Part Four of six parts

Wayne Kyle, owner of Blueberry Heritage Farms in Holland, is one of those third-generation farmers who know how to keep a good thing going: He’s willing to learn, adapt, and invest.

Five years ago, for example, Mr. Kyle started converting some of his 200 acres of blueberries to organic. He saw both his sales and his production grow.

“I’m really seeing a big difference in the organic fields versus my traditional fields,” he said. “The overall health of the soil, and the quality and productivity of the bushes is better.”

Mr. Kyle is also one of those medium-scale farmers—he grows about 1 million pounds of blueberries each year—who sees a lot of good in re-localizing agriculture, both for his business, which is gaining more profitable, direct sales to regional supermarkets, and for his community.

“The local food concept is a doable concept, and it’s gaining steam,” he said. “A small family farm can survive in that arena.”

Clearly, Mr. Kyle understands the power of local food. The question for local and state officials and agencies in Michigan is whether they, too, are willing to learn, adapt, and invest in the strategy Mr. Kyle is succeeding at: Going local as a way to diversify and strengthen his community’s agricultural economy and, by extension, the economy of the whole state.

If so, then Michigan must focus on helping established farm operators interested in trying new markets; beginning farmers, who are full of creativity and commitment but rarely have land, equipment, or a background in farming; and young people interested in being the next generation of local food eaters and growers.

Fortunately, there are proven ways to help these dedicated local food pioneers, and Michigan must make sure they are all available if it is to reap the rich rewards of growing a local food economy.

Business Assistance and Networks
“Farming 101” classes now taking place across the state provide a great start for ever more people from diverse backgrounds—suburban, second-career, immigrant—who want to try their hand at growing and marketing food.

Such courses are particularly effective when they offer some kind of ongoing support, such as farm business networks that allow peers to ask questions, share ideas, and even collaborate.

Several states have programs to help farms diversify, such as shifting from growing large-scale commodities to selling local foods. They include incentives, such as one-on-one grant-writing assistance and 50 percent cost sharing to get a plan going. Massachusetts is the leader: It offers grants of up to $100,000 in exchange for five- and 10-year “no-development” covenants on a farm’s land.

Michigan had some grants available in the past, through its Julian-Stille Value-Added Agricultural Development Fund. The Michigan Food Policy Council issued a set of recommendations in 2006 that called for reviving the fund and other strategies for addressing Michigan’s healthy food and agricultural business needs. The more quickly that funding and those strategies become a reality, the more quickly Michigan’s economy and public health will benefit.

Farmland Connections
But all of the networking and business training in the world won’t accomplish much without access to farmable land. And that is a crucial consideration, given that the average age of Michigan farmers is 54.

Most of their children have left farming and won’t be back. Getting farmers on that land means working creatively and aggressively to connect aspiring farmers from very different backgrounds with existing farms or other arable land.

The first step is surprising: Drop the idea that farming means owning a chunk of land. In the emerging urban-to-rural, regional food system, the farmland is often small areas of vacant, city-owned land.

Philadelphia’s Somerton Tank Farms, for example, generated more than $68,000 in gross sales in its fourth year of growing high-value vegetables on a half-acre plot next to two city water towers, according to the Farm Credit Council’s forthcoming report on regional food systems, Growing Opportunity. The farm practiced Small Plot Intensive, or SPIN, farming, which is catching on as a low-cost way to get farming.

Another example: A recent Washington Post article describes a Sacramento couple who appealed to neighbors for lawn space they could use for market gardening. The couple received 40 offers, selected three larger plots close together, and now produces weekly boxes of vegetables for 30 customers, plus five free boxes for low-income families.

Regular farmland, of course, remains a core need. One option is linking farmland seekers with owners for potential lease-to-purchase and apprenticeship arrangements.

A number of groups around the country are working on this farm transition issue. Many offer farm business training and peer group network building. National leaders include California Farm Link and the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project. Approaches include “speed dating” sessions between aspiring and retiring farmers and working donated conservation easements into a sale, which lowers the retiring farm’s tax liability while reducing the purchase price for the new farmer.

Several groups in Michigan have laid the groundwork for such matching programs, including the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Get Farming! workshops as well as online listings of farmland owners and seekers through the Institute’s Taste the Local Difference project, which serves northwest Lower Michigan.

Youth Entrepreneurship
Of course, increasing the awareness and skills of young people who are interested in farming is crucial to local agriculture’s future. Youth entrepreneurship in food and farming ranges from Detroit kids selling produce from their gardens at farmers markets to teenagers at Glen Lake High School in northwest Michigan’s Leelanau County preparing and selling healthy snacks made from local farm ingredients.

One of the most comprehensive in Michigan is the agri-science program at Springport High School, near Jackson. Out of 320 students, 260 participate in the program—working in the greenhouse, operating a farm stand, running a small, subscription-based Community Supported Agriculture business, and marketing pasture-raised chicken and beef.

Springport High’s program provides real summer jobs for students who become part of the cooperative that manages the business end of operations.

Director Pat Henny says the program is about two futures—the kids’ and rural Springport’s.

“We are less than an hour’s drive from Jackson, Lansing, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Ann Arbor,” Mr. Henny said. “Our big-scale vision is that we would like for our community to be looked at as a source of food.”

Katie Brandt followed a different route to her future as a farmer, and, fortunately, found some rare governmental help falong the way. Ms. Brandt graduated from the University of Michigan and in 2001 landed her dream job—working as a hired farmhand. Even though she earned a minimal wage, Ms. Brandt learned so much she realized that she was indeed born to be a farmer.

Too often that’s where the story stops for so many young people who want to farm. But Ms. Brandt is now working for herself on her own farm in Zeeland. She overcame one of the biggest obstacles that new farmers face—financing the new operation—thanks in part to an innovative combination of local leadership and a federal business development program traditionally applied to inner city needs.

Helping Hands
Known as an Individual Development Account, the program uses funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to match money that an entrepreneur saves toward needed business investments.

Van Buren County Extension is Michigan’s only example of this program, which is growing nationwide as a low-cost way to make a big difference for beginning farmers who have limited resources. In addition to the cash, participants are finding that the network of peers that emerges for the young farmers is invaluable.

In partnership with the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University, Van Buren County Extension in 2004-2008 offered IDA opportunities to local farmers. Fourteen have since completed required business training, saved $1,000 each in the year-long process, and received an additional $2,000 in local and federal match.

Katie Brandt will put hers into equipment. Lee Arboreal, another participant, made the down payment on a new tractor. Josh Speers, who is just 16, bought his first hay rake; he plans to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Tom Wright, who makes a farm living supplying feed for suburban horse lovers.

Josh, along with Van Buren’s other IDA holders, says getting to know the other startup farmers was one of the biggest benefits: “I learned a lot. There were people doing blueberries, chickens, fruits and vegetables, organic. Now we all know each other.”

Michigan could use many more local IDA programs and the business support networks they build, said Susan Cocciarelli of the C.S. Mott Group at MSU.

Her long-term goal? She would like to see Michigan build an endowment fund for IDAs so the program could be more widespread and bootstrap more local food and farm businesses. In the near term, there’s a chance Michigan could be one of 15 states chosen for a 2010 Farm Bill pilot program aimed at building agricultural IDA programs across the nation.

Part Five of See the Local Difference will report on some steps local governments can take to assist the growth of local food distributors. Patty Cantrell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Entrepreneurial Agriculture Program. Reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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