The Fowler Tribune (Fowler, CO)
By: Candace Krebs
October 9, 2012
ATWOOD, Kan. -- An entrepreneurship fair held at her local high school encouraged Miranda Simminger to start thinking like a businesswoman. She sketched out plans for a local touring company, and then built an enterprise around raising rabbits that continues today. She markets a variety of rabbit meats as well as rabbit hair items like purses and keychains and rabbit manure for fertilizer through the High Plains Food Co-op, mostly to customers on Colorado's Front Range.
"I learned a lot, and it was a lot of fun," said Simminger, who lives on the family's farm near Ludell, Kan., helping to raise hogs, cattle and chickens. She hopes her family can continue to find ways to expand the farm's revenue so that she and her other siblings can remain involved in food and fiber production.
Encouraging a new generation to return to farming and to the small towns where they grew up is an increasingly urgent challenge, as the average age of farmers climbs and the class size at most rural schools plummets. Simminger's experience illustrates how putting a renewed focus on entrepreneurship might offer at least part of the answer.
Kansas Farmers Union recently chose the northwest Kansas town of Atwood to host a workshop on farm transitions, funded in part with a grant from Farm Aid. It included presentations on the regional High Plains Food Co-op and overviews of several unusual training programs offered through nonprofit organizations and at colleges in the region.
Higher education used to be geared to training a skilled workforce rather than teaching students how to build and run their own businesses, observed Scott Mickelsen, associate dean at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, Neb. However, that is slowly changing, with his two-year college leading the trend.
"We teach entrepreneurship across the curriculum," he said. "Our instructors understand entrepreneurship and stress that in all of their classes."
Unconventional approaches at NCTA include the 100 Beef Cow Ownership Advantage and 100 Acre Farm Advantage programs, concepts that are still "very unique" in the field.
"We'll show you how to own a hundred cows," Mickelsen explained. "Can you make a living on a hundred cows? No, but you'll have some equity built up. You can start keeping replacements back, and your chances of getting a loan now are much better."
For students, starting a small farm or cowherd involves writing a comprehensive business plan, finding and developing relationships with strategic business partners and learning to think constantly about what might make the next great idea, he said.
"I wish when I left college, I would have known some of these things. These concepts work," said Mickelsen, who was raised on a ranch in Idaho and at one time considered taking it over from his grandfather.
Pathways into farming are more diverse than most people think: he cited studies from the National Ag Statistics Service that show 66 percent of beginning farmers aren't inheriting or purchasing their farms from family members, they are starting fresh.
Mentorships can help pave the way. Calvin Adams, project director for the Kansas Ranch and Range Management Internship Program, described a paid internship that pairs students with innovators like Ted Alexander, a well-respected ranch and resource manager from Medicine Lodge, Kan. Some of Ted Turner's bison ranches have also participated.
Adams said he puts a great deal of care into the pairings, so that both students and seasoned ranchers grow and are rewarded by the experience. "I won't force a square peg into a round hole," he said. "We're looking for ranchers willing to make the investment to work with the students by having weekly if not daily conferencing."
Two internships were completed last year, but Adams, who ranches near Beloit, said the goal is to have 8 to 10 interns participating. He is shifting his recruiting focus to Native Americans and Hispanics to attract more applicants, he said.
Atwood got serious about stemming the rural "brain drain" back in 2004, when a new crop of community leaders decided it was time for a fresh approach. One of their first new projects was the creation of the High Plains Food Co-op. Modeled on a similar venture pioneered in Oklahoma, it is now one of several regional online buying clubs operating around the country. In September, the co-op generated $8,500 in revenue from 100 different orders distributed to 11 drop-off sites in Denver. The co-op offers more than 700 different products, according to Chris Schmidt, the co-op president and an Oberlin, Kan., farmer who sells grain-finished beef, poultry and eggs through the program.
Direct marketing is less land-intensive than growing for the commodity market, an important attribute with the price of farmland surging 25 percent per year statewide. Duane Chaney, a co-op member who farms a couple of acres with his wife near Colby, Kan., said $10,000 to $20,000 per acre in gross profits is not unrealistic.
"Our income has increased four times since getting involved with this," he said of the co-op. "This is a marketing thing that I'm really excited about."
The community also teamed up with Ogallala Commons, a Texas-based nonprofit supported by the CHS Foundation, to offer entrepreneurship training and internships to high school students. A county youth engagement day, planned for November, will walk area students through the process of brainstorming business and community development ideas and the steps for putting those ideas into action.
One young farmer attending the recent Farmers Union meeting was Schmidt's nephew, Tanner, a graduate of Kansas State University who decided to return home to farm.
He's not alone. Atwood's experiment so far appears promising. "We've been recognized as a community where the population has leveled off," said Chris Sramek, the town's economic development official and founder of Decision Weather, a local meteorology business. "Our classes are back up to 30 or more from around 15." The community is on track to reach a goal of retaining about a third of its high school graduates, he said.
Following the workshop, Frank Miller led a tour of a local manufacturing company that makes liquid fertilizer storage trailers and employs around 20 people. Miller went away to college at Hays, Kan., then worked for a time as a physical therapist, before returning to the area to take a job as the company's manager. He said the town's new focus on entrepreneurship was a benefit to those who wanted to return to their roots, while also creating healthy business diversification for the community.
"It's not just one big business doing everything around here," he said.
The reversal of fortunes is so complete that the city's biggest challenge now is a lack of housing. The company's most recent hire, a new welder, spent two months searching for a place to live, Miller said.