First-Generation Farmer Builds From the Ground Up
By the Numbers
According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s most recent Ag Census data, the number of young people entering farming continues to decline, but the number of new farmers and ranchers over the age of 35 as well as the number of smaller farms and ranches nationwide continue to rise.
58: The average age of principal farm operators
40%: Principal farm operators who are 65 and older
10%: Increase in the number of farmers younger than 35 who list farming as their primary occupation
8th: Tennessee’s rank among states with the most beginning farmers
Though he grew up in the rural community of Lawrenceburg, Matt Niswander was anything but a country boy. He was only looking for spending money when he took a summer job at a local farm as a teenager. His experience planted the seeds that would one day turn this city boy into a cattleman.
“When I was 16, I worked on a dairy farm for the summer, milking cows,” he recalls. “Dealing with the cows every day instilled a love of livestock in me.”
Still, farming seemed a faraway prospect.
“I had farming in the back of my mind, but the price of property was beyond reach and my knowledge deficit was huge,” he says. “I knew that getting a college education was the only way to make enough money to start farming.”
After earning a bachelor’s – and later a master’s – degree in nursing, Niswander began working in a family practice in Lawrenceburg. By 2014, the medical field had paved the way for he and his wife, Colbie, to buy a 70-acre ranch, where they raise Black Angus cattle and calves.
“I’m a first-generation cattleman. No one in my family farms, so I don’t have an innate fire burning inside me from generations back,” says Niswander. (Though supportive of his new career, his family jokingly questions his sanity.) “I had no equipment, land or knowledge to inherit. I started from scratch.”
What he did have was a work ethic and the smarts to tap into every available resource. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s educational sessions and cost-sharing – as well as the federal Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program – played a pivotal role in making farming feasible for Niswander.
In addition, he became an active member of the Tennessee Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers program.
“Young Farmers & Ranchers gives you an opportunity to build leadership skills and teaches you to advocate to consumers and non-agriculture groups,” says Niswander, who claimed top prize in the 2017 American Farm Bureau Federation National Discussion Meet. “It’s a must for first-generation farmers.”
Equally important is the informal networking that takes place with fellow farmers, including the patients he sees every day.
“As someone new to farming, you have to reach out to seasoned farmers – neighbors and their network,” Niswander says. “Most have been willing to sit down and take as much time as I need to answer my questions.”
The self-proclaimed “YouTube farmer” also embraces today’s digital tools to start conversations about farming.
“I’m a millennial. I understand the impact social media can have,” says Niswander, who writes a blog and even hosts a radio show. “You’ve got to have a presence on all platforms.”
In spite of the challenges, Niswander encourages others to follow his footsteps into farming. His advice to other first-timers?
Start with a plan, but be flexible. Spend wisely. Understand your markets and diversify if needed – as Niswander did to respond to growing interest in farm-to-table beef.
Ultimately, “hard work and common sense transfer to any field,” he says.
A father to three sons, this first-generation farmer hopes he is not the last in his family to farm.
“I want my farm to be passed down,” Niswander says. “My goal is to make it sustainable so my sons have something to come back to.”
Working full-time as both farmer and nurse practitioner, Niswander’s days are long and his satisfaction runs deep.
“Starting from scratch is as close to impossible as anything I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s also the most rewarding.”
Resources for First-Time Farmers
Tennessee Young Farmers & Ranchers
The Young Farmers & Ranchers program promotes leadership skills for farmers ages 18 to 35. Members share a common bond for the agricultural lifestyle, are interested in leadership development and are dedicated to solving problems facing agriculture. YF&R also provides social activities and competitions that recognize young leaders in agriculture. Learn more at: tnfarmbureau.org/young-farmers-ranchers.
Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP)
To help ensure there will be a new generation of farmers and ranchers, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program provides grants to organizations for education, mentoring and technical assistance initiatives for beginning farmers or ranchers. Learn more at: nifa.usda.gov/program/beginning-farmer-and-rancher-development-program-bfrdp.
Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program (TAEP)
A cost-share program for Tennessee’s agricultural community, TAEP allows producers to maximize farm profits, adapt to changing market situations, improve operation safety, increase farm efficiency and make a positive economic impact in their communities. Learn more at: tn.gov/agriculture/farms/taep.