Farmer and community feasibility study

Final Report for CNE07-031

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2007: $3,288.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: Cheshire County Conservation District
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Amanda Littleton
Cheshire County Conservation District
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Project Information

Summary:

This project entails a feasibility study to obtain data on the current availability of local food and farm products in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire. The purpose of this partnership is to enhance the agricultural sustainability of the Monadnock Region to the benefit of the entire community. This includes the gathering of the baseline information to develop a concrete business plan for the creation and implementation of a cooperative market venture between local producers and the community. We identified distinct factions within the local community who are committed to supporting a market that serves the needs of local farmers and citizens. The purpose of this study was to create a greater understanding of how to efficiently and effectively create a venue for local foods and goods, contributing to the overarching goal of strengthening the local agricultural system in the Monadnock community. This work begins to address the problem of local farms having no viable outlet for their commodities and consumers having little awareness of local agriculture and few options to purchase locally produced goods.
This feasibility study addresses three problems. First, there is not a local market or cooperative to make locally grown goods available to the general public at times and places that are convenient to consumers. Second, the community is not aware of the array and quality of area goods. Finally, the majority of assistance provided to area farmers to increase productivity and enhance quality is on an individual basis that is farm-specific and does not address a real problem of marketing and distribution.

Sustainable agriculture is necessary for the health and vitality of the region’s natural resources and relies upon an informed community with active participation to create fair markets tied to the local economy. Agriculture in the Monadnock Region has traditionally been a strong part of the local economy and an integral part of our community. Many of our area farmers struggle to bring their goods to market due to rising operating and transportation costs as well as an inability to be competitive in the broader domestic markets due to the size and scope of their operations. In the five years between 1997 and 2002, Cheshire County saw a 19% loss of cropland to housing and development. This trend will likely continue if the community does not recognize and support local agriculture. With a population of 72,182, Cheshire County, New Hampshire proves a more than ample market to support local producers. Area farmers, however, will not begin producing more food unless there is an awareness of–and a desire for–their goods, and a fair market that can support their expenses. A vibrant and inclusive community requires informed citizens who actively support local farmers and merchants.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of this study are to:
– Conduct farmer/food producer interviews with a representative sample of the Monadnock region’s agricultural community to better understand and document the diversity and abundance of agriculture in the region.
– Create a database of local farms and food products of the Monadnock region.
– Organize and execute two community forums that educate the public, gauge community support, and craft a plan of action to help sustain agriculture and it’s connection with our community.
– Complete comprehensive interviews with managers/board members of five area food cooperatives in an effort to learn from the experience of those with deep roots in the field and an attempt to not recreate their mistakes in our future endeavors

Introduction:

This idea for this feasibility study came to fruition thru the combined efforts and interests of the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD), the City of Keene Planning Department, the Small and Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire, local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) Farms, the University of New Hampshire Co-operative Extension and Hannah Grimes, the sponsor of the region’s Localvore Project. The need exists for an easily accessible venue for local food products in order to facilitate a smooth transition from a global to a local market place. The strategy taken for the feasibility study was a three tiered approach to achieve our objectives: 1.) Conducting farmer/food producer interviews; 2.) Hosting community forums; and
3.) Conducting regional food cooperative interviews. The execution of these activities will create the necessary tools for use by the citizens of Cheshire County who seek to take strides in sustaining local agriculture and weaving together business and community.

Research

Materials and methods:

Farmer/Food Producer Interviews
A database of Cheshire County’s local farms and their products was created, see appendix 1. To initiate this objective a review of existing agricultural guides, created by the NH Department of Agriculture Markets and Food (NHDAMF) and other agricultural producer associations, was conducted as preliminary research to identify the contact information for active farms in the region. An introductory letter describing the grant work and a brief survey was sent out to farmers and food producers (Please see appendix 1). Interested farmers/food producers were contacted for follow up interviews. A press release was also composed and distributed to local media outlets to create community awareness and notify farmers to contact the Conservation District if they would have liked to be involved (Please see appendix 1). Twenty-eight on the farm interviews were conducted between August 2007 and March 2008. For interview questions and results please see appendix 1. The interview questionnaire was developed through a collaboration of efforts between the Cheshire County Conservation District, UNH Cooperative Extension, and Bruce Bickford a local farmer of Abenaki Springs Farm in Walpole NH. The interviews would evaluate local food sources, average annually produced quantities, seasonal fluctuations of produced quantities, challenges to production, markets currently being utilized, and markets that food producers are interested in breaking into.

Community Forums
Two community forums open to the public were organized and executed to enhance community awareness of ongoing efforts to promote and sustain agriculture in our region. The two events were organized and executed by the CCCD. Other sponsors for the event included the Keene Sentinel, UNH Cooperative Extension, Small and Beginner Farmers of NH, The Cheshire County Farm Bureau, the City of Keene, and Hannah Grimes. The first forum was organized to gauge interest and gather concerns, needs, and wants for both farmers and the larger community in regards to the local food system; the second forum was designed to create an action plan to direct the future efforts of the partnership, building upon the information gathered from the formal interviews and the preceding forum.

Lisa Johnson, coordinator of the Valley Food and Farm Program of Vital Communities out of White River Junction Vermont consulted with the Conservation District to plan and to provide direction for both community forums. Both forums gave local food producers the opportunity to set up a table and offer marketing material and free samples to interested community members. At the first forum we had a panel composed of farmers, a restaurant owner, a grocery store owner, and a wholesale distributor. The audience had an opportunity to listen to the challenges and successes of each individual on the panel who worked with getting more local food in their institutions, or in the case of the farmers the audience learned about their successes and challenges of building business relationships with wholesale buying institutions. At this event the community also got an introduction to the project and had the opportunity to work in small groups and do a visioning exercise on what their local food system will look like in 5 years. A survey was conducted after the first forum, please see appendix 2 for questionnaire and results. This survey evaluated the community’s experience at the forum and their interests and desire for more forums, workshops, and informational sessions on related topics

At the second forum we had the opportunity to report back to the community on the results of the farmer interviews and the results of the first community forum’s small group visioning exercise. Juli Brussell of UNH Cooperative Extension was our speaker and she focused on the importance of agriculture to the community and the community to agriculture. The final part of the evening was to build on the visioning work of the first forum. Small groups had the opportunity to work together and create an action plan for strengthening our community’s connection to local agriculture. Participants were able to choose one of nine focus areas to work on that evening: 1.) Land & Labor: Creating links to these resources for farmers and food producers to enable expansion and/or start up of their operation; 2.) Increasing Local Production: Growing CSA’s and farm stands, starting up community gardens, and encouraging backyard gardeners; 3.) Agricultural Commissions: Establishing these in all communities to support agriculture at the town level by advocating for farm friendly zoning, to protect land, and create tax incentives; 4.)Youth Education: Fostering childhood & adolescent connections to agriculture. Through schools, camps, farm visits, extra curricular activities, etc.; 5.) Distribution: Working to connect farms with restaurants, markets, schools, and other institutions in a way that is convenient and effective for all parties; 6.) Farmer’s Market: Support and strengthen current markets and encourage the start up of new markets in communities where this is desired; 7.) Public Education & Outreach: Getting the word out about the importance and enjoyment of eating local! Building on the work of the Localvore Project; 8.) Food Cooperative: The start up of a food coop in Keene that sources from local farmers and food producers; and 9.) Infrastructure: Developing infrastructure for food processing and preservation. Root cellars, slaughterhouses, commercial kitchens for public use, etc. These focus areas were defined by the community in the first forum and each group came up with a list of action steps to make the vision laid out in the first forum a reality for our community’s future. Presentations, activity instructions and results, and other planning documents for both forums may be found in appendix 2.

Food Cooperative Interviews
From January to April, 2008, an assessment was conducted of regional food cooperatives to consider their successes and failures and lessons learned. The managers of five local food cooperatives were visited and interviewed: the Brattleboro Food Co-op, the Putney Food Co-op, the Springfield Food Co-op, Hanover Food Co-op, and the Upper Valley Food Co-op. Each assessment was comprised of background research on the co-op and a one hour-long interview with the manager of each co-op. Some co-ops offered to share their business plan, bylaws, and promotional materials. The interview questions aimed to understand the history of each co-op (i.e. how they started), how start-up capital was raised, how community support was garnered and membership established, how a space was obtained, the purchasing and supply logistics of the co-op, the financial logistics of running the co-op, the structure of each co-op’s Board of Directors, and general advice for start-up groups.

Interview questions were created and compiled with the guidance of Lynda Brushett, Senior Cooperative Development Specialist at the Cooperative Development Institute. The five co-ops interviewed were targeted for the interview based on a variety of factors: experience, success, longevity, a similar cooperative model to the potential Keene co-op, and similar challenges faced in starting a food co-op in Keene. Interview participants were sent the questions prior to the interview in order to gather information and prepare for the interview. Each interview was conducted in person with the co-op manager and sometimes with co-op board members present as well. The interview responses were compiled into an accessible transcript (appendix 3) and will inform the work of the Monadnock Farm and Community Connection’s Coop Committee (see Accomplishments/Potential Contributions section for an overview of the Monadnock Farm and Community Connection, a new program of the Cheshire County Conservation District).

Research results and discussion:
Outcomes and Implacts/ Accomplishments

Farmer/Food Producer Interviews
The farmer/food producer interviews were a great success in the sense that they opened up windows for the agricultural advocacy and activist groups to gain access to the unique perspective of the local farmers. Twenty-eight on the farm interviews were completed with a combined total of 667 years of farming experience. These interviews are a good start to building a relationship with, and better understanding the needs of, the farmers in our region. The CCCD embraces the fact that there is a consistent need for input from local farmers to make sure our efforts are not in vein, but are in fact working toward the goals identified by the farming community that we strive to support. The findings of these interviews were presented at the 2nd community forum to share the farmer’s perspective with the larger community.

Community Forums
Both community forums were very well attended by the citizenry of the Monadnock region. There were approximately 100 people at each forum totaling 200 individuals; and the audience was a healthy combination of farmers and consumers. After the first community forum we surveyed attendees to assess the success of the event and overall the responses were very positive.

Both forums offered a venue for interested parties to come together in support of local agriculture and craft a plan for the future. But, the plan was not the only product that came from the night. The forums were evenings to build community and find common ground among farms, agencies, and community members. Although it is hard to measure a ground swell, we are quite sure these forums served as catalysts of and outlets for the upsurge of interest in our region around rebuilding our local food system. The energy of these nights resulted in numerous partnerships and new initiatives between individuals and organizations that are working toward strengthening our agricultural community.

One of these new initiatives is the Monadnock Farm and Community Connection (MFCC) a volunteer based program of the Cheshire County Conservation District dedicated to increasing public knowledge of the value of local agriculture while supporting the farmers of the region. At the close of the second community forum the CCCD was interested in starting a steering committee that would work on the action plan set forth in both forum 1 and 2. The response to this request from the community was terrific. At the first steering committee meeting we had over 40 individuals in attendance. This is what formed into the Monadnock Farm and Community Connection program. The MFCC has objectives to:
– Foster regional dependence and interdependence through out our farm community
– Shorten the distance, both actual and ideological between producer and consumer
– Create a vibrant network of people and organizations connecting farms and community
– Enable collective action and economic collaboration within our Monadnock Constituency.
This group is now formed into five standing committees: Inventory committee, Infrastructure committee, Education committee, Food Coop committee, and the Steering committee. The groups of volunteers in each of these committees meet monthly to work on projects that will enhance the vitality of our communities by strengthening our connection with local agriculture. Thus far MFCC has had the following accomplishments:
– Feast on This, a Film Festival celebrating Farms, Community, Sustainability, and Health. This was a five day community event with over 150 individuals in attendance.
– A pilot study of six towns to identify and map their agricultural resources.
– Work with the Keene Farmers’ Market to have a graduate student intern assess regional farmers’ markets and make recommendations for future growth and development of their market.
Currently the group is working on other initiatives to strengthen the infrastructure needed for a healthy local food system.

Food Cooperative Interviews
This phase of the overall project represents an important starting point. From here, the development of a food co-op in Keene will be guided and informed by co-ops in the region whose success contributes to the overall sustainability of agriculture and local food production in the Northeast. The collective co-op histories supplement the viability and initiation of successful food cooperatives locally and throughout the country.

The contributions of the co-op interviews has been essential in the development of a food co-op in Keene. Rather than beginning from scratch, the process will be well-informed by the information obtained during the interviews with co-op managers. Interview transcripts have the potential to serve as a “how-to” manual, providing important contacts, resources, logistical and planning strategies, and much more. Furthermore, the relationships that have been forged between the Keene co-op group and other regional co-op are invaluable. For example, larger co-ops such as Brattleboro and Hanover have the resources and capital to support start-up co-ops in a multitude of ways. Managers from both of these co-ops have stated their commitment to encouraging the spread of co-ops throughout the region, and have offered to provide assistance as we continue in our process.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The outreach effort for this project was conducted through several mediums. Notice of the farmer interviews and the community forums was placed in the local newspapers: Keene Sentinel, the Brattleboro Reformer, the Monadnock Ledger, and the Monadnock Shopper. Area radio stations were contacted to announce the forums as a public service for area citizens. There was also a 1 hour radio interview of the Cheshire County Conservation District regarding the project as a whole. There were also advertisements placed in the Keene Sentinel for both community forums that generated great interest from audiences that may be outside of the typical reach of the conservation district and partners. Email campaigns to share information on the project were also launched by the Hannah Grimes Localvore Project and the Cheshire County Conservation District. We have been able to compile a strong list of farms in Cheshire County that has been made available to towns and individuals who are interested in learning more about the local agricultural resources. The coop interviews and summaries are also available for any other groups and individuals who would like to use the work as a resource for their own cooperative endeavors.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

Farmer/ Food Producer Interviews
The need for continued communication between the CCCD and the farmers of Cheshire County is strong. Our desire to work with the farming community in strengthening our local food economy must be rooted in understanding. We must recognize the needs of the farms before we can help find or assist in creating the resources that will satisfy those needs. To continue the dialogue started in the 2007-2008 interviews the CCCD will be conducting farmer focus groups over the winter and spring of 2009. These focus groups will concentrate on identifying the barriers that stand in the way of a strong local food system and the potential solutions to removing the barriers. The input from these focus groups will guide the direction of the CCCD and the work of the MFCC volunteer network for the year to come.

Community Forums
The Monadnock Farm and Community Connection program of the CCCD that grew out of the community forums is working toward a thriving local food economy that adds vitality to our region. The next steps of this program will be guided by farm focus groups and expressed community needs. The work of the committed volunteers is fantastic. Though, only so much can be done with volunteer work alone. The steering committee of MFCC will be actively seeking grant funds to create a position to help facilitate the committees and supplement the work of the volunteers. The CCCD and the education committee will continue to hold community forums and educational events to keep the larger community engaged.

Food Cooperative Interviews
The next logical step in the co-op development process entails gathering community support and forming a core group and a Board of Directors. Directly following the formation of a Board of Directors, the co-op should incorporate (create a legally recognized and protected cooperative business) and form an escrow account so that members may begin investing. The first major undertaking that involves significant capital will be hiring a consultant for market research. Following the market research, the core group will work to raise funds to secure a building.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.