Supporting the next generation
Farm Business Incubator program marks 5th year
CHATHAM — Nestled on the top of a lush rolling field in Chatham are rustic white structures surrounded by trees at the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center campus, where farmers and staff marked on Wednesday morning the fifth year of the Farm Business Incubator program.
The program is a key way to continue passing on agricultural knowledge, organizers said.
“When you look at agriculture in the United States, the average age of farmers is continually increasing,” MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center Director Dr. James Dedecker said. “We have a huge succession planning problem in this industry.
“So thinking about: Who are the next generations of farmers? Where is our food going to come from? And what are those production systems going to look like?
“These are key focuses on how the farm incubator program was formulated.”
The Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center North Farm is a certified organic operation where the Farm Business Incubator program extends its property, infrastructure and equipment to participants who are picked through an application process.
This program opens doors for people to explore a business in agriculture at a reasonable cost and individualized pace, organizers said. Farmers benefit from the program by postponing large financial investments that traditionally come with starting a farming business.
Michigan State University started researching and educating farmers in 1899 at the North Farm and continued working into the 1980s, when the South Farm was added.
Dedecker said many resources were moved to the South Farm, and until around 2012 the North Farm was mostly used for grazing.
At that time, investors and staff created a new plan for the North Farm based on serving agriculture through the local food movement, and by 2014 grant funding was received and soon the Farm Business Incubator sprouted.
The program is meant for people with advanced farming experience to work alongside the projects already occurring at North Farm.
“If somebody comes to the program and realizes farming isn’t for them or maybe another aspect of food and agriculture is a better fit for them, we also consider that success, because that is going to happen whether they are farming with us or on their own,” Dedecker said.
“The difference is that on their own, they have potentially spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in starting that farm business and then have to liquidate that stuff and take a loss on it or whatever it is.
“Here, they move on and those assets transition to the next participant. We’re really looking at smaller-scale operations, you know (we provide) a lot of your basic hand tools, walking tractors … then the equipment in the wash pack facility as well in terms of coolers and washing equipment. Also season extension structures as well. So we have field tunnels, we have a larger high tunnel and they have access to those spaces.”
This year, co-owners and operators of Mighty Soil Farm, Kate Debs
“When we found the incubator program, we were just really attracted to the idea of not having to go into a ton of debt, not having to decide exactly on where we want to be … forever,” Debs said. “It’s nice to still be your own boss but we don’t have as much risks.”
With three-quarters of an acre, Debs and Newman grow 30 types of vegetables and sell them to the Marquette Food Co-op, Taydch’s EconoFoods, multiple restaurants and at the farmer’s market held in downtown Marquette.
The partners plan to spend the next growing season working on transitioning Mighty Soil Farm to their newly purchased land nearby.
Newman said the best part of the program has been access to infrastructure and equipment, as this has helped them grow the business.
As Mighty Soil Farm prepares to leave the incubator, the Traunik Farm has just started its first season. Owner Mike Osier is building mobile container gardens to order, meaning that once the garden is built and seeds are sown by Osier, the completed structure is delivered to the customer, who then tends the garden until harvest.
“The best part of the program is that it sped up my business plan for me,” Osier said. “So if I was going to do this at my house, I would have had to till the ground, prepare it … and that would be a couple long season process for me.
“So part of what I gained by joining the program was ground that I knew was prepared and workable and also the hoop house and the transplant and germination greenhouse. That stuff is in my plan but not until year three or four.”
While it’s not a formal training program, according to the MSU website, the technical assistance provided by the North Farm staff is a backbone of the program.
“It’s been really fun to watch them (Mighty Soil and Traunik Farms) kind of side by side,” North Farm coordinator Sarah Goodman said. “Mike is in his first year here, so it has been fun to watch him adapt and change his business plan and really decide what direction he wants to take growing food in our community.”
Katie Segula can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is email@example.com.