By Liz Brownlee,
If sharing is caring, then the sustainable agriculture community has a heart the size of Mars. One thing we love about being small farmers is that folks are eager to learn together and share what they know. We’re still learning, but we take pride in being able to connect folks with the resources they need on their farms.
My own questions are nearly endless. When can I start grazing this cover crop? How do I prune those fruit trees I planted a few years ago? Are there grant funds for my idea?
Thankfully, folks have helped us at every turn, and we’ve learned who to call (no, it’s not the Ghostbusters) when we have questions.
We want to send a small token of our gratitude to the many folks who have helped us along our way, and share these resources with you!
Also, I’m a nerd, so this is styled somewhat like a dichotomous key (for identifying plants).
Does your question involve soils and regenerative practices…Go to Questions 1-2
…or learning new farm skills, in general…Go to Questions 3-4
If you’re curious about funding work on your farm…
…and it’s a best practice for sustainable farms…Go to Question 5
…and it’s an innovative idea….Go to Question 4
Does your question involve policy….Go to Question 6 and 7
…or connecting with other beginning farmers…Go to Questions 6 and 7
- When You have a Soil or Grazing Question:
The folks at NRCS (that’s the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) are your friends! They have experts of all shapes and varieties. Our Grazing Specialist, Robert, has been an invaluable resource for our farm start up. We knew we wanted to plant cover crop to rebuild soils on corn and soybean fields, but he guided us toward specific crops, planting dates, and amounts. We thought we were ready to graze our new cover crop, but he helped us consider when, how, and with which animals. Go make friends with your local or regional NRCS staff.
- When You’re Thinking About Regenerative Agriculture:
Our friends at The Savanna Institute are bringing together the best farmer and researcher minds, and putting them to work. We utilize their webinars and their online resources—and occasionally just email with questions about silvopasture, alley cropping, and other regenerative practices.
- When You Need to Learn Something New:
Farm tours and workshops and food summits—this nerdy farmer loves the chance to learn with other farmers. Here in Indiana, our go-to resource is Purdue Extension. They host programs through the year and at the Indiana Small Farm Conference. We’ve also been lucky enough to check out the annual farming conferences hosted by groups like Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA). (Note: we’ve had scholarships to both conferences—be sure to ask if there are scholarships!)
We make it a priority to get to at least one farming conference each winter. (Though that’s harder now that we’re lambing on our farm. Last year, Nate stayed home with a sick lamb. A friend said, “You know you’re a farmer when you’re too busy farming to go to the farming conference.”)
And, oh: Don’t underestimate the usefulness of the businesses you purchase from. These folks are trying to sell you their products, but the best ones are also there to help your farm thrive. We regularly call the folks at Fertrell with nutrition questions, Johnny’s to ask about garlic planting, and Premier1 to ask fencing questions.
- When You’re Curious What’s Working on Other Sustainable Farms:
SARE is the best, isn’t it—wait, you don’t know SARE? SARE (the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program) is a well-kept secret. Search the database of on-farm research projects (going back to the ’80s, covering everything from chicken tractor design to mushrooms that can grow beneath your tomato crop). Better yet, apply for a grant to try something innovative on your farm.
- When You want Help Funding Conservation-Minded Practices:
Government funds have been absolutely critical to our farm start up, because the cost-shares available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program pay for over half of the cost of turning corn and soybean fields into lush pastures with power, fences, water, and pipelines. Our District Conservationist is Jenny. We’ve laughed together, she’s helped us make tough decisions about the future of our farm, and rejoiced together when a new well, pasture, or fence is in place, with animals grazing. EQIP is also the go-to program for our veggie growing friends, as it helps fund construction of hoop houses.
The local Soil and Water Conservation Districts have been a key financial and planning resource, too. They don’t have the spending power of USDA (usually), but their forms are short and they often help fund pasture plantings, cover crop, and tree plantings. Find your SWCD today.
Here’s three cheers for taxpayer dollars helping start-up sustainable farms!
- When You’re Curious About Policy:
You have two great options:
- Check out what the folks at Farmers Union have to say. Our leaders at the Indiana Farmers Union are only a text or social media post away, and they are always in the know about new policy. They even send us a handy newsletter about policy and more, which we usually read over coffee (and tea). Check them out today.
- Get to know your legislators’ staff. We’ve been getting to know staff from both offices of Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN). They’ve been excited to answer our questions, hear our farm stories, and share our input with our senators. Our Democracy needs farmers in conversation with legislators, so pick up the phone and start sharing and learning today.
- When You Want to Connect with Other Young Farmers:
The National Young Farmer’s Coalition is our go-to for connecting with the larger young farmer movement nationwide. We were so impressed with this group’s policy and community work that we’ve helped start the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition, our local chapter of NYFC. Find your local chapter of NYFC here. Did I mention that membership gets you some sweet discounts on farm equipment, seeds and gear?
- When You Have a Detailed Question (or you just want a vote of confidence):
We owe our largest debt to the farmers who have taken us under their wings. When we worked with them, they gave us time and permission to screw up (and occasionally break things). In our first two years, we called them regularly to ask questions—those details that we didn’t know to ask about before we were in the throes of starting our farm. Nowadays (year five!), we touch base to cheer each other on—and still ask a few questions. The fact that these veteran farmers believe in us means the world.
In many states, groups like Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and MOSES are now offering mentorship programs. So if you’re looking for a mentor (or would like to help the new folks), check it out here.
Who are your best resources? Ponder that, and then tell a friend (or us!).
This blog is part of a series hosted by Indiana Farmers Union. We post blogs, written by Hoosier farmers at all stages—from just beginning to long-established. If you’re an Indiana Farmers Union member and are interested in writing for us, please contact Sherri Dugger at firstname.lastname@example.org.