MSU Farmer Field School Launched to Improve Farm Viability for New and Beginning Farmers

Michigan State University Student Organic Farm in collaboration with MSU Center for Regional Food Systems rolled out the first workshop of the newly established Farmer Field School series.

Monday, September 14, 2015, Michigan State University Student Organic Farm in collaboration with MSU Center for Regional Food Systems rolled out the first workshop of the newly established Farmer Field School series. The workshops are designed to bring the knowledge our state’s best local and organic produce farmers, and a decade of experience from MSU’s Organic Farmer Training Program and Student Organic Farm, to Michigan farmers in their first 10 years of production -  helping secure their economic viability.


"The Farmer Field School is designed to work with growers in their first 10 years of production, to help provide hands on continuing education opportunities hosted on farms and co-lead by farmers”, says Jeremy Moghtader, Director of the MSU Organic Farming Training Program.

The Farmer Field School hosted the first all day workshop
Field Based Pest and Disease Management: For Sustainable Outdoor and Hoophouse Vegetable Production at the Student Organic Farm in East Lansing on September 14, 2015. Presenters for the Pest and Disease workshop include Ben Werling of MSU Extension, Nicole Quinn of the Vegetable Entomology Lab, and Jeremy Moghtader.


The new MSU Farmer Field School is comprised of intensive one and two day hands-on workshops, tailored to deliver in-depth, practical information to farmers, primarily focused on sustainable vegetable production in Michigan. “Statistically, start-up businesses across sectors including farming fail at rates of over fifty percent in first seven years, the goal of the Farmer Field School is to help start up farm businesses succeed," says Moghtader. These workshops are part of a collective effort to stem alarming loss of 36,000 farmers from the mid-West (4,000 farms lost in Michigan) from 2007-2012, by recognizing that farms are businesses, that these beginning farm businesses will make up a large part of the future of farming in Michigan, that they face the all challenges and vulnerabilities of any beginning business and that they have a high chance to fail (some 54% of businesses fail in their first 5 years) and often fail for the same reasons as all businesses -  lack of information and skills on how to run their business well enough.



The Farmer Field School workshops seek to take this knowledge gap head on – creating a slate of workshops designed to strengthen the many aspects of farm businesses – designed with and by farmers, for farmers, and strengthened and supported by premier agriculture educators throughout the state.

“For the past 10 years the MSU Organic Farmer Training Program has helped prepare new farmers to manage farms or start their own farm businesses, with the launch of the Farmer Field School we are bringing the focus to those beginning farmers who are already farming.   Coupled with Land Access programming provided by MI Food and Farm Systems and Capital Access programming provided by MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, we plan to increase the number of new farm businesses that are thriving in year 10 and beyond,” says Moghtader.

Workshops focus on group based learning processes where diverse approaches to farmingchallenges can be shared and discussed by both participants and workshop presenters and demonstrated at host farm sites. Workshops will take place on select farms in southern Michigan, with a goal to expand the workshops to other regions of the state as the program develops.



Workshops coming up later this fall :


Workshops planned for 2016 :

  • Business Planning – Finding and Focusing on Profitability.
  • Scaling Up your Farm Business.
  • Planning for Better Pest and Disease Management.


For more information on the Farmer Field School visit or contact:

Tom Cary - Beginning Farmer Program Manager - 616-916-9823

Jeremy Moghtader - Farm Manager, MSU Student Organic Farm, Director MSU Organic Farmer Training Program - 734-984-3747




The Collaboration

The Farmer Field School is part of a collaboration between the MSU Student Organic Farm, the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and Michigan Food and Farming Systems to bring technical/educational resources around farming practices, capital access and land access to beginning, Hispanic and women farmers in their first 10 years of production. This initiative is funded through a three-year USDA NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program grant.

Why Help Farmers?

Funding was sought in an effort to change the path of Michigan agriculture, as reflected in the 2012 Census of Agriculture (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2014) - a path where we are still losing farmers at an alarming and unsustainable rate.  Across the country, the census indicates there was a loss of 95,000 farms over the five-year period. Across the seven Midwestern states of Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, there was an overall loss of 36,000 farms, more than one-third of the total national loss. Michigan lost nearly 4,000 farms during this period, a relatively low total that may be related to the upsurge of market opportunities developed in Michigan over the last decade (more below on this). Thus, we have what should be referred to as a national crisis with a seeming great opportunity in Michigan to reverse this slide and enable a diversity of farms across the state.


We see thinking of our farms as a business (and farmers as business owners) is a first prerequisite for their success. National data indicates that 44% of all small businesses fail within the first three years and 55% within the first 5 years (Statistic Brain, 2014). Interestingly, ‘vegetable crop production’ is the third most likely business to survive five years (Statistic Brain, 2014) – so there is good chance to build on this. The primary cause of failure in 76% of the cases is either “incompetence” or “unbalanced experience/lack of managerial experience” (Statistic Brain, 2014). Thus, intervening and helping farmers learn how to run better businesses and be better farm managers is the kind of intervention the Farmer Field Schools and other initiatives within this project hope to make.


Rather than lose our farms and farmers, we can develop a conscious strategy and set of policies that, while not guaranteeing a venture’s success, maximizes the probability of farm success. This must recognize the 4 Fs that are necessary to generate a healthy, productive, and sustainable food supply: farmers, farmland, farming, and farms (Hamm, 2001). Therefore the partners in this project seek to:

a. Create training and development programs (such as the Farmer Field School series) that span the necessary strategies meeting various lifestyle restrictions and demographic needs for people to enter and sustain farming.

b. Help create a vibrant network of beginning, new-entry farmers and trainees to provide peer support and guidance as a statewide community of practice that also engages the knowledge of farmers operating more than 10 years.

c. Create a suite of services required to optimize the chance that new-entry farmers will still be in business and be expanding over their first 10 years and most critically in their first five years

d. Create strategies for a pathway to scaling up production and marketing so that new and beginning farmers can reach the apparent $100,000 viability plateau in sales annually.


This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2015-70017-22856.


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