Final Report for CNE13-110

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,716.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Grant Recipient: Vital Communities
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Beth Roy
Vital Communities
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Project Information

Summary:

The FarmRaiser is a farm-based alternative fundraiser which builds markets for local farms while providing families with fresh local farm products. During 2013, using funding from SARE-SC and private foundations, Vital Communities investigated, planned, tested, and carried out FarmRaisers in partnership with five Vermont Elementary Schools and 14 Vermont farms. Participating farms together grossed approximately $4654, schools grossed approximately $1555. Do-It-Yourself FarmRaiser toolkits comprised of promotional materials designed by the Center for Cartoon Studies and tools requested by schools and farms are now available on our website for free download.

 

Over two years of work, we have seen that FarmRaisers offer another point of connection between schools and their local farms; that they address a strong desire for local, healthy, and useful fundraising choices; and that they are met with enthusiasm by school staff, parents, and farmers. FarmRaisers are not yet generating significant funds for schools or most farmers, but this is not a concern for participants.

Project Objectives:

Objective One: “Based on market research, we will work with the Center for Cartoon Studies, a nearby school offering applied and graduate degrees in the field, to develop and test Do-It-Yourself templates for implementation and evaluation for farmers and schools as well as “kid-friendly” marketing materials with educational information about nutritional and environmental FarmRaiser benefits.”

  • We undertook market research using the Community Based Social Marketing model. We were able to hold focus groups at four schools and, based on focus group results, build a survey deployed electronically, on paper, and/or in person at three schools.
  • All our contacts were interested in trying one of two styles of FarmRaiser: 1) A single farm offering or 2) a multiple farm offering. No school expressed interest in educational information to accompany the brochure save recipes to assist families with using new veggies.
  • Using the information gathered via the research phase, we worked with faculty and an alumnus from the Center for Cartoon Studies to create a logo, a short comic, a brochure, a small poster, and several stand-alone images which can be easily replicated in school offices and adapted by FarmRaiser coordinators. These are attached.
  • In winter 2013-14 we created a toolkit of FarmRaiser materials on our website, which includes the promotional materials and order forms developed with the Center for Cartoon Studies; instructions for developing a FarmRaiser at your school and tips.

 

Objective two: “Pilot the FarmRaiser at five schools.”

  • In early 2013 we met with our collaborators at Upper Valley Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) and Upper Valley Farm to School Network and built a short list of likely early adopter schools. We had additional funding from the Vermont Community Foundation which limited us to Vermont schools and farmers.
  • We reached out to the short list and started discussions with ten schools in all grades. Confirming participants took longer than we had anticipated, but we confirmed five elementary schools as 2013 partners. These were the schools of Sharon, Hartland, Bradford, Newbury, and Quechee, VT. These schools in turn suggested 33 participant farms, which Vital Communities then solicited. A total of 14 farms were interested and able to follow up, and sold products to the schools. All five schools and 14 farms completed their sales and delivery. Three New Hampshire schools also did FarmRaisers, two for the second time and one for the first time, all with the same NH farm. We assisted minimally with these FarmRaisers, which either did not need much help or were assisted by Upper Valley Healthy Eating Active Living.

 

Objective three: “Develop and launch accompanying curricular activities at five schools through Upper Valley Farm to School Network.”

  • The Upper Valley Farm to School Network supports our region’s schools in pursuing farm to school work that best suits their unique situation. Each school integrated the FarmRaiser into their Farm to School (FTS) activities in a different way, appropriate to their own FTS programming. It became clear through the project duration that the FarmRaiser is a great fundraiser for farm to school programs themselves, though it is not always used for that purpose. In fact, we found that although we approached this project as a market outlet for farmers, almost all the participants (both farms and schools) see it as a point of connection rather than profit, and it is turning into a farm to school tool. Curricular examples included: Sharon Elementary students read the brochure, identified the farm products (e.g., the difference between an acorn and butternut squash), and sorted the orders which required math and other skills. Hartland Elementary School’s FarmRaiser farms included those selling directly to the cafeteria, including a beef farmer who supplies the school’s ground beef. Bradford Elementary integrated the FarmRaiser pickup at their annual Harvest Dinner. Newbury Elementary used the FarmRaiser delivery as the basis for a celebratory event including hayrides, cider pressing, local product sales, crafts, and live music by their principal. They launched their Sustainable Newbury and farm to school programs with this event and the FarmRaiser.
  • During the year of the grant, Upper Valley Farm to School Network requested to merge with Vital Communities’ Valley Food & Farm program and was approved to do so. FarmRaisers will now fall into Farm to School programming.

 

Performance Targets:

“Total direct FarmRaiser sales between five schools and 3-10 farms gross $25,000 overall and at least $3,000 per farm.”

 We engaged five new schools in 2013; together the schools worked with 14 distinct farms. The total gross sales to farms were $4394.

 Several factors resulted in a different total gross for 2013:

  • One is a math error at the time of the funding application. Our experience in Canaan, NH had shown that a farm selling mixed boxes of produce at $30 a box could gross around $2000-3000 from a FarmRaiser at a small school. The one farm selling mixed boxes in Vermont did in fact gross approx $2000 by selling two sizes of box to 86 customers. If each of five schools had chosen the mixed-box model, farms would have grossed potentially $15,000. We apologize for the error.
  • A second factor in the gross sales variance is that four schools wanted to offer a multi-farm “a la carte” ordering to their communities. We supported this. We heard in focus groups and surveys that affordability, choice, and supporting multiple farm businesses were important to school community members. We thought ‘a la carte’ would increase participation, offer low-cost entry points for buyers, expose more farms to more buyers. This was all true, however, the profit for both school and farm was much lower than the ‘mixed box’ model.
  • Farms in the ‘a la carte’ model offered 1-4 products , Their gross ranged from $6-250, 20-30 families participated at each school and bought 1-10 items per order, and schools grossed $140-300. Schools set their markup, and the amount ranged but was never more than 34%
  • Farms using the ‘box’ model choose a price ranging from $25-40 per box and the schools are adding a $5 markup per box. It’s difficult to assess how many discreet families are buying the boxes but we do know 70 total boxes are a typical sale.

 

“Indirect sales attributed to relationships developed during this project resulted in $1,000 per farm and $5,000 overall. This may include new farm-to-institution sales or retail customers attracted through the FarmRaiser.”

  • As mentioned above, confirming participating schools took longer than we had anticipated. Contact with farm partners appropriate to the schools took place starting in the very busy time of May and continued through the summer. The timing limited farmer ability to develop a marketing plan, sales and marketing targets, all of which were benchmarks for our performance targets.
  • We evaluated the project with participant farmers in late 2013. All were wrapping up the season and any indirect sales related to FarmRaiser would occur in spring 2014. There was no method of knowing the indirect sales for the farms new to FarmRaising in 2013. We can extrapolate from one farm in Enfield, NH which did a second round of FarmRaisers in 2013 estimated 2-3 new CSA members garnered from FarmRaiser relationships. At his lowest CSA share price this would equal $1134 in indirect sales attributed to FarmRaiser-related market exposure.

 “During business plan development, all farms will set their own minimum sales and marketing targets for the project. Our overall goal will seek an increase in quantifiable marketing value for each participating farm– i.e., farm newsletter signups, farm Facebook “likes,” etc. For instance, Blue Ox Farm might set a goal of $3,000 in direct sales, two indirect CSA sign-ups, and market exposure to 500 potential new customers.”

  • Due to the unexpectedly condensed timeline mentioned above, farms were not prepared to set sales targets. We can extrapolate qualitative information from initial conversations and evaluative conversations.
  • We will not know indirect effects of FarmRaiser participation until a farm has been selling for two-three years.
  • Farmers were willing to participate in a FarmRaiser without any guarantee of minimum sales during the FarmRaiser itself. For most farms, the project is part of general community market exposure.
  • Ensuring that the farms get the best marketing exposure from the FarmRaiser is a key component to work on with both farmers and school champions. With busy farmers and busy school parents, important non-essential details can fall by the side. Despite reminders, not all farms took advantage of this friendly, captive audience except in that their products were clearly labeled. Some farms who wanted to attend pickup hours were either busy or not invited with enough advance notice.
  • Participating farms have a wide range of marketing tools and experience. The FarmRaiser tool kit needs to include prompts and suggestions for both farms and schools about promoting the participating farms beyond the FarmRaiser sales. One customer commented on the follow-up survey, ““Some of the items I purchased, I really liked. Where are the products sold locally?” This illustrates a messaging gap that we will continue to address with materials and assistance to farmers.

 

“Post-purchase surveys will be issued to FarmRaiser consumers. Of these consumers, we anticipate that at least 10% will self-identify as new purchasers of local food;”

  • Disappointingly, we were unable to gather significant data from FarmRaiser consumers. We posted an online survey link and created paper survey forms, and provided those to the school champions. We offered respondents a chance to win a gift certificate to a restaurant. The Champions wanted to be the primary contact for disseminating the survey. After the FarmRaiser was over, families were not motivated to respond, or responding was too complicated. We received a total of 35 responses to our survey, most of these from 2 of the 5 schools. Responses were positive, with 23 respondents indicating the FarmRaiser increased the amount of locally grown food the family ate in the fall; 21 reporting exposure to a new farm; and 22 indicating the project helped them meet healthy eating goals.
  • Positive comments included, “The products I ordered were much fresher and tastier than grocery store items.” “Loved it! Great organic food at reasonable prices.”

 “Of participating farms, 75% indicate the project worthwhile and welcome working with additional schools;”

  • 100% of the farms said they wanted to do the FarmRaiser again. In general farms would welcome working with additional schools if the schools were geographically nearby or on an established delivery route.

 

“Publications and/or Web communications developed include: Materials to market the program to schools; Assessment materials for farmers and schools; Year 1 evaluation report for dissemination to funders, including evidence to support the value of Farm to School to districts and families.”

  • Publications are available on our website, including marketing materials, assessment materials and guidelines, guidelines for doing your own FarmRaiser. Annual reports to funders were sent in December/ January 2014.

Introduction:

Introduction

Every year, school-affiliated groups raise money for school activities by asking students to sell candy or merchandise. Parents, schools, and farmers want a locally-owned, healthy, and useful fundraising option that better reflects a commitment to local businesses and child health.

 

Vital Communities and community partners have been developing the FarmRaiser, an alternative that builds markets for local farms while providing families with useful fresh local farm products. FarmRaisers are based on a successful 2012 experiment at the Canaan, NH, Elementary School PTA, where students sold mixed boxes of produce from a nearby farm. We sought to further develop farm-based fundraisers as new sales opportunities and market connections for farms, which keep dollars circulating locally, invest in farm businesses, and establish farm products as a fundraising resource. Through measured expansion of the concept, we are readying it for adoption throughout the 69 communities that comprise our region of the Upper Connecticut River Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire. SARE-SC covered development of user friendly Do-It-Yourself materials and protocols, tested by expansion of the pilot to five Vermont schools, and posted to our website.

 

We have learned that FarmRaisers can meet school wellness goals and create strong farm-to-community connections, while providing a learning opportunity for children, a food access point for parents and staff (in some cases eliminating shopping trips altogether), and a business opportunity for farms. During 2013, Vital Communities investigated, planned, tested, and implemented FarmRaisers in partnership with five elementary schools and 14 farms in Vermont. Together, schools grossed approximately $1,560 and farms $4,650. Responses from both schools and farmers have been overwhelmingly positive. In January 2014, Vital Communities made available on its website a Do-It-Yourself toolkit that includes promotional materials designed by the Center for Cartoon Studies and tools requested by schools and farms. These tools are available for free download at www.vitalcommunities.org

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Phil Bush
  • Laura Dintino

Research

Materials and methods:

Our methodology for choosing schools and designing materials and outreach to schools is described in Outcomes, above.

 It was clear from early discussions that some schools were interested in offering boxes of mixed vegetables from one farm (a system used in our New Hampshire pilot experience) and others wanted to offer a selection of products from multiple farms (a system we termed ‘a la carte’). The delay in confirming participating schools, and the delay in some cases in deciding what type of FarmRaiser to offer, changed the timing and hence the character of our work with farmers. One school offered a box of veggies, and the match between their (second choice) farm and school was quick and easy to make. The other four schools wanted to offer the sales opportunity to multiple farms in their community. We emailed farms in May, but waited until the end of June to begin phone calls as almost all the farms were produce farmers and phone calls would have been ineffective in May/June. See Outreach section for more detail on farmer outreach.

Research results and discussion:

Over 150 families purchased local farm products from 14 farms, using the tools and templates developed during and prior to this grant period. All schools plan to repeat the FarmRaiser in 2014. All farms are interested in selling in 2014. All farms reporting at this point are very happy to be creating this fundraising model, and connecting more or in new ways with their school communities. For newer farm businesses, the market exposure is important and exciting. Newer farmers expressed appreciation for an access point to their local schools. Established farm businesses are less focused on potential new customers, although some have noted the opportunity to gain customers. Established farm businesses participating in the project already are deeply involved in their communities and saw the FarmRaiser as another way to intertwine their farm with the local school.

 

Farm comments include, “It was great- fun!” “We are able to do it and happy to do it. People [working on the farm] like the idea.” “We donated labor and packing, so basically gave them the wholesale price but retail packaging, it’s fundraiser for our local school system!”

 

Financial impact: Our goal was to see immediate and beneficial financial impact on participating farm businesses. This did occur but at a lower dollar figure than anticipated.

Our preliminary evaluation from both farms and schools shows that the gross sales from this year are not a barrier in deciding to repeat the experience. “The value is in the connection to the farms,” said one school champion, representing the general feeling in the school champion debriefing meeting. Farms echoed this sentiment.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach to schools and farms was done on the phone and via email. In general, we found both necessary. In all schools we met in person with various decision-makers, sometimes multiple times. We visited many of the participating farms, though not all. In some cases an in-person visit was vital to reaching the farmer. Part of the outreach conversations while recruiting farmer participants included assessing their opinion of the project. No farmer refused to participate on the grounds of objecting to the project overall. Non-participating farmers were completely non-responsive to outreach, were too busy, or could not fit it into their business model.

Publications include:

 

Sales materials: brochures including order forms, posters, and a sticker template. Sample order tracking documents.

 

Tools and guidelines for schools and farms: Overview, Timeline, farmer introduction scripts, charitable donation information.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Fourteen farms received new, additional, and/or enhanced exposure and access to school families within 20 minutes of their farm location. Farms grossed between $64-$2095; a total gross of $4394. Schools had a very positive experience with the farms and were excited to be developing new or stronger connections to their local farm owners.

 

Thanks to funding from SARE and others we have developed a toolkit and initial guidelines for holding a local farm-based fundraiser at a school. These tools are free, easily adaptable, visually engaging, and can be adapted by schools and communities for their own use. We have learned what makes FarmRaisers easy and more difficult, and have shared those practices on the website. Currently all eight Upper Valley schools which have tried FarmRaisers in the past two years plan to do it again in 2014. The five schools we worked with in 2013 will do it again, and all farms plan to repeat so far as we know. We are working with 11 schools interested in trying their own FarmRaiser for the first time in fall 2014 or fall 2015.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

In our region of New Hampshire and Vermont the local food movement is well established. We have many farms relying on direct sales to underpin their business, a populace enthusiastic about their local farms, and a thriving farm to school movement. The direct market is often referred to as ‘saturated’ by both farmers and food system professionals such as farmers’ market managers. In our conversations with farmers regarding their need for support, ‘new customers’ and ‘customer education’ are among the top needs.

 

FarmRaisers are one tool to further open the consumer pool and transform the buying habits of families with young children. FarmRaisers not only in themselves create direct relationships between farms and families; they have the potential to alter the expectations and culture of school fundraisers. They are already gaining enthusiastic users in many Upper Valley schools, and with our free tools, adaptable for all users, we believe they will become an integral part of farm to school programming across the Upper Valley and hopefully in other areas of the Northeast.

Future Recommendations

We are currently in our third year of supporting schools and farms using FarmRaisers. This year our focus is on continuing to expand to additional schools and farms, but with less intensive support from our staff. We know this will be an excellent test of the materials we have developed and we look forward to learning from this round of expansion. We recommend that more work be done on farm marketing, not only within the FarmRaiser relationships but in general with our farmers. We need to build out the capacity of our farms to convert FarmRaiser sales into longer term sales relationships. This should include additional materials for participating farms and schools emphasizing the opportunities for sales. Vital Communities also is offering technical assistance to farmers through other projects and will emphasize marketing skills in that context.

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.