BY THOMAS J. BARTON firstname.lastname@example.org
SINSINAWA, Wis. — Kristen Conley and her husband have tried for the past four years to start their own farm.
Conley, 30, of Kieler, works at IBM in Dubuque, but grew up on a farm. So did her husband, who also wants to return to his rural roots and teach their children the value of family farming.
But while both come from a farming background, staking a foothold to strike out on their own has been nearly impossible.
Unhelpful government policies, high land prices and limited access to capital to purchase equipment have presented insurmountable barriers, Conley said.
“Neither of our parents are ready to give up their farm yet, and we haven’t been able to find land,” she said. “And anything we do find we can’t afford. We also can’t get the funding because we have been disconnected from the farm.”
To quality for federal farm loans, Conley needs a minimum three years of farm management experience.
“Because we have been off to college and have jobs in town, we haven’t been able to be an active farmer. Though, we both help out on our parents’ farms,” Conley said. “We have operating experience, but we don’t have management experience. And we don’t have the management experience, because we don’t have the land. But, we can’t get the experience without the land.”
To level the playing field for beginning farmers and break down the barriers holding back the growth of sustainable agriculture, the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa will start a collaborate farm this spring.
Conley, her husband, and about 20 others, attended a meeting Tuesday at Sinsinawa Mound to learn more. The sisters have set aside 12 acres at Sinsinawa Mound to provide half-acre plots for beginning farmers to learn how to cultivate a thriving farm business.
Marc Millitzer, of Tree of Life Farm in Cuba City, Wis., will serve as the farm’s manager and help mentor farmers on land-stewardship and organic production to promote a healthy, vibrant regional food system.
Farmers will have access to shared tools, equipment and irrigation. Sinsinawa Mound, too, will offer classes and workshops on topics related to organic farming, creating a business plan and marketing their food, Millitzer said.
“We can be sprouting new farmers in an age when most farmers are getting older and there’s not a lot of new, young farmers out there,” he said.
As of 2012, beginning farmers made up only a quarter of all farmers in the United States. Today, the average U.S. farmer is older than 58 — a number that has slowly but steadily risen the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Farming is not a family tradition as it once was being passed on from generation to generation,” said Sinsinawa Mound Sister Christin Tomy. “We need to strengthen local and regional food systems through supporting smaller-scale, local farmers to make local food systems more equitable and accessible.”