Teaching sustainable business to young farmers

Dec 13, 2014

First time farmers gathered at the Stone Barns Center, a teaching farm in rural Westchester County for the Young Farmers Convention. The 3-day conference provides supportive classes and networking opportunities to new businesses in agriculture.

The Stone Barns Center helps young farmers build the foundation they need to for successful, sustainable farms.

“For me one of the things I get from coming to the young farmers conference is the chance to talk to really experienced farmers about more in-depth topics,” said Monica Plus, one of 250 farmers from all over the country who are in attendance at the former Rockefeller dairy estate.

Jill Isenbarger, executive director of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, helps oversee the conference and says the conference helps new farmers take on the task of agriculture and business.

“I think that it’s a really, really challenging profession and we as a society need to appreciate that and make sure that we provide the right kinds of educational resources that make farming a very fulfilling and kind of achievable career or life for people,” said Isenbarger.

Because starting a farm is no different than any other start-up, several of the classes at the conference focus on the financial health of a farm. As one farmer said, if you can’t make any money, then what’s the point?

Beneth Phelps is the Business Assistance Coordinator for the Carrot Project. The group provides farm assistance for new farms throughout the northeast.

“There’s an infinite list of skills they might need to have as an entrepreneur in order to be successful in their business," said Phelps. "So we’re not necessarily looking for them to be 100-percent efficient at every skill but rather to be aware of where there strengths and weaknesses are."

Phelps coached her class on the fine points of tracking a farms financial profits and losses and presented some non-traditional means of acquiring loans.

It's little tips like these that attendees call invaluable. As the young farmers crowd into the Stone Barn dining hall and sit down for lunch at long picnic style tables, they have a chance to share different conference experiences.

Young farmers network over lunchy
Credit Jenna Flannagan / Innovation Trail

“I just went to a session on marketing this morning and marketing was something I sort of had done before but I realized that it’s actually much more complex and nuanced and approaches to provide a product that people want and need. Your food is really awesome and you just need to highlight that and show that and reach the customers that want that food,” said Susan Paykin.

“What I learned a lot of here is observation, understanding systems and a big part of livestock farming is being able to observe animals and knowing want a healthy animal looks like and you know when you see one that isn’t behaving normally it sticks out so there’s a lot of that here,” said John Agistino.

“I think the community is a huge thing and just like being surrounded by like-minded people and you have the support and community all around you all the time,” said Ethan Harrison.

Isenbarger of Stone Barnes agrees the supportive networking the young farmers get is crucial in a career that is largely isolating.

“The food movement, a lot of what these folks are thriving on is the social component and being able to share the war stories of what they’re doing in their garden and on their farm with their friends,” she said.

The Stone Barns Center only holds its Young Farmers Conference in December because it’s one of the few down times the farmers have.