TRAVERSE CITY — Jess Piskor co-owns and manages Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport and admits he and business partner Abra Berens are lucky: they were able to start their first farm on some of Piskor’s family land.
“Being able to jump in and try it for a year pretty risk-free was incredible and such a gift,” said Piskor.
Two local nonprofits are hoping to give aspiring, first-generation farmers the same opportunity with a farmer residency program.
Like a doctor residency, the program would take people completing farmer internships or apprenticeships and offer them land owned by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy to farm themselves.
“It’s meant to be not an educational program, but a program that provides rational support to get that farm business off the ground,” said Amanda Kik, co-director of Institute for Sustainable Living, Art & Natural Design, or ISLAND, one of the nonprofits starting the program.
The program aims to address a nationwide problem: farmers’ children are increasingly less interested in farming, leaving the land without a farmer; a recent Michigan State University study found that only 38 percent of Michigan farmers planning to retire in 10 years would be passing their farms on to a single heir.
Some young people are in the opposite situation: they want to become farmers but don’t have family land or a farming background.
The residency program is designed to help small farmer hopefuls learn how to make decisions and manage a farm before they sink their own money into land.
Residents may become eligible for a low-interest federal loan from the United States Department of Agriculture to help them buy land, though that requires at least three years of land management.
“I think that the number one challenge facing incoming farmers is access to land,” said Michelle Ferrarese, Piskor’s wife who both heads the ISLAND board of directors and runs Birch Point Farm, an organic farm, on land she rents.
Purchasing land can be prohibitive for people looking to farm, especially when land is priced based on its developmental value, not its agricultural value.
The result is that new farmers like Ferrarese end up renting land instead of purchasing it. The result is that she’s unable to make certain upgrades to the land because it doesn’t make sense to make long-term investments on property she might not own one day.
Land values affect not only new small farmers, but established family farmers, as well.
“It’s a lot different than what I grew up with, because right now we’re farming 15 farms. We rent from people who are retired or died,” said Brent Wagner of Wagner Farms in Grawn.
The family owned farm has grown crops like corn and soybeans since 1903. Wagner still isn’t sure how long he can continue to rent and own large tracts of land.
In addition to temporarily relieving new farmers of land costs, ISLAND plans to give them other opportunities to learn.
The groups hope to work with Michigan State University and farmers to teach the residents how to write a business plan, perform cash flow analysis, as well as other farmers to offer technical support.
ISLAND is accepting applications for one residency spot for the 2014 growing season. The group hopes to be able to offer a total of three residencies over as many years.
Participants will be working a small plot on 11 acres of Maple Bay Farm in Williamsburg.