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Learning the ways of the land

Training program provides hands-on learning

By Dorene Weinstein |

Volunteer Amelia Terrapin and Sarah Trone, co-owner of Glacial Till Farms, garden in a small farm.
Volunteer Amelia Terrapin and Sarah Trone, co-owner of Glacial Till Farms, garden in a small farm. (Courtesy photo)

Most people know that farming is a tough way to make a living. But with a business plan, specific goals and practical skills, farming can be successful.

A training program led by farmers will help show people how to make a living off the land by providing participants an opportunity to discover low-cost, sustainable methods of farming through classroom instruction and hands-on training.

The "Farm Beginnings" program in Brookings is an effort to increase the number of people raising local produce in response to community needs. "The local food movement has developed so quickly. We're seeing a greater demand for local food that we weren't able to satisfy," says Sarah Trone, grower from rural Lake Norden.

The class addresses fundamental issues such as business planning, figuring out realistic expectations, narrowing down a type of operation and connecting with other farmers and resources in the community.

The course will foster small farmers, organizers say. "We see a high turnover in sustainable agriculture, it's physically and emotionally demanding. With this kind of planning you're forced to build on the right kind of foundation," Trone says.

Kristianna Gehant, owner of Prairie Coteau Farm with her husband, Nick Siddens, took the class two years ago in Minnesota.

Though she had been a grower for four years and had even started a Community Supported Agriculture business she felt the need to refocus.

"I always wanted to farm and she just kind of started. I dove right in without doing any long term planning. I did it all backward. I didn't do it how you would start a business."

Things were different; now, the couple wanted to start a family.

"I was doing the CSA by myself and wanted to shift into something that was profitable, that we could do together and that would accommodate our changing family," Gehant says.

Farming is a business but it's also a lifestyle, she says. The course helped her look at their farm and their lifestyle as a whole entity. It forced her to clarify her goals and allowed her to talk with successful farmers to see how they ran their operation.

Being able to talk about farming with other participants and question successful, working farmers and hear them speak from experience was invaluable.

"Farmers basically opened their books and showed us how their operation worked," Gehant says.

The class changed her life. She no longer grows dozens of varieties of vegetables or runs a CSA. Now their operation concentrates on raising garlic and eggs with garlic the main income generator of the two. "We sell at the Brookings Farmer's Market, individuals, food co-ops and restaurants."

Gehant will be one of the presenters during the year-long course.

Other working farmers and teachers will round out the class.

Mentoring is an important part of the program. "Participants can work with a farmer who is doing something similar to what they want to do," says Rebecca Terk, vegetable grower and farmer's market director.

Terk, who owns Flying Tomato Farms, a small sustainable vegetable operation north of Vermillion, is a believer in the course. This is an opportunity "to get people on the land and get them into a situation that is sustainable and be able to make it in the long haul."

The course was developed through the land stewardship project out of Minnesota and has been licensed and adapted by Dakota Rural Action. The USDA provides money for the programs.

Terk will be presenting a marketing segment for the course, offering tips on how to use social media and the Internet to promote produce.

Other presenters will instruct students on traditional marketing, direct marketing, newsletters and how to teach and meet customers.

"This program is important to South Dakota," Terk says. "I've been traveling throughout the state, and there's such a demand for locally grown food. Our farmer's markets have grown but they can't keep up. We don't have enough farmers to meet the demand in the state."

This is a way to get more.

Reach reporter Dorene Weinstein at 331-2315.

Additional Facts

"Farm Beginnings" Training Program offered in Brookings.

  • Tuition for the 10-month course is $1,500 per farm "unit." (The single tuition price covers a farm family, or farm business partners, etc.) Scholarships are available for up to half the tuition price (maximum scholarship amount is $750). Scholarship money has been raised through the efforts of "Farm Beginnings" steering committee members who approached their local businesses, banks, and community members and asked them to help sponsor a scholarship for a beginning farmer.
  • Class size is limited to 20 (farm units).
  • Participants do not need to be currently involved in farming.
  • Classes are taught by local farmers and agricultural professionals and are held twice a month from Oct. 2009 to March 2010 in Brookings. From April to August, participants can take part in hands-on education and connect with established farmers for mentorship, which may include skill sessions and farm tours.
  • The deadline for course and scholarship application is Aug. 31. To receive an application, interested participants should contact [email protected] or call DRA at 697-5204.

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