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Plowing new ground

New Ventures Team helping farmers adapt to business realities

Unless you work in the business of producing or manufacturing food, it can be easy to overlook the revolution taking place down on the farm. The casual observer might drive past ostensibly staid farmsteads and believe them exempt from the progress transforming the rest of the world.

John and Kim Doty
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But the business of farming and of the broader world of agriculture is changing, a fact that Joan Fulton, associate professor of agricultural economics and co-chair of Purdue Extension’s New Ventures Team, conveys regularly as she consults with Indiana farmers. Fulton and the rest of the team work with farmers and other agricultural business people on how best to cope with the change in their industry and work it to their advantage.

Today’s new businesses in agriculture are being launched by farmers who grew up believing they would carry on their families’ long-held farming traditions, growing and raising food the way their fathers and grandfathers had. But the national trend toward consolidation and concentration of farm enterprises, and a similar boom in mergers and acquisitions of agribusinesses, has created a whole new, stiffly competitive marketplace for food and fiber, and forced once-traditional farmers to rethink everything.

They now seek new ways to be competitive and add value to their enterprises through newly defined cooperative business arrangements with other producers, or by planting unconventional crops, or marketing their products in novel ways. Most families that once produced Indiana’s customary corn and soybeans and raised livestock may still be doing some of that, but most are doing it differently and in combination with other ventures.

As co-chair of Purdue Extension’s New Ventures Team since August 2002, Fulton and fellow co-chair Jerry Nelson, an Extension educator, work alongside 13 Extension educators and Extension specialists in agribusiness marketing, consumer economics, community development, food processing and rural business development. Their goal: to help farmers do business differently in ways that make good sense.

"We help people evaluate the risks and avoid making bad decisions or just decisions that are too risky," Fulton says. "What can sometimes happen at the beginning of a new venture is a real euphoria, and that can lead to putting blinders on. We are the reality check."

A good day for Fulton is when she sees farmers and others involved in the business of agriculture "seeing and understanding both the opportunities and risks, and being excited about those challenges and opportunities."

The producers behind the new Clearspring Produce Auction in the northeastern Indiana county of LaGrange, saw and understood, and got together to pursue one popular way to address the changes in agriculture – forging a cooperative venture. The venture represents a change for many of the organization’s 40 farmers who are Amish – the most traditional of farming backgrounds.

The auction, which sells melons, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins, flowers and other agricultural products from 40 farms, brought in a healthy $430,000 in sales last year. Purdue’s New Ventures Team continues to provide the auction’s manager, Steve Western, and its farmers technical and management advice.

"The Amish want to farm 20 acres of corn and milk 15 cows, and that doesn’t cut it anymore. You’ve got to get bigger," Western says. "For these Amish boys to stay on a 60- or 80-acre farm, they’re going to have to diversify with this produce. This is the up-and-coming thing. We’re striving to be successful. We just need a little more oomph to get over the top."

Steve Engleking, LaGrange County Extension educator and member of the New Ventures Team, is a key provider of Clearspring’s "oomph." He has worked with the organization for three years – contributing to a mission he strongly believes in. He says there are a variety of reasons why Purdue Extension is helping Clearspring and other ventures that sustain small farms.

"One is profitability of the small farm. Small farms usually employ part-time people. They probably have as much or a greater need for education than some of the larger farms, which tend to turn to fertilizer and seed dealers for technical advice."

Engleking adds that small farms also strengthen national security and yield other important benefits.

"A decentralized food system is harder to attack (by terrorists)," he says. "It’s good for the overall economy. Small businesses employ most of the people in this country.

The idea of cooperatives among farmers isn’t new, but today’s so-called New Generation Cooperatives are not like their historical counterparts in that they follow their products off the farm and get involved with processing and marketing and they define membership differently, Fulton says.

Purdue’s New Ventures Team is spreading the word about NGCs to farmers who can benefit, as it engages others interested in Purdue Extension’s expertise on other new, value-adding strategies. In so doing, Purdue will continue helping farmers keep their businesses profitable during changing times down on the farm.

Story by Amy Raley, Perspective writer and Steve Leer, Agricultural Communications Service

John and Kim Doty, Purdue alumni both raised on "traditional" farms, started their new venture in agriculture in 1998. They now own the thriving, award-winning French Lick Winery. Some of the winery's juice comes from various grape varieties they grow on "Heaven's View Vineyard," a 3.5-acre portion of their 150-acre southern Indiana ranch. The Dotys consulted with Purdue agricultural experts in deciding where to locate their winery and what grape varieties to plant that would flourish under Indiana's extreme weather conditions.

Photograph by Tom Campbell