At Rock Island Farm in Orono, Maine, the hay-fields seem to go on forever, acre upon acre of lush green rippling in the breeze. In a small, unassuming plot next to the barn, something exciting is brewing. The two garden beds don’t look like much now, but by next summer, they could be the foundation of a new business for Hetty Richardson: a roadside farm stand.
In February, Richardson left her job at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to pursue farming full-time. She and her husband had been haying their fields for several years, and she also has raised sheep. Vegetables would be a new endeavor, so she enrolled in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s “So You want to Farm in Maine” course.
“The course was very timely for me,” Richardson says. “I had found some information on my own, but I needed a plan.”
Richardson isn’t alone. In recent years, Extension educators have seen an uptick statewide in calls from first-timers and seasoned farmers who want to change their focus. In response, they created the course, which has attracted 140 students statewide in the last two years. It was designed to help students navigate aspects of farming that are only peripherally related to crops or herds. Things that may seem obvious but often aren’t. Things like business plans and access to capital, agricultural rules and regulations, market research, accounting and interpersonal relationships.
“There’s a lot of number crunching and soul searching that needs to go on,” says Donna Coffin, an Extension educator based in Dover-Foxcroft, who co-taught the northern course with three colleagues in three counties — technology bridged the geographic distance. “I always get calls from people who ask, ‘How can I make money on my land?’ I ask them, ‘What do you want to do? What do you enjoy? Do you like animals? Crops?’”
“You need to make sure your family understands what the impact is going to be. If your spouse hates the smell of pigs, that’s good to know so you don’t put the barn next to the house.”
From there, the questions get more complex: Do you just want to break even? If so, have you considered the cost of your labor? If you’re selling at break-even prices, do you realize that you might be undercutting local farmers who are trying to make a living? Do you or someone on your farm like people? If the answer is no, the farmers market circuit probably isn’t the best fit. How do your spouse and kids feel about farm animals? If they hate chickens or pigs, you know you can’t rely on them to muck out the barn if you’re sick or need to go away.
“These are good things to know so you don’t have a family conflict,” Coffin says. “We encourage people to talk to everyone in their family unit.”
The course addressed more than relationships, though. Participants were asked to start a business plan over the course of the four-week session. Guest speakers addressed taxes, financing, insurance and legal issues. Many in the course were interested in keeping up with the most current regulations and guest speakers from Maine agricultural agencies addressed those concerns.
“If you’re not involved in farming, there are all these specific things that you wouldn’t even know,” Coffin says.
“So You Want to Farm in Maine” serves as an introduction to those specifics, but Extension educator Tori Jackson stressed that Extension’s involvement doesn’t end when the course does.
“We all do a lot with production, so down the line, farmers can call us with production issues or for other advice, as well. We’re also able to connect farmers with professionals within the University of Maine System,” says Jackson, who is based in Androscoggin and Sagadahoc Counties. “Cooperative Extension can be a resource for every area of how to run a farm business.”