by George Looby, DVM
Since its inception, the Agvocate Program in northeastern Connecticut has introduced many new concepts and innovations to assist the farmers located in the Quiet Corner. A program is now being developed to provide young farmers with several forms of assistance that will enable them to start businesses of their own. On Thursday Nov. 23, the Agvocate Program sponsored a workshop, hosted by Chairman John Guszkowski, designed to give the several participating towns some ideas as to how best to initiate such programs in their own communities.
Prior to the start of the Workshop, Agvocate representatives of several towns gave summaries of their town’s activities. Ross Eddy, chairman of the Thompson Agriculture Commission, stated that the town Farm Passport Program had been completed and that a raffle would be held for those who participated with the winners receiving baskets filled with locally grown produce. Chairman Stan Karro of Brooklyn said that a tax exemption for agricultural buildings was now in place. He also said that there had been Last Green Valley tours during the month of October plus discussions regarding the feasibility of starting a Farmers Market in town. Killingly reported on the progress towards the establishment of a support group for the Vo-Ag program in town with the goal of having a representative from each town served by the program serving on the committee. Chairman Reva Seibolt of Woodstock reported that her group had sponsored a visit by Congressman Joe Courtney who gave his audience an update on the status of the Farm Bill as it works its way through Congress. Reva also announced that the development of a digester on the Paul Miller farm is being watched with interest. The Town of Eastford held an Ag Fair earlier in the fall.
Eero Ruuttila, UConn Sustainable Agricultural specialist, described a program that he directs along with a team of other experts that is focused on assisting the beginning farmer using the whole farm approach. In this system there is one-on-one assistance in evaluating farmland made possible by a USDA grant.
Farm management training sessions are available to assist start-up operations in the areas of production planning, advanced soil testing and interpretation. Further training is available in the areas of farm infrastructure, purchasing tractors and implements, the maintenance and repair of the same, irrigation systems and greenhouse selection and construction as well as high tunnels. Record keeping is critical to the success of any operation and that is offered as a separate course.
Young farmers signing up to participate are limited to a modest amount of land on which to get a feel for their ability to grow gradually over a three year period and become comfortable with the predictable ups and downs associated with any agricultural operation. It simply is not for everybody and far better to find out during a supervised start-up period than invest a lot of capital and time in something for which some are simply not suited.
One of the very real limiting factors for young farmers is the availability of good cropland and in this area towns can help by identifying suitable land that may be for lease, rent or perhaps a more innovative access route that might be a first step in getting them started.
One organization that provides assistance to the target audience is the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. To be considered for the program the applicant must complete the farm business planning class after which the candidate must submit a complete business plan. Following this they must show proof of liability insurance and submit a farmland application. New Entry will, for a fee of $665 per acre or $166 per 1/4 acre, provide spring and fall tillage and landowners fees. One-on-one technical support is available for a fee as well as cost for the use of equipment. Any new entry level farmer is made aware that the term of his/her contract is for three years at which time they must move on to make way for new people entering the program. Assistance is available to smooth the transition to a new site.
Farm Credit East has an ongoing program designed to assist new farmers in making their move to new settings providing both business monitoring and working capital. To be eligible to participate the applicant must be young, show a high potential for success, present a creditable business plan and have good credit. Investment loans are available up to $50,000 which is intended to be working capital with a term of five years. This money is not a grant, nor for the purchase of new or existing buildings or to be used as a bailout. Farm Credit East further offers an intensive three-day seminar to qualified individuals who want to become better managers. To qualify the applicant must be under the age of 35, have less than 10 years of experience and have a small operation. Emphasis is on products and services.
The USDA/NRCS provides funding in the area of farm loans, microloans and loans for farm storage facility. The USDA has two sites for interested individuals to explore. For more information on farm loans go to start2farm.gov . There is a rural youth program aimed at the 10-29 year old group who want to explore a career in farming. These people should visit usda.gov/knowyourfarmer
Simsbury, CT is the only town in the state to provide municipally-owned land for farming with all of the crops produced going to the needy. This farm in its previous life was the town farm where the indigent resided when they could no longer support themselves for a wide variety of reasons. As currently operated it serves many of the same needs in a somewhat different form. Funding to support this most worthwhile operation comes from several sources including the community, industry and USDA/NRCS. In addition to serving this primary function the farm also serves as an educational resource where 4th graders from the Simsbury School System interact with their counterparts from the Hartford system, the latter group especially exposed to a whole new learning experience. Maggie Saska serves as Program Manager for the Simsbury Community Farm.
In a completely separate program but located on the same property there is an Incubator Farm Program with seven incubator programs going on simultaneously offering parcels ranging in size from 1/2 acre to 2 acres with a fee of $500/acre and a term of three years. NRCS funded a high tunnel on the property which serves not only as growing facility but also as an instructional area. Participants have access to a barn for storage. The farmers sell mostly to farmers markets but also to area restaurants. The Coventry, CT Farmers Market has been one of the most supportive of this program. NOFA is another group that has assisted in making this program something of a model for other similar efforts.
A new and beginning farmers workshop
by George Looby, DVM