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Case studies focus on sustainable agriculture

By Heather Thorstensen
hthorstensen@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 05/05/2011 9:05 AM

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn.— Sarah Stai couldn't find all the information she wanted while researching how to become a successful farmer. Now she's helping to put together a website for other beginners and those looking for new farming ideas.

Stai is managing Profiles in Sustainable Agriculture, a website launched in May 2010 by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

She's working with MISA to fill the site with case studies. Each study combines a farmer's personal story with in-depth details about their business, including production, marketing and financial management. Also included are tips and links to more resources.

"As far as we've found, this is unique," said Stai, who runs EcoSmith Consulting in Bloomington.

The project is supported byadvisers from University of Minnesota Extension, Renewing the Countryside, Land Stewardship Project and Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. Case studies are peer-reviewed by farmers.

"We feel like it's a really approachable way to get information out," said MISA executive director Helene Murray. "It's not just another textbook. It's getting real people, doing real things."

So far, approximately 1,500 people have visited the site to view the first case study. It features organic vegetable growers Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip of Loon Organics in Hutchinson. Their farm provides fora150-member Community Supported Agriculture operation, retailers, restaurants and the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis.

Frerichs said they wanted to be involved with the project because it sounded like something that would have helped them when they were starting out. They are in their seventh year of running their own farm.

Their case study is presented in sections, starting with the Top 10 pieces of advice the couple has for beginning vegetable growers — like, gain experience on a variety of vegetable farms and start small.

The idea is to present a virtual farm tour. The case study includes videos, charts of their finances, pictures of their farm and diagrams of their fields.

The Assessing and Planning section is about how the couple, who didn't grow up on farms, got started with the help of mentors. A farm description, their business plan, farming plan, infrastructure and equipment are also discussed.

The Production section dives into where they get seed, their field production methods and how they harvest, handle and package crops. It discusses crop yields and their sustainable farming practices.

Another section is about farm management and marketing through a CSA and farmer's markets. Work schedules, employees, risk management strategies, professional development opportunities and the farm's finances are presented in the Farm Business section.

Additional resources include links to USDA's definition of a CSA, a fact sheet from North Carolina State University on post-harvest crop handling and a business planning tool from the Center for Farm Financial Management.

"I think different parts of it will appeal to different levels and experience. I'm hoping it's a useful resource, not just for beginning farmers, but any farmer," Frerichs said.

The site's visitors have commented that it's made them think about farming in a more realistic way and they like how they can go back and refer to the information as often as they want.

A second case study on Cindy Hale and Jeff Hall of Clover Valley Farms in Duluth is almost complete. They raise pastured poultry and hogs and grow herbs and apples.

MISA has applied for a grant to create three additional case studies.Stai's vision is to have at least a couple examples each of different types of farms, such as vegetable, fruit, livestock and agritourism operations.