How to host a farm school for adults

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

For most adults, the schooldays may be long gone; however, some want to learn more about how farms operate. That’s why hosting a farm school can help you educate others while creating an additional revenue stream. Paul Dorrance, owner of Pastured Providence Farmstead in Chillicothe, Ohio, and Karen Kopf, owner of Kopf Canyon Ranch in Troy, Idaho, presented “Host a Farm School for Adults” as a recent webinar.

Not a farmer by background, Dorrance understands what it means to learn about farming as an adult. He offers an annual, two-day farm school on his farm, including topics such as rotational and management-intensive grazing; business planning and farm finances; and branding and marketing techniques.

“Farm schools hold a place near and dear to my heart,” Dorrance said. “I attended a farm school. It was critical to me that since I’d done all the reading I could, I had to see it in action to realize I could really do this. I started a farm school and it’s been a great success.”

He believes that experienced farmers could also benefit from acquiring new information and skills for pasture-based agriculture.

He plans his farm school for the last weekend in April, the longest he could wait to try to get grass in southern Ohio and before the farmers markets start, since those are major venues for selling his goods.

The first day of school, he focuses on academics. The second day is more hands-on activities and business planning. It costs $300 per person to attend, including four meals and business planning materials that attendees can take home.

“I have a lower price point for those who come with a spouse or business partner to encourage people to come,” he said.

On Friday, attendees arrive and may attend an optional “meet-and-greet” event. On Saturday, students learn about the business end of farming, farm design, animal health, website design and the basics of rotational grazing. Sunday includes sessions on pastured poultry, temporary fencing, rotation and a pasture walk.

“You can have and should have other resident experts join in,” Dorrance said. “It builds the idea that it’s not just one person with one viewpoint. Everyone has a network to draw on.”

Since lodging can be expensive, he offers camping as an option. He also reserves a block of rooms at a local hotel for a group rate. As a member of the local chamber of commerce, one of his benefits is use of a conference room. That helps provide a class-like setting for some of the sessions and helps tremendously during inclement weather. For an on-farm classroom, he has to rent tables, chairs and a portable toilet.

Marketing a farm school is vital to its success. He has found that in-person networking has helped him attract the most students.

“What has worked for me is I’m honored to be asked to be a conference speaker,” Dorrance said. “I don’t need to throw out a bunch of money to a bunch of people. I need to just reach those people at conferences. You don’t need to be a conference speaker, but say something at a conference during question time and pivot it to put in a little plug for yourself.” He also advertises in print media and distributes flyers.

“Organization is really, really huge, but it can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet,” Dorrance said. Recording guest information, payments, dietary restrictions and where attendees learned about the farm school “tracks your marketing effectiveness.”

In the two years he has hosted a farm school, he has learned a few things. One lesson was that by hosting a Saturday/Sunday farm school, he shuts out Plain people. “Moving forward, I’ll change to Friday/Saturday,” he said.

He also realized that spending top dollar for materials is not worthwhile. “I want it to be well done, but there’s a point of diminishing return,” Dorrance said. He advised providing what’s impactful, but not necessarily extravagant. He takes advantage of free resources to hand out to his attendees, like free grazing sticks from his local NRCS office and printable materials from www.SARE.org.

His first year, Dorrance’s attendees had to print out a form, fill it out by hand and mail it to him with a check. By using a third-party ticketing company, services.foodandagevents.com, he can offer attendees the ability to order tickets and pay online. The service takes 5% of his ticket revenue, but Dorrance said it’s worth it.

Karen Kopf and her husband Dale operate Kopf Canyon Ranch together, raising a few hundred Kiko goats in addition to their full-time jobs. The couple traveled to their first Goat Academy two years before hosting their own. Kopf said such limited experience “was going to be a very steep learning curve.” With help from some local 4-H leaders, however, they pulled it off.

Kopf advises people who want to operate a farm school to define the school’s scope, including their goal, whether it’s a class or conference, the learning level of participants, if it will be hands-on, demonstration or presentation (or a combination), the timeframe and whether or not it will be recurring.

Originally, she thought it would be a small affair on their farm; however, other organizers envisioned a huge event – 150 turned up. Hosting the event on their farm wouldn’t work, as they lacked the infrastructure to host that many people. The Latah County Fairgrounds in Moscow, Idaho, proved ideal.

Kopf begins planning in October, and she and the other organizers meet monthly for a few months until the Goat Academy draws nigh. Then they’re meeting more frequently. She uses some volunteer speakers and offers them rewards as she is able.

Calculating overhead for hosting an event like this can be tricky. “Figure your costs and budget for twice that,” she said.

She mostly uses social media, calendar postings and some vendor display flyers to promote the academy. “Handouts are one-fifth of our budget,” Kopf said.

She rents sounds systems, screens, projectors and laptops because if presenters bring their own, they may not be compatible.

“Keeping the price low allows for the expense for travel,” she said. “We want reach over revenue.”

She feels it’s vital to offer experiences not provided through reading and webinars, but those which are hands-on. Since participants have numerous places to be all day, she has learned to provide a 15-minute break between sessions. Kopf requires preregistration; otherwise, she cannot plan for sufficient handouts.

“It’s also imperative for instructors to start and end classes on time,” Kopf said.

She asks for instructors’ PowerPoint files in advance so she can examine them for content and technical difficulties, as well as the digital handouts for participants. She charges vendors $20 per space, but offers vendor space as token payment for speakers. Vendors must also donate an item toward door prizes. Only goat-related vendors are accepted. That builds value into the event to draw more people.

Hospitality is another part of event planning. “For a large crowd, all of the little things matter,” Kopf said. These can include a map, accommodations, parking, accessibility, restrooms, refreshments, first aid and clearly recognizable staff.

Liability should be a big concern for farm school hosts. “Cover your assets,” she said. She urges farmers to have attendees sign liability waivers and medical releases, “even if they’re all friends.” It may be helpful to consult with an attorney, as the laws about agritourism events and the liability attached varies from state to state.

“This is the last place you want to trim costs,” Kopf said.

Whether touring a farm with large animals or examining possibly contaminated samples in a lab, farm schools can be dangerous. That’s why farmers should make certain that their insurance policy covers them.

Among other duties, she and the other organizers must return rented equipment, clean up, organize and store items used next year and evaluate how the whole event went.

“The most important thing if you’re going to plan a large event is to breathe,” Kopf said. “You’ll forget sometimes and you need to. Have fun. You might forget that too. An event this scale isn’t easy but it’s worth it.”

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