Mentor Program Supports Beginning Farmers
We recently interviewed Jim Hoge who shares about an exciting new program for Pennsylvania agriculture, called the Pennsylvania Agriculture Mentor Program.
Jim serves as a mentor for this program. The program includes five mentors with extensive agricultural backgrounds who assist beginning farmers, agribusiness entrepreneurs, and others in troubleshooting new strategies and ideas for their farm businesses. Spearheaded by a group of Pennsylvania agricultural organizations with an interest in the future of agriculture, the program leverages SCORE, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and resource partner of the United States Small Business Administration. The mentoring is free and confidential.
Could you tell us about yourself and your passion for agriculture?
I recently retired from Horizon Farm Credit after 34 years with the Farm Credit system. I spent 25 years as a loan officer working with large commercial ag businesses in dairy, timber, and grape industries. After those years as a loan officer, I transitioned to the Regional Manager for Western Pennsylvania. During that time, I led a lending team in three offices in Western PA and I was responsible for business development and credit decisions primarily. My passion for agriculture goes back to my college days. After I finished my B.S. in Dairy Science at Penn State, I worked with two of my brothers and we started a small dairy farm in Washington County. This experience gave me an understanding of the difficulties of startup businesses, especially in agriculture. The uncertainty of weather, crops, and marketing condition can add a new twist to startup businesses.
Throughout my career with Farm Credit, I worked with many startup businesses and learned what factors made some successful and others not successful. In 2013, before retiring from Farm Credit, my wife and I purchased a small farm near our home. Since then, I've been developing a small blueberry operation as a side hobby. We currently have 400 bushes and run a small pick your own business. We also sell to local farm markets. Agriculture has really been part of my day-to-day life for all my career, and I really enjoy working with the people involved in this industry. This is why I want to continue to stay involved in my retirement.
Why do you feel mentorship is so important for beginning farmers?
I understand how challenging it is to start a farm operation today. The capital involved in many different industries is high, so someone needs to come in with substantial equity or they need to take out loans to fund purchases to get started. Young and beginning farmers certainly have an advantage when they have a mentor that they're working with. The mentor is sometimes able to help them think of different things that they may not have thought of to avoid mistakes along the way. From my own experience, I know it's very helpful to have encouragement and someone to talk to along the way.
Jim, obviously you served as a loan officer for Farm Credit for many years, so in a lot of ways, this is a neat next step for you in retirement, to continue your role helping other in agriculture. What do you look forward to the most in serving as a mentor for others?
I’m not quite ready to kick back and not work, or not do much of anything in retirement. I have many years ahead that I want to be involved in agriculture. While I was at Farm Credit, I really enjoyed working directly with customers as a loan officer and as a regional manager. I worked mostly with large businesses later in my career, but I also worked with many small businesses and some beginning farmers. It was always exciting to work with folks that brought enthusiasm and new ideas to the table or to the industry. I'm looking forward to working with young and beginning farmers that are excited about developing an idea and starting or growing their business.
The new program utilizes SCORE to link the mentors to the mentees, and Jim, I know that you recently became certified through the SCORE program. However, many of our listeners may be unfamiliar with SCORE. Could you share with them a little bit more about the SCORE program?
I think this is a key part of the mentoring going forward. I was not familiar with SCORE myself until this venture. SCORE is the nation's largest network of volunteer expert business mentors, and SCORE is dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow, and achieve their goals. It's a nonprofit organization and it's a resource partner for the Small Businesses Administration, SBA. It is supported by SBA and the mentors that are SCORE certified have gone through training specific to SCORE. They are utilizing their experience in past business ventures and to serve as mentors for folks that are starting new ventures, or entrepreneurs that might be starting in a new business.
In your previous time with Farm Credit, you worked with a lot of beginning farmers. What advice do you have for someone looking to get started in agriculture?
The number one recommendation I have is to spend time and develop a business plan that is specific to what you plan to do. With that business plan, they're able to create a vision for what their enterprise is going to be, how the production will flow, what their marketing plan is going to be, and they can work on the financial projections of their business. This all is a plan, but without a plan, they really don't have much direction. Develop a business plan, complete that with specific ideas about production, financial projections, and the marketing aspects of what you’re producing.
Also, don't try to learn all aspects of the business at once. I would assume that anyone starting a new venture in agriculture already has an interest or some form of expertise in production for that industry. Taking that to the next level is going to take some experience and maybe some education but avoid trying to do all of that at once. Maybe learn the production while you're working on the business plan and take it step by step. I'd also recommend starting small. If you're able to start your business as a part-time venture and continue to work full-time, you have some added flexibility and insurance against any adversity that you might encounter along the way.
As we wrap up, feel free to share any other final tips or words of advice for our listeners here.
I would just encourage anyone out there that has a dream of getting started in agriculture or starting a new venture to follow it. Agriculture is the largest industry in Pennsylvania, and it certainly has a very bright future. Agriculture as we know it today is going to be much different in the years to come. There is plenty of room for new ideas, new ventures, and new businesses within the industry in Pennsylvania.
Individuals seeking mentorship can apply at www.score.org. Within the application, note your involvement in a food or farm business, and you may also identify a specific mentor, like Jim, that you would like to work with. To learn more about the Pennsylvania Agriculture Mentor Program and all of its mentors, visit pafarmlink.org/mentor. Organizations supporting the development and launch of the Pennsylvania Agriculture Mentor Program include Horizon Farm Credit, the Center for Dairy Excellence, Farm Progress and American Agriculturist, PASA Sustainable Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania Farm Link, and Penn State Extension.