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Regenerating farming a big task

The two writers wrote this piece originally as part of a grant proposal to support efforts toward more small farms in the region. If offers a snapshot of what the region is up against in establishing a local food market with small farms.

Farming in the western Lake Superior region of Minnesota and Wisconsin is characterized by a few large dairy farms and many small-scale and family subsistence and direct market farms. Of the small-scale and family farms, few have more than 40 producing acres. A five- to 10- acre producing farm is considered large and many are only a few acres.

Diversified vegetable production, small herds of grass-fed cattle, lamb and goats, free-range chickens, wild-caught fish, pastured pork, canned and pickled goods, honey, berries, apples, artisan cheese, maple syrup and wild rice make up the majority of farm operations.

Many of these operations focus on all-natural and organic sustainable farming techniques. The extremely short growing season, heavy clay or rocky soils, and poor surface drainage create unique challenges for farming.

Other barriers include lack of capacity, aging farmers, the predominantly rural nature of the region, markets stretched few and far between, and a lack of processing and distribution.

For a beginning farmer, buying land is often out of reach given the price pressure created by second-home development and recreational properties.

A significant barrier for beginning farmers, particularly those pursuing sustainable agriculture, is access to reliable information. Most sustainable farmers reported to the Northwest Area Foundation that they never used extension specialists, university scientists or soil conservationists. Sustainable farmers found them only somewhat useful as sources of information largely because they are often perceived as oriented to conventional agriculture.

The Wisconsin Extension service in Ashland and Bayfield County conducted a focus group in 2006 that was attended by 60 individuals ranging from ages 16 to 70 at various stages of starting agricultural enterprises. Eighty-five percent did not grow up on farms nor did they have agricultural experience.

The majority of the participants reported feeling isolated and lacking support. The average distance to the nearest immediate family member (father, mother, sister, brother) was 200 miles. All of the participants reported working off-farm. Seventy-five percent had children younger than 5.

The picture that emerged was of a large group of passionate beginning farmers facing significant challenges including: lack of time due to child-care and off-farm employment, lack of resources due to a poor job environment and social isolation due to rural life, a lack of nearby family members, and little to no interaction with long-time residents or experienced farmers.

Despite the challenges, an increasing number of small-scale farmers in the region have developed successful market niches that involve personalized, direct contact with customers and regional businesses. Like elsewhere in the nation, many farmers in the region are finding opportunities in organic food production and supplying local markets, which are the fastest growing segments in agriculture.

Consumers prefer locally grown over that grown farther away and are willing to pay almost double for a product from a closer location. Locally produced products can have a positive net impact on a state's economy and generate jobs.

The need for sustainable agriculture training in the 16-county target region goes beyond the national need to increase and diversify farm operations for food production. Small-scale farming is a major growth area and offers opportunities to supplement incomes or provide new careers.

Poor existence

The North Shore counties of and the South Shore counties of Wisconsin are some of the most economically depressed areas in the United States. Unemployment rates for the target area are consistently above state and national averages. Unemployment rates in rural Minnesota counties range from 8 to 10 percent and in Wisconsin are as high as 15 percent.

In 2006, Duluth's average annual wage was 15 percent lower than the state average and nearly 37.7 percent lower than that of the Twin Cities area, the state's largest metropolitan region. St. Louis County reports the lowest average weekly wages among Minnesota counties, ranking it 290th nationally and well within the bottom quartile of the national wage scale.

Average wages in the Wisconsin target counties is 34 percent lower than that of the Milwaukee/Racine area and 35 percent lower than national averages.

With current regional high demand for local, sustainable farm products and a growing interest in farming by the next generation, local food production offers career and economic development opportunities within the western Lake Superior region.

Stemming the tide

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 21-percent decline in the number of self-employed farmers and ranchers. Many farmers and ranchers expected to exit farming include those who will retire, work part time, or lack the means or knowledge to modernize their farms to generate a profit.

Minnesota's average age for farm principal operators was 55 in 2007. The rate at which U.S. farms go out of business, or exit farming, is 9 to 10 percent annually. The probability of exit is higher for recent entrants than for older, more established farms. Recently started farm businesses are much less likely to remain in farming than farms that have operated for five years, which are, in turn, less likely to survive than those that have operated for 10 years or more

Thirty-five percent of farms recorded in the 1992 Census were not there in 1997. This reflects, in part, the large share of very small farms, which enter and exit prolifically at about twice the rate of larger farms.

Farm exits that represent business failures can be costly. Entrants to commercial farming commit substantial amounts of money and effort to the enterprise, and some of the costs of exiting might be avoided if the risks of entry and the causes of failure were better understood. Farm exits occur most often after the introductory phase, typically about 12 to 18 months after the farm begins operation. It occurs at the point where activity is characterized by accelerated expenditures, increasing customer acquisition and expanded production.

Pre-acquisition education and continuing support are likely to improve success.

Get the word out

Three key areas can make the difference: management, marketing, and finances.

Periodic reassessment of management operations can help the small farm develop into a successful agribusiness. Marketing provides stable or expanding markets. Key financial problems common to small farms are a lack of adequate record-keeping and poor cash flow management.

On-farm experience is the most useful source of information. Many farmers gain this experience by working the family farm but experience can be gained through apprenticeships, internships or mentoring by successful farmers. Local sustainable agriculture organizations are key sources of useful information.

The Minnesota-Wisconsin project is innovative in that it integrates many tools identified by the research that support beginning farmers including: a substantive 12-month whole farm planning curriculum (Farm Beginnings), internships, mentoring, farm incubation, enterprise development, continuing farmer education, holistic management, access to land and farm ownership.

The Lake Superior area can serve as a model for other regions seeking to streamline and improve beginning farmer and rancher programming, as well as increase the number of people entering farming.