Editorial: Farmers helping farmers a growing opportunity

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 14, 2018.

The next-generation farmers of the Pioneer Valley don’t necessarily come with all the network support they could use. And we aren’t talking about computer savvy here, although today’s modern farms probably put computer power and cyberspace to use in ways previous generations could never imagine.

No, we’re talking about old-fashioned support networks consisting of other new farmers or experienced farmers, helping to continue a generations-long tradition and livelihood that goes back to colonial times.

After 12 years as a social worker and five years living in Boston, Tessa White-Diemand came home to the family poultry farm in Wendell to find fulfillment in the “satisfaction of a job well done,” as she put it.

But coming back to the farm raised lots of questions — one even being where to get her questions answered.

Ben Clark, who had returned to his family’s Deerfield fruit farm a dozen years ago after doing professional theater technical work in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, offered to talk with the one-time social worker about how he reentered the world of farming.

From that sprout emerged a new network of budding farmers facilitated by Jeff Budine, manager of the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange, itself a century-old farmers network of sorts. And from that has sprung the “next generation farmers” group.

The group’s first meeting in March at the Federal Street co-op store in Greenfield drew close to 100 farmers, including a number of older farmers who had no “next generation” to continue their work and were looking for possible successors.

“It was just incredible, the wide array of people, from different generations looking to offer support, or looking to retire and wondering what to do to get the next generation to the plate,” recalls White-Diemand.

A survey of people attending gave the meeting’s organizers a pretty good idea of topics they’d like covered at future sessions. Very 21st century: grant-writing, financial planning, business planning and farm-stand merchandising.

That led to a state Department of Agricultural Resources program on agricultural grants and a Facebook page, Next Generation of Farmers.

“A good majority” of the farmers who attended the recent session “don’t have a family to fall back on” for advice, said White-Diemand. “But they were interested in wanting to make a real go of this.”

Even for those farmers, like herself and Clark, who have returned to their family farms, there may be good reasons why a network is helpful, explains Devon Whitney-Deal, the Local Hero Program manager at CISA who helps run a grant-supported technical assistance program specifically for farmers who have begun farming in the past 10 years.

“We know that farmers learning from other farmers is so valuable because they’re working with their peers,” she says, adding that often “family dynamics” make it more helpful to have an outside peer network, especially when there’s a tension for the next generation of farmers who see an opportunity to change an aspect of a family farm for greater success but a reluctance from the older generation to change.

Farming in the Valley is a significant part of our heritage, and is an important part of our future, as even area residents in other lines of work can appreciate. We should all want to preserve the landscape and rural lifestyle that agriculture helps maintain.

We ought to do all we can to sustain our farming economy, and so we are glad to see the emergence of the Next Generation network to help our newest and older farms and farmers.