Mentors help young Vermont farmers cultivate business skills
By CATHERINE TWING
In order for the next generation of farmers to be successful, young farmers must be trained in both agriculture and business.
The Youth Agriculture Individual Development Account Program run by The University of Vermont’s UVM Extension offers just this type of training, as well as a leg up on saving money. Individuals ages 14 to 21 with at least one year of experience managing income from a farm or food business are eligible for the year-long experience.
"It’s about financial education, forming a cohort of young farmers, connecting the farmers with technical resources: people, or funding, or information," said Liz Kenton, Youth Agriculture Project coordinator at UVM Extension.
Originally funded by a USDA grant when it began in 2012, the program, which can accept eight to 20 participants from Vermont, is now supported by many Vermont businesses and families.
During the year, young farmers work with a mentor and attend workshops while developing a business plan and gaining financial literacy skills. Workshops are held in a central location, with the goal of being accessible for participants. Early sessions teach finance, credit and savings. Later on, the curriculum becomes more specific to the agriculture business.
"One of the top reasons farms go out of business, and something farmers cite most, is business skill and acumen," Kenton said.
Regardless of their area of expertise, financial knowledge is necessary to a successful farm or food business.
Mentors are required to have six hours of contact with their participant each month to talk about their business plan and work on training.
Kenton said, depending on the participant’s area of interest, a mentor can be a person they are already working with, such as a teacher or 4-H volunteer.
The business plan is fairly standard, with an initial statement, summary of market research, financial data and projections, Kenton said.
"The business plan will be reviewed by anonymous reviewers," she said. "Reviewers are assigned to one business plan. Once those are approved they are eligible for a double match."
This "double match" helps new farmers meet immediate financial goals through an IDA — a matched savings account that helps people of limited means reach financial goals. YAIDA participants save money for one year toward a business-related purchase. In the end, participants’ savings are matched 2-to-1, up to $1,000 — meaning if a participant saves $500, they would have $1,500 to spend.
There are youth IDAs and agriculture IDAs, but this is the only youth agriculture IDA in the country, Kenton said.
YAIDA isn’t the only farm business training program in Vermont, however.
The Rutland Area Farm and Food Link offers several agricultural education and farm business development programs to students and aspiring and established farmers in southern Vermont.
The CRAFT-VT program, which stands for Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, is a national apprentice program that educates farm workers interested in becoming farmers themselves. Apprentices work with farmers in Bennington and Rutland counties to learn about topics ranging from composting to mushroom cultivation, through field trips and workshops.
"If you are interested in agriculture, the best way to learn is to work on a farm, so that program has been a really huge success," said Mara Hearst, farm business advisor at RAFFL.
She hadn’t heard about YAIDA yet, but was excited about other farm business and agricultural education opportunities for Vermonters. Hearst works with established farmers in southern Vermont to help them learn new farming techniques, develop business plans and do market research.
"Farmers wear a lot of hats," Hearst said, explaining many farmers are their own managers, accountants and marketing team, along with the duties of farming.
Mentoring programs and workshops with established farmers are important, because they give education you can’t get doing farmhand duties.
"I went to The University of Vermont, I really wanted to be a farmer, but there were certain things I needed to learn to be a farmer that I couldn’t get by just working on a farm," Hearst said.
YAIDA applications are due May 10. For information on how to apply, visit http://go.uvm.edu/youth-ag-ida .