I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Farm Beginnings Collaborative meeting last week in Portland. Maine with our Executive Director, Cara Cummings. Farm Beginnings Collaborative is the national alliance of regional groups who are offering Farm Beginnings programs. The Collaborative is growing and now includes ten organizations with programs serving beginning farmers in 13 states. The Land Connection was one of the founding organizations of this collaborative back in 2004.
The Land Connection operates a program called Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, which is a yearlong program that incorporates a nine-seminar farm business-planning course, a series of on-farm field day workshops, and one-on-one mentoring from area farmers. The program is embedded in a network of farmers and supported by a community of stakeholders that include bankers, business people, extension agents, investors, philanthropists and more. Creating this social infrastructure is intentional and a precursor to launching new programs, as it bolsters outcomes and plans for program sustainability. I was thrilled to be in the same room for about 2 days with the great minds that run Farm Beginnings programs to learn, grow and connect.
Before the meeting began, we got a wonderful taste of the food culture in Portland. It was amazing to see that so many restaurants using and promoting local and organic foods. It was a normal thing for restaurants to local, healthy foods, and boy, was it all delicious! I never thought I would enjoy a scrambler with beets and carrots, but they were so sweet and delicious, and with a dollop of goat cheese on top, how could I have gone wrong? The restaurants in Portland were not only creating delicious food, but more importantly, they were purchasing goods from local farmers, supporting the local agriculture economy. So many farmers struggle to find consistent markets for their products, which they work tirelessly day in and day out to produce just because they love to grow food. It was amazing to see a community, and more importantly an economy, supporting these hardworking Maine farmers.
Once we started our conference, it was wonderful to meet and learn from Farm Beginnings facilitators and managers throughout the U.S. It was inspiring to share stories and challenges about our own individual programs, but I think one of the biggest benefits of having all programs come together annually is to remind us that our individual programs continue to make big impacts nationally. Even though Farm Beginnings programs train four to twenty-four farm families per year, we are all helping grow sustainable farms who manage our natural resources, care of their land in a resilient manner, and grow delicious, healthy foods for communities across the United States.
We sometimes get bogged down in the day to day doldrums of running a program, trying to find funding, promote the benefits and recruit participants. However, our groups are continuing to make such an important impact even having conversations with potential beginning farmers of all ages about the possibilities of farming in a diverse, sustainable manner, producing food differently than what is a “new” norm.
Another inspiring part of the conference was thinking about our national impact and how we can work with more sustainable farmer training programs, motivate more programs to teach sustainable agriculture principles, and how we, as a national collaborative, work with other organizations to bring more national expertise to continue to grow our programs’ capacity and help more beginning farmers reach success. These are the conversations that get me excited, because it reminds me about not only how we continue to contribute to growing farmers on a national level, but we also have so many opportunities to grow our programs. Some topics that are really important right now to help our farmers succeed are land access, financial analysis and preparation for lending, risk management, and market development. It is exciting to think about how we can work together and collaborate to create national partnerships that can help all of our programs increase capacity and access to funds so that we can continue to help beginning farmers interested in launching their dream.
It was a wonderful event and I made many great connections. I also ate a LOT of really great oysters and lobsters J Moral of the story here – support your local, small farmers to help us maintain prosperous communities and to continue having access to delicious, healthy local foods. If Maine can do it, so can we in Illinois.