Sunday, June 22, 2003

What makes a new farm thrive? Survey of novices aims to find out

By Alicia Chang
The Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. - When Michael Geci-Black started farming part time two years ago, he struggled to meet deadlines for growing and selling his vegetables. He also had to decide how much to charge for his crops and where to distribute them.

"It's like taking a big jigsaw puzzle and trying to put it all together," said Geci-Black, a 42-year-old emergency room doctor who grows specialty vegetables on 140 acres in Cherry Valley, about 50 miles west of Albany.

To figure out what makes a new farm succeed, researchers are surveying farmers in the Northeast about how their decisions and experiences affected their profit margin and way of life.

Unlike their ancestors, farmers face a wealth of options when starting their business, from using alternative methods like holistic farming to selling their products on the Internet.

"There's a whole lot of change that goes on in early businesses, and we're trying to capture some of that," said Sue Ellen Johnson of the New England Small Farm Institute in Belchertown, Mass., which is conducting the study. "We are hoping to get some sense of what people are trying to see what works and what doesn't quite come together."

The goal, researchers say, is to give prospective and novice farmers the tools to succeed in an industry transformed by technology and to ensure the viability of future farms.

About 400 questionnaires have been sent to farmers from Maine to West Virginia. The survey, which targets people who began farming since 1992, aims to track the evolution of new farms by determining the type of land used, how crops are rotated and what business strategies work.

A smaller group of 30 farmers will then be interviewed by Gil Gillespie, a rural sociologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. In March, Gillespie traveled to Maine and New Hampshire, where he sat down with seven beginning farmers for about an hour to "get a flavor of what they thought of their farm startup."

Results of the study will be published next year.

The survey does not address why farmers entered the business; but previous studies, including one by the New England Small Farm Institute, found people get into farming to work with the land and for the satisfaction of producing something beneficial, Johnson said.

A new farmer is defined as someone who has been in the business for 10 years or less and whose operation nets at least $1,000 in annual sales. The majority of new farmers in the Northeast are young and come from nonfarming backgrounds.

In 2002, there were 2.16 million farms in the United States, up 0.1 percent from the year before and 2.4 percent from a decade ago, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Services. The number of farms in the South and West increased while the number declined in the Midwest and Northeast.

For the most part, modern farmers tend to veer away from centralized decision-making and crop specialization, instead relying on individuality and diversity. They often harness solar energy and wind power and use the Internet to expand their customer base.

"There's a lot of dynamism in new farms and they go through different changes," Johnson said. "We're interested in how they change year to year, what they produce and what they feel they did right or wrong."

For Geci-Black, the key to farming success is talking to other farmers and learning from the previous year's mistakes.

"It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of work. This is a long-term commitment," he said.

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