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Sprouts: A conversation with The Growing Farmers Training Program

Evrett Lunquist of Common Good Farm talks about starting plants from seed in his hoop house at a Growing Farmers workshop. Photo courtesy of Ingrid Kirst, Community Crops

For more information:

Phone: (402)474-9802

Website: http://www.communitycrops.org/

Email: info@communitycrops.org

Mailing address: 1551 South 2nd Street, Lincoln, Neb. 68502

For aspiring agriculturalists, the dream of rural living can seem more like a nightmare when compared to the real-world costs of investing in a new farm operation.

In Lincoln, Neb., however, beginning farmers have the opportunity to learn the lay of the land before really getting their hands dirty. The Growing Farmers Training Program offers beginning, immigrant and limited-resource farmers the opportunity to test out farm life and learn directly from local experts. Now in its tenth year, the 12-week training, run by Community Crops, walks students through Farming 101 from small-scale crop production to marketing.

Ingrid Kirst, Community Crops executive director, spoke with The Fence Post about how the program has helped transform students into budding farmers and business owners.

Q: How did the Growing Farmers Training Program get started?

A: It initially came in response to our community garden program and we had folks in that garden program that wanted to grow food on a larger scale and be able to start selling it. So we developed a basic training course and a training farm incubator site that some of the new farmers could use. From there, it has grown. It's a 12-part course, 12 full Saturdays. We go through a whole bunch of topics on getting a small farm started, things like marketing and markets, where do you sell your produce, scaling up from garden size to a larger scale, and a lot about business and financial planning.

Q: What does the course look like from week to week?

A: The course starts in mid-January and the first few weeks are weather based and just in the classroom. We talk about a lot of different things and bring in a lot of different speakers. One of the speakers runs a farmers markets in Lincoln and will come in and talk about what makes a good farmers market stand and demonstrate setting that up. Another person who will come in is very familiar with starting small businesses, and what are the financial and legal considerations. As it starts to warm up, we start including tours of local farms. We'll go out and see what's happening on those farms and talk about a specific topic, like season extension. Then some people who take our class have their own land, so they will farm on their own. But some people who take the class need the land, so they will apply to be at our training farm site. They will then get access to land – generally they start out with an eighth or a quarter of an acre. Our staff are at the farm, so they've got those folks to ask questions to. They have access to tools, as well as knowledge out at the farm.

Q: What have you seen former students go on to do?

A: We've had a number of people who have started their own farms over the years who are now selling at farmers markets or to local grocery stores and restaurants. Some have started their own CSA.

Q: Do you offer courses in Spanish?

A: Yes. That's something we're doing for the first time this year. We're working with the Center for Rural Affairs. They are going to have the classes in Spanish. It will be the same material but they will be at a different location. Some of the presentations will be directly presented to them in Spanish and some will be translated. We have a quite a few people signed up for those classes.

Q: How would you describe the typical person interested in taking the course?

A: It's hard to answer that because it's quite a range. In general, the folks we're seeing tend to be younger, really want to try farming and see if it's for them but haven't built up any resources yet to go out and buy land. This is a way to get started without investing a lot of many. We've also worked over the years with refugees and immigrants with various backgrounds. We've had people from Africa, Asia, the Middle East who have come through our program and used this as a way to earn some extra income and get their whole family involved in a small business.

Q: Is it possible for someone without a traditional farming background to enter this field and find success?

A: Yeah, we have definitely seen that happen. We've got a guy who retired early from his job as a computer programmer and got into our program. He had nothing to do with farming in the past but he was tired of working indoors in an office and he really wanted to get out and work outside. For him, it's been a perfect fit and he's been really successful.

Q: Is the Growing Farmers Training Program your only course?

A: We are working on an intermediate level class for people who have been farming for a year or two and now they know what they don't know and are interested in coming back and learning some more. That will probably start in March this year. That will be an exciting new project. We've had a lot of people ask for that course in the past.

Q: What kind of feedback have you received from alumni?

A: We get a lot of really positive feedback, that the class really helped them set their goals, set realistic expectations and get actually started with farming. People find it's a really good course. The person in charge, Kirstin Bailey, her family has a small farm and went through our course and were able to save the family farm by using some of the techniques for expanding their markets. She's a really good resource and a good person for putting classes together.

Q: What are the costs of participating?

A: We have a sliding scale fee. For the workshops, it's $450 for the full course for one person, $600 for couples. Then we offer scholarships for anybody who needs that to reduce the price.

As part of The Fence Post's dedication to fostering agriculture, we will run a regular feature to support new farmers and new farm endeavors called, "Sprouts". In these, we hope to offer ideas, resources and information to help new farm or ranch operations get off the ground.

"Sprouts" may include how-to instructions, interviews or a variety of other content, all dedicated to helping ag grow strong.

If you have a topic you would like to learn more about or share with others, contact The Fence Post editor Kayla Young at kyoung@thefencepost.com.