The Nettle Valley Farm Incubator Program isn’t just a way for Dayna Burtness to pay it forward after her own experience farming at an incubator farm.

It’s also about quality of life and having even more “cool neighbors,” Burtness, who farms with her husband, Nick, in Spring Grove, Minnesota, said during a Practical Farmers of Iowa “farminar” earlier this winter.

Those neighbors currently include Bailey Lutz, who operates Listenmore Farm, and Heidi Eger, who operates Radicle Heart Farm. The two live and farm at Nettle Valley Farm, participating in a work-share arrangement with Burtness and meeting set requirements in exchange for the benefits of the incubator farm program there.

Those benefits, which typically are available for a few seasons, include access to farm infrastructure and land; various tools; rentable equipment; basic business support; low-interest microloans; marketing opportunities and more.

Burtness, who launched Nettle Valley Farm in 2015 and handles its day-to-day operations, finishes heritage breed pigs on pasture at the farm. Since being a part of the incubator farm program, Lutz has raised goats and ducks and Eger has raised sheep and chickens there.

The incubator program is aimed at providing a more protected environment in which beginning farmers are able to make mistakes at low risk.

“I really liked the idea of learning by doing while I could still avoid a lot of really scary risk,” Lutz said

Lutz used the example of starting out last season intending to do half an acre of vegetables and a flock of ducks. Lutz said that being able to abandon the vegetables early in the season without losing investments that would’ve otherwise needed to have been made was something to be thankful for.

Eger said that she appreciated being part of the incubator farm from a land responsibility perspective because she was able to step away and evaluate the experience at the end of the season. She also said that the incubator farm model suited her extroverted personality.

While the incubator farm program at Nettle Valley Farm is still relatively new, Burtness can list several successes stemming from the last season.

A preseason facilitated meeting to set agreements and the designation of an off-farm mediator, which Burtness referred to as a “pressure relief valve” they could turn to if anyone felt something wasn’t working, helped set the stage.

In addition, systems to facilitate their living, eating and working together; mutual support; a blending of the farms’ enterprises; and casual co-marketing were largely successful as well, Burtness said.

“It was a really amazing year, and I think it’s going to be another amazing year,” Burtness said. “It’s hard for me to imagine our farm without the incubator farm program.

Burtness also listed areas where they wanted to improve going forward: vetting candidates (one other candidate didn’t work out), addressing hidden expectations, creating a co-marketing strategy and working through the end-of-season slump were among the opportunities she saw to refine going forward.

“I don’t want to gloss over it and let everyone think that it was all sunshine ... We had disagreements. We stepped on each other’s toes. We had misunderstandings. But I think the commitment at the beginning of the season to engage respectfully in conflict and, you know, proceed with care and compassion really made a big difference.”

While Burtness cautioned that operating a farm incubator program isn’t for everyone, “it’s been a really rich experience” for them, she said.

Going forward, Burtness is considering an on-farm store featuring all the farmers’ products, potentially adding another “incubatee” (only if the exact right one comes along), and improving what they already have.

More on Nettle Valley Farm and their incubator program is available at nettlevalleyfarm.com

This webinar was part of Practical Farmers of Iowa’s winter farminar series. To watch this webinar in its entirety, watch other published webinars or join a future webinar, visit practicalfarmers.org/events/farminars/2020-winter-farminar-series.