According to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the state lost 500 dairy farms in 2017. The number of dairy farms has fallen by over 20 percent in the last five years.
As agriculture-related businesses struggle to survive, SCORE and the United States Department of Agriculture have partnered to help support these businesses. Initially, seven states were selected for a pilot program, and due to its success, nine additional states, including Wisconsin, have been added.
David Maaske, Wisconsin and Metro Chicago district director for SCORE, said that each state has a USDA coordinator to work with chapters and build the relationship. Maaske is working with Kim Iczkowski, of the Wisconsin USDA and Farm Service Agency, and the two will be visiting SCORE chapters and holding meetings throughout the state.
“SCORE’s expertise in business planning, funding alternatives, marketing and communications will be especially valuable to producers who are starting, growing or changing their business models," Maaske said. "These skills can be applied to agriculture.”
Sandy Chalmers, USDA state executive director, agrees that there is a need for this type of mentoring. She said that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has a special interest in ensuring that the next generation of farmers has a solid foundation to work from.
“Every new or beginning farmer can benefit from a mentor with real-world business experience. That kind of expertise is exactly what SCORE provides,” she said.
SCORE adds to the assistance available at the Wisconsin Farm Center at the State Ag Department, UW-Extension and Wisconsin Technical College System. In addition to providing free mentoring, SCORE is also planning workshops and webinars focused specifically on the ag sector. Among the assistance offered will be help with business plans.
“A farm business plan is usually described as a road map that takes you from where you are now to where you want your operation to be in the future," Chalmers said. "The plan helps you set goals and evaluate your progress. A business plan will also demonstrate to a lender that you thought through your goals, and that you understand all facets of your operation.”
The plan is also necessary for obtaining an FSA loan. Ag-related businesses have a number of loan programs they can apply for, and a good place to start is at a local FSA office (http://offices.usda.gov).
Maaske stressed that there are new opportunities in agriculture, including urban famers who are producing for farm-to-table restaurants. Another example would be a recent SCORE client who was featured in this column and is working on starting a snail farm. Cheese and producers of other dairy-related products also qualify. There are a large range of loan programs to assist.
“One of FSA’s key roles is to support new and beginning farmers by helping them access capital and land, from buying the farm itself to financing the business," Chalmers said. "Over the last three years, Wisconsin FSA loaned an average of $99 million to beginning farmers.”
Getting the information out about the programs and then offering mentoring to help ag entrepreneurs realize their dreams is the goal of the partnership. Information is available at https://newfarmers.usda.gov/mentorship.
“To be profitable, a farmer has to have good production skills, whether the focus is crops or livestock. But a farmer also has to understand soil, machinery, plant and animal disease, weather, markets, finance and a host of other topics," Chalmers said. "It is unusual for any one farmer to be an expert at every facet of the business. That’s why farmers look to many specialized resources for information and guidance.”
Maaske said that SCORE has more than 150 volunteers with direct ag experience, and additional volunteers are being recruited. Yet, even without direct experience, business basics are generally the same and most mentors can provide solid help. Maaske said the coming year will be focused on participating in ag trade shows and getting the word out at meetings.
In next week’s column, a Kewaunee farm owner will talk about the assistance her business received from FSA.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.