Farmville – For Real
By LARRY KERSHNER
Farm News news editor
MARSHALLTOWN They were as diverse as the farming operations they came from, or wanted to start.
Forty people attended an afternoon-long session called Farmville – For Real Friday at Marshalltown Community College during the first of a two-day annual conference for Practical farmers of Iowa.
Some were young farmers just getting a start. Others were older farmers looking to expand their operations into new revenue streams. Others were ending “town career” and wanted to retire into farming. Before they left, each operation had the chance to sit down with one of eight mentoring farmers who would review their plans and offer advice for getting started.
Leading the workshop was Andy Larson, coordinator for the Iowa State University Sustainable agriculture Research and Education office. Larson is also an ISU Extension field specialist in small farm sustainability.
Larson told the 40-person audience, that they would begin the first steps in identifying what they envisioned for their farms in the near- and long-term future, as well as understand the skills they had available to make the dream come true and where they would need outside help.
For Daniel and Ellen Walsh-Rosmann, of rural Harlan, those dreams included adding a dairy goat cheese processing facility to their certified organic beef and pork operation which they sell locally. The Rosmanns farm with Daniel Rosmann’s parents. They plan to bring bred dairy goats to their farm this spring. They expect that it will be several years until they can begin processing the goat milk into cheese, but in the meantime will get experience of raising dairy goats.
The Rosmanns said they are looking for a diversified farming operation that will help them be self-reliant and too feed themselves and their community.
Daniel said expanding into goat cheese is another way to make more connections into the community with local food efforts.
“We’re one of the youngest farming couples in the county,” Ellen Walsh-Rosmann said. “And we’re not typical. We talk and dream a lot.”
Also at the event was Joe Monahan, who has a small fruit and vegetable farm in Jackson Township in northeast Boone County. His dream is to add an acre or two of vegetable crops with some mechanization to sell at area farmers markets. He said he said several unused outbuildings and is also studying if any of them can be economically converted into greenhouses.
Monahan sells through the Ames farmers market, as well as through an online CSA, or customer supported agriculture. He’s looking for something unique that will make his food stand stand out among the others. He said his wife bakes artisan bread for the venture, often selling out before the vegetables. He recently built her a wood-fired oven that will bake 12 loaves at a time.
“Her bread is more marketable than my vegetables,” he said.
He recently found another niche at the market by planting Indian and Asian vegetables that were well-received in the university town. He’s hoping that expanding a couple of more acres will give him the chance to plant more unique vegetables that will find those niche consumers.
“I want to be outside farming,” Monahan said. “I don’t want to farm from the office.”
Values and visions
Larson had the workshop open with a values study that helped each participant understand what they value most in farming and being farmers. Once he had them distill their key values to find their No. 1 priority, he told them, “This value will influence every decision you make on your farm.”
Following that exercise participants had to draw picture of how they would want to see their farm sometime in the future. Participants drew in buildings, livestock, conservation practices, quality of life images and even a few wind turbines.
This was followed by a critical look at each person’s available skills in bringing the new farm operations into existence and in what areas they would need help in making it happen.
“You don’t have to go solo to get these things done,” Larson told the audience. “There’s something to be said about hiring out or have a management team.
“I mean are you going to be your own soil tester and consultant?”
Meet with mentors
Following a break, the workshop attendees met with eight mentoring farmers who had experience in a variety of local foods and niche marketing experiences.
“This is a reality check,” Larson told the group.
Meeting with the Rosmanns was Jerry Peckumn of Jefferson. After discussing the couple’s plans for goat cheese processing, peckumn said he thought they were on the right track.
“You’re looking for extra income,” Peckumn said, “by selling goat milk and eventually expand into cheese processing as the end goal.”
Monahan met with Sean Skeehan, of Chariton. Monahan said he has built a hoop building for vegetables. His chickens’ eggs are used for the artisan bread. He wanted to know how to prioritize the operations various revenue streams.
“Conventional farming is a whole lot easier,” Monahan told Skeehan. “I don’t want to be a gentleman farmer. I want a return on my investment.”
Skeehan told him that income “is a tricky thing.” The Monahan operation have to learn to live with less, especially paying for its own health care coverage.
“Diversity is essential,” Skeehan said. He explained that when some of his vegetables had been damaged by herbicide drift from a neighboring farm, other parts of the operation, such as his honey operation, helped to balance the books.
He recommended the Monahans use a spread sheet program for projecting incomes and using social media to build a following of customers, letting them know where he will be on market days.
“Don’t play the price cut game,” Skeehan said. “We set the price and stay with it. If we have to take some of it home, we do.”
The Rosmanns said that although they didn’t get much direction from their mentoring farmer, they left the afternoon session with a fresh motivation to pursue their cheese processing operation.
They also have ideas in striving for more energy-efficiency on the farm “and some other small ideas,” Daniel Rosmann said.
For Joe Monahan, time spent with mentor Skeehan was helpful.
“A lot of us don’t have the background experience,” Monahan said. “We didn’t grow up on farms and our fathers didn’t farm. So getting the feedback and hearing others experiences is helpful.”
He’s hoping to get more confidence in the years to come in know the right price for his vegetables that will be good for him and the customer.
He said he also picked up ideas for keeping produce fresh enroute to the market and how to properly display vegetables at the market.
Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453, or at email@example.com.
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