Counting Sheep: Entrepreneurship Grant Helps Young Farmers Grow Small Businesses

Don’t try to pull the wool over the eyes of this budding entrepreneur. Austin VanHouten knows a little something about sheep.

The 15-year-old plans to transition his sheering skills into a small business or, at the very least, a seasonal job. To help him get started, the Douglas County Farm Bureau awarded the upstart executive a $1,300 Young Entrepreneurship Grant that he will use to purchase a shearing motor, clippers and accessory tools.

Matthew Brady, the vice president of the Douglas County Farm Bureau, told the Capital Press the grant program assists high school-aged youth to overcome some of the financial obstacles involved with initiating an agricultural project. A previous recipient of the entrepreneurship grant applied the funds to start a small business and purchase asparagus starts, soaker hoses and assorted accessories.

According to the Labor Department, the median age for farmers and ranchers is 55.9 years, second only to “motor vehicle operators” who have a median age of 59.2.

Ben Barron counts himself among the “lost generation” of farmers. Between his job and family, he doesn’t have the time to build a full-time farm. The 39-year-old works at a 2,000-acre organic row crop operation in southwest Missouri with two others and his boss. By his estimates, starting a 15- to 20-acre farm would cost between $100,000 and $300,000, a high price to ask of lenders more interested in more stable markets.

The good news GrantWatch, lists for small businesses, particularly those that are women and minority-owned. Some funding opportunities may help start a farm or small agricultural business. Grants may cover the cost of purchasing land, seed, equipment and the workforce to assist with an eventual harvest. Most agencies will require a small business plan before offering grant assistance.

VanHouten had both the background and an idea. He recognized a need and opportunity when he helped his grandparents tend to their flock in Oakland, Ore. As a member of the Heavenly Ranchers 4-H Club, he slick-sheared numerous lambs for entry at the annual Douglas County Lamb Show.

Shearing can be difficult and back-breaking work and of little interest to most high school students. But, not to VanHouten, who participated in a four-day class to improve his craft by sheering up to 50 sheep a day. With a current flock of 15 ewes, he plans to continue shearing, save money for college and, following graduation, start his own sheep, cattle and pig operation.

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