February 23, 2012 —
Guidance for turning ideas into action
By SANDY LONG
HONESDALE, PA — It is said that everybody has a dream. For an increasing number of people, that dream revolves around the concept of small-scale farming that reconnects the farmer and the community she or he serves. To support those dreams, Penn State Extension (PSE) will offer “Exploring the Small Farm Dream” to be held in Honesdale in March.
While getting started in small-scale farming is often easy, staying viable is another matter, according to PSE agricultural marketing educator John Berry, who will provide his perspectives as a long-time dairy, swine and maple syrup farmer.
“The biggest challenge faced by small farmers is learning all the skills necessary to operate a successful, growing business,” said Berry. “Biology, chemistry, mechanics, logistics, meteorology, business management, policy, food science and a basic level of physical strength are all mixed into the daily and perhaps year-round chores of our local farmers. It can be difficult to master all that is necessary to run a farm in the short period of time many new farmers allow.”
Small farming is worthwhile for many reasons, maintains Berry. “People talk of being their own boss, working with family, raising children, doing something good for the earth and mankind, getting out of the rat race. Farms are important as sources of local foods, stewards of the environment, wildlife habitat, ground water recharge and as a healthful lifestyle. Local small farms give the consumer a chance to impact how their food is grown and marketed.”
The course is being offered for the first time in the region, and is not limited to residents of Pennsylvania. Those who have thought seriously about turning a profit off of a few acres or who already have a small agricultural operation and would like to refine or change strategies will find valuable resources offered. Designed to guide beginning farmers through the initial exploratory decision-making process, the course provides the tools to actualize dreams, whether one’s vision includes making goat cheese, selling cut flowers or growing rare tomato varieties.
Among the topics to be covered are the trends and realities of small scale farming in the Northeast, the rewards and risks of owning an agricultural business, other opportunities in the field of agriculture, quality of life, environmental and financial considerations and an introduction to conducting market research related to products and services, customers and competition, marketing strategies and more.
Participants will be guided through a series of exercises to assess knowledge and skills, financial and physical resources and market and revenue potential.
According to Berry, the course is designed as a critical thinking experience without specific information on individual production systems. “We are learning about and practicing building our individual and group capacity to discover what questions are significant and then where and how to research answers.”
While the course doesn’t specifically address the growing interest in organic farming, the approach allows for exploration of such topics. “If someone in the course is interested in organics, we work with them to get what they need,” said Berry. “For example, we review and discuss consumer demands and consumer demographics, which covers some material on organics in the marketplace and on consumers’ minds.”
Berry will also discuss why most new and beginning farmers may want to focus their farm dreams on non-commodity agriculture and instead explore the possibilities from fruit, vegetables, flowers, farm bakery and agri-tourism, which can be accomplished with fewer acres and allow for closer customer contact. “We are up against all the hungry consumers between Boston, MA and Raleigh NC. The consumer is seeking the food system expert, and farmers are it,” he noted. “This concept can be used to build a business.”
Contact Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 610/391-9840 for more information. The course will be held on Thursday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on March 1, 8, 15 and 22 at the Wayne County Park Street Complex at 648 Park St. in Honesdale. Visit extension.psu.edu/start-farming/courses/exploring-the-small-farm-dream or www.pasmallfarmdream.info  for information on registration, which will be accepted until March 1. Included with registration is “Exploring the Small Farm Dream,” a workbook developed by the New England Small Farm Institute.