Value of Mentorships for Early-Career Farmers

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Role of Mentorships 

There are more components of starting, operating, and sustaining a farm business than originally meets the eye. For this reason, meaningful mentorships that assist aspiring and early-career farmers navigate all of the pieces and practices can play a critical role in securing success for farmers as they are starting out. While many may think of crop/livestock production as the foundation of being a farmer, farms are complex businesses if run for profit. Other skillsets such as business planning, land use and assessment, connecting to the local/regional farming community, holistic farm management from a systems perspective, financing and credit, product marketing, infrastructure and equipment development and maintenance, and even farm design all have to be integrated into the farm model as well. Having realistic expectations and an understanding of what that process looks like for established farmers is helpful for early-career farmers. 

Mentorships are different from internships and apprenticeships in their scope and intention in that mentorships are structured based on strengthening the skills and knowledge of mentees in a way that is curated by the partnership to assist them in strengthening their own farm business. It is not simply a way for farmers to get extra help on the farm through farm employment. For employment and internship opportunities, job boards such as the ATTRA board are recommended. 

Finding a Mentor 

Mentorships should honor both the mentor and the mentee in what they are hoping to accomplish with the partnership. Starting out with a conversation about expectations, goals, passions, and skillsets/strengths is recommended when determining if someone is a good fit for you and your current needs. All farmers have varied experiences, as well as different strengths, production methods, and general philosophies. An early career farmer could find someone that is producing what they are producing or are hoping to produce. Thus gaining a better understanding of how their systems work to then be able to adapt for your own operation and to provide a realistic starting point. And it’s always helpful to have someone to call when you’re facing a new obstacle and looking for a bit of advice on how to move forward with it. 

Unless you already have a naturally occurring relationship with an established farmer, knowing where to go to find a mentor can be a bit intimidating. Luckily, there are organizations and programs across the state that have mentor-matching services to help with this process, and they have been integrated into educational programs as well, such as the North Carolina Farm School through NC State Extension, and the Farm Beginnings program that is offered by Organic Growers School (OGS) in western North Carolina. OGS also has stand-alone mentor services for those who want a mentor but aren’t able to participate in classes. The USDA is partnering with the non-profit, SCORE, which allows you to search for mentors based on your zip code. Farms may structure their mentorship offerings as apprenticeships and market them on job boards. For those you’d just want to clarify the expectations and learning opportunities and structures with the farmers to make sure that you’re aligned.

Mentoring can happen through incubator farm structures as well. Incubator farms are those that provide land access, infrastructure, and equipment, and in some cases, education and training opportunities to farmers. They provide an important function in alternative land access models and can fulfill the mentorship component if they have the staff capacity and partnerships to facilitate farmer training in the avenues mentioned above.

Check out our Additional Resources for Early-Career Farmers  

Resources for early-career farmers 

Learn how to farm – events and educational opportunities for early-career farmers 

Find a farm– creating a profile on our land-matching database