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Online UI classes help new producers

By John O’Connell

University of Idaho officials encourage new small farmers and ranchers to sign up early for an online course offered in January.

Capital Press

William Mundy started raising produce in 2011 as a means of staying productive after a degenerative bone and joint disorder forced him to end a 25-year career as a heavy equipment operator.

But it wasn’t until about a year after the Salmon, Idaho, man started his business that he learned some of the keys to survival in the industry, when he enrolled in an online University of Idaho Extension course for beginning small and mid-sized farmers.

The 35 slots filled quickly for UI’s eight-week Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course, offered online from Nov. 12 through Jan. 21, said course instructor Cinda Williams. She recommends interested participants enroll early in the next online course, Planning for Profit, which starts Jan. 28. Call Rural Roots at 883-3462 to register.

“It’s changed the way I keep records and market my product,” Mundy said of the UI online course he took, Planning for Profit. “Until I took that class I never considered a restaurant to be my customer, or knew how to approach a restaurant.”

He now sells herbs and tomatoes to a local pizza place and is drafting a questionnaire for restaurants to assess how his business can better serve them.

Mundy obtained a small business loan to facilitate expansion and secured a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant for a new hoop house.

“I’m looking at grow tower systems and hydroponic lettuce — things we can do to increase production 10-fold,” Mundy said.

Mundy also found a mentor through the course. Whenever he has a question, he now calls Diane Green, who runs an organic farm in Sandpoint, Idaho, and wrote a book about marketing produce directly to restaurants.

The online courses also include weekly webinars, taught by Williams, university specialists and local small farmers and ranchers. The courses are under the umbrella of the Cultivating Success Small Farm Education Program, involving UI, Washington State University and the nonprofit group Rural Roots.

Aspiring producers enrolled in Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching learn about farm planning, resource evaluation, site appropriate production practices, enterprise budgets, market analysis, risk management and food safety assessment. They develop a draft “whole farm plan,” which serves as map for the future.

“Some farmers we work with don’t have agricultural backgrounds. Some don’t have access to land and don’t have capital. It helps them identify what some of their costs might be and how to find some funding,” Williams said.

Planning for Profit, an eight-week online course for beginning producers, offers a more thorough look at production costs, finances, goals and food safety.

The $50 registration fee for both courses is subsidized by a Western Center for Risk Management grant.

Williams, who has worked with small farmers at UI for 19 years, started in a newly created position this month as area extension educator in community food systems. She noted seven new produce vendors participated in the Moscow farmers’ market this summer and believes the growth in farmers’ markets demonstrates more people are becoming small producers.



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