Class offers small farmers head start

A thriving local food movement has fueled interest in farming and ranching in Northern Colorado. Four years ago, in order to encourage and support that interest, Colorado State University Extension Service initiated a Building Farmers and Ranchers program in Larimer County. Based at the CSU Larimer County Extension Office in Fort Collins, the program accepts 15 participants for an eight-week course in October and November each year.

The program is intended for people with some experience who are serious about starting, expanding or enhancing their farm or ranch operation. Weekly sessions begin with socializing and networking over dinner, followed by presentations by local farmers, ranchers and experts on a wide range of agricultural issues. A major goal of the program is the development of a workable business plan.

This year’s sessions include presentations on business planning, managing risk, recording keeping and financial analysis, marketing, food safety and managing resources. Two final sessions are set aside for analysis and discussion of participants’ business plans.

Lesa Graber, who with her husband Dave owns and operates Sunny Daze Gardens on County Road 5 east of Fort Collins, took the class in 2012 and is thankful she was able to develop a business plan which she said “made me think things through.” She was surprised at the information available and the vast amount she did not know. Her farm stand is located on CR5 between Prospect and Mulberry Streets where she sells corn, peppers, tomatoes, sunflowers, zinnias, pumpkins, squash and gourds grown on just under 2 acres of land.

She said the class “made her feel like a farmer and embrace what she was doing.” It encouraged her to take the leap from hobbyist to business owner. She’s appreciative of the on-going support from mentors and the program staff. “You can call or write them at any time for advice and feedback.” Because of what she learned at the class, Graber became involved in the NoCo Food Cluster.

“The class offered resources, connections and practical hands-on exercises that set a strong foundation yet was flexible enough to fit the variety of interests and skills in the class. It met us where we were, some ready to get started and others in need of research, preparation or funding,” Graber said.

Kat Warnick, who took the class in 2011 and owns Rock Soup Ranch, said she would recommend the program to anyone. She raises organic vegetables, cattle and pigs in the Wellington area and has a community-supported agriculture program.

Curtis Bridges, who retired from a career in law enforcement and corporate security at age 59, is involved as an advisor, helping to guide the program that is headed up by Karen Crumbaker, ag/natural resources extension agent. Bridges began buying farm ground in Wellington in 1989 in order to pursue a long-held dream of becoming a hay farmer.

“It’s the loneliest thing you can do,” Bridges tells students. “You work by yourself all day and sometimes into the night. You usually have no income for the first six months of the year. The other six months you work 6-7 days a week, 10-plus hours a day. Then for six months you watch the water drip.”

Bridges said about half the class is women and most participants plan to farm less than 5 acres, establish a CSA and grow food for restaurants and farmers’ markets — clearly different from spending days on a tractor as he does, tending to four hay-growing operations. He explains that if you have not acquired land through your family or don’t have the resources to buy it, you are forced into a small start-up operation.

Applications for the program must be received by Sept. 1 and are available online at larimer.org.ext. They must be returned with a $25 fee to CSU Extension, Colorado Building Farmer Program, 1525 Blue Spruce Drive, Fort Collins, CO 80525 For more information call 970-498-6003 or write to Karen Crumbaker at kcrumbaker@larimer.org.

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