This program was developed to provide education to Ag lenders and other USDA government personnel who assists farmers seeking to benefit from programs initiated by the 2008 Farm Bill. The areas of focus were Hoophouse systems (unheated greenhouses) and Organic production. These were two technical areas that our USDA staff were not familiar with and requested technical training and information resources. An in person approach was preferred and offered a unique opportunity for farmers who typically do not engage with USDA field staff and the staff to come together and “learn about each others trades”. This program not only shared technical information but demonstrated a successful organic field crop farm and successful organic farm using hoop houses. The USDA staff shared their programs and roles to implement the Farm Bill which ended in farmers that never considered applying for crop insurance applying and learning about the various insurance programs. This was truly an unexpected outcome of the program. Mutual learning is the most rewarding and beneficial approach of education, from my perspective. On farm programs always have multiple benefits for those delivering and those receiving.
We provided two on farm workshops. One farm was an organic field crop production system and the other was an organic hoophouse vegetable farm. Both offered farmer presentations, technical information and a “field visit”. Questions were directed by field staff to the farmers and MSU staff. Contacts were made that are still used for reference when additional information is needed or clarification.
The final evaluation was not conducted as intended due to lack of opportunity (budget cuts by agencies) for the field staff to engage with farmers. Therefore program director of grant interviewed the two supervisors of each group to summarize the impact of the program and evaluate the outcome of the technical program.
This program was developed to provide education to Ag lenders and other USDA Field personnel with technical information on hoophouse production systems and organic farming. The programs were developed to engage the technical staff with the farmers and provide in person visits and means to see how the systems work. Initially the program was targeted to the Ag Lenders but the demand was greater and opportunity availed to allow us to also offer a program for the Crop Insurance Field staff. These events were beneficial to farmers, educators and USDA field staff. It was a single day event for each group and provided background information, technical materials and personnel references when additional information is needed.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
This project offered farm site visits and technical programs provided by Michigan State University staff and the farmers themselves. It was very well received by the Farming Services Agency and USDA Insurance participants. The events were held at the farms lending to visuals and one-on-one learning opportunities. This approach was to highlight the particular aspects around organic production and hoophouse production while overviewing the whole farm approach. The education was provided through an oral program with handouts, field and hoophouse visits with in-depth explanations and Q&A. The participants in the program not only heard about how the “system” was done but had the chance to see how they were implemented. The educational events were timed to sync with the peak production seasons. Timing was a bit difficult for the farmers but they too felt the reward from having the USDA staff come from the offices and be on the ground.
Outreach and Publications
As program director I created an evaluation to identify the value of the trainings and ascertain how well it assists the USDA staff. Unfortunately, there are not farmers that they have engaged to evaluate the quality and appropriateness of the information due to limits of the office budgets.. Therefore we anticipate a “refresher” webinar will be offered for the following year and accessible to all staff to assist them with future encounters with hoophouse and organic farmers.
The programs were a perfect match to the production knowledge the office staff had from their traditional agriuclture background. They especially embraced the value in “paperwork’ that organic farmers are required to maintain as these records are dually useful to seeking a loan, applying for cost-share and seeking insurance compensation. The reference handouts have been useful by the USDA staff when speaking to individual farmers and during group presentations at educational events. Sadly, the final evaluation of the program was not so successful since the travel budgets for these offices were drastically cut and the number of farmer encounters (all types of farmers) was very low. The few occasions that the staff met with farmers they found the background material useful to guide them in asking “the right questions” and able to get to the point sooner.
The applied information on the topic that was provided in the trainings (hoophouses and organic farming) lends to confidence and more effective assistance for the field technicians when speaking to these type of farmers. The farmers (low N so no numbers to report) find the information seeking conversations more profitable and able to obtain appropriate technical assistance more effectively. Although there were not adequate numbers of farmers to evaluate the value of the technical training the technical staff indicated they were more confident to approach and work with these farmers because they now understand what the farming systems (organic and hoophouse) require to succeed and how they are implemented. These trainings were a value and essential piece to make the 2008 program more effective and valuable to the farmers it targeted.
Perhaps this type of training should be included as part of the 2012 Farm Bill to link the programs it offers with the various USDA agriculture staff that strives to serve the farmers. This training allows farmers being served by these offices (FSA and Crop Insurance) to access the FArm Bill programs more efficiently and stand a much greater success rate of implementation since the farmer does not need to educate the field technicians about their method of farming, which often results in a negative relationship and disengagement between the farmer and USDA technical staff.
In the next Farm Bill it would be very useful to have allowances and provisions for trainings of USDA staff about farming systems that are addressed in the 2012 Farm Bill. Training should be consistent to all impacted staff in accessibility and quality. Grant opportunities and contract provisions were made that provided training for some “offices” and not others. An across the board access to pertinent information to successfully offer and implement Farm Bill programs would create better program delivery and more even and fair program access across our farming communities.