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New farmers band together in N.H. for knowledge, equipment

  • Monica Rico lays hay down to mulch her garlic crops at the field of organic vegetables that she tends with her mother Denise on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Monica Rico lays hay down to mulch her garlic crops at the field of organic vegetables that she tends with her mother Denise on Friday morning, November 29, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Sun hits the leaves of kale growing at Monica and Denise Rico's organic vegetable farm on Friday morning, November 29, 2013 in Hopkinton. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Sun hits the leaves of kale growing at Monica and Denise Rico's organic vegetable farm on Friday morning, November 29, 2013 in Hopkinton.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Denise Rico helps her grandson Adrian, 5, remove a shovel that was frozen into the ground while tending to their organic vegetable field on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Denise Rico helps her grandson Adrian, 5, remove a shovel that was frozen into the ground while tending to their organic vegetable field on Friday morning, November 29, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Denise Rico uses her tractor to move some hay that she'll use for mulch at her organic vegetable farm in Hopkinton on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Denise Rico uses her tractor to move some hay that she'll use for mulch at her organic vegetable farm in Hopkinton on Friday morning, November 29, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Monica Rico lays hay down to mulch her garlic crops at the field of organic vegetables that she tends with her mother Denise on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Sun hits the leaves of kale growing at Monica and Denise Rico's organic vegetable farm on Friday morning, November 29, 2013 in Hopkinton. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Denise Rico helps her grandson Adrian, 5, remove a shovel that was frozen into the ground while tending to their organic vegetable field on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Denise Rico uses her tractor to move some hay that she'll use for mulch at her organic vegetable farm in Hopkinton on Friday morning, November 29, 2013. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

In 2011, when Ray Conner interviewed to become the beginner farmer coordinator at New Hampshire’s chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, she had only been working her own farm in Pittsfield for one year.

“One of the questions they asked was . . . ‘How are you going to know what the needs of beginners are?’ ” Conner said recently.

“I said, ‘Because I’m a beginner.’ ”

She got the job.

Conner, formerly an adventure educator who made her living sailing the world, is a Miami transplant to New England and was a farming novice when she and her husband bought their 40 acres three years ago. Now 32, she and her husband raise pigs and sell produce at Evandale Farm in Pittsfield.

And at the organic farming group, NOFA-NH, she’s also growing the network of growers in New Hampshire, helping new farmers succeed in their professional field – and their physical fields.

A 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture study estimated between 26 and 40 percent of New Hampshire farms are run by a beginner, or someone who has been in the business for 10 years or less. Conner said she spent her first year on the job at NOFA-NH just meeting new farmers in the state, visiting their fields and talking to them about their work. And last month, Conner was sitting near the window at The Works Bakery Cafe in downtown Concord, moving her hands in quick rhythm with her words as she gushed about NOFA-NH’s program,

when she stopped midsentence to point out the window.

Monica Rico, one of those beginner farmers, was on the sidewalk just outside the coffee shop.

Conner began to laugh as she waved Rico inside.

“I get to meet some of the most cool people in New Hampshire. . . . You have no idea how many farmers there are everywhere,” Conner said.

‘Stunning’ carrots

As she prepared for the first growing season at Terra Organics in 2012, Denise Rico pored over spreadsheets and farming books and charts from other farmers across the country.

But as she and her 30-year-old daughter, Monica Rico, close their fields for winter, they can finally plan for next year with their own numbers from Terra Organics, the farm they run together in Hopkinton.

“This year, we have real data,” Denise said last week on their farm, her pride easy to detect in her voice.

Denise Rico, 57, worked in landscaping for years. When she bought an 11-acre piece of land by the Blackwater River to grow organic food instead of flowers, Monica Rico quit an office job in Concord to join her mother.

They started growing a range of produce, such as watermelon, kale and carrots – “stunning,” Denise called them. And they had no idea what they were doing.

“There’s a huge learning curve,” Monica Rico said. “We continue to learn a lot from other farmers. . . . It’s priceless to talk to someone who has 30 years’ experience. That’s nothing you can learn in a book.”

So they attended NOFA-NH workshops and took classes through the UNH cooperative extension and worked the farmers markets. Most importantly, they met friends at those workshops, classes and markets who helped them learn – and some who even helped them by agreeing to jointly purchase expensive farm equipment to share between farms.

Monica Rico eyed the last of the kale in her field and checked her pockets for a business card for one of the farmers she met – Aaron Lichtenberg, who began Winnipesaukee Woods Farm a few years ago in his backyard in Alton Bay. Now, he calls himself a “commuter farmer,” renting land on someone else’s farm in Gilford so he can grow more of his vegetables without needing to buy an expensive piece of property.

Farming “helps me sleep at night,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily help me pay my bills all the time.”

Lichtenberg, 36, just began the two-year Journeyperson program hosted by NOFA-NH, which formally pairs him with a mentor who is a more experienced farmer. The mentor earns a stipend, and Lichtenberg receives money to spend on further education and business planning. He has found friends and older farmers to be a great resource, he said, and he was anxious to keep learning from someone who could expect his questions about the price of kohlrabi or plant classifications.

“Networks of other people that you can either place a phone call or an email to, those have been . . . an invaluable resource for me,” he said.

A ‘starter farm’

When Boscawen couple Michael Hvizda and Ryan Ferdinand bought their home in 2010, they weren’t scouting for granite countertops or counting bathrooms.

They were looking for a “starter farm,” said Ferdinand, 32. They eventually found the 5-acre property that became their Phoenix Hill Farm, but it wasn’t easy.

The USDA has found two primary barriers for beginner farmers and ranchers to be high startup costs and a lack of available land to purchase or rent, and a 2011 study by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition shows 68 percent of farmers ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners.

“We just kept networking with beginning farmers and learning more and more that . . . there was a lack of people helping people access land,” Ferdinand said last week.

So when they’re not raising pigs and poultry on the farm, Hvizda works with farm buyers and sellers at Keller Williams Realty in Bedford, and his wife is working on her own real estate license. They also host seminars across the state on land access and financing a farm, which are promoted by NOFA-NH.

As a real estate agent, Hvizda works with beginner farmers like Joel and Annalisa Miller, who started Wind Miller Gardens four years ago, just selling a small crop of garlic. Now, the Millers use draft horses and traditional farming tools to grow a variety of vegetables on land that they rent.

“There’s something very real about that that spoke to both of us, I think, relearning the traditional skills of draft horses at the same time we’re relearning the traditional skills of gardening,” Joel Miller said.

Now the Millers have expanded with the birth of a daughter named Ayla, and they want to buy their own property. So they’re asking friends and real estate agents like Hvizda questions about local soil and farmers markets, looking to move off the starter farm and find their next place.

“It’s very complicated,” Hvizda said. “It’s much more complicated than, I want to buy this house in Bedford for $300,000 and it’s on a 1-acre lot. That’s easy compared to the (market). Farms, every single one is different.”

Driving the tractor

In the downtown cafe, Monica Rico and Conner chatted briefly about winter preparations and planned a future visit to Terra Organics in Hopkinton. This is how they make their businesses work, by finding each other on the sidewalk and asking questions, by being beginners together.

And Conner was appointed to the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers in September, so she’ll continue to help beginner farmers by talking about being one of them.

“Deeply, deeply, I think those connections are a huge part of how (beginner) farmers learn,” Conner said. “They don’t have Grandpa or Mom to teach them how to drive the tractor. You can read and read and read and even attend workshops, but that one-on-one you’re looking for . . . that is irreplaceable.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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