Classes at programs like one run by the Land Stewardship Project are helping guide young professionals into a new generation of farmers.
Ian wants to raise goats. Bridgette dreams of an apiary. And Rachel, a hip 20-something from northeast Minneapolis, stirs the envy of her friends when she talks about her recent purchase of 20 acres of land in Wisconsin's farm country.
The young professionals are studying for a different kind of career advancement: jobs as farmers. Their class is part of a 10-month, $1,500 "Farm Beginnings" program by the Land Stewardship Project of Minneapolis. On a recent evening at a Lutheran church in Goodhue, Minn., one student asked instructor Chris Blanchard, an organic farmer from Iowa, if farming can be simple.
"Forget about it," he warned flatly. "It never was."
The plight of the family farm has been a concern for decades. But more recently, interest in farms and farming has taken root, as evidenced by bestselling books about agriculture and popularity of the "buy local" movement. Farm incomes have been steadily rising, even as average household incomes have remained largely stagnant. Even farm classes are gaining in clout: The latest farm bill provides $75 million, the first funding of its kind, to help pay for more farm classes here and elsewhere.
At the University of Minnesota, applied economics professor Kent Olson has more students than ever -- more than 40 -- signed up for his farm management class next semester.
"It's certainly an optimistic time," he said, speaking of agriculture. "Even with the decline in prices, people think we're still headed for good times."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak last month created something he's calling the "Homegrown Minneapolis" initiative to promote locally grown food, while Hennepin County officials recently began a "Food Policy Council" meant to bring more produce into inner-city neighborhoods.
The metro area's neighborhood vegetable gardens, some of which have been around for decades, have found vigorous support this year. Waiting lists for new members are now common, said Kirsten Saylor, one of the founders of Gardening Matters, a clearinghouse of local gardening information. Callers ask for lists of gardens they can join.
So what motivates people to come to classes like the one Blanchard led in a Lutheran church in Goodhue earlier this month?
"Nobody's getting into this business to get rich," says Blanchard. "If you're going to get into organic marketing to make a million dollars, I've got a bridge to sell you. I do think there are people who look at it and say, 'I've always wanted to farm.' This is something that goes way, way back for them."
The Land Stewardship Project's farm class is not new: It originated 10 years ago with a group of Wabasha County farmers who called themselves the Wabasha County Give a Damns, people who were concerned that farming was becoming a lost art.
"There was a drain of young people, bright young people, and that's what farming needs," said Karen Stettler, who was hired by the Land Stewardship Project shortly after the first "Farm Beginnings" class was held in 1998.
"The hope is that with Farm Beginnings, people who are passionate about farming and want to be farming get the best chance of success possible."
A survey three years ago found that half of the graduates were living almost entirely off of their farm earnings.
The classes cover setting goals, finances, organization and marketing. The sessions run for 10 classes, and end with visits to real farms, where students can see what the operations look like. The students are encouraged to find mentors and to network with other farmers.
Roger and Michelle Benrud were students in the first class. College graduates with degrees between them in physics and accounting, they could have chosen from a variety of white-collar careers, but farming was in Roger's blood. Two years after their 1998 Farm Beginnings class they were renting farmland from Roger's parents, who wanted to retire. Today they farm 90 dairy cows and in the winter take phone calls from Roger's parents, who spend the chilly months in Arizona.
The course "got us thinking outside of the box a little bit," said Michelle. They drew up a plan and thought they could become self-sufficient within five years. They talked about their dreams.
"To me that was the worst part of the class, because it's scary to talk about your goals and dreams and if it doesn't happen you might not be happy," said Michelle. But five years later they were self-sufficient. Their PastureLand cheese sells in several co-ops and health food stores in the Twin Cities market.
The new federal farm class funding gives eligible groups up to $250,000 in annual grants. The funding is in addition to more traditional programs like the Minnesota state government's Rural Finance Authority, which last year sent out some $13 million in low-interest loans to 103 young farmers looking for money to get their farms started. The 22-year-old program works with local banks to send start-up money to crop and livestock farmers.
It has not expanded much in recent years because many farm families, flush with cash from agriculture's recent boom times, don't need help passing on the farm to the younger generation, said Peter Scheffert, the director of Agriculture Development and Financial Assistance for the state department of agriculture.
"Agriculture has had four great years," he notes.
Blanchard's class is occasionally a cold splash of water for students dreaming of farmland utopia.
"You have to be a little bit crazy," said Blanchard. "It takes a certain leap of faith to say things could be better and different, that you could have a different life with a different lifestyle."
Blanchard, who with his wife, Kim, sells herbs and vegetables grown on his Rock Spring Farm in Decorah, Iowa, to co-ops in the Twin Cities, told students that his revenues approach $300,000 a year. But when it comes to paying himself, he estimates his time at $8 an hour, what he considers the standard farm wage.
His farm tips came in rapid-fire style: Farmers markets are an expensive way to sell vegetables. Wholesaling works much better. File sales receipts by month, not alphabetically. Beets keep, so don't worry about selling them all immediately.
"You will build your packing shed in the wrong place. Your cows will die. Your sheep will eat your beets," he said. "So plan for mistakes."
Bridgette O'Meara, an English instructor who's planning an apiary, notes "bees are the only creature that don't harm anything in its life cycle."
Ian, meanwhile, learned that egg production should start with 2,000 chickens to be profitable, and that's beyond his reach.
He's looking into meat goats instead.
Rachel Henderson, meanwhile wants to start an orchard with her boyfriend, Anton Ptak, on the 20 acres she recently bought near Menomonie, Wis.
"Almost everyone has been supportive. But we've run into a few people who are pretty convinced we won't make it," she said. "Like my mom."
Madeline and Peter Kastler, who live in Minneapolis with one child and one on the way, say they talk about their farm during long road trips. The class "sounded like a really practical way to see if this was something we could realistically do," said Madeline, a board member of the Seward co-op. "If we could have this dream life, it would include farming,"
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329