Monday, February 7, 2011

It’s ‘Farmville – For Real’: Farmers map out plans for new revenue opportunities

Source: The Messenger

MARSHALLTOWN - They were as diverse as the farming operations they came from, or wanted to start.

Forty people attended an afternoon-long session called "Farmville - For Real" on Friday at Marshalltown Community College during the first of a two-day annual conference for Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Some were young farmers just getting a start. Others were older farmers looking to expand their operations into new revenue streams. Others were ending "town career" and wanted to retire into farming. Before they left, each operation had the chance to sit down with one of eight mentoring farmers who would review their plans and offer advice for getting started.

Leading the workshop was Andy Larson, coordinator for the Iowa State University Sustainable agriculture Research and Education office. Larson is also an ISU Extension field specialist in small farm sustainability.

Larson told the 40-person audience, that they would begin the first steps in identifying what they envisioned for their farms in the near- and long-term future, as well as understand the skills they had available to make the dream come true and where they would need outside help.

At the event was Joe Monahan, who has a small fruit and vegetable farm in Jackson Township in northeast Boone County. His dream is to add an acre or two of vegetable crops with some mechanization to sell at area farmers markets. He said he said several unused outbuildings and is also studying if any of them can be economically converted into greenhouses.

Monahan sells through the Ames farmers market, as well as through an online CSA, or customer supported agriculture. He's looking for something unique that will make his food stand stand out among the others. He said his wife bakes artisan bread for the venture, often selling out before the vegetables. He recently built her a wood-fired oven that will bake 12 loaves at a time.

"Her bread is more marketable than my vegetables," he said.

He recently found another niche at the market by planting Indian and Asian vegetables that were well-received in the university town. He's hoping that expanding a couple of more acres will give him the chance to plant more unique vegetables that will find those niche consumers.

"I want to be outside farming," Monahan said. "I don't want to farm from the office."

Values and Visions

Larson had the workshop open with a values study that helped each participant understand what they value most in farming and being farmers. Once he had them distill their key values to find their No. 1 priority, he told them, "This value will influence every decision you make on your farm."

Following that exercise participants had to draw picture of how they would want to see their farm sometime in the future. Participants drew in buildings, livestock, conservation practices, quality of life images and even a few wind turbines.

This was followed by a critical look at each person's available skills in bringing the new farm operations into existence and in what areas they would need help in making it happen.

"You don't have to go solo to get these things done," Larson told the audience. "There's something to be said about hiring out or have a management team.

"I mean are you going to be your own soil tester and consultant?"

Meet with Mentors

Following a break, the workshop attendees met with eight mentoring farmers who had experience in a variety of local foods and niche marketing experiences.

"This is a reality check," Larson told the group.

Monahan met with Sean Skeehan, of Chariton. Monahan said he has built a hoop building for vegetables. His chickens' eggs are used for the artisan bread. He wanted to know how to prioritize the operations various revenue streams.

"Conventional farming is a whole lot easier," Monahan told Skeehan. "I don't want to be a gentleman farmer. I want a return on my investment."

Skeehan told him that income "is a tricky thing." The Monahan operation have to learn to live with less, especially paying for its own health care coverage.

"Diversity is essential," Skeehan said. He explained that when some of his vegetables had been damaged by herbicide drift from a neighboring farm, other parts of the operation, such as his honey business, helped to balance the books.

He recommended the Monahans use a spreadsheet program for projecting incomes and using social media to build a following of customers, letting them know where he will be on market days.

"Don't play the price cut game," Skeehan said. "We set the price and stay with it. If we have to take some of it home, we do."


For Joe Monahan, time spent with mentor Skeehan was helpful.

"A lot of us don't have the background experience," Monahan said. "We didn't grow up on farms and our fathers didn't farm. So getting the feedback and hearing others experiences is helpful."

He's hoping to get more confidence in the years to come in know the right price for his vegetables that will be good for him and the customer.

He said he also picked up ideas for keeping produce fresh enroute to the market and how to properly display vegetables at the market.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453, or at

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