Field School helps new farmers | June Dairy Tennessee Greene
The Appalachian Conservation and Resource Development Field School gives new farmers an introduction to the industry before they get too deep.
âWe’re teaching newbie farmers, so we’re as much about keeping people out of trouble as we are about being successful,â said Dana York, field school facilitator and lead trainer. “I would say we probably have 50 percent (of graduates) who don’t try to cultivate or maybe try it for a few years.”
York said the overall goal of the field school is to educate people on what it takes to grow and then to be able to know the cost.
âOur main goal is to teach you how to research what you want to do,â York explained. âWe help you ask questions, we help you develop a business plan, and then we show you where you can get cost sharing. We show you markets. “
According to York, people who attend school say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, even though they don’t continue to cultivate.
âThere are those who say, ‘I don’t want to do this. Thank you so much! I could have spent all that money and then hate it or had no idea it was going to take so much, âshe said.
Field school program coordinator Rosie McVeigh says the school is offered each year with summer and winter sessions.
âThe summer field school is where we go and we take a small group of newbie farmers, usually 15-20 people, to tour the farms and see their operations firsthand,â says McVeigh. “It’s very useful. It is really a good learning experience for people who want to get into farming. The winter field school is a business intensive program. So, this is precisely to create a business plan at the end of school for your farm. “
âIt has a big impact on farmers,â she said. âIn our winter field school program, we usually have about 20 people who graduate with business plans. The summer field school is more about making people aware of what goes on a farm and what it takes to run a farm and then just seeing things for themselves. “
Field school principal Lexy Close said around 200 students graduated from the program in the past 6 years.
âWe went online in 2020 during the Covid pandemic,â Close said. âDuring the summer, our online workshops were open to everyone. At first 20-30 people were in attendance, but halfway through we started attracting 200-400 attendees via Zoom and YouTube Livestream. Many were from Tennessee, but people from all over the United States were in attendance. It was very interesting to see this happen! I don’t count them in my totals because a lot of them were just engaged in one or two workshops. The 200 person count is intended for people who have participated in a full winter or summer session.
âFor the winter session, 22 farms registered for the workshops online. They pay to attend the eight sessions on business planning, farm finance and marketing. We were able to reach a much larger audience than our face-to-face classes. Many of the students were from the Knoxville area and four were out of state, although some of them owned property in Tennessee.
Close said that 30-50% of graduates in a given year are still engaged in some form of farming at various scales.
âI don’t think I can quantify this, but a lot of students say they drastically change their plans after they finish field school,â she said. âThey end up focusing on companies and markets that they weren’t considering before participating. We’re also telling them about a number of grants, cost-sharing programs, and low-interest loan opportunities for Tennessee farmers. Many say they did not know these programs existed, so they can access these types of support programs more easily. “
She added, âWe also think it’s a success if people go through the program and realize that farming isn’t really for them. A couple gave up and opened a hair salon instead. Getting into farming takes a lot of money and hours of hard work. Reaching the breakeven point on your investments can take years. It really must be something that you are passionate about, and I hope we can help people make it happen. We give them the opportunity to really take a look at the numbers, their plans and their intentions, and see if they can make any real money.
The first 2021 Field School session met at Goodwater Vineyards in Mosheim. The session included a tour of the vineyard and winery, a talk by Dr David Lockwood of UT Extension and Goodwater farm manager Steve Bush, and a wine tasting.
Bush said the family operation was a learning experience and they could have benefited from the field school before they started.
“I can tell you that we have gone back half a million dollars or more,” said Bush. âWe started and we started again and we are still cleaning up the mistakes. … It’s an education. For 18 years, it’s like going to college. â¦ You must know your land, your soil, your climate.
âThis is the college of hard knocks,â added Lockwood, who agreed that investing in training before starting an operation will save time and money in the long run. “That’s why I say start small.”
Cindy Bowman attended the winter session and returned for the summer session.
âWinter field school, I really learned a wealth of information,â Bowman said. “They are gone, why do you want to be a farmer, what do you want to grow, can you make a living from it, can you make money from it. And then they get into business, finance, insurance, starting the farm. There are many loans available for farmers, and in fact Tennessee is one of the best places for that because we have the NRCS helping you get a loan.
âI am not yet a farmer but I grew up on a farm. My father is getting older and he still runs the farm I grew up on. â¦ It will be a process. I gave myself five years.
She added, “I really have a feeling that I will be more successful when I cultivate because I have gone through field school.”
Daniel Jernigan says he and his father don’t yet have a clear idea of ââwhat to grow.
âWe’re just here to learn it all,â Jernigan said. âMy father and I want to get back into farming more. We are just trying to understand better what we would like. It was a lot of fun. Very educational! “
Andy Deshkulkarni thinks he has found his agricultural orientation in local and sustainable agriculture
âI’m interested in learning how to grow hops,â said Deshkulkarni, who plans to be part of the supply chain for breweries in the region and enable them to make a truly local product. âIt will kind of help me see part of the process. It’s different, but his small business and small local breweries are taking off right now. “
McVeigh said the field school, which serves eight counties in eastern Tennessee, has been funded in the past by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and that they are also working with UT Extension, NRCS and d ‘other.