Taking Your Farm to the Next Level: Business and financial planning for sustainable farms and ranches

Final report for EDS18-03

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2018: $47,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2020
Grant Recipient: National Center for Appropriate Technology
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


Although economic viability is only one of the three pillars of farm sustainability, without it a farm is not able to continue to carry out its role of natural resource stewardship and supporting quality of life goals. According to the USDA-ERS, 85 percent of new farm businesses fail within their first five years of production. While there are many training opportunities for farmers to learn about sustainable production practices, there is less support for farmers in the business management skills area, which is absolutely necessary if a farm is to be economically viable for the long term.

The "Take Your Farm to the Next Level" training course will address the business and financial management of beginning farms. The goal is for participating farms to develop detailed business and financial plans, recordkeeping systems, and improve their labor management and marketing. Increased attention on the business aspects of the operation will hopefully lead to more profitable farms and sustainable farms that continue to operate.

This project will result in a cohort of farmers who have developed plans to take their farming operations to the next level, while meeting financial and quality of life goals. Participants will receive training and support on whole-farm planning, business plan development, access to capital, financial management, record keeping, and market development through a six-month series.

Project Objectives:
  1. Develop a six-part curriculum for "Take Your Farm to the Next Level" training series.
  2. Conduct "Take Your Farm to the Next Level" training series.
  3. Produce a six-part series of online course for "Take Your Farm to the Next Level" and publish on NCAT/ATTRA website.
  4. Provide on-on-one technical assistance to participants and create a lasting network of beginning sustainable farmers who can continue to support each other beyond the timeline of the project.
  5. Conduct evaluation of the "Take Your Farm to the Next Level" training program and the impacts made.


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Educational approach:

The first year of the project we utilized an in-person cohort model for training farmers. We developed a six-part workshop series to cover the topics of whole-farm planning, business planning, financial management and access to capital, recordkeeping, farm labor and management, legal issues and business structures, branding and marketing, and entering new markets. Participants committed to participate in all six workshops. At the end of the first project year we had completed five of the six workshops. NCAT Specialists and others experts presented the content. The workshops were structured to allow discussion among participants and sharing of their experiences. Resource books and publications were provided to support the information presented. Each session also included homework assignments to support the workshop content. The purpose of the homework is to have participants develop plans and implement workshop content on their own farms. NCAT Specialists were able to follow-up with participants and provide support as they complete assignments. 


The second year of the project started with the completion of the in-person workshop series. At the end of each workshop participants completed a brief evaluation. The project team was able to get feedback about topics, speakers, and adjustments to be made for future trainings. At the conclusion of the workshop series we had participants complete an in-depth workshop series evaluation. The overall workshop evaluation score was 4.7 out of 5. Some feedback from workshop participants: "The technical details of finance, legality, business structures, and goal strategies were just what I needed to startup this business with a structure and format that is set up for success." "Great workshop. I like the time it allowed to go into more detail on the topics covered and assignments to work on at home! I liked discussions with the other farmers." "Y'all presented a lot of topics that I had not thought about--I feel much more confident about running my business--thank you all!" 

Throughout the workshop series and since the completion of the in-person sessions, the NCAT staff provided one-on-one technical assistance to training participants. NCAT staff answered questions on production and marketing. Staff also directed participants to additional resources and helped to build their networks. 

The remainder of the project year was spent converting the in-person workshop materials in to an online platform. Each in-person workshop was video and audio recorded. The project team edited the recordings for use in the online course. The team compiled workshop resources and assignments. The "Taking Your Farm to the Next Level" course was posted on the ATTRA Tutorials page. The project team promoted the online course through emails and social media postings. The online course will be available for years to come at https://attra.ncat.org/tutorials/


Educational & Outreach Activities

15 Consultations
1 Online trainings
10 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

115 Farmers participated
10 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The goal of the workshop series is to work with the same group of farmers over the course of six months. We had a participant application process to select the cohort of farmers. The goal was to reach producers who had some experience and were looking to take their operations to the next level. The content of the course is focused on farm business management. Participants completed a pre-test measuring their confidence with certain farm business management aspects. At the completion of the workshop series they will complete a post-test. We initially selected 25 participants. After selection there were several that could not commit to participating in all of the workshops. The workshops were held at a set day (2nd Tuesday of the month), time, and meeting location. Each workshop session featured presentations from NCAT staff and other guest speakers covering topics such as farm goals, business planning, recordkeeping, financial management, legal issues, and marketing. NCAT staff provided additional educational resources and assignments to support the workshop content. Participants received NCAT/ATTRA publications, SARE's Building A Sustainable Business, Fearless Farm Finances, SARE's Farmers Guide to Business Structures, and Cultivating Customers books. Each workshop was video and audio recorded. The recordings, course presentations, materials, and homework assignments were available to participants via a web folder. Some participants missed workshops due to illness and other circumstances. They were able to listen to the recordings and catch up on the course assignments on their own time. There was dialog and sharing of resources among instructors and participants via a group email. NCAT/ATTRA Specialists also provided one-on-one technical assistance to participants on a variety of agricultural production topics. Participants asked these questions in-person after the workshops, and via phone and email.

The in-person workshop materials were edited and compiled in to an online course format. This course is available on the ATTRA Tutorials webpage https://attra.ncat.org/tutorials/. NCAT staff promoted this online course through emails to our database of farmers and via social media. The course videos have more than 115 views at the the time of this report. 


Learning Outcomes

15 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • whole-farm planning

  • farm recordkeeping

  • legal aspects

  • business planning

  • social media marketing

  • branding/communications

Project Outcomes

15 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
15 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The first outcome of this project is the development of a six-part curriculum. The NCAT team developed six workshops, with presentations, speakers, assignments, and resources. The curriculum focuses on economic and social aspects of managing a successful farm business. The curriculum covers whole-farm planning, financial management, legal issues, labor, recordkeeping, branding and marketing, and entering new markets. The curriculum was used for the in-person, six-part workshop series. Based on class assignments, workshop discussions, evaluations, and follow-up assistance we know participants have developed business plans, implemented financial management and recordkeeping practices, made changes to their farm marketing, and have considered new markets. This workshop series has equipped the farmers with planning and management skills required to take their farm businesses to the "next level" and run sustainable farms for the long-term. End of workshop evaluations indicate that all participants developed or improved their farm goals as a result of the training; all participants used the books and resources they were given; 70% of workshop participants developed a business plan and recordkeeping system or plan to do so within 6 months; 57% plan on developing a business structure within 6 months; and 57% of participants plan on entering new markets within 6 months.

The curriculum and materials from the in-person workshops were then used to develop an online course. This course has been widely shared and promoted across the country with more than 100 course views at the time of this report. The course will continue to be available to farmers across the country on the ATTRA webpage. https://attra.ncat.org/tutorials/ The recorded presentations, resources, and assignments will be available for farmers and educators to access long after the completion of this project. 

In addition to the knowledge gained and changes to their farm operations, participants have also developed a network of other farmers and agriculture professionals. We saw the participants become more comfortable with each other, sharing information, and supporting each other. They learned from each other and many of them will maintain a relationship after the conclusion of the workshop series. They are also connected to the NCAT staff and other speakers. They know who to reach out to when the have questions or need further assistance, and did so throughout the project and have continued to do so after the completion of the project.

The NCAT project team is already building upon this project. We have developed new grant proposals using parts of this curriculum and workshop format as a basis for other trainings. We are also using the online course as a resource for other beginning farmer trainings that we conduct.


Since the completion of this project there has been a huge increase in online/virtual learning due to COVID-19. I think there is opportunity to use these online platforms to educate more farmers. In-person workshops are always preferred, but having online components can potentially reach many more participants. We had several farmers indicate that they would have loved to participate in the in-person workshop series, but the location was too far from them. In the future we could do a combination of in-person and virtual events.

Information Products

    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.