Farm Transition Profile: Teeming with team members
WHEELER, Wis. — Caleb and Lauren Langworthy approached their farm dream like race-car drivers. They assembled a pit crew who could help them get moving and who were invested in seeing them succeed.
The process was multifaceted and, at times, almost haltingly difficult, but Blue Ox Organics now has two experienced, ambitious and able-bodied farmers at the wheel.
In 2010, the Langworthys, native Minnesotans, made their return to the state after gaining experience in sustainable farming in Washington.
"I did five internships while I was getting into sustainable agriculture," said Caleb, 28, "and the finances were the one thing that was often left out. I knew
that was going to be the weak spot."
In Rochester, Caleb was teaching an urban gardening program when he heard of the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings course. He and Lauren, 27, enrolled in the course, and the couple eventually rented land near Eau Claire. They started vegetable production in 2012 and connected with some local markets. It turned out that at one of the co-ops in Eau Claire, they had a worker-owner who delighted in talking about them and the quality of their produce.
"He was huge with helping us connect to a network of people who could help us find long-term access to land," Caleb said.
All his pitching paid off when a couple who were longtime customers of the cooperative told him that they were looking to invest money in an organic farm.
The Langworthys' ability to talk both farming and business and the financial knowledge they picked up in the Farm Beginnings course impressed the investors and made them feel more secure in investing in the pair.
"If we had only been able to speak in terms of farming, I don't know that it would have worked out very well," Lauren said.
"Communication was huge," Caleb said. "We went back and forth with business plans."
After a business plan was settled on, the investors were pretty hands-off. A six-month search for land that covered more than 100 farms finally paid off when they found a 153-acre former dairy farm near Wheeler.
The investors closed on the property in December 2012 and eventually sold it to the Langworthys, providing them a mortgage. Then, the young farmers approached the Farm Service Agency about taking on half of that mortgage through a beginning farmer loan so the private investors could spread the risk.
In the end, the investors used their purchasing power to buy the farm while Caleb and Lauren began the four-month-long process of getting their FSA loan approved.
It's a "split mortgage" with the FSA. The investors have the first lien on the property.
The investors decided that, based on the Langworthys' business plan, the farm would reasonably turn a profit in five years. They also gave them an additional "incidentals loan" to cover fuel and other small costs.
They allowed the young farmers to defer payments on both loans for the first five years while the farm is being established. The interest accruing during those five years will be amortized, and the investors eventually will receive the interest due them.
The Langworthys only need to pay interest on the first year of their FSA loans, a bit of principle and interest during the following two years and then full mortgage payments by year four.
Today, the Langworthys are producing vegetables, launching a Community Supported Agriculture operation and starting an elderberry enterprise. They recently jump-started a sheep operation with 50 ewes. The Langworthys are also enrolled in LSP's Journeyperson Course as a way to further their Farm Beginnings education.
"We always tell people that it took a team to do this," Lauren said.