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NEW GLARUS

On a 10-acre farm near New Glarus, Drew and Jaime Baker raise chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs and sheep. They also grow vegetables for 30 families that are regular customers. That's a lot for a young couple on a small farm, especially considering they both work off-farm jobs.

'We are pretty new to the farming game,' Jaime said, noting that she is from Milwaukee and Drew is from Sturgeon Bay.

Jaime is one of 17 farmers, nationwide, recently accepted into a program that mentors people on a wide range of agricultural practices. Moreover, six of the 17 participants in the Beginning Farmers Institute class of 2016 are from Wisconsin.

The program is sponsored by the National Farmers Union and is purposely kept small so that participants can better interact with the instructors and learn from each other.

'This is the biggest class we have ever hosted. We get more applications than we can accept,' said Tom Driscoll, the union's director of conservation policy and education.

The program doesn't have a strict definition for 'beginning farmer.' Instead, the emphasis is on how someone would benefit from the training, what they could offer others in the classes and how they would share what they learned afterward.

The Bakers were in the food service industry before they became farmers. Among other jobs, Jaime was a manager at a Whole Foods store and a Starbucks coffee shop. Drew was a cook for Bartolotta Restaurants.

They wanted careers where they could work from home, have their own business and still be involved with food - now at a grass-roots level on the farm.

Earning a living on a farm is difficult these days, however, given that commodity prices are low and there's intense competition among small farms that provide products direct to the public and local restaurants.

'When we first started, I think our family thought we were nuts. But they really see it and get it now. It's always been about our family,' Jaime said.

Near Beloit, Dane and Betty Anderson are carving out a living on a 40-acre farm called The Old Smith Place.

Betty, a U.S. Navy veteran of 12 years, also is enrolled in the Beginning Farmers Institute.

'This is a wonderful opportunity to connect with people from across the country. It is just a super blessing,' Betty said.

The Andersons raise fruit and vegetables for a farmers market. Like the Bakers, they have kept off-farm jobs while they build up their farming business.

'If we don't end up making a living off the farm, we really hope that we will leave the place a little better than when we found it,' Betty said.

In Amherst, Tommy and Samantha Enright raise chickens, turkeys, ducks and rabbits on their Black Rabbit Farm. They also grow vegetables, and they sell their goods to restaurants and at a farmers market.

Tommy grew up in De Pere and worked in the music industry in Seattle before he and Samantha returned to Wisconsin in 2013 to become farmers.

Tommy, enrolled in the Beginning Farmers Institute, is the production manager at a specialty coffee roaster. Samantha also has an off-farm job as a medical assistant.

The young couple have a 6-month-old son and a baby on the way. They're both first-generation farmers.

'We are kind of learning as we go. Between family life, my job and the farm, I am pretty much going nonstop,' Tommy said.

None of the Wisconsin participants in this year's Beginning Farmers Institute is a dairy farmer. There are other training programs for them, although the dairy industry also is worried about cultivating the next generation of farmers and leaders.

How do farming leaders persuade people to enter the career field at a time when so many have retired or left for another way to make a living?

'That's a huge problem, and it's one that we hope to address through (farm) policy advocacy. We are very lucky in this country that so many people still feel passionately about farming. They cannot imagine themselves doing anything else,' said Driscoll with the farmers union.

The only cost for participants in the Beginning Farmers Institute is a $100 registration fee. Other costs, including travel expenses, are covered by the program's sponsors. In previous years, participants formed lasting relationships and even discussed going into business together. They addressed issues they had in common, such as how to control costs and market their products.

About 10 miles from Stevens Point, Chris Holman's Nami Moon Farms raises poultry, meat, vegetables, mushrooms and honey that's sold to Madison-area restaurants.

Holman completed the Beginning Farmers Institute program in 2014. Holman and Maria Davis run their 41-acre farm that they started while he was preparing for a doctoral degree in Arabic studies.

Holman, originally from Oceanside, Calif., was an Arabic linguist in the U.S. Army for six years.

He and Davis raised 3, 600 chickens in their farm's first year. The catalyst for their business came from a Madison restaurant that wanted poultry raised in a natural way.

Now, in their seventh year, 'Our farm is going strong,' Holman said. 'Instead of trying to grow the farm to be bigger and bigger, we are kind of refining what we do.'

Holman said he formed friendships in the Beginning Farmers Institute program that also have sharpened his business skills. 'To this day, we still communicate with each other on a regular basis, and we help each other out with our businesses,' Holman said.

His class, like the 2016 class, had participants from across the country representing a wide range of agricultural practices, including big, conventional farms.

Farmers from large and small operations don't always see eye-to-eye on issues.

'We don't agree on everything, but we are a very strong group,' Holman said about his Beginning Farmers Institute class.

He added: 'We have relationships that are hard to find. We can weather disagreements, have difficult conversations and still be friends. We respect each other, and that's the direct result of having had a shared experience.'

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'When we first started, I think our family thought we were nuts. But they really see it and get it now. It's always been about our family.' Jaime Baker, who runs a 10-acre farm with her husband. Both also have off-farm jobs.

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