Mentors Foster New Generation of Farmers


Through the years, American farms have grown a variety of crops, from corn to soybeans to cotton and more. Perhaps the most important crop of all is a new generation of farmers. 

Careers in agriculture have been traditionally passed down from parent to child, but that is falling by the wayside as more young people opt to leave the farm, choosing other careers. However, there is hope farmer mentorships may fill the gap.

On a sunny Saturday morning at the Bloomington Farmers' Market, Annie Metzger of Samara Farm near Shelbyville is busy helping a customer who is interested in some freshly harvested fennel.

Annie's husband, Zack Metzger, stands by and watches her close the sale.

“I love the small business aspect of it,” Zach said. “I love running a business, and trying to do things in the best way possible.”

It is an important lesson in farm finance, which Zack Metzger hopes will make Samara Farm successful. 

Several years ago, the Metzgers weren't even farming. A high school physics teacher working in the Chicago area, Zack Metzger could not resist the lure of the land. He said the desire to farm just snuck up on him and he was eager to be a part of a new local food economy.

Colleen Callahan, Illinois State Director for Rural Development at the USDA, said the growing local food movement is an accessible way to get into farming.

"I do view the local food initiative as an opportunity to invite the next generation back to the farm," Callahan said.

For many years, young people have been leaving the traditional family farm. 

"About a generation or two ago, people who grew up on farms started to become doctors and lawyers and accountants and now we're reaching where those elderly farmers are dying,” said Terra Brockman, the executive director of the agricultural educational non-profit The Land Connection. “There is no one in the family to take over the family farm."

Brockman said that is where Central Illinois Farm Beginnings comes in to prove assistance, which us program under The Land Connection. It was originally devised by the Land Stewardship program in Minnesota to help people of all ages and all walks of life learn entrepreneurial farming. 

Designed specifically to teach small scale farming, Farm Beginnings provides workshops and mentorships for budding farmers. 

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said farmer mentorships are a growing trend in agriculture, and a good way to foster the next generation of farmers. She said it is uniquely hands on, though students learn that there's more to farming than just getting their hands in the soil.

"It also means that you have business plans, and accounting skills,” Merrigan said. You know it takes a lot of business savvy skills to survive and be success in this global economy."

Merrigan said the new fervor around local agriculture allows consumers to know the farmers who grow their food and feel confident of the quality.  This trend is helping draw more people like the Metzgers into farming, and farmers looking to pass on their knowledge to the next generation are also happy with the trend.

Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm east of Urbana is one such mentor.

"Farmers are desperately hungry for these young people to come to the farms and ranches," Cooperband said. 

She and her husband Wes raise goats for dairy products.

"We have offered mentorships to people that are interested in either goat husbandry or goat dairying in particular or organic fruit production,” Cooperband said.

Cooperband said the folks she's mentored range from twenty-somethings to middle-aged people looking to start over. Mentorships through the Farm Beginnings program provide a focused, year-long alternative to a college degree in agriculture. 

Terra Brockman from Farm Beginnings said they have about 25 farmers acting as mentors.  They receive a small stipend, but it is largely volunteer work. 

The students are paired with farmers who specialize in their area of interest, be it livestock or fruit trees.  She said some of the students can actually move on to the farm and work side-by-side with the farmer every day.

"Some just have a phone mentorship where it's like I'll call you up every weekend or every other week and ask you questions and maybe come to your farm once a month,” Brockman said. “It can be a very flexible situation."

Farmer Leslie Cooperband said in her role as mentor, she can reveal the occasionally harsh reality of farming.

"Get behind the glamour aspect of farming because I think people tend to romanticize it,” Cooperland said. “Once they see what it's really like it helps ground people."

Terra Brockman said many farmers are keen to pass on their knowledge and give back.  Mentorships can also be very practical for the farmer.

"When it's an especially intensive mentorship, then the farmer is getting young, strong labor in exchange," Brockman said.

The USDA's Colleen Callahan said farmers who make the commitment to become mentors leave a lasting imprint.

"Whatever it is that you've done in the agricultural realm, to be able to share that with someone, to have that live on, is really quite a legacy," Callahan said. 
The legacy of the farmer who mentored Zack and Annie Metzger lives on, right on their farm. 

Farmer Garrick Veenstra showed them the best way to grow crops in the occasionally brutal Illinois climate. 

Zack Metzger said he also gave them garlic starts a few years ago to take with them as they started farming on their own. 

"We've been growing it since then and refining it a little bit on our own,” Metzger said. “We call it The New City Hardneck."

The Metzgers plan on growing and refining even more so that one day they, too, can mentor the next generation of farmers.  In the meantime, they take inspiration from the tattoo that Annie Metzger has on her back.

"It says 'hope' in Gaelic,” she said. “You have to have hope springing eternal as a farmer, that's for sure."

Terra Brockman adds that although the Farm Beginnings program helped the Metzgers get a start in agriculture; life on the farm is not for everyone. 

Farm Beginnings weeds out those not ready for the full commitment of farming. In fact, fewer than half of the participants end up going into farming full time after their mentorships. 

Still, Brockman said it is a start toward bolstering the ranks of the traditional American farmer.

<em>(Photo by Laura Kennedy/IPR)</em>

Story source: Illinois Public Radio