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Three business models drive small-farm growth in Minnesota

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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The agricultural economy in Minnesota is strong, and some of that strength is coming from the growth of small farms. Increased interest in local foods and products is driving that growth.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines small farms as farms with $250,000 or less in sales of agricultural commodities. The 2007 Census of Agriculture indicates that's 91 percent of U.S. Farms and over half of the land. Most of the growth is in the area of very small farms that have sales less than $10,000.

Three types of business opportunity have helped create a positive environment for both farmers and people interested in local, healthy foods--farmers markets, other merchandising options and farm-to-school programs.

Farmers markets can be a great option for finding locally produced food, as well as adding vitality to a community. They are popping up in rural Minnesota as well as in cities and suburbs. Many farmers markets now accept Farmers Market Nutrition Program food assistance coupons and other assistance vouchers.

Other merchandising options include roadside stands, on-farm stores and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, in which families purchase a regular share of the foods produced.

Farm-to-school programs are also becoming another option for small farm production, and Minnesota is a leader in this area. Farmers are able to work directly with local schools to sell healthy and locally grown produce to the school districts, and can get help through University of Minnesota Extension's Farm to School resources (www.extension.umn.edu/farm-to-school).

The face of the small farms is changing with new farmers, urban farming and recent immigrants. Often, many of these new farms have another primary occupation. These new farmers are seeking education that will help to make them successful in their new professions. The University of Minnesota Center for Farm Financial Management (CFFM) offers a website called AgPlan www.agplan.umn.edu, developed to help rural businesses to develop a business plan.

Extension has a Small Farms program, a network of educators who support people new to agriculture, those moving from hobby to career farming and those building on generations of experience. For more information, visit www.extension.umn.edu/smallfarms.

Nathan Winter is an agricultural production systems educator with University of Minnesota Extension.

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