Each year all 10 members of the Farm Beginnings® Collaborative (FBC) gather for an Annual Meeting. It gives us a chance to connect, network, share ideas, experiences, and tools around our work training new farmers across the country. This year we were hosted by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in Portland, Maine March 22-24th. I was able to attend on behalf of OGS. I look forward to this meeting every year, and love being able to connect with friends and colleagues that are doing similar work across the country and are passionate about training new farmers. And once again, I left inspired and motivated by what I learned, brimming with ideas for how we can continue to improve and grow Farm Beginnings® and our other farmer programs this year.
The agenda was jammed packed, and we kicked things off with a round robin of our challenges and successes from the past year. Many FBC members are facing similar challenges. One common thread, and something we’re seeing here in WNC is an issue with maturing markets that can make it harder for new farmers to compete and even get into the marketplace to be able to sell their products. Finding adequate funding to continue to do the important work of training new farmers, was echoed by many as well. But, there were many successes, too! Land Stewardship Project has been working with Native communities in Minnesota working to increase their food sovereignty. We welcomed Ohio Ecological Food & Farming Association (OEFFA) as our newest FBC member, also. Established in 1979, they are one of the oldest organic certifying agencies in the country and provide a variety of farmer training and support programs. They’ll be offering a Farm Beginnings® course in 2018. We also learned that collectively the FBC trained 162 new farmers this year – 22 of those here at OGS!
The FBC received a grant this past year from the Farm Services Agency (FSA) to improve our financial management tools, and also increase our knowledge, relationships, and connection with our local FSA representatives. FSA plays a variety of support roles for farmers across the country, but are best known for their low-interest rate land purchase, operating, and micro-loans. To qualify for these loans farmers must have three years of farm management experience. Farm Beginnings® and OGS as now approved educational vendors with FSA – the only approved classroom-based farmer training program in NC! Which means completing our Farm Beginnings® course can count as one year of management experience helping graduates access financing with the FSA!
As the FSA grant draws to a close we discussed how we can better connect with our local FSA offices, and help support farmers interested in working with them. We will be completing a guide to help other organizations navigate and build relationships with the FSA in the future. At OGS we are meeting with FSA agents from Western NC at the end of May, and plan to meet with State Representatives in June. During the Farm Beginnings® course, we help equip farmers with the financial tools and understanding that they’ll need when they approach FSA and other creditors for loans. Farmer Presenters that have received FSA loans discuss their experience working with the FSA, and offer guidance. We are looking forward to discovering new ways we can partner with the FSA.
We spent one afternoon hearing from three Maine farmers and learned more about the local farming climate. Mike Bahner from Bahner Farm, Greg Steiner from Gracepond Farm, and Stacy Brenner from Broadturn Farm shared their farming story, how they got started, their enterprise development, and marketing strategies. They also shared some of the needs they’re seeing in the Maine farming community, including more training and support for mid-career farmers. Such as planning for retirement and how to pivot as your farm business grows. At OGS, we are hearing similar calls for support from the farmers we work with and are currently building our capacity to provide more coaching and technical assistance for advanced farmers that need more one-on-one support.
Thank you to MOFGA for hosting all of us and showing us such a good time in Portland. And, I’m grateful to be a part of such an amazing and inspiring group of farmer educators who are so generous with their time, ideas, and passion. Can’t wait for next year’s meeting in NYC!
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.