The business of growing
Farmers can use all the help they can get these days, and often, other farmers are in the best position to give it. This is the thinking behind the Cultivating Success program in Washington and Idaho, a series of courses for farmers who operate small farms—and those who hope to.
“One of the more effective ways to learn is to hear how a successful farmer does it,” says Washington State University Associate Professor Marcy Ostrom. Ostrom founded and directs WSU’s Small Farms Program, whose main goals are to provide research and education for farmers and outreach to communities on local food systems.
Cultivating Success is an educational effort of the Small Farms Program. Its goals are to increase the ownership of farms, improve their profitability and help farmers adopt practices that are sustainable economically, socially and environmentally. It’s a collaboration between WSU, the University of Idaho and Rural Roots, and has been funded by the USDA Risk Management Agency, the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the Kellogg Foundation.
Courses include everything from composting and pest management to business planning and marketing. They feature farmers and other experts as guest speakers, they take field trips to successful small farms and retail outlets, and offer hands-on experiences at WSU’s organic teaching and research farms in Pullman and Puyallup. Courses are offered in Hmong and Spanish, as well as English.
These courses are offered on the main university campuses and through county extension offices in both states. They can be taken for university credit as part of a degree program, or as extension courses taken individually or as credits for a certificate of completion. There is also a farmer mentoring program where student interns work on organic or sustainable farms.
Approximately 89 percent of the farms in Washington and 85 percent of the ones in Idaho meet the USDA’s definition of a small farm. Small farms have a total income of $250,000 or less from sales, with day-to-day labor and management provided by the farmer and/or the farm family that owns or leases the farm’s productive assets.
These courses aren’t only for small-scale farmers, though. “Our classes are great for any-sized farm,” Ostrom says. “They’re for anyone interested in taking their farm in a new direction.”
So far, 1,900 people have taken at least one course. They include new and experienced farmers, immigrant farmers and agricultural and academic students.
Ostrom advises beginning farmers to start with the introductory Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course, an overview of whole farm management.
Course topics include environmental issues, soil and pest management, setting personal and family goals, economics, marketing options and community resources.
Agricultural Entrepreneurship is a business planning course for farmers who want their farm to be more profitable, she says. Course sessions include strategies for planning and record-keeping, budgets and financial statements, legal and risk management issues, federal farmer assistance programs, price-setting and market research.
Courses are as participatory and hands-on as possible. In the record-keeping course, for example, students try out different computer programs and spreadsheets.
Farmers are so busy, they often don’t have time to pay attention to what their costs are, Ostrom says. Some aren’t business-oriented. Still, anyone who has a passion for farming should have a business plan to help them reach their goals.
“Once people take a business-planning class, they think in a different way,” she says. “There isn’t a farm that couldn’t benefit from a business plan or updating their plan.”
There are also sessions on marketing. Direct marketing, including farmers’ markets, farmstands, U-Picks, CSA and other ways of adding value to farm products, are becoming increasingly important to farmers of all sizes, Ostrom says, and you have to enjoy working with people when you deal directly with customers. Direct marketing doesn’t work for every farmer, she adds. You may need a partner for that.
“Customers are looking for a relationship with a farmer,” she says. “They want to know the story of the farm. They want to know that deer broke into the corn and that’s why you don’t have any this week.”
Students learn how to communicate about their products and their farming practices, pay attention to customers’ complaints and talk to customers about what they want. Having a quality product and being responsive is part of being in these markets, Ostrom says. If you are responsive, your customers will stay with you forever.
WSU has a network of more than 40 Small Farms Team members throughout the state who assist with course instruction. Although WSU and University of Idaho faculty members teach the courses, they usually invite guest speakers, who may be local business, financial or legal experts, bank officers, small business counselors or university agricultural specialists. Very often they are small-scale farmers themselves.
Instructors look for farmers who are innovators and successful role models, and who are willing to be resources for students. It isn’t always easy, Ostrom says. Not every farmer wants to open their books for everyone to see—but, many do want to share their knowledge.
“I’m amazed at how much time they’re willing to take,” she says.
All farmers are time-challenged, Ostrom says. Offering courses in a variety of locations, time frames and formats makes it easier for them to attend. Every course is available to both community members and degree-seeking students whether offered on campus, through extension offices, or online. Most courses are held weekly, usually in the evenings in the spring and fall, although a few courses are offered in a weeklong, intensive, short-course format.
In Idaho, courses have been taught on the main UI campus in Moscow, as well as through extension offices in Boise, Grangeville, Orofino, Pocatello, Plummer, Sandpoint, Twin Falls and some other locations. In Washington, they’ve been held on WSU campuses in Pullman and Puyallup and through county extension offices in Bremerton, Colville, Everett, Lynden, Mt. Vernon, Twisp, Omak, Pasco, Port Angeles, Port Hadlock, Renton, Shelton, Spokane, Tonasket, Yakima and Wenatchee.
Farmers, or aspiring farmers, can take any number of courses. Those who want a Certificate of Proficiency in Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching can take the entire program. At WSU, courses have also been approved for a new undergraduate major in organic agriculture and a distance master’s degree program in agriculture.
Be forewarned. Once farmers take one class, they’re likely to take more. “They become consumers of education,” Ostrom says. “They start showing up all over the place.”
Some courses take place completely outside the classroom.
In the On-Farm Internship, student interns work on a farm one-on-one with a farmer/mentor who’s been trained and certified by the Cultivating Success program. During the farming season, students work on all aspects of farming, from production to marketing.
The Sustainable Food and Farm Field Course is an intensive weeklong course that takes place during spring break. Students visit different farms, food processors and retail outlets each day and sleep at accommodations nearby. They work all day doing farming system assessments, interviewing farmers and following crops through growing, packing and retailing. In the evenings, they do small group assignments. These classes are for graduate students and community members who want a more in-depth view of farming and food systems, Ostrom says.
The Quillisascut Farm School is an intensive weeklong course that takes place entirely on the Quillisascut Goat Farm. Students learn to milk goats, make cheese, grow vegetables and cook with the farm products they harvest.
The Farm Walk Series, a partnership between the WSU Small Farms Program and the Tilth Producers Association, takes place 10 times a year during the growing season in Washington. Participants spend an afternoon on one of a variety of established organic and sustainable farms. They discuss the technical aspects of farming practices with the host farmers.
The “Cultivating Success” program even offers some courses online. “It’s quite a trick to have a hands-on class online,” Ostrom says, but they’ve found some ways to do it, including giving students assignments to interview local farmers, or to conduct a research project at a farmer’s market.
Western Regional Excellence in Extension Award
Ostrom won the 2007 Western Regional Excellence in Extension Award, which is given annually by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. The award recognized her success of getting people involved with extension programs who hadn’t heard of it before.
Part of the success results from her efforts to include immigrant farmers in the Cultivating Success program. She hired a bilingual Hmong agricultural specialist who went to every one of the 40 farmers’ markets in the Puget Sound region and found 100 Hmong small-scale farm operations that had never even been counted on a census before. Her Latino agricultural specialist found 300 Latino farmers interested in more education. Many had been identified previously as farm workers, but were actually starting their own farms. Now, they can get support, Ostrom says, as well as information about federal loans and conservation programs.
It’s no surprise that the Cultivating Success program is growing.
“The program recognizes that the goals of small-scale farmers are as diverse as the farmers are themselves,” Ostrom says. “A lot of people say that no one wants to farm anymore. But, when we announce programs, they really fill up. There’s definite interest out there.”
Marcy Ostrom, director, WSU Small Farm Program
Washington State University
509-663-8181, ext. 263
The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.