A few years ago, at this time of year, I would have been in Mali standing in a field of millet with two or three other friends quickly moving our way down rows of grain. After college, I moved to Mali and lived and worked in a small village called Zana. In Zana, I found a new way of living and developed a passion for agriculture and the place I lived. To quote my final post from a blog I wrote at the time “For the last two years, I have lived in a place where I knew where every road led to and had biked them all. I knew where every family lived and everyone knew me (not every hard when I am the only white guy around). I could go out into the bush to collect fruit and I farmed my own food. The earth and the labor of my friends and me fed the village.” I came back to states ready to start a farm and get involved; however, starting a farm in the US was a lot more of a daunting endeavor than it was in Mali.
Not only is farming a major financial investment, but the learning curve is steep. Additionally, many friends and family tied agricultural careers to a life fraught with hardship. This perception was not helped during the time where I worked on organic farms in Montana where all of the farmers that I worked had second, more traditional, careers. It’s not just perceptions, but data also seems to back the pessimism of my friends and family. Farm sizes are getting larger, income from farms is variable and most family farms make the majority of their money from off-farm sources. One report by University of Wisconsin Extension estimates that costs of planting an orchard and waiting for it to reach productivity to be over $12,000 an acre, not counting land prices. What’s a new or small farmer without preexisting wealth to do? There are a number of resources that are available for farmers to take advantages of on both the state and federal level that can make the prospect of starting an agriculture business more palatable. I’ll explore a few of these resources in this post. First, let’s talk about funding opportunities available at the federal level.
To begin with let’s talk about grants. There are the number of different grants offered though USDA looking to assist farmers in growing their businesses. The National Resource Conservation Service, within the USDA, has a number of different grants aiming to promote conservation on farms. For instance, if you’re looking to install a new drip irrigation system to improve water management, then you could apply for an Agricultural Management Assistance grant. Other grants offered by NRCS include the Conservation Stewardship Program which focuses on improving the quality of water, soil, air and habitat associated with the farm. Lastly, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides producers with a contract that will issue funds to help accomplish a conservation plan in addition to providing technical assistance to growers.
Another useful grant within the USDA is the Value-Added Producer Grant is aimed at taking farmers further down the value chain by assisting in giving funds to growers to develop and market value added products. To see the benefits that value-added products I would recommend checking out Kathleen’s blog post. There are a number of other grants available growers that are not associated with the USDA, but I will not go into detail on each of them. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service does a good job of describing these non-governmental grants in a database that it updates regularly. Though it is no longer updated, a free source of information on applying to grants for farmers is the blog Ag Grant Guru.
A great source for further local and federal assistance is www.start2farm.gov. If you go there, you can search for educational, networking, financial and technical assistance by zip code. It makes sense for one to be informed on the tools available to you before starting a new venture.
One interesting program in Michigan is “Hoophouses for Health” where farmers can receive a zero interest loan to build a hoophouse that they pay back by selling fresh fruits or vegetables at farmer markets to low income individuals with vouchers distributed at Head Start locations across the state. This program not only increases production of fruits and vegetables, but gets them in the hands of traditionally vulnerable populations. While grants and programs like Hoophouses for Health are becoming more important to farmers, many farmers are still receiving a lot of funding though loans.
Traditional funding and new opportunities
For many years loans and access to credit have been important to agriculture and this seems unlikely to change anytime soon. A publication though extension at UC Davis gives some insight into things growers should know before applying for a loan. For instance, it was news to me that if I’m approaching a creditor for a loan on a farm it is expected that I bring detailed maps and photos of the farm. The National Young Farmers Coalition also has good information of a number of other ways to raise funds including crowdsourcing. In addition to these funding resources, there are a number of educational programs aimed at new farmers here and a guide towards setting up an agricultural business is located here. Grady has another blog post that looks further into one example of an education option for new organic farmers in Michigan.
Lastly, incubator farms are a way for growers to begin farming without having to buy land. Farming involves a lot a practical skill that is best learned on the job, so having a chance to farm without the major financial investment of buying a farm. One successful incubator farm is the Intervale Center in Vermont. A more local example to Michigan is the Lansing Roots Farms. Leasing land is also option and depending on where you live it might be an affordable option. For instance, in Lansing, MI the Ingham County Land Bank has land available to lease where urban agriculture ventures can start.
Connecting Agriculture to Communities
To close, I’d like to tie the post back to the beginning by mentioning Mali. Now it is clear that there are a number of resources available to new farmers, and I hope this post is useful in identifying a few. However, the community aspect of farming in West Africa is something that we should embrace and strive towards. Laura Delind speaks of tying local and urban agriculture to communities and incorporating a sense of place into our food system. Delind also mentions valuing people not only as producers and consumers, because people are so much more than their money. It is not enough to have a situation where people interested in agriculture can pursue their passion, but we need to work together as a community to make our food system not only more sustainable one , but a happier one as well. Perhaps this needs to be the content of another post.
About the Author
Jim Cave is pursuing a Master’s Degree from MSU in the Department of Community Sustainability with a specialization in Ecological Food and Farming System. He did his undergraduate studies at Montana State University-Bozeman in Political Science. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, Jim experienced a renewed interest in Agriculture, especially on how the process of scientific innovation reaches growers.
Jim’s Master’s project involves assessing how tart cherry growers in Northern Michigan react to and interpret soil health tests with the end goal of improving these tests. In the future, Jim wishes to work in agricultural or conservation extension.
In addition to his work as a student at Michigan State, Jim is the Peace Corps Recruiter at Michigan State University as well as the General Coordinator for the Community Sustainability Graduate Student Organization. Additionally, Jim has assisted in the development of an online course on agriculture nutrition linkages for USAID.