Background of the Course
Exploring the Small Farm Dream was created to meet a gap that the New England Small Farm Institute identified in its business training program.
In 1998, NESFI first offered a business planning course for small farm start-ups. Aspiring farmers from southern New England and eastern New York eagerly enrolled in the ten-session course. Using the nationally acclaimed NxLeveL™ Guide for Business Start-up, participants attended weekly evening classes and completed sizeable homework assignments. Their commitment was exemplary; many traveled long distances to attend the course. All participants received a firm grounding in the “business side” of being an agricultural entrepreneur. Yet, at the end of the course, few participants had been able to complete a full business plan.
NESFI program staff wondered if a curriculum focused more explicitly on agricultural issues might address this problem and were pleased to be invited by the University of Nebraska to join other service providers from across the US to develop and pilot a new NxLeveL™ curriculum, Tilling the Soil of Opportunity, funded by the National Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NSARE) program. NESFI instructors helped to shape course material to meet the needs of business start-ups and to reflect Northeast farming opportunities, and offered the new business planning course in 1999. As before, aspiring farmers enrolled from across the region and completed coursework with dedication. But, once again, few participants were able to complete full business plans. By agreement, many preferred to submit a written “business concept” or idea.
Based on these experiences, a survey of course participants, and notes from close-out interviews, we learned that many who had been drawn to the courses were really at the “pre-venture” stage of business development. A course in which the goal was a completely developed business plan did not really meet their needs. We decided that a NxLeveL™ “prequel”—a decision-making workbook and short course—was needed, and Exploring the Small Farm Dream was born. After pilot courses in 2000 - 2002, and with extensive feedback from users, the full workbook was created and the four-session course format was adopted in 2003.