SPRING GROVE, Minn. – Bailey Lutz and Heidi Eger wanted to start their own farm but wanted to avoid the massive learning curve that comes with a new venture. So they turned to an incubator farm for assistance – a farm hosted by Dayna Burtness and her husband, Nick Nguyen.
Burtness and Nguyen said they worked to help other beginning farmers just as they had received help to start their business.
“I think all of us can agree we’re all in this together and we want to see other folks succeed as well,” Burtness said. “I grew up as a useless suburban kid; I didn’t even learn to mow lawn until I was 19.”
She fell in love with the farming life during a farm internship, she said, but her start as an entrepreneur with a backup investor proved a total failure. Enrolling in an incubator program allowed her to receive support; it gave her an opportunity to make mistakes in a guarded environment.
Her goal is to provide those same opportunities for other beginning farmers by hosting an incubator on her farm. She makes it clear that an incubator is not an internship. Her incubatees own their animals; they take the financial risks. Burtness provides land, loans small tools, rents large equipment, coaches and collaborates on marketing when possible.
The goal is for her incubatees to move on to their own farms within one to three years. In the meantime they live with Burtness and Nguyen. A third-party facilitator works with the group as needed to give a pressure-relief valve and accountability.
Each person comes to the incubator with a different background and expectations. Lutz calls her business Listenmore Farm. She grew up in a big city and worked on a community-supported-agriculture farm. There she realized farming was her life goal. She did an internship where she experienced rural living for the first time; that furthered her desire to be a farmer.
“I liked the idea of learning by doing while I could still avoid a lot of scary risk,” she said.
She planned to plant a half-acre of vegetables on her incubator farm, she said, and raise heritage-breed ducks for eggs and meat. She quickly abandoned the vegetable idea, buying meat goats instead. At the end of the season she had covered her expenses with the ducks and goats. But she had no money to pay herself or the friends who helped with processing. Still she learned a lot about farming and herself.
She likes the harvesting part of farming, Lutz said, even though that means butchering ducks. She was able to confirm her ideas of what it means to live in a relationship with the land. She also realizes she needs to learn more about pasture rotation and different plant species to maximize grazing.
Eger’s story is similar; she started her career raising vegetables with her sister. But after several internships she decided she prefers working with sheep. She was able to buy a flock of Katahdin meat sheep with the option to sell back in the fall if she found it didn’t work.
The first month went well but during her second month she had a ewe with a retained placenta and mastitis. Miscommunication with the veterinarian regarding treatment options led to extreme stress but she said she learned a lot through the experience.
Eger also raised two batches of Freedom Ranger meat chickens. She was able to secure a donation to purchase equipment for harvesting her birds. Earning $5 per pound at harvested weight, she met her expenses – but without paying herself or her harvesting crew.
“It’s been a really rich experience,” Burtness said. “Most of our farmer neighbors knew more about farming by the time they were 9 than I will ever know. That’s just the way it is and that’s a great gift.”
As new farmers, she and her husband along with her incubatees bring new ideas, new energy and new skills to the neighborhood mix. But four new farmers trying to work together doesn’t always go smoothly.
“We had disagreements,” Burtness said. “We had misunderstandings.”
But at the beginning of the season they had committed to being respectful; they worked out the differences. The four farmers say they are looking forward to another season together.