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WINONA, MN (AP)

A new program by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture seeks to build connections between farmers who are ready to get out of the business and those who want to get in.

The Minnesota Farm Transition Program offers a place where farmers who are ready to retire can connect with beginning farmers who may need help getting past the high capital costs of getting started, Jim Ostlie of the department's Agricultural Marketing and Development Division told the Winona Daily News.

'Our goal is to connect farmers looking to retire that have no heirs, desire to keep their farm in production and are willing to give an opportunity to the right person with a beginning farmer that doesn't have a farm to inherit or take over, nor has the financing to outright buy in or purchase,' he said.

Since the program launched last fall, more than 30 beginning farmers and nine retiring farmers have signed up to participate, and several others are currently working on arrangements. The state is working with farming organizations across Minnesota to get the word out and continue building the program, according to Ostlie.

Beginning farmer Hannah Brotherton of Rollingstone said financial barriers and the learning curve for starting up a farm factored into her decision to sign up for the state program.

'I think it's great that (the state is) pairing people up,' she said. 'It opens up doors to help people who can't get a farm.'

But the department emphasizes that signing up for the program simply creates opportunities, because there aren't any obligations involved until both sides are comfortable.

'It takes quite a while for something to come to fruition,' Ostlie said. 'You want to make sure both parties are secure in what they want to do.'

Ostlie estimates that the process of transferring farm ownership takes five to 15 years. Many beginning farmers start out as the retiring farmer's employee so they can gradually learn the ropes through training and mentoring, and purchase assets.

Art Thicke, a La Crescent farmer who's in his 60s, started looking for a younger farmer who can take over his farm before the state program existed.

Thicke and his wife, Jean, recommend starting early and moving slowly. The couple said a years-long transition is important, because it allows time for both sides to consider the change, especially if something goes wrong.

'You need to start ahead of time,' Jean Thicke said, 'because it might be a trial-and-error situation.'

Art Thicke said he supports the new state program because having something in place to provide more information and make connections is crucial, especially for older farmers.

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