What motivates beginning farmers?

It’s more than just money according to a recent Upper Peninsula Michigan State University Extension study.

A team of Michigan State University Extension educators from the Upper Peninsula conducted a project to explore what makes beginning farmers successful. The project consisted of a series of eight interviews with farmers of different types and sizes across the region. Participants had from one to 15 years of farming experience. Two Upper Peninsula organizations that purchase local farm products and sell them retail to the public were also interviewed. Funding for travel was provided by the Michigan SARE Professional Development Program. The project was designed and conducted following the guidelines of the MSU Institutional Review Board, which assures that research involving human subjects does not cause damage to anyone participating. Interviews were completed in May and June of 2013.

Goals of the project were to gain better understanding of how farming has impacted newer operators in the areas of economics, family relationships, community involvement and general lifestyle. After gathering input from the farmers and organizations, responses were summarized and common themes were identified.

Participating farmers and organizations represented eight Upper Peninsula counties, including Chippewa, Mackinac, Alger, Marquette, Menominee, Ontonagon, Houghton and Delta counties. Types of farms included cash grain, feeder cattle, vegetable/hoophouse/CSA (community supported agriculture), dairy, “naturally-grown” potatoes, sheep and cow/calf. The two supporting organizations included the Eastern Upper Peninsula Food Hub steering committee and the Marquette Food Co-op, both regional leaders in local food distribution and retailing.

Farmer responses were compiled and common response themes listed as follows:

  • Economic success included achieving financial “break-even,” not having to work off-farm and receiving earnings comparable to alternative employment opportunities.
  • Farming has enhanced family relationships and brought families together.
  • Farming resulted in an increase of community involvement for some farmers, but not others.
  • Farming as a lifestyle becomes the main focus and requires full commitment, often at the cost of recreation and other positive activities.
  • Most farmers have not stuck with their original plans and have benefited from being flexible. Some have never had a business plan.
  • Most farmers reported unexpected outcomes, including weather problems, change of enterprises and unexpected equipment needs.
  • Big challenges include finances, weather and labor.
  • Big successes include achieving full-time farmer status, personal satisfaction and farm business growth.
  • Future challenges include increased requirement for labor and finances, and more complex business management tasks.
  • Future opportunities include expanding the farm business, adding new enterprises and entering new markets.

One of the most common observations during this project was that the enthusiasm participating farmers have about their businesses and how much they love the lifestyle of farming. Participants were asked to rate three “factors of success” on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), with the following results:

  • Economic success of my farm – average rating 5.1
  • Lifestyle benefits from my farming operation – average rating 8.6
  • Enhancement of community involvement – average rating 5.4

Among the farmers interviewed, the lifestyle provided by farming is highly important and satisfying. It’s not all about the money.

View the full report on “Assessing Common Factors of Success Among Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Beginning Farmers.”

For more information, contact Jim Isleib at isleibj@anr.msu.edu or 906-387-2530.

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