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FAPRI developing online resource for beginning farmers, ranchers

By Doug Rich

The Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri is putting its analytical skills to work for young farmers and ranchers. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Project will provide an online resource for analyzing their businesses as they grow or transition their existing operations.

FAPRI Research and Operations Program Director Lori Wilcox said they are about half through the three-year project. During the first year of the project four panels of beginning farmers and ranchers were picked to build simulated farms that are representative of beginning farms or ranches in their area. The panel would then review how the representative farm would perform financially over the next five years and identify alternative scenarios that are simulated and compared to the baseline.

"The panel farms follow a similar methodology that we have used with our representative farm projects that we have done in conjunction with Texas A&M," Wilcox said. "We sit down with a group of producers, usually five to eight producers, and we develop a farm--a computer-simulated farm. We take input from farmers and develop a farm and run the various policy scenarios off that farm."

Traditionally that is what FAPRI has done with representative farms, but with this project they took a step back and focused primarily on beginning farmers and ranchers. All of the panel members had to have been actively engaged in farming for less than 10 years. Instead of running policy scenarios against the representative operations, they allow the panel participants to come up with possible scenarios that they would like to see this representative farm play out.

"That way we have a better idea what types of changes in their operations they might be able to make and what type of longer term outcomes they might see in comparison to the normal baseline farm," Wilcox said.

Four panel farms have been developed representing beginning farms or ranches in different regions of Missouri. These include a southwest Missouri cow-calf representative farm, a west central feed grain farm, a northeast feed grain and cow-calf farm, and a north central feed grain and cow-calf farm. For example the north central feed grain and cow-calf representative farm grows corn and soybeans on 500 acres of cropland and raises 15 cow-calf pairs on 45 acres of pasture. The crop acres are split evenly between corn and soybeans. Calves are sold straight off the cows at weaning with steer calves sold at 500 pounds and heifer calves at 450 pounds.

Meetings with the producers have been completed and the four panel farms have been developed. Now FAPRI is transitioning to designing online tools that can put on the website that will take the information from these panel farms and allow other producers to get online and look at similarities they have or perhaps change some of parameters to take a closer look at their own operations. For example a producer may go online and change yields, production costs, or income to match their particular climate, region, and inputs.

"We are just now starting to design those online tools," Wilcox said.

A benefit for farmers on the panels is that during the second year of this project panel members have the option to model their own operations, look at how they might perform over the next five years, and identify two to three changes they are considering for their operations. The producers can take these results and see how they compare financially to the baseline projections.

Wilcox said over half of the panel members have taken them up on this offer.

Some general information from the project will be on the FAPRI website later this summer. Wilcox said they would spend the next year refining the online tools. At that time the website should be available for beginning farmers and ranchers around the country to use as they expand their operations.

FAPRI submitted a grant proposal last December to fund an additional eight representative farms with at least four of those dealing with specialty crops. Wilcox said they should find out in June of this year if they will receive that grant.

"Decisions made in the first 10 years of farming can be critical to the success of an operation," Wilcox said. "We can take tools that have been developed by policymakers, refine and enhance those tools, and provide tools for beginning farmers that can help them manage risk as they grow."

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at richhpj@aol.com.

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