(Wall Street Journal)
By SUE SHELLENBARGER
When 50 aspiring farmers gather at the Future Farmers of America's annual "New Century Farmer" conference next week, what they will learn goes way beyond crop rotation, tractor engines and how to get more milk out of old Bessie.
They will learn to cut costs using GPS technology and how to network with global marketing organizations; how to negotiate hefty bank-financing packages and how to keep huge $250,000 tractors running almost nonstop to grow more crops. It's a big leap from the plowing, planting, livestock-feeding and welding skills the FFA taught aspiring farmers 40 years ago.
"It's kind of scary" to see the knowledge and skills farmers need to survive today, says Howard Augustine, 76, whose grandson Ryan, 21, attended the New Century conference in 2009 and is preparing to take over the 150-year-old family farm near Rose Hill, Iowa.
New farmers must be both businesspeople and scientists, skilled at plowing and planting and willing to work like a dog. Those who don't inherit land often struggle to gain access to acreage from a dwindling supply of farmland. And whether farmers sell their produce on international markets or to consumers next door, they all require marketing and management skills.
When Howard Augustine started out in the 1940s, he farmed with horses and picked corn by hand. Since then, the farm has grown by more than tenfold in acreage. The 1980s were tough for Ryan's father, Dan Augustine, age 47. During that era's deep farm recession, just "staying in business was the major goal," Dan says.
Today, farm prices are up, but global commodity markets are so volatile that selling crops is a challenge, he says. "Back when my dad was my age, if the corn market moved $1 in a year, that was a big move. Now it can move $1 in a week." Modern farming is like managing a factory, "working every day on efficiencies and cost of production," he says "We talk about doing as much in an hour as they did in a day" in his father's era.
The family has been slow to adopt new technology to cut seed costs, Dan says. But Ryan, a senior majoring in agricultural studies at Iowa State University, has shown his dad how to use GPS technology to prevent the planter from seeding the same area twice.
Dan Augustine admits he hasn't fully adapted to the new technology yet. But he likes the results. The GPS technology saved $10,000 on seed costs this year. Next, Ryan plans to develop a system to track feed and weight gain for the family's cattle by computer.
More smaller farms are starting up to meet demand for organic and locally grown food from restaurants, grocers and consumers. In what Michael Scuse, acting under secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, calls the biggest small-farm expansion in memory, the number of farms under 70 acres grew 12% from 1978 to 2007, the latest data available. Farmers' markets have more than doubled in the past decade, to 6,132 nationwide, the USDA says.
Just to survive, though, most small farmers hold paying jobs off the farm. And marketing successfully to consumers requires advanced business and production skills, says Erin Barnett, a director of LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, Calif., website about local and organic food. She says her group often hears complaints from customers because of the "rising number of very, very inexpert people" trying to run community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs), which sell memberships in return for a supply of produce.
Matt Mccue, 29, admits to some marketing missteps in the past. On one of his first jobs as a farm manager, he promised to deliver 100 heads of lettuce to a local grocer every week, then couldn't produce enough lettuce. "I learned never promise to do things you can't do," he says, "even if you think you might be able to do it." He and his wife, Lily Schneider, 27, studied horticulture and worked on other people's farms to learn skills they would need to start their own farm.
Finding land was an obstacle. Urban sprawl wiped out some 23 million acres of farmland from 1982 to 2007, according to the latest available data from the nonprofit American Farmland Trust. In 2008, after the couple's hopes of leasing a plot near Fairfield, Calif., fell through, they walked up to a stranger's house on an idle farm, knocked on the door and asked if they could lease the property. The owner, Roger Andrino, a retired Air Force mechanic, was delighted they wanted to farm the 20 acres where he lives with his mother. "It was serendipity," he says.
Today, the couple's farm, "Shooting Star CSA," supplies vegetables to 175 paying members. "We have to work really hard to get money, to stay alive and pay our bills," Mr. Mccue says. "I really do love the independence."
Startup farmers often need the skills of a concert promoter. Corie Pierce wanted to be a farmer ever since the summer she worked on a farm as a teen. She saved money from other jobs for years before she was able, by teaming up with a college classmate, Adam Wilson, to buy a farm through a nonprofit land-conservation group in 2009.
To keep the Bread & Butter Farm and store afloat, Ms. Pierce, 37, and Mr. Wilson, 31, tend crops and livestock. To lure customers to the farm near Shelburne, Vt., they bake bread, book live bands for burger-and-music events and concoct and serve entrées made from their farm-raised, organic produce. "We are constantly thinking about new ways to engage people and get them excited about our farm," Ms. Pierce says.
Tractor, Laptop: Family Farm Tools