As a young person with a budding interest in farming, but little in the way of knowledge or experience, where does one turn? I first dabbled in farming while I was still in college, taking plant, animal, and soil science classes at the Ag school. Exploring farming through academics was valuable for me, but served only as an introduction. After graduating I sought an education beyond the textbook in the form of a farm apprenticeship. Two years later, I have a pretty solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and general know-how when it comes to the practicalities of farming. I have begun to think seriously about what it would mean to start a farming venture of my own, and–as much as I have learned through school and farm work–I am realizing more and more that I am desperately ignorant when it comes to business planning. I am certainly not the only person in the farming world more comfortable wielding a hoe than drawing up an annual income and expense plan, but, fortunately enough, there are resources available to meet this need.
This winter I am enrolled in a course called “Farm Beginnings,” which is offered through the Learning Center at Hawthorne Valley Farm. Students in my class come from different parts of the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires and have fairly diverse farming histories: Some have been farming for years and want to improve businesses they are already running, while others are new to farming and need a place to start. The curriculum draws upon Allan Savory’s framework of Holistic Management, working towards what they call “whole farm planning,” and focuses on helping farmers with goal-setting, business planning, financing, and marketing. The course was developed by the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota nonprofit devoted to sustainable agriculture, and–in addition to New York and Minnesota–Farm Beginnings is now offered in Illinois, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
Our instructor, Rachel Schneider, explained that the objective of the course was to give us “a starting point and a process.” Before getting into the practical skills of writing an enterprise budget or a business plan, we navigated a much more basic starting point: articulating our “farm dream.” In this first half of the course, more than learning anything really mind-blowing, the class has encouraged me to take the time to ask important questions and to think in more concrete and critical terms about future farming plans. It has been helpful as a space for actively thinking, writing, and talking with others about my values and priorities, why I’m farming, and how I can plan a business that honors that. The class, so far, isn’t necessarily teaching concepts that are brand new to me, but it is helping to elicit ideas that are already inside me and to give them a framework that allows those ideas to take a clearer form. Subsequent sessions of Farm Beginnings will address more of the nitty-gritty of finance and business planning, and I’ll continue to write about my experience with this course in coming weeks.
Until then, you can find more information about Farm Beginnings at Hawthorne Valley and around the country: