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.