On January 26th, I traveled to Greensboro to attend the “Farmer Veteran Ag Biz Basics” kickoff meeting, held at the Sheraton Four Seasons conference center. This event was hosted and sponsored by the three North Carolina Farm Credit Associations (Carolina, Cape Fear, and AgCarolina). I had been asked to serve as moderator for the day’s activities.
I’ll begin by providing some high-level background information on just what Ag Biz Basics is. At its core it is a four module e-Learning curriculum (which is a fancy way of saying that students work through four online learning modules), which is designed to help young, beginning, and small farmers develop and improve their business and financial management skills. The goal of the Ag Biz Basics program is to assist participants in launching, growing, transitioning, and managing their existing and/or prospective agricultural business with a greater opportunity for success. The curriculum includes e-Learning modules on “Working Side by Side with Your Lender”; “Cash Flow Planning”; “Preparing a Balance Sheet”; and “Is Your Operation Making a Profit.”
The learning material has been developed by Farm Credit University (FCU). FCU began in 2004 as a blended (online and face-to-face) training program for Farm Credit lenders in the AgFirst district. Its reach quickly spread, and it is currently being used by Farm Credit institutions nationwide. In 2009, FCU developed a blended education curriculum for farmer-customers called Ag Biz Planner. This is an intensive six-month program aimed at walking existing and potential farm customers through the process of creating a detailed business plan, and corresponding financial statements. Ag Biz Planner has been very successful, and on average, over a hundred participants complete the curriculum each year. But, as mentioned, the time commitment is significant, and there is clearly a need for a more abbreviated learning program aimed at young, beginning, and small farmers and individuals that are “kicking the tires” in considering a career in agriculture. Ag Biz Basics is ideal for this!
So back to January 26th and Greensboro. The three North Carolina Farm Credit Associations chose to customize their Ag Biz Basics experience, and form a “pilot” group consisting of military veteran farmers/farmers-to-be. As moderator, I was extremely impressed by the individuals that were selected to go through this first session. There were attendees from various parts of the state, and certainly from varying agriculture industries and interests. In my opening exercises, I asked participants to break up into small groups (which included Farm Credit Association mentors) and discuss and share with the entire group their thoughts on these questions:
There was ample spirited discussion (which is always good to see when you’re a moderator J), and some of the responses were really thought provoking.
Some challenges posed by the group included the availability and price of agricultural land; the limited nature of financial resources; securing the appropriate equipment for a start-up operation; becoming “known” and “networking” in the ag communities; separating passion for farming from the economics of running a business; and identifying sustainable niche markets.
Opportunities included mentoring with existing successful farmers (and Farm Credit lenders); possibilities to “link up” with older farmers who might be exiting the industry; local/fresh/organic food movements and an expanded millennial consumer segment; and new markets such as agri-tourism, farm-based elder care, agri-vacations, and other ventures aimed at satisfying the growing desire of individuals to re-connect with agriculture and the land.
Perhaps the most interesting discussion centered on how military experience and training could better equip these folks for managing a farm. Answers included critical thinking and strategic planning skills; a global perspective; contingency planning; attention to detail; adversity coping skills; work ethic and respect for resources and others; and the ability to develop viable solutions to problems and challenges.
Other presenters for the event included Dr. Alex White of Virginia Tech who prior to the session administered a DiSC personality profile questionnaire for attendees. Here at the face-to-face session, Dr. White provided attendees with detailed information about their respective personality and communication styles, and how this could be used in managing their businesses and communicating with others. The participants really enjoyed the case study scenarios that Dr. White walked them through.
During lunch, attendees heard from Bruce Arrington and Bill Miller, both commercial lenders for Carolina Farm Credit. Bruce and Bill talked about the Farm Credit System, and specifically what makes a Farm Credit Association different from other lenders (i.e. what value proposition do we bring to the relationship). They did an excellent job in explaining our cooperative business model, our patronage philosophy, and our 100-year mission of serving agriculture and rural America.
After lunch, Pam Pollard (Farm Service Agency County Executive Director) and Lisa Childers (Extension Director) talked with the group about a wide range of resources and programs available to young, beginning, and small farmers and veterans. Alicia Morris, Director of Farm Credit University, then provided an overview of the Ag Biz Basics curriculum to participants, as well as what to expect and next steps in moving through the program. Alicia shared that Dr. David Kohl, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech and highly acclaimed ag economist, developed the majority of the subject matter material for the program. Interestingly, Farm Credit University had its genesis back when Alicia was a graduate student at Virginia Tech, and she and Dr. Kohl helped develop the pilot program for Farm Credit of the Virginias.
Throughout the meeting, the hospitality, collaboration, and professionalism of the Associations showed clearly through. Maggie Hamm, Allyson Brake, Skipper Jones, Linda Strickland (who was unable to attend), and many others ensured that this event would be a success. As moderator, I came away, as I usually do, having learned as much or more as the participants did. The work ethic, determination, and passion for agriculture exhibited by this veteran pilot group was truly impressive and inspirational. I’m so appreciative of having been asked to participate in some small way.
To read more about Carolina Farm Credit, our members and the ag industry, check out issues of our Leader magazine—you can read them online.
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