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Mentors foster a new generation of farmers

Wed, 26 Sep 2012 09:06:15 CDT
By: Laura Kennedy

Mentors foster a new generation of farmers Through the years, American farms have grown a variety of crops, from corn to soybeans to cotton and more. Perhaps the most important crop of all was a new generation of farmers. Careers in agriculture have been traditionally passed down from parent to child. But that's falling by the wayside, as more young people opt to leave the farm, choosing other careers. As WGLT's Laura Kennedy reports in part three of the GLT News Series Farming: A Growing Concern, farmer mentorships may fill the gap.

Hear Terra Brockman reveal one of the big hurdles facing beginner farmers.

See photos from part three of the series.
See and hear other parts of the series.

On a sunny Saturday morning at the Bloomington Farmers' Market, Annie Metzger of Samara Farm near Shelbyville is busy helping a customer who is interested in some freshly harvested fennel. Annie's husband, Zack Metzger stands by and watches her close the sale.

"We dont think all about money in farming, but sometimes we should. You need to make sure you're making money and that you're covering all your expenses or else you're not going to be in it very long."

It's an important lesson in farm finance, which Zack Metzger hopes will make Samara Farm successful. It was just a handful of years ago that the Metzgers weren't even farming at all. A high school physics teacher working in the Chicago area, Zack Metzger couldn't resist the lure of the land. He says the desire to farm just snuck up on him and he was eager to be a part of a new local food economy. Colleen Callahan, Illinois State Director for Rural Development at the USDA, says the growing local food movement is an accessible way to get into farming.

"I do view the local food initiative as an opportunity to invite the next generation back to the farm."

'Back' to the farm, because for many years, young people have been leaving the traditional family farm. Terra Brockman says that's creating a gap. She's the executive director of the agricultural educational non-profit The Land Connection.

"About a generation or two ago, people who grew up on farms started to become doctors and lawyers and accountants and now we're reaching where those elderly farmers are dying and there is no one in the family to take over the family farm."

Brockman says that's where Central Illinois Farm Beginnings comes in. A program under The Land Connection, it was originally devised by the Land Stewardship program in Minnesota to help people of all ages and all walks of life learn entrepreneurial farming. Designed specifically to teach small scale farming, Farm Beginnings provides workshops and mentorships for budding farmers. Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the USDA, says farmer mentorships are a growing trend in agriculture and a good way to foster the next generation of farmers. She says it's uniquely hands on, though students learn that there's more to farming than just getting their hands in the soil.

"It also means that you have business plans, and accounting skills. You know it takes a lot of business savvy skills to survive and be success in this global economy."

Merrigan says the new fervor around local agriculture allows consumers to know the farmers who grow their food and feel confident of the quality. This trend is helping draw more people like the Metzgers into farming, and farmers looking to pass on their knowledge to the next generation are also happy with the trend.

"Farmers are desperately hungry for these young people to come to the farms and ranches."

Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm east of Urbana is one such mentor. She and her husband Wes raise goats for dairy products.

"We have offered mentorships to people that are interested in either goat husbandry or goat dairying in particular or organic fruit production."

Cooperband says the folks she's mentored range from twenty-somethings to middle-aged people looking to start over. Mentorships through the Farm Beginnings program provide a focused, year-long alternative to a college degree in agriculture. Terra Brockman from Farm Beginnings says they have about 25 farmers acting as mentors. They receive a small stipend, but it's largely volunteer work. The students are paired with farmers who specialize in their area of interest, be it livestock or fruit trees. She says some of the students can actually move on to the farm and work side-by-side with the farmer every day.

"Some just have a phone mentorship where it's like I'll call you up every weekend or every other week and ask you questions and maybe come to your farm once a month. It can be a very flexible situation."

Farmer Leslie Cooperband says in her role as mentor, she can reveal the occasionally harsh reality of farming.

"Get behind the glamour aspect of farming because I think people tend to romanticize it. Once they see what it's really like it helps ground people."

Terra Brockman says many farmers are keen to pass on their knowledge and give back. Mentorships can also be very practical for the farmer.

"When it's an especially intensive mentorship, then the farmer is getting young, strong labor in exchange."

The USDA's Colleen Callahan says farmers who make the commitment to become mentors leave a lasting imprint.

"Whatever it is that you've done in the agricultural realm, to be able to share that with someone, to have that live on, is really quite a legacy."

The legacy of the farmer who mentored Zack and Annie Metzger lives on, right on their farm. Farmer Garrick Veenstra showed them the best way to grow crops in the occasionally brutal Illinois climate. Zack Metzger says he also gave them garlic starts a few years ago to take with them as they started farming on their own.

"We've been growing it since then and refining it a little bit on our own. We call it The New City Hardneck."

The Metzgers plan on growing and refining even more so that one day they, too, can mentor the next generation of farmers. In the meantime, they take inspiration from the tattoo that Annie Metzger has on her back.

"It says 'hope' in Gaelic. You have to have hope springing eternal as a farmer, that's for sure."

Terra Brockman adds that although the Farm Beginnings program helped the Metzgers get a start in agriculture, life on the farm is not for everyone. Farm Beginnings weeds out those not ready for the full commitment of farming. In fact, fewer than half of the participants end up going into farming full time after their mentorships. Still, Brockman says, it's a start toward bolstering the ranks of the traditional American farmer. Tomorrow, a report on sustainability in agriculture.

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