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IllinoisFarmBeginnings.org helps attract and train new farmers

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Three Illinois organizations have joined forces and answered the call to train more farmers and increase local food production. The Land Connection, Angelic Organics Learning Center, and Food Works recently launched http://www.IllinoisFarmBeginnings.org to attract prospective farmers across Illinois and neighboring states.

These organizations are all part of the Farm Beginnings Collaborative (FBC), a national alliance that promotes the Farm Beginnings training model and curriculum. Farm Beginnings is a yearlong course designed for individuals who want to start their own farm business. The course has trained nearly 400 farmers in Illinois since 2005 and will train at least 50 more during the 2015-2016 course year that begins this fall.

“The value of this course cannot be overstated,” said Jeff Hake, who facilitates the Central Illinois Farm Beginnings course at The Land Connection in Champaign, IL. “Folks join the course with great ideas for food they want to grow and sell. They leave the course with a solid business plan that advances their dream.”

Farm Beginnings is farmer-led, community-based and rooted in sustainable farming principles. The first half of the course runs from mid-fall to mid-winter. The course begins with an explanation of business plan basics. Students assess their values, goals, and resources while considering what starting a farm would mean for them and their families. From there, they are guided through the business plan development process. The course is taught primarily by farmers and other experts who are willing to share their experience and extensive knowledge. Many of these farmers have been teaching as part of the course for years and are very familiar with the process.

“We gained huge insight from all of the farmers who took the time to come and speak to us about their plans, successes, and failures,” recounted Lara Brackett, a 2013 graduate from the Stateline Farm Beginnings course (serving Northern Illinois & Southern Wisconsin) at Angelic Organics Learning Center in Caledonia, IL.

Students present their business plans and receive feedback from fellow students, facilitators, and others. Students are then matched with mentors during the second half of the course, or mentorship period. Mentorship matches are made by identifying a student’s learning needs, and then finding an experienced farmer for that student to learn from throughout the growing season. Often, these relationships last long past the formal mentorship period.

“We believe beginning farmers are crucial to organic, sustainable agricultural growth as an industry and we mentor each day with this in mind,” said Jen Miller, a Farm Beginnings graduate and current mentor. “We think it’s ever more crucial to ensure that those beginning farmers continue to be mentored through the hard challenges that you face a few years into farming.”

Jen and her husband Jeff Miller had high-powered careers in Chicago, but decided to make a change when they had their first son. The Millers started a farm called Dea Dia Organics in 2006 after finishing Stateline Farm Beginnings. The Millers now co-own Sandhill Family Farms with another farming couple, the Sheaffers, allowing them to expand production without compromising their commitment to quality, customers, or to their young children. Jen mentors other farmers and Stateline Farm Beginnings students.

“We wanted flexibility to be with our family and start a business that we could believe in and teach our children about,” said Miller. Unique to Farm Beginnings is the opportunity for students to join a farmer network right away. While taking classes, students form relationships with farmers in the same community where students often launch their businesses.

Applications are now being accepted for the 2015-2016 Farm Beginnings course. To apply or learn more, please visit http://www.IllinoisFarmBeginnings.org and choose the Farm Beginnings course nearest to you or where you plan to farm. You can also reach out to any of the Farm Beginnings host locations for more info. Scholarships are available at all locations, as well as a 10% discount for all applications received before September 1, 2015.

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