Community Agriculture and Food Systems Development Certification Program

Final Report for ENE02-069

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2002: $120,197.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $17,549.00
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Thomas Lyson
Department of Rural Sociology
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Project Information

Summary:

Note to the reader: Appendices and supplemental material referred to in this report are available from either the project coordinator or the Northeast SARE office.

The purpose of the Growing Home Certification Program, which is the working title we adopted for the SARE funded project, “Community Agriculture and Food Systems Development Certification Program,” was to develop a two year, comprehensive training program designed to increase the knowledge and skills of community development professionals and other community leaders to strengthen food and agriculture-based enterprises and their communities.

The project was proposed following the Community, Food, and Agriculture Program’s publication of a book (Growing Home: A Guide to Reconnecting Agriculture, Food, and Community by Joanna Green and Duncan Hilchey, 2002) designed to support agriculture development at the community level. Like the book, the project was based on the premise that thriving farm and food businesses, with local orientations, contribute to the social, economic, and ecological well-being of communities. To thrive, however, these local businesses require the support of the communities that they benefit. Community members and developers, in turn, need to know both how to support farms and food businesses and how to capitalize on their contributions to community and economic development.

Through web-based marketing, ag developers from throughout the Northeast were invited to apply to participate in the program, designed with support from an advisory committee. Twenty-six applications were received and 21 participants were chosen to participate in the program. Of those participants selected, 17 completed year I of the two year program and 11 participants completed year II of the program. Eleven community based projects–each implemented through the work of a core group that ranged in size from 5 – 30 community members, and impacting an estimated 800+ additional community members– throughout the Northeast were supported through the project. Extensive written and oral evaluation of the program suggests strong support for and value in this type of training program, though some restructuring is in order to meet the needs of a diverse, geographically disperse audience. Based on the results of this SARE-funded pilot program, Cornell’s Community, Food, and Agriculture Program plans to work with participants, potential participants, and community development training programs to redesign the program, accordingly, and offer it on an ongoing basis.

Performance Target:

The three objectives proposed for this project include having at least 15 of 20 enrolled participants:

(1) be able to articulate how contemporary food and agriculture systems impact the community/communities in which they work;

Based on the content and quality of assignments completed during Year I, it is clear that our first performance target was met. All 17 participants completing Year I, were able to articulate how contemporary food and agriculture systems impact the communities in which they work.

(2) understand the process of community-based food and agriculture systems development enough to be able to identify strategies and articulate a clear and coherent plan for implementing these strategies in their communities;

Based on the content and quality of the project proposals submitted at the beginning of Year II of the program, all of which underwent extensive peer review, instructor review and revisions, it is clear that participants understood the process of community-based food and agriculture systems development enough to be able to identify strategies and articulate a clear and coherent plan for implementing these strategies in their community. In fact, the proposals required participants to articulate their project in the SARE “outcomes-based” model. However, for reasons explained in the “Results and Discussion/Milestones” section below, only 12 of the original 21 participants submitted a Year II proposal, leaving us three short of our performance target goal of 15 participants.

(3) work with a community-based team to develop and implement a local food and agriculture-based development project.

Based on the final reports submitted by participants at the end of Year II, the community-based project phase of the program, it is clear that the participants who completed the program (9, after losing one at the beginning of Year II, due to personal circumstances and with two projects still in progress), could work effectively with a community-based team to develop and implement a local food and agriculture-based project. In addition, the final reports on these projects (see Appendix) provide wonderful case studies of the challenges and opportunities entailed in community based projects and the value of having a professional support group, such as that cultivated through the Growing Home training program.

Introduction:

The two year, Growing Home Certification Program consisted of a distance learning component and a face-to-face component, comprised of six, two-day class meetings. During year one (January-December 2003), participants completed three distance-learning modules, each consisting of 4 units. Participants were introduced to each module through a lecture/discussion session and a field trip and were responsible for completing readings, discussion questions, on-line interactive discussions, and a paper. The Module III paper required participants to integrate the materials covered during all three modules and to respond to a “request for proposals” developed to explicate the project requirements to generate a proposal for a locally-based project designed to strengthen local food, agriculture, and community. These proposals were reviewed by both the instructors and a group of peer participants, revised, and resubmitted for a final review by the instructors. Proposals that met the criteria of the “request for proposals” were awarded $1,000 in SARE funds for implementation during Year II (January – December 2004 and extended to March 2005). While completing the Certification Program phase of their community-based projects (Winter-Spring 2005) participants submitted final project reports and attended a final class meeting, where they made project presentations and discussed the lessons learned throughout the development and implementation of their projects. The community-based projects supported through the Growing Home Program continue to serve their communities as ongoing ag development initiatives.

The format of the training program was based on feedback received during the “Northeast Training and Support Network” program (1998-1999), also a SARE-funded professional development program targeted at professionals working to strengthen food systems. Participants in that training stressed that the training was good but difficult to participate in, given ongoing responsibilities because training assignments were not directly related to their current programming. Thus, throughout the Growing Home Certification Program, emphasis was placed on engaging participants in ways which (1) incorporated their current work into the training and (2) supported that work through the training. Feedback from participants suggests this training format through which a professional support network was cultivated, is very useful.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Gilbert Gillespie
  • Joanna Green
  • Duncan Hilchey
  • Heidi Mouillesseaux-Kunzman

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Advisory Committee
The advisory committee originally consisted of four individuals representing the program target audience (three agriculture developers, including one with Cornell Cooperative Extension, one with a county planning agency, and one with NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, and a community developer, with Cornell University’s Community and Rural Development Institute). We invited these members to be a part of the team, viewing them as an initial New York State-based core group, with the intention that we would expand the committee to include additional ag developers from throughout the Northeast.

These advisors met prior to the beginning of the program, in March 2003, to review and provide feedback on the proposed program design. The advisory committee provided substantial feedback on the first draft of the program design, emphasizing the concern that the program was too theoretically oriented and in need of a more applied focus. The program was revised accordingly, with modules being reworked to forge a balance between theory and application.

Although these individuals were enthusiastic and willing advisors, they did not play as active a role in the project as initially intended. The reasons behind their diminished role is two fold: One, they were not engaged by the project coordinator as effectively as originally intended after the program implementation proved to require a greater time commitment than originally anticipated; and, two, as the program developed, it became clear that the program participants, including participants from throughout the Northeast, had evolved into defacto advisors. The participants responded to our numerous evaluations and invitations to suggest topics of particular interest. Their extensive feedback on what was and was not effective helped us to shape the pilot, even as it was implemented, to meet their particular needs and interests.

The original advisory committee was invited to Class Meeting IV, a program mid-point, to learn about participants’ experiences during Year I, and provide feedback on the projects they were proposing to implement during Year II. One of the four participants attended this meeting and expressed enthusiasm for the projects that were being proposed.

Participant Recruitment and Selection
As set forth in the project proposal, the Growing Home Certification program consisted of one year of curriculum-based study and one year of hands-on, guided project implementation. Program participants were selected from a pool of applicants recruited throughout the Northeast.

Applications were made available on Friday, January 10, 2003 and the program was marketed widely over the internet via regional and national listservs and e-newsletters serving ag developers in the Northeast, and direct emails to agriculture and community development professionals. (See marketing packet and application in Appendix Notebook) The listservs and professionals targeted during the recruitment process include the following:
Listservs:
CFAP-L
Ne-food-l
FoodFarmNet
SANET
Growing New Farmers’ Network

Targeted Email Lists:
Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators (Association Directors’ list)
Cornell Cooperative Extension Agriculture Program Leaders list
NYS Ag Developers List
Community and Rural Developers (via Cornell’s Community and Rural Development Institute)
Northeast Rural Developers
Northeast Com & Ec Dev
Northeast Dept of Ag & Markets
Northeast Extension Directors
Northeast Planners
National USDA Rural Development List

Publications:
Kellogg Foundation’s “Seeds of Change”
Community, Food, and Agriculture Program News
Potluck News (Nefood-l Newsletter)

During the marketing phase, prospective participants were encouraged to contact the program coordinator to learn more about the goals of the program and many did. The most frequently asked question was, essentially, “Is this program for me?” or, in other words, “Do I qualify as an agriculture developer?” The planning team took a fairly broad approach in its response to this question, defining “ag developers” as both professionals and lay volunteers actively engaged in activities to strengthen agriculture in their communities. Prospective candidates were notified, however, that employer support for their participation in the project and a community-base through which to pursue a project in year two would be important factors in determining the best candidates for the program.

Twenty-six prospective participants actually submitted applications by the February 28, 2003 deadline and, after a rigorous review of applications by the instructional team and coordinator, 21 applicants, one more than our performance target number, were selected to participate in the program. The majority of these participants were from New York (14), two participants were from Maine and two were from Vermont, while there was also one participant from each of the states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Letters were sent to both those selected, inviting them to be a program participant, and to those not selected, thanking them for their interest in the program, by March 14, 2003.

Training Program Design and Implementation
Following the selection of participants, the two year training program was officially launched. By design, the program consisted of one year devoted to curriculum-based instruction through distance learning and four class meetings and a second year devoted to the implementation of community-based projects, including two class meetings.

During the first year, participants completed three distance learning modules, each consisting of four units (See Appendix Notebook). The modules were designed to lead participants through the food and ag-based community development process by providing them with (1) an overview of contemporary food systems and they ways they impact communities; (2) strategies for mitigating these impacts at the local or regional level; and (3) the means for engaging community members in developing and implementing these strategies for the benefit of their community. Module I was developed and taught by Senior Research Associate, Gilbert Gillespie from Cornell’s Department of Development Sociology. Entitled “Social, Political, and Economic Considerations and Their Implications for ‘Food and Agriculture Based Community Development:’ Background Information and Concepts,” the first module focused on the place of local agriculture and food systems, historically and politically, within the context of the current globalizing food system. The second module, “A Survey of Community-Based Food and Agriculture System Development Strategies” was taught by Senior Extension Associate and Agriculture Development Specialist, Duncan Hilchey. This module focused on approaches to community level strategies for strengthening agriculture and food-based enterprises, such as local and regional marketscapes, regional identity campaigns, value-adding, entrepreneurship and agritourism. The third module,“Planning and Organizing for Food and Agriculture-based Community Development (FABCD),” was taught by Extension Associate Joanna Green. This module focused on the FABCD process: engaging the public, creating a vision, integrating agriculture into community development, and assessing outcomes. It should be noted that although these titles are slightly different than the module titles first stated in the project proposal, the content was essentially the same as that planned when the proposal was written.

Each module was begun with a face-to-face class meeting, during which participants were introduced to the major concepts of the module through a field trip and lecture overview. Following the completion of each module, participants met again, in person, to review the materials covered during the module, reflect on what they learned, and evaluate it. Thus, with only four class meetings in Year One, Class Meeting I was devoted to having participants get to know one another and understanding the goals and format of the training program (See Appendix Notebook), and introducing them to the major concepts of the first Module. Class Meetings II and III, on the other hand, were used for both debriefing and introductory activities; that is, during Class Meeting II, participants were guided through a review of Module I materials and introduced to Module II materials and during Class Meeting III, participants were led through a review of Module II materials and introduced to Module III. Class Meeting IV included a review of Module III by way of Year II project proposal presentations.

Following selection of the participants, the training program was officially launched with Class Meeting I, on April 17-18, 2003. The date of the first class was originally intended to take place in January 2003, however, when we thought through our class meeting format in more detail than we had when we submitted the proposal, we realized that being able to showcase ag development models during the growing season could increase the program’s effectiveness, and thus, we moved the meetings back a bit, but still holding two at the beginning of the growing season (April and June) and one at the end, to serve our goal of accommodating participants potential need to be in their communities serving their farm clientele during the growing season.

Overall, this program design worked well, with the meetings providing participants with important face-to-face interaction and networking time to become familiar with each other and the material before delving into it and then, more to process it, following the completion of the module. While we sometimes felt a bit crunched for time, the 1.5 day time frame for the class meetings, which started at 10am Thursday and concluded at noon on Friday, generally worked well. With this schedule, we were able to meet the twin goals of accomplishing our instructional objectives (a 4-6 hour tour of ag development initiatives relating to each respective module – essentially case studies, the review and evaluation of each module, and the introduction of the next module), while limiting both participants’ time away from their ongoing responsibilities and their overnight accommodation expenses. The implementation of the distance learning component, however, was more challenging, particularly during the first module, when it was relatively new to both instructors and participants.

For each unit of each module, the distance learning component required students to complete reading assignments, answer discussion questions or complete mini assignments individually, share and discuss their answers among members of the small groups to which they were assigned, and then, through a discussion leader, summarize the answers to the discussion questions and post the summary to the entire class within a one week time frame. Each small group consisted of four members so that each member would be required to be the group leader for one of the four units of each module. Upon completion of all four units, each participant was responsible for completing a final paper explaining how the course concepts apply to the communities in which they work. For the first two modules, the paper was required to be in the range of 5-7 pages. For the final module, the required paper was expected to be more comprehensive (15-20 pages), pulling together concepts introduced during Year I and applying them to the development of a project they would implement in their communities during Year II.

In theory, this seemed like a well-thought out design, in practice and in retrospect, it was too much to expect of adult learners who were otherwise employed, even though employers of all participants had expressed support for their employee’s participation in the program, permitting them time away from work to attend class meetings, and some had even granted the employee work time to complete the module assignments.

While the instructional team estimated the time required to complete each reading and discussion assignment to be approximately 6 hours/week, it actually took participants more time to complete the readings and, unless everyone completed the readings and responded to the discussion questions at roughly the same time, group discussions were limited. To address these challenges, the time frame for Module II was adjusted to include two weeks for the completion of each unit. While this time frame worked better, it was still a challenge for some participants.

Complicating the distance learning component was our (the instructional team’s) familiarity with distance learning technology. We started out requiring participants to complete their distance learning assignments and dialogue via email. This proved to be email overload for many, and particularly for those who regularly received large quantities of email on a daily basis. To address this issue, we moved the interparticipant communications process of the distance learning component to a web-based course management program hosted by Cornell’s Academic Technology. While this technology was a vast improvement, allowing us to put all of the class materials on-line, and conduct small and full group discussion through discussion boards, many participants seemed reluctant to use this technology, stating in their evaluations that “it was disrupting to have to go to a site” to pursue the class work. Through follow-up discussion, it seems clear that part of the challenge to adjusting to the website was the change in mid process; had participants been required to use the website from the beginning and not required to learn it mid-stream, it seems probable that they would have been more receptive to using it. Despite these challenges to pursuing group discussions through distance learning technology, module evaluations suggest that individuals learned a great deal from Year I.

During Year II, participants worked much more independently than in Year I, focusing on implementing their projects in their communities. Year II was launched in January 2004 with Class Meeting IV, where participants reviewed lessons completed during Module III by presenting an overview of the projects they were proposing to complete during Year II of the program. Proposal presentations were to address components required by the request for proposals, which placed substantial emphasis on an outcomes-based approach (See Appendix Notebook). Following each participants’ presentation, substantial time was devoted to providing feedback on the proposed project. Thus, participants received comments from their peers, instructors, and the advisory committee member in attendance at the meeting. In addition, before leaving the meeting, each participant chose two or more peers to review and provide detailed feedback on their proposal. These reviews and a review from one of the three instructors and one from the project coordinator were completed by the end of January. Participants were required to revise their proposals based on these feedback opportunities and submit them via email by February 6, 2006. Participants whose projects were deemed acceptable upon submission were then eligible to receive up to $1000 in SARE funds to support their projects and begin implementing their projects. Those participants whose projects required additional revisions were asked to complete those revisions and upon resubmitting their proposal with the required revisions, also deemed eligible to receive $1000 in SARE funds to support their projects and begin their project implementation as well.

Over the course of the Year II project implementation period, participants were required to share three project updates via email with the project coordinator, who forwarded them to project instructors and participants, and attend Class Meeting V, where verbal updates were provided through a project update presentation. Through these venues, participants were provided with ongoing feedback and support as they implemented their project. In addition, based on feedback from participants communicated through their updates and evaluations, it is clear that the relationships formed between participants during Year I played an important role in the implementation of the projects during Year II. Participants engaged one another in their projects and consulted with them throughout the implementation of their respective projects and, independently of the Growing Home Program, on other projects with which they were working. Year II was brought to a close during Class Meeting VI, during which participants gave final presentations about their Year II project and participated in a verbal evaluation process of the program, reflecting on what worked, what didn’t work and how the program might be structured in the future.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

Based on a review of the multiple written and verbal project evaluations (completed upon the completion of each module, class meeting, and Year of the program), the final reports on community-based projects, and impromptu feedback from individual participants, the Growing Home Certification Program has met its overall goal of building capacity for food and ag-based community development. Proof of this impact includes:

(1) Favorable responses to written and oral evaluations of the program, and the quality of assignments completed, indicate that the Program has provided participants with (a) new theoretical understandings of the work they have been pursuing for a long time, (b) a better understanding of food and agriculture-based development strategies and community-based development processes, ©) a framework for planning food and agriculture-based community development projects; and (d) valuable opportunities for building networks of knowledgeable peers.

(2) Monthly check-ins and in-person project updates speak to the ways in which the program has supported the development and implementation of community-based projects and to the ways the projects are, in turn, benefitting communities. Some participants even encouraged us to think of the Growing Home Certification program as an “ag development incubator.”

(3) Other evidence speaks to multiple spin-off impacts that are the result of bringing regional ag developers together through Growing Home. During Year II project updates, participants repeatedly referenced ways they were engaging their Growing Home peers in the implementation of other ag development projects with which they were involved.

(4) In addition to the impacts on program participants and their ability to strengthen agriculture and communities, the program has very much served its purpose as a pilot project. As educators, we have learned a great deal about the needs of a training program designed to simultaneously support and integrate ongoing work and professional development goals.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

Looking back on the Growing Home Certification Program project, we can say with confidence that it served its purpose as a pilot project: We simultaneously met the training goals for the project (proceeding through all of our milestones and achieving our performance targets), though with less participants than we had hoped for, while learning a great deal about how those goals can and should be met in the future. Though somewhat disappointed by the number of participants that withdrew from the program, we are, overall, pleased with all that has been accomplished through the project, including (1) the development of the Growing Home training program, including a detailed curriculum, which we plan to modify and offer on a regular basis; (2) the professional advancement of 15 participants who completed Year I of the training program, the curricular-based modules on food and ag-based community development; (3) the development and implementation of 11 community-based projects (most of which have become community institutions following the completion of the Growing Home Certification Program phase); (4) professional relationships that, forged through the Growing Home Certification Program, have resulted in ag-development collaborations above and beyond those developed within the program; and (5) a strong understanding of the aspects of the program that were and were not successful, providing us with the means for making it even more successful and effective in the future.

A recap of how the program unfolded, in terms of our projected milestones follows:

The first milestone of the project (enrolling 20 participants) was met when we selected 21 participants, from a pool of strong candidates working on ag development throughout the Northeast, and all 21 submitted a notice of intent to participate in the program. Our second milestone (20 participants complete the first module) was also met, when only one of 21 participants failed to submit the Module I paper, withdrawing from the program due to personal commitments shortly thereafter. Our third milestone challenged us to have 19 participants complete Module II. We fell short of this milestone by 2, when 17 of the 20 continuing participants completed Module II. Two of the three participants who did not complete Module II made arrangements to submit delayed assignments, but did not follow through, and later also withdrew from the program citing personal reasons.

Over the course of Module I and II, based on evaluations and feedback from the participants who withdrew from the program, it became apparent that the reading and discussion assignments were requiring more time than anticipated by instructors and participants. Consequently, we extended assignment deadlines, ultimately expanding the time allotted for each unit of the Modules from one week to two weeks. A second way in which we modified the project relates to milestones four (17 participants complete module III and Year I final paper) and five (15 participants submit a Year II community-based project proposal). After developing the curriculum, we realized that there was considerable overlap between the Module III final paper, Year I final paper, and Year II project proposal assignments we had planned in the proposal. Program participants were required to write a single, comprehensive paper in which aspects of each of the three assignments were integrated rather than three separate assignments. Thus, participants wrote a proposal that brought together, in an applied and theoretical way, what they had learned in the three modules and what they were proposing to do in their Year II project.

Although the assignments for milestones four and five were combined, they were no less rigorous as one than as three, and they were reached when 17 participants completed Module III and 16 participants were scheduled to submit a Year II proposal in January. On the eve of the Year II proposal due date, however, two additional participants dropped out of the program, one due to new job responsibilities and a second explaining that the program was really too much, given current job responsibilities. We, thus, started the second year of the program with 15 participants, only 13 of which ended up submitting Year II project proposals. One of the fifteen participants still with the program at the beginning of Year II withdrew from the program shortly thereafter due to receiving a promotion and two were subsequently cut from the program, having not completed Year I assignments for which they had been given lengthy extensions.

With only 12 of 21 participants revising and submitting a Year II project proposal and implementing their projects, we fell short of meeting our sixth and seventh milestone participation goals by three participants. While the loss of 9 of 21 participants is very disappointing, we have studied the reasons participants gave for withdrawing from the program and have learned several important lessons from their departures, all of which are addressed in the “Impacts of Results/Outcomes” section below.

At the same time, all twelve of the participants who submitted Year II project proposals were eligible to receive $1000 to support the implementation of their projects. Projects were initiated in March 2004 and have been developed with support from the Growing Home program coordinator and instructors through monthly check-ins and a class meeting in September 2004. These community-based projects include the development of a food bank guide to local food procurement (one of the projects still in progress); the incorporation of ag development into a regional comprehensive plan; the development of a cooperative meat processing endeavor; an agriculture ambassador program; an urban horticulture program; a farm-to-restaurant distribution program; the development of a regional meat production, processing, and distribution cluster; a project to incorporate agriculture into a watershed tourism campaign; an annual agriculture leadership conference; the development of a farmers’ market in a low-income, inner-city, business district; and a farmland preservation effort consisting of farm-based diversification consultation.

Although the projects were planned to be completed within a six month time frame, in practice they have moved more slowly, prompting us to request the project extension. In addition to the time involved in coordinating a truly community-based effort (check-ins with each participant have focused on the process of community development, particularly the time and energy involved in building and sustaining support and buy-in for these projects), project implementation was frustrated by delays in the disbursement of the $1000 award in support of each participants Year II project. While the glitches that delayed the funds disbursement were worked out and participants proceeded with their projects as scheduled, they did not begin receiving funds until October 2004 and due to bureaucratic glitches at the local level, at least two participants declined to accept the funds, completing the projects without the money, and another had to forgo it because they could not get it through the local system prior to June 30, 2005 project end date. Although this project was completed, it is disheartening to think about the amount of time and energy devoted to working through these bureaucracies, knowing that it would have been better spent on project implementation.

Final project reports were received through the Spring of 2005, as the Growing Home Program phase of the projects were completed. The final class meeting was held in March 2005, at which time participants summarized the progress to date of their project, including results and lessons learned. The final project reports will be shared with SARE (see Appendix Notebook) and made available to others, as case studies, through the Community, Food, and Agriculture Program’s website.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Based on a review of the multiple written and verbal project evaluations (completed upon the completion of each module, class meeting, and Year of the program), the final reports on community-based projects, and impromptu feedback from individual participants, the Growing Home Certification Program has met its overall goal of building capacity for food and ag-based community development. Proof of this impact includes:

(1) Favorable responses to written and oral evaluations of the program, and the quality of assignments completed, indicate that the Program has provided participants with (a) new theoretical understandings of the work they have been pursuing for a long time, (b) a better understanding of food and agriculture-based development strategies and community-based development processes, ©) a framework for planning food and agriculture-based community development projects; and (d) valuable opportunities for building networks of knowledgeable peers.

(2) Monthly check-ins and in-person project updates speak to the ways in which the program has supported the development and implementation of community-based projects and to the ways the projects are, in turn, benefitting communities. Some participants even encouraged us to think of the Growing Home Certification program as an “ag development incubator.”

(3) Other evidence speaks to multiple spin-off impacts that are the result of bringing regional ag developers together through Growing Home. During Year II project updates, participants repeatedly referenced ways they were engaging their Growing Home peers in the implementation of other ag development projects with which they were involved.

(4) In addition to the impacts on program participants and their ability to strengthen agriculture and communities, the program has very much served its purpose as a pilot project. As educators, we have learned a great deal about the needs of a training program designed to simultaneously support and integrate ongoing work and professional development goals.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Future Recommendations

As a result of the feedback provided by participants over the last three years, we have learned the following lessons, which we are taking into consideration as we prepare for the next Growing Home program.

First, as implemented the program was much better suited to professionals for whom ag development was a primary responsibility than for those for whom it was either a minor part of their overall job or for whom it was a personal passion. For all except one of the ten participants (who withdrew due to new job commitments), food and ag-based community development was not a primary job responsibility, but either a small part of their professional portfolio or a volunteer activity. On the other hand, ag development was a primary responsibility of nine of the eleven participants who completed or will complete the program.

On a related note, although applicants were encouraged to have their employers support for their participation in the program, those who completed the program seemed to have a greater level of employer support than those who did not. For example, they could devote work time to the Growing Home Program without having to make it up at another time. At the same time, with the exception of one participant who withdrew from the program for personal reasons, all of the participants who withdrew from the program did so reluctantly, each recognizing the program as a valuable learning experience. This feedback suggests that there are at least two types of clientele who value ag development training, but whose educational and support needs are different and should, thus, be met through different educational programs.

Second, while a regional approach to this training is of value, the Northeast may be too big of a region to effectively capture that value. Even though the program was designed to support professionals in their localities, with limited travel, even six, in-person meetings over two years proved to be a substantial burden for participants required to travel eight hours one way to project meetings. All but two of the ten who left the program had to travel five to nine hours to attend the meetings, even when meetings were held in different locations throughout New York State. We would recommend that future programs be state-based, that is, all participants within one state complete the program together, and then brought together at a regional level through an annual or bi-annual multi-state conference in which all participants have the opportunity to network and learn from each other.

Third, while we intentionally planned the program over two years to provide prolonged, ongoing support, two years may simply be too long to commit to the program as it was designed. At least four participants either changed careers or were promoted to positions that required a greater commitment than was required of them at the beginning of the program and five experienced personal crises that required time away from the program. While our evaluations demonstrate that the educational and professional support components of the program are highly valued, given the time and extensive commitment required by the program, participants may be more inclined to see it to the end if doing so results in credits towards a professional degree rather than a only certificate of completion.

Fourth, despite our commitment to the premise that part of the value of the program was the opportunity for participants to learn from each other’s breadth of experiences, evaluations suggested that some participants felt they did not get enough of a chance to do this. One thought for future programs is that class meetings and tours should be held in participants communities, where participants can essentially share and discuss case study issues. In the two locations where we did do this during this program, participants rated the tour experience highly.

As a result of these lessons, support from program participants, and multiple inquiries from individuals who want to be a part of the program in the future, we will be exploring ways to implement the Growing Home Program differently for different audiences in the future. Initial ideas include incorporating the Growing Home Program into advanced professional degree programs, making it into a one year certificate program, opening it up to a broader audience by having a non-certificate or non-credit option, and modifying the distance learning component so that it is less intense and unnecessarily time consuming (for participants and instructors alike). In conclusion, our experience in implementing the Growing Home Certification Program has, thus far, demonstrated a need for this type of training and the value of providing it, prompting plans to modify and implement the program in the future.

Additional Thoughts re: SARE Support:
1. Though we highly value SARE’s outcomes based requirements and applaud the concept of having SARE committee members check in with projects. We were surprised that our contact checked-in only once over the course of the program leaving a message that was returned, but never responded to.

2. In addition, we recommend that SARE consider adding a “Potential Remediation Actions” section to the professional development RFP. Although we tried to follow our proposal quite strictly, the project did not always go as planned, such as our shortfall in meeting the desired number of participants for our performance targets. While we would have liked to have had more participants stick with the program, and went to extensive lengths to make this happen, we wonder if it might not be useful to plan potential responses to these performance target shortfalls at the proposal stage, in order to be prepared for them, rather than forced to address them with limited time once the program is underway, in full swing.

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.