Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management Grows Farmers

Author: Kristin Pool, OSU Small Farms Program and MS Candidate in Horticulture

Publish Date: Fall 12

Today, more and more beginning farmers are drawn to farming as a career that allows them an opportunity to combine their occupational and personal life goals. Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management was developed by Oregon State University’s Small Farm Program in 2007 to address the complex needs of farmers starting, expanding, and re-envisioning their farm business.

Growing Farms meets farmers’ needs through whole farm planning, skill building, experiential learning and networking. The eight-week face-to-face course uses a whole farm planning framework to integrate the physical, biological, family, and financial components of farming. The course covers six content areas, which have been refined in workshops since 2007. The curricular framework and titles are:
  • Dream It: Strategic Planning. Defining family and farm values and assets to build a strong farm plan. Includes assessing soil and water capabilities to assist cropping system planning.
  • Do It: Farm Operations. Planning for human and mechanical farm/ranch infrastructure including matching efficient farm equipment and renewable energy options with the production system, the role of the family in providing necessary farm/ranch business skills and labor, managing farm/ranch infrastructure for a successful production system.
  • Grow It: Production. Managing the biological segment of the farm/ranch with the essentials of agro-ecology for annual and perennial cropping and livestock systems. Strategies to manage risk through soil health, conservation biological control, and other approaches.
  • Manage It: Farm Finances. Implementing sound financial planning for a successful business including record keeping, production cost, and farm/ ranch business structures.
  • Sell It: Marketing Strategies. Planning for an array of wholesale and direct farm/ranch marketing options and the connection between crop production decisions and marketing channel decisions.
  • Keep It: Managing Risk. Planning for sustaining the new farm or ranch including integrating various risk management tools such as liability and crop insurance, licenses and entrepreneurship and succession planning.

Growing Farms has had positive impacts on small farm community by assisting new farmers in evaluating and managing their operations. Over 330 participants have completed Growing Farms in five regions of Oregon. Each program is evaluated to assess its effectiveness.

We asked participants whether they have started or planned to start or expand their farm business.

  • 61% of participants plan to start a farm business as a result of the course.
  • 38% of participants plan to expand a farm business as a result of the course.
  • 5% of participants said they do not plan to pursue a farm business

While increasing the number of new farms is an exciting outcome of Growing Farms, the OSU Small Farms Program values the decision by some to not pursue farming. This decision saves participants potential debt, unsuccessful land transfers and other hardship.

Those participants continuing their interest in farming feel better prepared to get started. We asked participants whether they felt better prepared on several key farm business related dimensions.

  • 95% felt better prepared to take the steps to set up a farm business.
  • 97% felt better prepared to evaluate marketing options that fit crop and farm goals.
  • 92% felt better prepared to establish goals, values and mission to guide decisions for their farm business.
  • 88% felt better prepared to establish a basic record keeping and accounting system.

Improvements to Growing Farms are continuous in response to course evaluations and the needs of Oregon’s diverse farm community. Novel curricular tools, formalized farmer networks and experiential learning have enhanced the content of Growing Farms. Additionally, the Small Farms Program is in the process of piloting new opportunities for further beginning farmer education.

For instance, Growing Farms has always identified networking as a vital component of the course. Evaluation date reaffirmed networking as an important component of the course. For instance:

  • To further improve the networking component of Growing Farms, women farming networks have been created in three regions of the state. Female participants of Growing Farms are utilizing these networks to become more incorporated in the small farms community and gain the myriad of benefits of connecting with other female farmers.
  • Many participants desired access to education focused on farming skills in addition to farm management. Currently, the Small Farms Program piloting Growing Agripreneurs, a toolkit and curriculum for establishing teaching farms on OSU research farms or for use by non-profit organizations. The program provides hands-on training through a season of farming annuals and perennials on a small scale.

Overviews of both of these programs are provided in this issue of Oregon Small Farm News.