Programs Encourage Unique Farm Ventures

12/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Up until a few years ago, Herb and Robin Borchers made a living raising hay in tiny Alvord, Texas, 50 miles north of Fort Worth.

Most of it supplied the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area's huge equine population.

"Everybody who has an acre has a horse," Robin Borchers said.

Now they have 26 head of grass-fed beef cattle and are planning to diversify with turkeys, pork and a limited number of dairy cows, and they're no longer in Texas. The couple lives in rural Petersburg, Rensselaer County, bordering western Vermont and Massachusetts.

"I love it," Herb Borchers said. "It rains."

Persistent drought conditions severely impacted their Texas hay crops. At one point, they even had to import large bales from Oklahoma to keep customers supplied.

"It was pretty bad unless you're huge and could afford irrigation," Herb Borcher said.

In addition to business concerns, by moving to upstate New York they could be closer to Robin Borchers’ family, because she's a Rensselaer County native. She's 57 and her husband is 62. At an age when most people are planning to retire, they're thinking about ways to expand their 70-acre Grayson Family Farm operation.

That's why they attended a recent "Small & Beginning Farmer Funding and Loan Seminar" hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer and Saratoga counties in Ballston Spa, N.Y. A growing number of middle-age people and seniors in this region are putting vacant land to use with start-up farms, raising everything from organic vegetables to fiber products and goats milk cheese.

More than a dozen agricultural entrepreneurs from four counties turned out for the session, where officials from several private and government agencies identified funding sources and told farmers how to access them and other business services such as record keeping, tax preparation and payroll processing.

"You don't need a ton of acreage," said Kirk Shoen, a Rensselaer County Extension agent. "Instead of just growing your own food, you can make a business out of it, generate income and qualify for agricultural assessment tax breaks. Plus, a lot of people just like the lifestyle. It can be a good second career."

Young people might have more energy, but slightly older residents usually have more business experience and savvy, which they can apply to fledgling farm operations.

"We do these classes to teach people how to market and sell products, how to find a niche," Shoen said. "There are lots of growers out there. How are you going to be different?"

Encouraging agricultural ventures helps preserve and protect farmland, too, said Jennifer Stevens, a Saratoga County Extension agent.

"Every agency has something for beginning farmers," she said.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, or FSA, has a new microloan program designed specifically for new operations. Loans of up to $35,000 are available for operational expenses such as feed, fertilizer, livestock purchases, tools and irrigation.

Applicants only have to provide limited financial background information. The approval process is shorter and involves less paperwork than larger loans.

FSA even has a youth loan program for aspiring 10- to 20-year-old farmers. Loans of up to $5,000 are available to help modest, income-generating projects get off the ground that can give young people invaluable experience.

Farm Credit East has a Farm Start program that provides loans up to $50,000. Borrowers have five years to pay them back and terms are more flexible than traditional loans.

"You still need a sound business plan and sound credit history," agent Jean Gallagher said, adding that people must also have at least two years of agricultural experience.

Representatives of the New York State Agricultural Mediation Program, Soil & Water Conservation District and Agricultural Stewardship Association also presented information to participants.

Robin Borchers said classes such as this are extremely valuable to people launching into new ventures.

"We go to a lot of Cooperative Extension programs, as much as possible," she said.

More educational workshops are planned this winter.

On Jan. 11 and Feb. 1, Cooperative Extension will host a program called, "So You've Bought the Farm Now What?" The program is for people new to farming who have little or no experience with farm and land management. Information will be available for livestock, greenhouse and nursery, fruit and vegetable, and agro-forestry enterprises.

Both classes will be held 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. The Jan. 11 program is at Saratoga County Cornell Cooperative Extension, 50 W. High St., Ballston Spa. The Feb. 1 program is at Richfield Springs Central School, 93 Main St., Richfield Springs.

Preregistration is required. The fee is $20 and $5 for additional family members.

To register and for more information call 315-866-7920.

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