Young Farmers Start Fast

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LANSING — Build your network, make important connections and gain on-the-job experience.

Those are typical initial steps to landing a high-paying job on Wall Street or down on the farm.

Prospective farmers face obstacles ranging from availability and affordability of land and facilities to competition from established farms and larger farms.

Julia Shenck, Young Farmer chair for the Lapeer County Farm Bureau, is one example of a young farmer. The 24-year-old Dryden woman operates a 40-acre horse farm.

Shenck started three years ago on land that had been a horse farm for years. To receive a loan, she had to write up a business proposal and spent about 30 hours using Microsoft Excel to balance the numbers to present to the bank.

After the loan was approved, she put her own horses on the property and opened the farm to the public when the facilities were ready.

Shenck said word-of-mouth became her best advertiser, and it helped build a network of good customers.

Shenck graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in animal science and agribusiness management, but a college degree definitely isn’t a requirement to get into farming, she said.

“It’s what does my farm have or offer?” she said.

Age is her biggest challenge when dealing with customers and other farmers.

“They know I’m young and think I have no idea what’s going on,” she said.

Shenck said that as long as someone has enough funding and support, he or she can start a farm.

But keeping it up-and-running and profitable is another story, she added.

New farmers face many of the same challenges as other aspiring businesspeople, said Lori Chamberlain, manager of the Young Farmer Department of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Business decisions must be made, she said. “They are businesspeople and have to make those decisions.”

Chamberlain said many new farmers have agricultural experience working on a relative’s or neighbor’s farm, “but it’s difficult to measure who started how.”

Commonly, farmers-to-be start as an employee on a farm to gain knowledge, experience and money.

“It often requires much planning, much work and saving,” she said.

A young farmer is generally considered one between 18-35.

Louis Martus, president of the Lapeer County Farm Bureau, said banks want to see experience or an experienced farmer backing a new farmer attempting to get a loan. He said a college degree “may help, but experience is the biggest benefactor.”

The biggest challenge facing new farmers is financial backing, Martus said. A new farmer needs a financial plan detailing current assets and predicting future assets.

William Ankley, an Imlay City farmer, said land costs are the biggest challenge to becoming a farmer.

Agriculture is hard to get into because of the expenses involved, Ankley said.

Chamberlain said the Farm Bureau provides educational opportunities to aspiring farmers, such as formal training and leadership opportunities. There’s a leadership conference every February, and regional and district-wide programs as well.

Tammy Hyatt, an agriscience instructor and FFA adviser at the Lapeer County Education and Technology Center, said several of her students plan to return to the farm.

She agreed that the biggest difficulty is financial.

“How do you acquire the land if it’s not given to you?” said Hyatt.

Another need is keeping up with technology. Young farmers can’t be successful without technology, and they don’t always have the funds for it, Hyatt said.

At her ed-tech center, students learn about new technology, such as GPS, and business practices, like record-keeping, while getting hands-on experience in animal and plant sciences.

“Farmers have to be business-savvy people,” Hyatt said.

Last year, a $200,000 animal center was completed where students raise animals and get hands-on experience learning to take animals’ temperatures, observe their behavior and maintain, feed and water them.

“We’re trying to be proactive to what the needs will be in the future for Michigan,” Hyatt said.

A 2007 Farm Bureau survey of young farmers found the top three challenges facing them are availability of land and facilities, overall profitability and competition from established or larger farms.

The first two remain unchanged from last year, but the third is a newcomer to the list, replacing urbanization and loss of farmland.

Chamberlain said “established farmers can make decisions quicker. They may have more (financial) reserves and better relationships” with people in the industry, while younger farmers in most cases must be more cautious with their investments.    

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