Starting a Farm Incubator
Glynwood is a non-profit organization in New York’s Hudson Valley with a mission to save farming by strengthening farm communities and regional food systems. A crucial part of this mission is to link beginning farmers with experiences and resources to ensure their success, and to provide those opportunities if they do not exist elsewhere. Many excellent resources and programs exist in our region, and there is a genuine need for these services to be made known and accessible to help guide beginning farm managers to success.
At Glynwood, we strive to offer a well rounded and thorough apprentice experience. We recruit candidates who already have farm experience, and are serious about pursuing farming as a career path. Our crew members learn about all aspects of our vegetable and livestock operations. We encourage our apprentices to participate in our two area CRAFT groups (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) and attend the NOFA Summer Conference, to augment what they learn on the farm. But soon enough each crew leaves the nest. While we always make time to continue the mentoring relationship, it is a big leap from apprentice to farm manager. The learning curve is steep. The burnout rate is high.
Where are beginning farmers to turn when they have plenty of intern or apprentice experience, but no management experience? There are many excellent services that help new farm managers, but they are not meeting all the needs of beginning farmers. Some require a lot of time and travel. For beginning farmers, access to land and start-up capital remains difficult, if obtainable at all. How can we improve beginning farmers’ access to business expertise and farmer mentors? It is in the nature of Glynwood to take on such issues.
Glynwood has recently conducted a study examining the feasibility of a farm business incubator in the Hudson Valley. Through creation of a farm business incubator, Glynwood could provide beginning farmers with access to land and mentoring as they develop their own enterprises. To determine the scope of an incubator that would make the most impact in our region, Glynwood also researched entrepreneurial innovators who are creating value-added businesses that support regional agriculture. This winter, we had numerous conversations with new and experienced farmers, non-profits, schools, service providers, and successful value-added producers. We gained insight and inspiration, and emerged from the process with a plan for how an incubator could further our regional food system.
Beginning farmers informed us about what is and what is not working in our region, their obstacles to success, and what kind of support would be most helpful to them. Our study demonstrates that Glynwood could serve an important role by fostering collaboration among existing beginning farmer service providers. The incubator could serve as a hub for beginning farmer services and would augment these efforts by structuring additional services like access to land and credit, and providing mentorship as needed. Our research also indicates that incubating value-added entrepreneurs would help develop and build the infrastructure our region is lacking. This, in turn, will strengthen the budding food system of the Hudson Valley.
Throughout the study, our intentions have been met with enthusiasm. Helping beginning farmers become successful farm entrepreneurs with access to land and capital would be a strong way to serve the beginning farming population, and drive the growth of a sustainable local food system. We have identified some core issues that will become the focal points for services provided by the incubator:
Business Mentorship –
Most beginning farmers understand farming, but have less expertise in the business side of what they hope to one day run. Many have not gone through a formal business planning process that can help them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their business plan and improve their ability to gain credit or investors. The incubator will support aspiring farm entrepreneurs with peer learning and business mentors to help develop and succeed in their farm business.
The incubator would help the development of collaborative marketing efforts. Multi-farm CSA, shared distribution into urban markets, farm to school efforts, and institutional sales are examples of ways an incubator could strengthen demand for local, sustainable products. Incubator participants will become part of the cooperative effort to market more local products.
Training and Mentoring –
Experienced farm managers will be available to provide valuable on-farm trainings and mentoring to incubator farmers. Incubator farmers will be encouraged to become mentors themselves as they graduate from the incubator stage.
Farmland Access –
Through our work with land trusts and land owners, we know that land owners are looking for assurance that the farmers they invite to bring their lands back into active production on a long-term basis will farm in an environmentally and esthetically appropriate way and intend to develop a sustainable business. In addition to lending a virtual seal of approval to successful participants in an incubator, we will work with land trusts and landowners to help place beginning farmers on land with secure tenure.
Glynwood is in the process of evaluating potential sites for the incubator and developing plans for the inaugural on-farm efforts. We aim to start 2-3 incubator operations in 2012. We will work with peer groups composed of beginning farmers to continue the conversations began during the study. This will help beginning farmers to articulate and develop their business plans as we work out the best ways to provide services to guide them to success.
Glynwood would like to thank everyone who helped us with the feasibility study and we look forward to helping bring a new generation of farmers back onto the land in the Hudson Valley.
Please visit the Glynwood website at www.glynwood.org. To learn more about Lower Hudson and Mid Hudson CRAFT, please visit http://www.glynwood.org/programs/glynwood-farm/craft/