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Keeping Vegetable Farmers Growing Through One-on-One Professional Peer Coaching

“I’ve been farming for 17 years, and for much of that time, I had a life centered on sacrifice to a farm and a vision. Not a week goes by when I don’t wish that I could talk to a younger me and tell her that there isn’t a perfect way to create a farm-centered life, but there is a much better way.”

Sound familiar? For many, this sentiment – shared by Katrina Becker, a Wisconsin-based producer – has become all too common in the world of smaller-scale farming. Farmers talk openly about how all-encompassing this profession is. It can take over your life, and when you’re running on fumes, it can feel almost impossible to make changes or even envision another way of doing things. Add to this mix seasonality, increasing climate chaos, inflation, and countless other pressures, and it’s not hard to see why farmers often feel like they’re stuck in a pattern of reacting to stimuli rather than shaping their actions.

Fortunately, farmers have a growing number of supportive resources to tap into as they navigate all manner of issues – and we’re adding another one to the mix. Farm Coaching – Professional Coaching by Farmers For Farmers is a new program supported by FairShare CSA Coalition and serving producers across the Midwest. Through countless conversations with growers, coaching emerged as a dynamic tool that can help farmers create space and perspective while disrupting their status quo in meaningful and lasting ways. What’s unique about this program is that not only are farm coaches professionally trained and certified, they also have extensive experience as farmers themselves and bring that lived understanding and empathy into the conversation from the very start.

What Is Farm Coaching Anyway?

Coaching is about identifying a specific goal – or two or three – and making it happen. Maybe you want to improve your systems so that your days are less hectic and more organized. Or perhaps you need to reevaluate your farm’s vision and mission so you can stop saying yes to everything and start investing in the things that will better support your business and your quality of life. While your farm coach won’t tell you the exact systems to implement or decide which accounts you should prioritize, they will listen to you and coach you to your best outcome based on your identified goals. Whether it’s family dynamics, work-life balance, financial sustainability, or something else, farm coaching can be that disruptor – that “restart” you might be looking for to ultimately make something feel or work better.

Katie Bishop, who farms more than 400 acres of organic vegetables and grain at PrairiErth Farm, is one of three coaches supporting producers through this program. During a recent conversation with the Midwest Vegetable Growers Network (MVEG), she talked about what led her to coaching back in 2021:

“I was on the verge of some pretty major burnout after 14 years of farming. I was struggling with communication and felt like I had very little control over what was happening. I wanted to spend time off the farm, but I didn’t have the time or energy. And I kept self-sabotaging – saying yes to everything and then resenting it later when I was eating frozen pizza or missing my niece’s graduation. I knew I couldn’t keep doing this, but I felt so powerless to make a change – and guilty for wanting to. I started working with a coach who helped me identify those next small steps, and over time, I could really hone in on what was stressing me out and making me unhappy. I used that knowledge to help me make tiny changes and some pretty huge adjustments – and looking back, that feels pretty great.”

Program Structure & Support

Just as farmer conversations led to the creation of this program, farmer participation is helping to shape and refine it so that it meets producers’ needs in real and meaningful ways. As farmer members of the Advisory Team, Zachary Austin (WI), Chris McGuire (WI), Kendyl Meadows (OH), Julie Perkins (IN), and John Williams (IL) are currently working with their own farm coach. Their feedback as coaching participants is helping to streamline administrative processes on the back end while enhancing the farm coachee experience on the user end. Meanwhile Dr. Leslie Forstadt, a Human Development Specialist with the University of Maine-Extension, supports a successful farm coaching program on the East Coast. Her years of experience serving farmers through coaching has greatly benefited our nascent program here in the Midwest. Farm coaches are also on the Advisory Team. Joining Katie Bishop are Angie Sullivan and Doug Wubben. Angie has served farmers for over 20 years through her work with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), as an organic specialist for MOSES (now Marbleseed), and in her current role as Director of Operations for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship. And for 10 years, she also owned and operated her own vegetable CSA and grazing farm. Meanwhile, Doug has extensive experience managing a diversified vegetable operation, promoting CSA farms during FairShare’s early years, and building farm-to-school programs with REAP Food Group and UW-CIAS. For the past 12 years, he has also worked in various roles as a nurse in the healthcare system. Read more about Katie, Angie, and Doug and their experience as farmers and coaches on the program webpage (csacoalition.org/farm-coaching). Finally, Claire Strader (UW Extension-Dane County) and Sarah Janes Ugoretz (FairShare) provide additional programmatic support.

This program has gone from an idea with a lot of potential to a concrete resource serving farmers in real time, thanks to funding provided by a North Central SARE Partnership Grant and with additional support coming through Marbleseed. The vast majority of these funds are being used to subsidize the cost of coaching for vegetable farmers – to include both owners and workers – operating in WI, MN, ND, SD, NE, KS, IA, MO, IL, IN, OH, and MI. For farmers who may be interested in exploring coaching, the process is fairly straightforward and begins with completing a very brief intake form on the program webpage. This leads to a no-cost exploratory call with a coach to discuss what coaching might look like and what you might focus on. From there, farmers decide whether to take the next step and pursue formal coaching through 5 sessions – with “Call a Coach” support available between each session. Typically, farmers meet with their coaches by phone or over Zoom and schedule sessions on a timeline that works best for them. The overall cost of coaching through this program is $1200, and while grant funds are available, $800 of that cost is covered by a subsidy. Farmers pay the remaining $400 directly to their coach.

Professional Farm Coaching – One Resource Among Many

Zooming back out, we know that farmers are struggling – and they have been for quite some time. Professional farm coaching is a unique tool that can help farmers identify a specific goal and work towards a concrete and lasting result. It doesn’t take the place of a financial advisor, a business consultant, a therapist, a marriage counselor, or a mentor. Instead, coaching is a complementary resource that can help farmers address the challenges that are keeping them from moving forward in ways that meet their business needs, their personal needs, or both.

As we leave summer behind us, we know one thing: winter isn’t always the time of rest farmers dream it could be. The work is different, but it’s still very much work. Not to mention, farmers often feel the added pressure of making several major changes during the off-season so that next season will be more bearable. And when that doesn’t happen, farmers are often left with feelings of guilt, even failure or despair. On this topic, Laura Fredrickson-Gosewisch, a farmer and farm wellness expert based in Minnesota, recently shared these powerful words: “We’re all waiting for this perfect scenario that’s probably never coming. We need to question the belief that, ‘Once everything is OK, then I can take a break.’ Actually, we need to take a break now while we figure out how to make everything be OK. We need to embrace caring for ourselves daily.” For some farmers, coaching may be the key to helping them do this; it may provide a way to pause, reflect, assess, and then take action on those goals that can ultimately help to create greater year-round balance.

*Sarah works with FairShare CSA Coalition where she supports the Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprenticeship and collaborates closely with farmers – both workers and owners – to build positive labor experiences on diversified vegetable farms.

Issue: Oct 2023
By: Sarah Janes Ugoretz