Cheshire Labor and Infrastructure Needs Assessment

Final Report for CNE10-067

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2010: $13,234.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Amanda Littleton
Cheshire County Conservation District
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Project Information

Summary:

The Farm Needs Assessment was a collaborative project between the Cheshire County Conservation District, UNH Cooperative Extension, Land For Good, Antioch University New England, First Course and two local farmers, Tracie Smith of Tracie’s Community Farm and Erin Bickford of Abenaki Springs Farm. For this project, Cheshire County Conservation District hired a Project Coordinator, Sarah Sullivan, in early September 2010.

There were three major parts to this project. The first was gathering information from farmers about their labor and infrastructure needs. We did this through two focus groups. The first one took place in March 2010 on farm labor, and there were 5 farmers who participated. The second was on infrastructure in October 2010. We had 18 farmers from 7 different farm types and 9 different Cheshire County towns. Following the focus groups, we conducted 39 in-depth one-on-one farmer interviews. This phase went from late November 2010 until February 2011. Overall, there were over 45 farmers from Cheshire County who participated in this project. We had farmers from 21 of 23 towns in Cheshire County.

The second piece of this project was research about sustainable labor systems, and what a sustainable labor systems looks like in Cheshire County. This research includes reviewing work from other regions that have looked at this topic, as well as determining what steps need to be taken to create a sustainable labor system in Cheshire County. In addition, Land For Good will be creating an evaluation of suitable properties for meeting labor and infrastructure needs in Cheshire County.

The final piece was compiling and analyzing all of the information from the interviews into a final report. Additionally, the project partners held a Community Forum on April 5, 2011. There were 65 people present to hear results from the project, and to join in small discussions for next steps. There was a mix of farmers, service providers and community members present at the Forum.

Project Objectives:

The objectives we laid out for ourselves at the start of this project were to have:

– 35 farmers have participated in either focus groups or interviews.

– Farmers from at least 20 of the 23 towns in Cheshire County (87%) are represented through the focus groups and interviews.

– Evaluation results are fully analyzed and compiled into a written document that contains specific recommendations for how to best initiate a farm worker training program in Cheshire County.This will be shared with non-profits and municipalities interested in working to support the local agricultural community and provide workforce development.

– As a result of the matrix evaluation, at least 3 suitable property locations are identified for a farm labor training program, farm worker housing, and/or farm distribution and storage infrastructure.

– Over 100 farmers, residents, and officials attend the public forum to learn the needs of farmers in Cheshire County and our recommendations for how to meet those needs. Attendees leave with an
increased understanding of agricultural labor and infrastructure needs in Cheshire County.

Objectives we met or exceeded:

– We had over 45 farmers participate in the focus groups and interviews.

– We had farmers from 21 of 23 (91%) towns in Cheshire County participate either in a focus group or an interview.

– We fully analyzed our results and wrote a comprehensive report that has been distributed to farmers, service providers, non-profit organizations and interested community members. However, there is not a recommendation for a labor training program because there was relatively low interest regarding that for training farm labors, which was the focus of this research.

Objectives we did not quite meet:

– We had a Community Forum on April 5, 2011 with 65 people present. While this is below our goal of 100, we felt that the event was a success. We had farmers, service providers and community members present.

Introduction:

In 2008, the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) was awarded a SARE grant to research the availability of local food products in the Monadnock region and to assess the feasibility of a cooperative food market. This study yielded a surge of community support for local agriculture and launched the Monadnock Farm and Community Connection Co-op Committee, has incorporated as the Monadnock Community Market. Beyond this achievement, the greatest success was the knowledge and insight gained about farmers’ needs, which has served to guide our current and future work.

Two problems we uncovered in our research of the Cheshire County farming community that require further investigation are: the shortage of qualified and affordable farm labor and the lack of infrastructure to allow farms to expand into new markets. These problems are inextricably linked—farm expansion most often requires more labor—and therefore should be looked at in tandem.

This study was designed to explore these two issues in greater depth, with the aim of determining labor and infrastructure needs for farmers in Cheshire County in order to better understand how to promote the economic viability of farms in Cheshire County as
well as farms outside the county. In addition, we looked at the idea of a sustainable labor system, and what it means for Cheshire County.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Bob Bernstein
  • Carl Majewski
  • Libby McCann
  • Denise Meadows
  • Craig Oshkello

Research

Materials and methods:

The Cheshire County Conservation District partnered with Land for Good, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, Antioch University New England, Monadnock Developmental Services – First Course, and farmer consultants to assess the needs of farmers through two focus groups and interviews directly with Cheshire County agricultural producers.

This research was conducted through two focus groups followed by 39 in-depth one-on- one interviews. The process for finding farmers for the interviews and the focus groups was to send a letter and an email to Cheshire County farms in the Cheshire County Conservation District (CCCD) database. The focus groups and interviews were open to
any farmers in the county and the Conservation District strove to interview as many different farm types as possible, as well as to get a geographic variety from throughout the county.

The focus groups were in a fish bowl style with agricultural service providers present. Agricultural service providers are non-farming organizations with an interest in promoting the viability of farms from a variety of different sectors. The first focus group
was on farm labor and it took place in March 2010 and the second focus group was on infrastructure and it took place in October 2010. The interviews were conducted between November 2010 and February 2011. The interviews lasted about one hour each, and had a mix of open-ended and survey type questions

The results from the interviews was analyzed by the project coordinator during March and was written into a comprehensive document which detailed the findings as well as provided recommendations for next steps.

Information gathered during the focus groups and interviews was used to inform criteria used in the next phase of our project—a systematic evaluation of properties in Cheshire County that are suitable to house a farm labor training program as well as infrastructure needed for distribution, storage, and farm worker housing. Craig Oshkello and Bob Bernstein of Land for Good performed a matrix analysis to highlight sites that can support mixed-use development (both commercial and residential at the same location), an option that will most likely be more sustainable than renovating or building several different facilities.

Additionally, the Cheshire County Conservation District did research on various options for how to fairly compensate farm workers for their time and labor. This research focused on what a sustainable labor system is, and steps Cheshire County can take to begin working towards one.

Lastly, the CCCD and other project partners held a Community Forum on April 5, 2011 to disseminate information about the results of our research, to increase the community’s understanding of farmers’ needs, and to gain feedback about our recommendations for farm labor and distribution and storage infrastructure. The first half of the Forum was presentations about the findings from the research. For the second half of the forum, all participants broke into small groups to discuss particular topics from the research. The notes from these small discussions have been included as an appendix in the final report.

Research results and discussion:

The outcomes of this research on farms in Cheshire County may not be immediately tangible because the findings from the research have not yet been put into action. However, this research allowed us to determine the areas of greatest need in terms of farm labor and infrastructure in Cheshire County to tailor future programs to these needs. The impact that it has already had on farmers in the county is to allow farmers to realize that there are many other people in the county who are working through similar issues, and this can allow farmers to work together on common challenges.

The impact on service provider organizations is that they have been able to get first hand knowledge of challenges our farmers are facing. Many of the service providers who attended the Infrastructure Focus Group in October said that it was an incredibly valuable experience for them and many stayed involved in the project through the end. They each have a copy of the report so they can determine which of their programs can best address the challenges farmers are facing.

There were many community members who were at the Community Forum and this was an opportunity for them to learn more about the challenges farmers in our county are facing. This is always a valuable experience because it gives people more perspective around our local food system. Additionally, community members had an opportunity to join farmers in the small group discussions so they had the chance to be part of the brainstorming for next steps.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Throughout this project we did press releases to introduce the project and to keep people informed throughout the project. We announced our focus groups and Community Forum this way to get more public attention. On the Conservation District website (www.cheshireconservation.org), we had a page dedicated to this project that was updated as the project progressed. At the completion of the project, the page for the Farm Needs Assessment is still available and it has a project summary with highlights and outcomes as well as access to download the final report.

Additionally, we sent letters and postcards to every farmer in the CCCD database to inform them of the focus groups, interviews and the Community Forum. These mailings were quite successful and many of our participants responded to these tools.

As well, our final report is available to the public. The response has been very positive so far, so hopefully this report will serve as a helpful resource to future projects.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The components that affected agriculture in Cheshire County are the interviews and focus groups, the final report and the Community Forum. The interviews and focus groups were a great opportunity for farmers to discuss their challenges with each other, during the interviews, in a one-on-one fashion. These opportunities provided farmers with collective knowledge of what is going on with other farmers, as well as allowing them to emphasize issues that are most pressing for them.

The report will have an impact on agriculture in Cheshire County. Many people have already commented on the depth of information and many ideas are bubbling up for where to take this information. In addition, many other counties in New Hampshire are interested in doing similar research and they can build from the work done in Cheshire County. This report will not only be useful for service provider organizations, but also for farmers. This will give farmers the chance to see all the information together in one place. Farmers who were not able to participate in the project will get the chance to read the document and discover common challenges, or find ideas for addressing their challenges.

The third way this project has affected agriculture in Cheshire County is through the Community Forum. There were 65 people present at the forum. From the evaluation forms that people filled out at the end of the night, we can say that people really enjoyed the opportunity to hear about the project as well as be part of discussions for next steps. The most common note on the evaluations is that people wanted more time in small groups. This is positive because it means that people were excited that night, and will carry that excitement forward as new projects emerge from this research.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

This same research could easily be replicated in other parts of the state and the country. We have distributed our report to all other Conservation Districts in New Hampshire. There is supporting material as part of the report, so it can help provide the basis for another area to take this project on. Additionally, a county in Michigan contacted the Cheshire County Conservation District during the project because they wanted to learn more. We have passed our report onto them, and hopefully they will be able to bring a project like this to a new area.

Future Recommendations

Labor Recommendations
1. The first recommendation for labor is more structured help with hiring. This applies to farmers who are just establishing their businesses, but also with farmers who have established businesses, but are struggling to find adequate labor. For farmers who are just starting this process, it would be good to have a “How To” guide for hiring that allows them to successfully start and execute the hiring process. For farmers who are struggling to find adequately skilled labor, there are two approaches that could be helpful. The first idea came from an interview, and it is to create a more robust farm classifieds in Cheshire County. The second idea came from the Community Forum and that is to have a central hiring agency where all farm workers looking for work could apply. The hiring agency would be able to match appropriately skilled workers with farmers,and farmers would be able to focus more on farm work.

2. The next recommendation came from the Community Forum and it is for a labor sharing program through seasons, maybe with another seasonal industry such as ski report. Many farm workers have a difficult time finding income in the off season, and as a result they do not necessarily go back to the same farm year after year. This is difficult for farmers because it means that they have to find a train new employees each year. If there was an established program to help place farm workers in the off-season, there is a greater chance that they would be able to return to the same farm year after year. There is an example of a similar program in Napa California where there is a partnership between a vineyard and an olive grove.

3. The third recommendation is access to health insurance. Many farmers cited ability to health insurance as a large barrier. There was strong interest in a program for collectively purchasing insurance to make it more affordable. In order to make farming a more viable career option, it is important to make access to health insurance more affordable. Wisconsin has a program called Farmers’ Health Cooperative of Wisconsin (www.farmershealthcooperative.com) which allows for collective purchasing of health insurance to reduce costs.

4. The fourth recommendation is more one-day educational programs for farm workers and farmers. There is strong interest in these programs, particularly programs that are gear towards safety (tractor safety, food safety and general safety).

5. The next recommendation is to create a mentor program where experienced farmers can mentor new farmers. There was strong interest from farmers interviewed to serve as mentors to new farmers. This could really help with getting new farmers started in the process of farming. The challenge is to figure out how to structure it so that it works around farm schedules, which might mean that it only runs in the winter, or in slower parts of the year.

6. The final recommendation for labor is creating a stronger connection between schools and farms. There are many reasons to create a stronger link between farms and schools. In terms of farm labor, if children are introduced to agriculture at an earlier age, there is a greater chance that they will be interested in agriculture as a career option. Additionally, there is huge value in connecting children to agriculture so that they grow up with an understanding of where their food comes from, and so that their parents are exposed to it if they have not been before.

Infrastructure Recommendations

1. The first recommendation for infrastructure is to create an equipment rental program that is facilitated by a non-farming entity. Many of the farmers interviewed have equipment needs beyond what they currently have, and renting from a non-farming entity was the most popular idea for how to address this issue. From the Community Forum there was an idea for creating an equipment sharing program such as Green Start (http://www.greenstartnh.org), a program in the Seacoast Region of New Hampshire that has an established equipment sharing program.

2. The next recommendation is to increase access to storage, both on the farm and off the farm. About half of the farmers interviewed need more storage than they currently have and this is an important issue to address. There is a need for both storage on farms as well as centralized storage that is shared between farms.

3. The third recommendation is to create a communication network for shared transport between farms. Additionally, it would be a good idea to look at existing distribution routes to see if there is an opportunity to connect farmers with what already exists.

4. The final recommendation for infrastructure is to create a shared resource for cheese processing in Cheshire County. There is strong interest in starting to produce cheese from a number of farmers in the county, and the major barrier is lack of infrastructure. Creating a resource for farmers to use at a low cost could provide farmers with a means to access markets that they do not currently have access to.

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.