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Conference Name Perception vs Reality of Farming Risks: Empowering Louisiana’s Beginning Farmers for Business Success

Maria Bampasidou, Marcus Coleman, Catherine Carmichael, and Carl Motsenbocker


GROW Louisiana is a partnership of academic, cooperative extension and non-profit personnel that trains beginning fruit and vegetable farmers with less than 10 years of experience on small to mid-size farms in Louisiana. Funded by the USDA NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development (BFRDP) program, the program seeks to assist farmers interested in sustainable agricultural practices and local food systems via a mixed methods approach of classroom sessions, hands-on trainings, and farmer networking. The program offers farmers training in whole-farm planning and risk management based on the following principles: 1) sustainable agriculture and business practices, 2) resource optimization, 3) objective decision making, and 4) efficient work practices. Grow Louisiana seeks to serve as Louisiana’s first state-wide extensive, yearlong agricultural education program providing technical, business, and hands-on training, as well as a support network to beginning farmers.

The regional-based program started in the southeast region of Louisiana with 18 beginning farmers successfully completing the inaugural cohort in 2019. The cohort was comprised of 12 women and 6 men and three married couples. Additionally, four participants had established farms and five other participants had access to farmable land. The cohort was primarily defined by individuals interested in urban farming due to the program being based in New Orleans, LA. The educational program commenced with a trip to the annual Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Conference, 7 spring classroom sessions, 3 summer field days, and 8 fall classroom sessions. The classroom sessions were co-taught by an extension specialist and an experienced farmer on topics ranging from business and marketing development to the technical aspects of soil management and fruit and vegetable production. During each of the three hour sessions, the specialists provided the background and groundwork for the topic, farmers spoke from their own practical experience and a hands-on activity often reinforced the lesson. Field days reinforced this work by participants visiting established farms to further learn about on-farm experiences. The SSAWG Conference proved to be a beneficial component of the program, both directly and indirectly. The indirect effect of the cohort spending 6 days together at the conference and 12 hours round trip in vans was invaluable and proved to be the glue that brought the cohort together to provide positive learning experiences throughout the year. Also the mix of extension specialists and experienced farmers provided participants the necessary bridge between theoretical concepts and the real world applicability of such knowledge.

A series of qualitative and quantitative evaluation techniques were implemented throughout the program year to examine any changes in participant perceptions related to a number of farming topics. An overall program goal in the development of beginning farmers is to assist them in having realistic perceptions that influence their actions. As a part of the pre- and post-program skills assessment, participants were asked to rank five sources of risk on their farm, including production, marketing, financial, institutional, and human risk. Production and marketing risk were ranked as the top 2 priority areas for program participants prior to and after program participation. Financial risk increased as a risk priority for participants after program completion. Additionally, several themes arose from the use of the mixed method instructional approach and smaller cohort model, including establishing a strong network and support base, personal and team empowerment as well as more sobering feelings like discouragement, fear and lack of resources. A notable shift among participants was the gradual progression from the initial perception and ideas of starting a farm with realization of the challenges associated with such an endeavor. Program participation, networking and farmer mentoring empowered participants to get on a successful track to achieve their farm business goals.

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