Rural Action focuses on mentoring beginning Appalachian farmers

Appalachia has unique characteristics for agriculture. Many Appalachian farmers have more forested land. Some regions may not have access to larger markets. But the number of small farms in the area has increased, and despite the challenges, the area has a lot of potential for agriculture.

There are different types of agriculture that can work in Appalachia, said Tom Redfern, director of sustainable agriculture for Rural Action – such as livestock or non-timber forest products, such as maple syrup or different types of berries. .

Rural Action, an organization focused on building resilient communities in rural Appalachia, works to help beginning farmers in the region take advantage of these opportunities through business planning and implementation. of a network with mentor farmers.

“Historically it’s a poverty area in Ohio, so there will be challenges,” Redfern said. “There are unique challenges, but there are also unique opportunities.”


This is what Rural Action tries to emphasize in its work with beginning farmers. He recently obtained a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support his work and is currently completing an eight-week comprehensive farm business planning series for beginning farmers.

Whole-farm planning is all about looking at the land and other assets you have access to and determining what you can best do with them.

“The idea is to reduce your risk by looking at multiple potential revenue streams,” Redfern said. “It also matches your own skills, your land, your aspirations.”

The series includes pairing newbie farmers with mentor farmers and weekly presentations on different aspects of business planning. The goal is to help beginning farmers take the next step for their farm, whatever it may be. Rural Action offers workshops on more specific topics and a wide range of technical assistance for beginning farmers, such as access to lawyers, accountants and more.

“We think these are wraparound services for beginning farmers,” Redfern said.


This is the third year of the whole farm planning series, and the second year it has really focused on mentoring. The majority of mentors this year also participated in last year’s program.

“We’re kind of building this project with them,” said Molly Sowash, sustainable agriculture manager for Rural Action. “They do some of the toughest work in the world, they make it work and they spend more time sharing their experience with newbie farmers. »

Some of the mentors also helped develop the show’s curriculum. One of them is Father Turner, who raises goats in Portage County and mushrooms in Athens County.

“What interested me was that I had made a lot of mistakes, and beginning farmers…they don’t need to make the same mistakes I made. They’re going to make their own,” Turner said.

Paul Dorrance, of Pastured Providence, Chillicothe, is an agricultural consultant, former farmer and program mentor. He stressed that it was about helping beginning farmers figure out what their needs are and how to meet them. Years ago, he was hesitant to get involved in mentoring other farmers because he felt he needed more experience before he could, in his words, pretend he knew it all.

“But it turns out it’s not about that — it’s not about you at all, as a mentor,” he said. “Mentoring is about listening and meeting people where they are.”


Since the beginning farmers in the program practice different types of farming and are at a wide range of stages, they all have different needs. A beginning farmer, as defined by the USDA, is anyone within their first 10 years of farming.

“In presentations, we often emphasize, take what you need based on your stage of growth,” Sowash said.

This is why beginning farmers also meet separately with their mentors, who can help them focus on what they specifically need.

“Every day in business is different, especially right now,” Turner said. “They learn that it’s a safe environment, and we tell them it’s okay not to have the answers, because some of us don’t yet have either.”

Robyn Wright-Strauss of Adams County, who has been growing vegetables and herbs for farmers’ markets for two years, is currently taking the program for the second time. The first time, she gained a better understanding of the business side of farming.

“Obviously it’s largely the same principles…for any small business, but looking at it through the lens of agriculture is really helpful,” she said.

This year, she wants to dive into the details of business planning. She has the same mentor as last year, so they were able to jump in and delve into some of the class topics this time. Meeting his agricultural mentor, Wright-Strauss said, “changed his life.”

Having someone to ask her tough questions and help her to take responsibility, and to give her advice has been a big help as she works on her farming business.

“I think mentorship is very useful for many different professions and trades, not just for agriculture, but agriculture of course has its own challenges,” she said.


In the long term, Sowash and Redfern want to bring this kind of support to more beginning farmers. Rural Action is working to create a network of mentors in the region who can support each other and help beginning farmers as they grow. This way farmers have someone to turn to if they need advice or want to see how other farmers are doing.

“If people want to have a relationship with the land and produce healthy food, we certainly want to help them do that,” Turner said. “The region they are in is full of opportunity.”


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