Training Agricultural Professionals to Meet the Needs of Northeast Small Farmers

Final Report for ENE00-054

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2000: $95,604.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
David Smith
Cornell University
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Project Information


The future of agriculture in the Northeast depends on the ability of its small farm sector to thrive, yet that sector has often been viewed as marginal and unimportant by Cooperative Extension (CE), USDA, and other service providers. The purpose of this project was to strengthen small farm businesses across the region by expanding and enhancing the education and other services that support them. Northeast SARE Professional Development program coordinators, USDA-CSREES Small Farm Contacts, USDA agency staff, non-governmental organization (NGO) staff, and small farm operators engaged in mutual learning and training exercises. These were designed to enhance their understanding of the diversity and importance of the northeastern small farm sector, build innovative partnerships for serving small farms, and enhance the knowledge and skills needed to be effective in work with small farm businesses.

A project team of farmers and representatives of NGOs, Cooperative Extension, USDA-NRCS, USDA-FSA, and state departments of agriculture planned, conducted and evaluated a regional professional development workshop for agricultural educators and other service providers.

Project Objectives:

To strengthen small farm businesses across the region by expanding and enhancing the education and other services that support them.


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  • Kathy Ruhf

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Pre-workshop surveys and focus groups. Thirty-four agricultural professionals (20 CE employees, 9 USDA representatives, two NGOs, and two of unknown affiliation) and 25 farmers completed a pre-workshop survey. The survey plus additional data from a survey of Cornell CE educators (35) and focus groups of small farmers (8 groups, 87 farmers) conducted by Cornell’s Small Farm Task Group provided the foundation for planning the regional workshop as well as an assessment of the educational and service needs of small farm operators. Information from the survey included respondents’ perspectives on the definition of a small farm, the characteristics of small farms, the importance of the small farm sector in their states, perspectives on the usefulness of the USDA-ERS small farm typology, needs and challenges of small farm businesses, programs that currently serve the small farm sector, and programming strategies that are effective with the small farm audience.

State small farm professional development teams. Teams from each of the northeastern states, plus Washington, D.C., attended the two-day small farm professional development workshop in Albany, New York on February 21-22, 2001. Among the 98 participants were the USDA-CSREES Small Farm Contacts and Northeast SARE PDP Coordinators from each state and DC; 10 members of the NESARE PDP Coordinating Committee; 11 CE educators; 19 farmers; 13 USDA professionals (four FSA and nine NRCS); 10 NGO representatives, and three participants from state departments of agriculture. In addition there were 10 workshop speakers.

Small farm program resources. A notebook containing copies of 53 papers and articles related to small farm issues, plus references to 109 additional resources was provided to each participant.

Characterization of the small farm sector in the region. The workshop featured a farmer panel and a worksheet to stimulate thinking about the characteristics of small farms in the region and the applicability of the USDA-ERS small farm typology in the Northeast. Workshop discussions, pre-workshop surveys, and small farm focus groups characterized small farm operations. These characteristics are reported in detail in the full project and bear careful consideration by educators and service providers who seek to expand and enhance the relevance and impact of their work in the small farm sector.

Participant knowledge, perceptions and attitudes about the small farm sector in the Northeast.
Participants indicated their desires to network with others seeking to improve education and service for small farms and the need to improve their effectiveness in working with small farms as their primary reasons for attending the workshop. They identified the following changes in their perceptions and understanding of small farms as a result of their participation: clearer understanding of the breadth and diversity of small farms in Northeast; the significance of small farms (numbers and impact) in the Northeast; an appreciation of the complexities in this sector and in individual businesses; the desire and need to listen more carefully when working with small farm operators; and the need for still more training to effectively serve the small farm sector.

Challenges that threaten the success of small farm businesses. Pre-workshop surveys and focus groups provided information on the challenges faced by small farm operators. The challenges, summarized below, reflect the needs of small farm operators and programmatic opportunities for educators, USDA service providers and others who serve the small farm sector in the region:

Integrating and balancing personal, family and business goals

Agricultural entrepreneurship and business planning

Thriving in a changing agricultural and food system environment.

Developing business plans.

Specialization—e.g. buying all feed on a small dairy farm.

Diversification—identifying and evaluating new farming and complementary non-agricultural enterprises.

Diversification—evaluating new production approaches e.g. organic.

Diversification—“adding value” by to increase profitability.

Business and financial management in a small farm setting

Tools for small farm business analysis and decision making

Application of new and existing business practices

Forming and maintaining innovative, new business alliances

Time management

Labor—innovative approaches for the small farm operation

Application of new and existing production technologies in a small farm setting

Environmental planning management for the small farm

Facilities design and renovation

Family financial management

Retirement planning for the small farm family

Personal financial planning;on and off farm investments.

Intergenerational business transfer

Personal and family transition (dealing with change)

Leadership development in the small farm sector

Farm/neighbor relations

Community education on the contributions of small farms

Consumer education on the attributes of locally produced food products.

Effective small farm educational and service programs from a farmer’s perspective

Farmers suggest the following criteria for successful small farm programs:

Designed and planned with strong small farmer input and direction.
Local, community-based events with a short drive time.
Farmer-to-farmer learning; farmers in teaching roles; farmer mentoring programs.
Workshops focused on small farm issues, presented in a small farm context.
Experiential learning in an on-farm setting.
Workshops with multiple short sessions, scheduled to fit the ability of operators to leave the farm and/or an off-farm job.
Discussion groups, kitchen meetings, pasture walks, twilight meetings.
Research and demonstration on small farms.
Newsletters, articles and other written materials prepared specifically for the small farm operator and placed in publications used by the small farm sector.
Internet and web sites, but must include education on how to effectively and efficiently use the technology and find the information.

No milestones

Performance Target Outcomes

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:


General results of the project

Co-leadership of state small farm professional development teams by the USDA Small Farm Contacts and the SARE Professional Development Coordinators fostered a working relationship that did not exist before the workshop and one that is continuing in at least eight states through state-level professional development workshops in 2002. Many participants indicated the workshop increased their awareness and appreciation of the importance of the size and diversity of the small farm sector as well as the challenges and needs of the sector. Working relationships between and among the different agricultural service providers and farmers expanded and strengthened. Educators and service providers gained respect for small farm operators as innovative and successful small business owners and learned the importance and value of involving them directly in planning and delivering education and service programs. Many acknowledged the very visible role farmers played in planning, facilitating and teaching workshop sessions and the significant contribution the farmers made to the success of the workshop.

Specific results of the project

Nine of the 12 teams attending the Albany workshop are conducting small farm professional development workshops in their home states between January and March 2002. The nine state teams are: ME, VT, NH, NY, PA, MD, WV, DE and DC.

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.