Extension Ag Update
November/December 2003
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Farm Beginnings Program Provides a Jump Start to Sustainable Farming

Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant (217) 968 5512; cvnghgrn@uiuc.edu, Contact: Debra Levey Larson,  (217) 244-2880; dlarson@uiuc.edu

Farm Beginnings is a program for farmers who want to learn more about low-cost, innovative methods of sustainable farming. And, for the first time, this farmer training program is available in Illinois. Applications are now open for the 2005-2006 Farm Beginnings course, which will run from October 2005 to August 2006. The classes will be held in Bloomington at the University of Illinois Extension Office.  Developed by The Land Stewardship Project, Farm Beginnings is now in its ninth year and has trained over 225 people -- over 60 percent of whom are currently engaged in sustainable farming enterprises, including: dairy (cow and goat), beef, hogs, meat goats, sheep, poultry, wholesale vegetables, Community Supported Agriculture, organic grains and specialty products such as flowers.

Many Farm Beginnings participants have said that they were discouraged at a young age about going into farming and view this program as a way to determine if farming makes sense for them at this point in their lives. Women make up 50 percent of the participants. About half do not have land or previous farm experience. The other 50 percent have had farming experience or are currently farming but are looking for new ideas and skills to succeed. 

"Many people are pessimistic about the future for family farms," said Terra Brockman, who co-coordinates the central Illinois Farm Beginnings program. "But this program is proving that an environmentally and economically sound future for family farms and rural communities is possible."

Farm Beginnings offers training through a series of sessions that will be held this fall and winter. Topics to be covered include: goal setting; planning for the whole farm; creative financing; how to get started; innovative marketing; and social, environmental and financial monitoring.

The foundation of the program is a mentorship component that links established farmers with course participants. This farmer-to-farmer networking has proven immensely successful in Minnesota, where Farm Beginnings participants have drawn on the expertise and experience of farmers who are doing everything from management of intensive rotational grazing to commercial vegetable production. Participants interact with the established farmers through field days as well as one-on-one farm visits and informal meetings. 

The Central Illinois Farm Beginnings program has been developed by a local steering committee consisting of experienced farmers, farm financial advisers and members of The Land Connection, the University of Illinois and the University of Illinois Extension. Steering committee member Stan Schutte, a farmer from Shelbyville, said, “We aren't reproducing farmers anymore."

"Farm Beginnings has the potential to launch a whole new generation of farmers in the region. We need to make it possible for young people-men, women and families- to be involved in farming,” said Leslie Cooperband, U of I Extension specialist who is also involved with the program. It's imperative for the well-being of our rural communities -- and of our state and nation -- to encourage and support farming methods that are good for the environment, as well as being economically viable. The fee for the full-year program is $800, which includes course books and materials, eight workshops, conferences/field day fees, refreshments, mentorships, and a one year complimentary Land Connection membership.

“The program also offers excellent opportunities for established farmers to pass on their experience and knowledge as mentors or as a part of the steering committee,” said Brockman.  Illinois will have two programs: Central Illinois Farm Beginnings and Stateline Farm Beginnings, which will be for northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

The Stateline Farm Beginnings is a project of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, http://www.csalearningcenter.org/craft.html and partners with the Churches' Center for Land and People www.op.org/cclp

For more information on being a Farm Beginnings participant or mentor/steering committee member for the Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, contact Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant at 217-968-5512; cvnghgrn@uiuc.edu. Additional information is available at the Central Illinois Farm Beginnings  www.farmbeginnings.uiuc.edu.

For the Stateline Farm Beginnings, contact Parker Forsell, CSA Learning Center at Angelic Organics at 815-389-8455; CRAFT@CSALearningCenter.org