During a visit to the “salad bowl of America,” California’s Salinas Valley, the 2018-2019 Beginning Farmer Institute class visited several produce farms and an organic dairy. JV Farms Organic owner Israel Morales Sr., talks about microbial soil health and minimizing disturbance of the soil. (National Farmers Union | Photo by Hannah Packman)

Starting a farm comes with risks. 

After long careers in the military and education, Troy and Annette Allan, 47, knew this when they opened their Utah fiber mill during the pandemic. They often heard the assumption that most new agricultural operations don’t survive even two years. But becoming students of the Beginning Farmer Institute (BFI)  gave them the confidence to push through the unknown. 

“Although we grew up in agriculture settings, neither of us were [and] neither of our families were in agriculture,” said Troy. “So we said, if we’re going to do agriculture, we better get some education.” 

Applications remain open through December 1, 2021, for BFI, a free, year-long program by the National Farmers Union that helps those new to agriculture navigate the industry with business knowledge and practices.  

“It’s very difficult for beginning farmers to get their operation up off the ground or to take over the family farm if they aren’t properly educated in business,” said Emma Lindberg, senior director of education and programming at National Farmers Union. “They might totally understand how to do the actual day-to-day farm operation, but the taxes, the accounting, all the business side of things can be difficult and hard to manage for somebody who’s just starting out.” 

Having an entrepreneurial edge is critical, especially with the rise of consolidation where larger farming operations make it harder for smaller farms to survive. This is the case in states like Wisconsin, which lost an average of one dairy farm a day last year.  These circumstances can make it difficult for even multigenerational operations to flourish.

“My husband also grew up on a dairy farm, not far from here,” said Danielle Endvick, a BFI alumna. “And I guess we both kind of thought when we were kids that this is what we would do forever. But it just kind of was one of those situations where my dad had kind of pulled me into the milk house one day and said, ‘I don’t see a future for you in this.’”

The 2018-2019 National Farmers Union Beginning Farmer Institute class participated in a hands-on learning session hosted in partnership with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), an organization dedicated to creating economic opportunities for limited-resource and aspiring organic farmers through land-based education. This shot was taken at ALBA’s learning center in Salinas, California. (National Farmers Union | Photo by Hannah Packman)

It wasn’t long before her family sold their dairy farm in Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Still, Endvick never really divorced herself from her childhood dream of continuing what her family had started. In 2015 under a land contract, Endivck was able to buy back her family farm. It was good to return home, but she knew that she and her husband would have to chart a new path to get the farm up and running again. After a few years of experimenting with a beef herd, they joined BFI’s 2019 cohort. 

“It’s just really inspiring to be in a group of farmers who are really trying to re envision what the American agriculture system is going to look like and to have all of that inspiration and just try and charge forward and do good things for our communities,” Endvick said. 

The program emphasizes the diversity of their cohort, where multigenerational dairy farmers will find themselves alongside first-time hemp farmers, beekeepers, CSA (community supported agriculture) farmers with two acres of land, or farmers who grow produce in the city. Together and with support of various partners, they learn how to strengthen the business side of their operations and get insight into land access, sustainable farming practices, insurance, finding skilled labor, and food safety. The goal is to strengthen and empower American agriculture, Lindberg said. 

“We want to start having our beef and our pork and all of our products coming from America,” BFI’s Lindberg said. “We want to be buying from American farmers, and we want to be able to give our farmers the support they need to be competitive in those markets, to reach consumers and have a really good end product.” 

After 14 months of operation in Koosharem, Utah, the Allans have already been able to bring that reality closer to home after being a part of the 2020-2021 cohort. They limit processing waste and have started collaborating with local multi-generational sheep farmers who were eager to produce their own products with their wool rather than send their wool overseas for processing, never to be seen again.

“We’ve helped, I don’t know how many of our local sheep farmers, be able to get their wool processed, and they’ve started online businesses selling products from their wool,” said Annette. “We’ve seen them cry. They come in and they rub [the processed wool] down their face.”

The risky jump into agriculture was worth it, beyond the cost and labor, said Troy. Every final ball of yarn or textile is a tangible round of applause for sheep farmers, past and present. 

“All of a sudden we hand them a product and we say, ‘This is worth so much. You are worth so much.’ And I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about community, about building people, about taking care of our environment and making a difference….it’s one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever had to do, but I love it.” 

To learn more or to apply for BFI’s 2021-2022 program, visit their website