Farm Link program seeks mentors

The good news is there are plenty of eager young farmers ready and willing to take a stab at making a living in agriculture.

The bad news is that land is limited and expensive, and opportunities to learn alongside a successful farmer are few and far between. The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Committee would like to change that this year.

“I’m lucky; I started with my father. He basically took over from my grandfather, and that was a very abrupt change, because granddaddy kept all the reins,” said W.P. Johnson, a VFBF young farmer in Bedford County. “Dad has relinquished all but the financial side in our operation, but that’s OK with me, because I’m learning all the decisions on when to and when not to do something. That’s been a good mentoring situation for me,” said the hay, soybean and wheat producer.

The Virginia Farm Link program is designed to help connect would-be farmers with would-be partners and mentors. But a decade after it was established it’s seen few success stories, Johnson said. A large barrier is that many ideal candidates for farm operation mentors are still unaware of the program, he said.

“This calls for someone with the willingness and openness to take on somebody to mentor to make a seamless transition to a new owner for their farm,” Johnson said. “The young farmer could just be on the payroll at first and take on responsibilities gradually. This way they can actually learn the ins and outs of how to run the business.

“The one key aspect we’re looking at is we’re looking for somebody who’ll take the time to teach his successor over 10 or 12 years, not just someone looking to sell out and move on with their lives,” he added.

The biggest challenge faced by most young farmers is learning how to manage their income and build up reserves to survive in a business with extremely low cash flow and weather uncertainties, Johnson said. That experience and specialized knowledge usually is best passed on by a seasoned farmer.

“You pretty much look at whether a farming practice or equipment will pay for itself over a decade, not just three or five years, because out of those 10 years, only a few will be good. The rest will be mediocre and some will be real flops. You have to learn to survive those agriculture disaster years. That’s probably the hardest part of working in agriculture.”T

The Virginia Farm Link program is sponsoring a series of farm transition workshops around the state. The next workshop is set for Feb. 11 at the Olde Dominion Agricultural Complex in Pittsylvania County, with another planned this summer in the Shenandoah Valley. Information about farm transitions and the current Farm Link database of would-be farmers and possible mentors is also available at vdacs.virginia.gov/preservation/program.shtml.

Another possible contact for young farmers and farm mentors is the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Project, housed at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The project leaders have spent the past year building coalitions among various groups like the VFBF Young Farmers. More information on that program is available at vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2011/01/011211-cals-beginningfarmer.html.

“We want to see successful transitions, where young farmers learn the ebbs and flows of farming, not just make a big crop one year and the bank forecloses the next year,” Johnson said. “That’s the challenge for all farmers, but it’s particularly tough on beginning farmers. That’s why we want to urge anyone interested in this program to get involved right away.”


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