New management program helps educate beginning farmers

Lisa Schmoetzer and her husband, Tony Velasco, moved from Phoenix five years ago to a 28-acre farm they bought in Anderson County.

With no farming background except what she remembered as a child growing up on a small farm in Indiana, Schmoetzer started raising chickens and selling dressed poultry and eggs. She now raises meat and milk goats to sell, and has a vegetable stand at the Lawrenceburg farmers market.

Financially, it has been tough, said Schmoetzer, 47, who holds a master's degree in ecology. "I'm used to researching things and being analytical, but most of what I've learned on the farm has been by trial and error."

"If I had had a business plan, goals, a budget when I started out, that would have been helpful," she said.

It's farmers like Schmoetz er that two University of Kentucky agricultural economics professors, Lee Meyer and Jennifer Hunter, had in mind when they received a $748,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a comprehensive farm management program to help beginning farmers. The USDA made such grants to 29 universities.

Targeted are young farmers, those who frequently take over a family farm, and those seeking a second career, the middle-age "beginning" farmers.

A partnership between UK and Kentucky State University, the two-year program, called A Common Field, will be offered in 20 areas throughout the state starting in the spring.

It will include class sessions at Cooperative Extension offices and on-farm demonstrations. In the second year, a mentoring program will connect these newcomers with experienced farmers.

The program is designed to help farmers improve profitability and long-term sustainability, Meyer said.

And it couldn't come at a better time.

Tommy Yankey has been an agricultural extension agent in Anderson County for 29 years. He said he's seeing "more and more people who want their little slice of rural life."

"I have people come into my office and say, 'We just bought 40 acres. We know nothing about farming, but we want to be farmers,'" he said.

In Central Kentucky, 20 percent of farmers are classified as beginners, according to survey data from Ani L. Katchova, assistant professor of agricultural economics at UK.

"We want to help this large number of beginning farmers make a go of it," Meyer said.

In the first year, 12 sessions will cover topics such as evaluating the land, gaining access to labor and funding sources, how to select crops to raise, drawing up a business plan, and setting goals and a budget.

In the second year, the mentoring begins with new farmers connecting with those with similar interests.

One of those mentors might be Scott County cattle farmer Daniel Smith. Although he's only 33 years old, Smith comes from several generations of farmers and majored in animal science at UK.

He farms with his father and brother; they raise cattle, alfalfa, corn and soybeans.

"Agriculture is laden with tradition, but at the same time there's a business plan that goes with it," Smith said.

He thinks some people come to farming with "romantic pictures of mom and pop and a mule. They don't necessarily think of it from a business standpoint."

But farming is strictly business with the Smiths, who have a chain of command and budgets, and remain keenly aware of cash flow, setting goals and financial statements.

"Maybe it's not what you would find in a Fortune 500 company, but we have a definite way of doing things," Smith said.

That business approach is inherently important to a farmer's success, said Linda McClanahan, Mercer County agriculture extension agent.

"Not nearly enough people look at farming as a business requiring a business plan, management techniques and financial goals," she said. A business-orientation "enhances your ability to improve your farm, make good decisions and make a profit."

A related challenge that inexperienced farmers might struggle with is finding the crops that will be profitable "because prices on many farm products are weak right now," McClanahan said.

Nathan Ellis, a young farmer, knows about that. Nathan, 17, a senior at Mercer County High School, farms 1,000 acres with his uncle Myron Ellis; they raise alfalfa hay and feeder heifers.

But the Ellises have tried several other crops.

"We tried the walking horse business. We've had corn, tobacco. We've tried about all of it," Nathan said. While he and his uncle are open to new opportunities, Nathan said they have found what they do best, and "we're sticking with it."

And while Nathan, as young as he is, has plenty of experience in farming, he recognizes the program's value.

"I know a bunch of guys my age who want to go into farming who could really profit from this," he said.