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Supporting Farm Viability through a Beginning Farmer Profit Team Project
What enables a novice farmer to survive the beginning farmer gauntlet through to the established farm stage? The skill toolbox required of a small farmer is massive. Not only are these individuals required to have production expertise, they are also entrepreneurs who need to be adept at business management, financial analysis, human resource management, and marketing, to name a few. With a plethora of programs designed to help beginning farmers learn the basics, many resources already exist to support the first three years of start-up. But what do farmers do when they require more specialized attention? When individuals are looking to build their networks and have a more in-depth question about operations, where do they turn?
In 2014, a Profit Team Project was piloted to address the question of how to support advanced beginning farmers who have been in operation anywhere from 4 to 9 years. Modeled on the Dairy Profit Team project – which has a track record of improving productivity, profitability, and efficiency on participating farms – this project sought to support long-term viability and profitability of participants. Beyond the goal of increased revenue, other desired impacts included:
- Improved income-generating capacity of farm (due to infrastructure or labor investment)
- Improved crop or herd health
- Improved management of farm natural and human resources
- Refined marketing strategies
- Reduced stress of farm staff
- Enhanced well-being of farmer
Between 2014 and 2017, the pilot accepted three cohorts of applicants, assisting 35 farms in total. Hailing from locations across New York State, the selected enterprises produced a range of products, including vegetables, fiber, dairy, livestock, fruit, flowers, mushrooms, and herbs. Each farmer was offered funding to work with professionals for customized, one-on-one guidance (financial, production, legal, marketing, etc.). Participants were required to match 20% of expended funds, and were given 6-months to 2-years to complete their work. In addition, Profit Team farms met and communicated with program staff, and were presented the opportunity to attend two program retreats focused on networking and enhancing skills.
When the pilot concluded, Profit Team farms were surveyed to understand the impacts of the project. Overall, 83% of participants reported perceived benefits to profitability in the present or long-term as a result of their participation. Additionally, 73% reported improvements in quality of life and 70% reported improvements related to financial planning. Reflecting on quality of life, one participant noted that as a result of the project, “We are working less… we stopped working on Sundays and have been taking more days off and more vacations.” Another participant recognized that improvements to financial planning translate to being “able to better track where we are and where we want to be.” Over 75% of respondents also noted at least some skill improvements in the areas of record keeping, labor management, farm business management, marketing, financial planning, and production.
Although funding for the pilot has not been continued, farmers can still benefit from the findings. A series of five case studies have also been created, showcasing the experience of several Profit Team farms, and the strategies they used to achieve success.
This project was a collaboration of the Cornell Small Farms Program, NY Farm Viability Institute, and NY FarmNet, and made possible with funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22882.