Farmer Knows Best: How Mentoring Programs Can Help the Next Generation of Farmers Land on Their Feet

As our ailing agricultural landscape continues to face pressure from man and nature alike, the learning curve to figure out how to take care of the country’s farmland is steep. For the youngest generation of farmers, many of whom are stepping foot in the field for the first time, the risks of the agriculture industry, from drought to debt, can easily spell failure for their emerging operations.

Georgia Organics, a non-profit with over 1,200 community members dedicated to promoting sustainable agricultural practices in the state, offers a wide array of services to support the often-tumultuous transition to farm life. The organization’s farmer-to-farmer mentoring program provides new and emerging farmers with the opportunity to learn how to tackle uncertainty and challenges from the people who understand the business best–other farmers. By providing a resource that allows information to flow from one generation of farmers to the next, Georgia Organics helps newer farmers grow while letting older farmers give back.

Brennan Washington, a former IT employee turned owner and operator of Phoenix Gardens, LLC, is a graduate of the program whose involvement has come full circle—he is now in his second year of mentoring and looks forward to supporting more young farmers in the future.

As a mentee, Washington worked with Daniel Parson, winner of the 2009 Georgia Organics Land Stewardship Award and the go-to guy for all things agriculture. “We had a good relationship,” Washington said. “I could ask him anything I wanted.” It was Parson’s guidance that helped Washington and his wife, Gwendolyn, solve some of the most pressing problems on their small urban farm—developing a schedule for crop rotation and planting in raised beds.

Now a mentor, Washington strives to provide the same level of open communication and guidance to his mentees, a process that requires talking as much about mistakes as about triumphs. “Anybody can crow about their successes,” he noted. “But the more important thing is to really share your failures and to help your mentee avoid them.” This transparency creates a strong sense of trust, and Washington reminds his mentees that nothing about his operation is off the table for discussion.

For Washington and his wife, the mistake that turned the tide for their operation was failing to look at farming as a business. Both had off-farm jobs that provided enough income to cover some of their early missteps, but once they decided to take on farming as a full-time profession, they quickly realized how much of their costs they hadn’t truly taken into account. Faced with the reality of issues like labor, property management, and health insurance, Washington and his wife had to play catch up to forge a financially viable business.

With the help of programs like Georgia Organics, who sent Washington to the National Small Farm Conference, as well as Southern University’s Small Farmer Agricultural Leadership Institute, Washington was able to sharpen his skills as both a farmer and an entrepreneur. Having attended multiple farm tours and training sessions, Washington offers this advice to anyone interested in entering the field: “Don’t treat it as a hobby.”

Washington’s influence as a mentor extends beyond the wealth of business and farming knowledge he has gained through his experience. One of the biggest benefits of Georgia Organics’ mentoring program is that it allows farmers to communicate the intangibles to one another, guiding newer growers through those crucial emotional phases that can make or break an operation. When his mentee was on the verge of giving up on farming altogether, Washington recalled that “it was all stuff that my wife and I went through and we were able to just sort through it.” Washington’s holistic approach to mentoring stems from his desire to serve the community that supported him during his transitional phase: “If Georgia Organics didn’t give to me, I don’t know where I’d be. So I always try to give back.”

Looking to the future of agriculture, Washington hopes that the newest generation of farmers has access to more programs like those sponsored through Georgia Organics, the Small Farmer Agricultural Leadership Institute, and USDA-sponsored Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants. He notes that despite a growing interest among young people to take on farming full-time, there is still a considerable lack of infrastructure to support the transition to such a risky enterprise.

For example, while cost share programs such as those provided through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) directly aim to support sustainable farmers, especially socially disadvantaged farmers such as women and people of color, these new and emerging growers often don’t have the start-up capital to take advantage of cost shares in the first place. Washington added that even though more information is available to farmers now than ever before, there is still a need for structured programs that train people on where to look for grants and cost shares and how to apply for them. Momentum is growing in the Southeast to develop such infrastructure, but Washington notes that the region is still lagging behind places like California and the Pacific Northwest in creating a solid foundation for future farming generations.

Georgia Organics remains a promising model for agricultural and community development. Their work fosters the sense of engagement and reciprocity that Brennan Washington champions. By focusing on education and outreach for everyone from farmers to eaters, schools to gardeners, the organization helps forge connections between people committed to supporting local foods.

Photo credit to Cheryl Ferrygood of Southern University.

3 thoughts on “Farmer Knows Best: How Mentoring Programs Can Help the Next Generation of Farmers Land on Their Feet

  1. As an older person and a new farmer I too am grateful to Daniel Parsons for the advice he has provided when I have met him at different conferences. He, and organizations like Georgia Organics, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and the Organic Growers School offer valuable support to persons new to small farming, or seeking a new ideas for their existing farms. In my experience the big new factor is internet access for information and marketing and a sense of community. Any small farmer starting out or ongoing also needs to build a good working relationship with their local resources especially the extension agent. These are wonderful, dedicated people with a wealth of information and experience to offer.

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