EDITOR'S NOTE: Aimee Finley is seeking re-entry into grass-based dairying, and is a program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project as well as a business owner in St. Charles. For more on Land Stewardship Project, go online to landstewardshipproject.org.

Can I really start dairy farming in this day and age?

Recently, over 60 current and aspiring farmers attended a series of workshops in southeast Minnesota sponsored by the Land Stewardship Project, which I helped facilitate.

Here are some of the questions people were asking: How many cows will I need to make this full time? How many acres will it take? How much money will I need to make to be successful, pay the bills and be happy? How do I even begin?

I have been asking myself the same questions. After graduating from college in 2003, I jumped head first into grass-based dairying with 17 cattle I had previously owned a few old pieces of equipment. I added more cattle and equipment to make my farming dream a reality.

After seven years I was almost entirely debt-free on my cattle and equipment. Unfortunately, due to long-term goals that differed from those of the landowner, it became apparent that I needed to find a better place for my operation.

Suddenly, access to land became my biggest barrier.

After over three years of investigating opportunities with no result, I ended up having to sell the herd. Three more years have passed since the cows were sold and I am finding that this passion to farm is as strong as ever.

Many others in our community, and across the country, know one of the biggest and most daunting challenges to pursuing our farming dreams is access to land.

Land sales and auctions in Winona County have reached record highs of up to $10,000 per acre - this is far more than the productive value of the land. Given this current reality, it seems almost impossible to cash flow a start-up dairy operation.

Seek similar values

So how can I (and others) actually get a start? The biggest source of encouragement was through stories experienced farmers shared at the workshops about their own start- ups.

These farmers faced similar land access challenges when they started farming, and said a key element was finding another farmer with similar values.

The farmers that helped them get started were driven by the satisfaction to see others maintain intimacy with a particular piece of land they themselves developed a relationship with over many years.

The retiring farmers could see the swing in the yard come alive again with the energy of children. They could see these same children attend the public school and community church their own children attended. The community and farm would continue on for another generation.

This value far outweighs any monetary value for these farmers. An important consideration was that the retiring farmers needed to be able to retire with security and what they "needed," not just what they could "get" for the land.

Other resources available

Another encouraging piece that came out of these workshops was the amount of resources and networks available to beginning farmers. I know this firsthand. To be successful, you have to continue to educate yourself and surround yourself with others who also want to see you succeed. For me, the support has come through experienced farmers as mentors and being a part of a beginning farmer grazing group.

The Midwest is lucky to have many strong organizations that are prioritizing the need for beginning farmer educational programs through courses, conferences, workshops and field days. We as a community have a call and a need to invest in these programs that support beginning farmers.

I'm excited that there are now proven successful models on how to start a profitable, low-cost grass-based dairy -- there's no need to reinvent the wheel. A couple that come to mind are Iowa State University Extension's grass-based dairy initiative, and an apprenticeship program offered by GrassWorks, Inc. in Wisconsin.

I am energized by the fact these recent Land Stewardship Project workshops were filled with others that have a drive to farm and who, like me, believe grass-based dairy is financially viable. But this brings us back to the issue of where these innovative farmers will call home.

Southeast Minnesota and the surrounding regions have a rich agricultural history. A strong network of support for beginning farmers is key to attract and retain these community members and business owners.

In order to attract beginning farmers to southeast Minnesota, we all need to begin thinking creatively as a community about landowners and beginning farmers and how to connect them. I encourage all of us -- both landowners and non-landowners -- to start a dialog on what we value in our community. Let's draw on our wisdom and rich farming history, and make our region a model for other rural communities across the nation looking to support beginning farmers.