While interest in sustainable farming is growing throughout the Northeast, resources, services and support for beginning farmers (BFs) can be piecemeal and sporadically offered. The National Young Farmer Coalition reports three major challenges faced by BFs; access to land, access to capital, and access to education. BFs lack opportunities to try their hand at farming with minimal risk, while access to land and capital infrastructure can seem out of reach in the Northeast due to high land prices. The experiential education offered on Farm Incubator Projects (FIPs) can be accessed while earning income from a farm business. Incubators are a more accessible training model for those who can’t afford to take advantage of university-based programs or those with high tuitions; especially for socially disadvantaged producers, low-income individuals, immigrants, and refugees. FIP farmers can get the tools and resources they need to be successful, and the increase in demand for these programs in recent years has shown they fill an important role when learning to farm on the family homestead is mostly a thing of the past. FIPs address challenges faced by beginning farmers by providing land access, equipment and infrastructure, and farm-based education.
This project engaged Incubator Project Staff (IPS) in comprehensive trainings to develop rigorous evaluation tools and assist in the transition of viable farmers off the FIP. Through four field schools and farm visits, which covered Financial Literacy, Access to Capital, and Access to Land, and took place in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York, and follow up online meetings, 27 IPS staff serving over 200 farmers helped establish shared goals for providing education about these topics in their programs and clear metrics for knowledge and skills needed by farmer trainees. As a result of in person gatherings, supplemental web training and facilitated community of practice conversations, the 27 participants reported strong intentions to incorporate lessons learned from this project into their curricula, which will lead to improved services and better farmer outcomes.
9 projects serving over 70 farmers piloted the resulting Shared Framework for Evaluation, which has been refined based on pilot feedback and is now publicly available via New Entry’s and SARE’s websites. As a result of their participation and piloting experience, these programs made changes in their programs which include the early inclusion of education about financial literacy and land access, and strengthened requirements related to business planning and record keeping. Specific examples of program improvements include:
- requiring participants to create a cash-flow budget, business plan and other necessary financial forms
- requiring completion a university online business planning course
- increasing the number of financial literacy workshops
- strengthening emphasis on working with banks and credit unions and the financial records needed to apply for a loan
- creating a database of sources for financing
- exploring option of offering long term lease of program’s land for farmers to transition onto
- including access to land discussions early in the curriculum and having participants begin researching land options in their second year.
An additional project success was the new 2017 NIFTI Regional Guide to Incubator Farms developed to help aspiring farmers better understand the offerings and preferences of programs in the region and choose the most appropriate opportunity.
40 staff of 20 Incubator Farm Projects (IFPs) develops standardized performance metrics, evaluation tools and data collection methodology related to key program educational components, and uses these tools to improve the quality/quantity of educational programs and resources provided to 250 farmers.
20 staff from 10 FIPs uses the new tools and methods to document the progress towards independence of 100 farmers via established benchmarks re: sustainable practices, yields, incomes, and access to capital, infrastructure and farmland.
While interest in sustainable farming is growing throughout the Northeast, resources, services and support for beginning farmers (BFs) can be piecemeal and sporadically offered. The National Young Farmer Coalition reports three major challenges faced by BFs; access to land, access to capital, and access to education. BFs lack opportunities to try their hand at farming with minimal risk, while access to land and capital infrastructure can seem out of reach in the Northeast due to high land prices. The experiential education offered on Farm Incubator Projects (FIPs) can be accessed while earning income from a farm business. Incubators are a more accessible training model for those who can’t afford to take advantage of university-based programs or those with high tuitions; especially for socially disadvantaged producers, low-income individuals, immigrants, and refugees. FIP farmers can get the tools and resources they need to be successful, and the increase in demand for these programs in recent years has shown they fill an important role when learning to farm on the family homestead is mostly a thing of the past. FIPs address challenges faced by beginning farmers by providing land access, equipment and infrastructure, and farm-based education. These programs are relatively new and highly specialized, requiring tailored professional development to ensure effective project administration. This project adopted a train-the-trainer approach to engage Incubator Project Staff (IPS) in comprehensive trainings to develop rigorous evaluation tools that help programs determine farmer preparedness for transition off the FIP. Through field schools, follow up online meetings, online resources, and a facilitated community of practice, IPS from across the region learned how to establish goals and clear metrics that lead to improved services. Farmers in participating programs are now able to access higher quality training and support services through FIPs, making them more likely to achieve their goals and graduate successfully.
Four participatory train the trainer sessions led by experts on access to land, access to credit and financial literacy equipped incubator farm program staff to implement improved training in their programs. Training included the provision of curriculum materials, the review of existing practices, and open time for exploration and sharing of best practice.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Beneficiaries who participated in the project’s educational activities and events:
Two Field Schools in 2015 resulted in increased knowledge of IPS on the components of financial literacy and strategies for teaching financial literacy to beginning farmers, as well as how to reinforce financial literacy lessons within the IFP program structure. In 2016, two Field Schools resulted in increased knowledge of IPS on options for working with beginning farmers to access land and capital. With participating projects serving over 250 farmers, the impact of this work is multiplied well beyond the number of people in attendance at each Field School.
On average between the two 2015 Field Schools, participants report that:
91% strongly agree or agree that this training increased their understanding of basic financial literacy.
90% strongly agree or agree that they will incorporate lessons from this training into their Incubator Project’s program.
91% strongly agree or agree that this training increased their understanding of metrics and evaluation.
100% strongly agree that the lessons from this training will strengthen their organization’s ability to help farmers achieve their transition goals.
The 2016 Field Schools received the following evaluation:
100% agree that this training increased their understanding of financing options for farmers.
100% strongly agree or agree that this training increased their understanding of land access options for farmers.
100% strongly agree or agree that they will incorporate lessons from these trainings into their Incubator Project’s program.
100% strongly agree or agree that the lessons from this training will strengthen their organization’s ability to help farmers achieve their transition goals.
The most tangible outcome of this training is the Framework for Shared Measurement. The Framework for Shared measurement has been widely received by IFPs as a useful tool, and in many cases it is the only formal evaluation that projects will administer to measure farmer progress towards non-production related goals. The tool was presented at the NIFTI National Field School to an audience of over 20 projects, 15 of whom signed up to pilot the tool, bringing our national total of participating organizations to 19, which is above our regional goal of 10. While we know that 19 projects used the tool, only 9 completed the final Incubator Farm Project Report and provided pilot feedback.
This evaluation tool is useful on many levels to both established and start-up IFPs. Established projects are able to identify areas of strength and weakness within their programs, and determine if there are core areas of farmer learning, which will be critical to a farmer’s successful transition off of the incubator, that are not being addressed. For example, very few incubators include education about a land search plan in their curriculum. Using the shared framework, projects will be able to identify that this is not something they are adequately addressing. When they report up to NIFTI on this finding, using the annual Incubator Farm Report, we will be able to direct them to resources shared by Jim Hafner at the fourth Field School which are designed to assist farmers in independently developing a land use plan.
For start-up projects, the Framework for Shared Measurement can be used as a template for building out a curriculum and identifying key partnerships. Each of the core metrics in the categories of connections, resources, farm documents and skills can be used as criteria for curriculum development. In areas where the necessary resources or expertise do not exist in house, outside partnerships or resources can be used to fill in gaps.
Feedback from the 2016 Pilot of this tool provided us with information necessary to improve its functionality. We used Pilot suggestions to improve clarity by adding definitions to ambiguous terms such as "community partnerships" and "mentor" and reducing the use of acronyms. We also added questions to promote "big picture" thinking about farmer's goals, and enhanced the resource by completing a digital form that farmers can fill out, and including a calculator tool to assist in aggregating responses. This improved tool will be disseminated to over 200 projects in the first week of 2018.
In addition to the Framework for Shared Measurement, this regional effort has resulted in the creation of a Guide to Incubator Farm Projects. The decision to create this guide resulted from evaluation discussions which identified the need to attract qualified participants who are well-suited to the projects in which they are participating. Recognizing the diversity of projects throughout the Northeast, the group identified the usefulness of a guide which shares program profiles and application information, including a description of desired participants. In order to create this guide, NIFTI organized a marketing and branding training for IPS, which was conducted by Myrna Greenfield of Good Egg Marketing. After participation in this training, projects worked to complete a profile that describes their program’s unique characteristics. This guide is currently being compiled by a graphic design assistant, and will be complete in late January 2017. Once complete, the guide will be widely distributed as an outreach and recruitment tool, and will also be used by IFPs to shepherd flexible applicants to the project that is the best fit for them. By working together on this project, IFPs hope to retain all potential incubator participants by expanding their options.
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
- 1 Curricula, factsheets and other educational tools
Despite encountering vast difficulty in collecting data from project participants, and in the retention of Field School participants, NIFTI was able to gather some concrete evidence of program improvement as a result of the Field Schools and resulting resources.
Participation of 27 individuals was measured through attendance in any of the Field Schools. The programs represented at the Field Schools serve over 200 farmers, and each Field School shared tools for program improvement on a specific topic and worked to develop shared metrics on that topic. For example, at the first Field School in Maine, we received training on financial literacy, and then brainstormed and developed metrics related to financial literacy. Based on post workshop evaluation data from each individual training, we know that participants felt that information learned would directly benefit their programs. While we cannot report with confidence which programs have instituted changes, we do know that we have trained 27 staff serving over 200 farmers on at least one of the topics we set out to explore, and that these staff indicated strong and specific intentions to use what they learned in their programs.
The data that we can most confidently report which shows utilization of the cumulative knowledge of all four training sessions, comes from the 9 projects serving over 70 farmers who utilized the Shared Framework, as well as from individual case studies which are reported below.
The greatest barrier we encountered was staff capacity of participating programs. With so much going on and so few people to complete routine and pressing tasks, completing evaluations was not deemed a priority and therefore not completed. This has led us to consider how to create incentives for participation in the future.
The most rich data we were able to gather about tangible improvements made was through the process of developing case studies. Results from the case study interviews are included below.
Financial Literacy Outcomes
Horn Farm Center:
Financial literacy, and proven methods of conveying information to incubator farmers about recordkeeping was something the Horn Farm Center had been talking about but wasn’t entirely sure how to address or how to enforce.
Jon: “We realized that its not really a fun topic for most farmers and they’re not going to do it if we just suggest it,”
As a takeaway from the Field School, Horn Farm Center made record keeping a requirement of the application process. They now ask their farm incubator participants for a cash-flow budget, a business plan, and other necessary financial forms. Further, they have asked one of the successful farm businesses that is on their land to share his enterprise budgets to use as a point of discussion with participants in the incubator program. This helps demonstrate a farmer who is able to run a successful business and analyze decisions that he is making. The adoption of “open books mentorship” evolved directly from a presentation by Mark Canella at the Field School at the Intervale Center.
The field school prompted Horn Farm Center to look closer at operating expenses of the Farm Center as a whole to understand and establish the true costs of running an incubator farm.
Alyson: “at the field school when we were talking about evaluating the success of an incubator farm, versus an incubator farm program. I think that the NIFTI field school that we participated in had a direct effect on both our program incubator and our program as an incubator provider.”
Additionally, the idea of making the online business planning course with the University a requirement for incubatees came right out of the financial literacy session at the field school.
Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator (Glynwood)
Glynwood has increased the types of financial literacy workshops for participants since the Field School, including pricing strategies, cash flow management, accounting training, software primer, building blocks of accountability and finance through customizable templates to learn from and adapt to specific farm businesses. The field school gave Glynwood a good set of references and a better understanding of the types of organizations that can help participants of the incubator farm program throughout the incubator process and after the transition off the land. Glywood has connected with Cornell Cooperative Extension, FSA and Farm Credit among others, which helps to bolster resources in teaching financial literacy.
Alex Redfield: “…it certainly influenced how I approach teaching [financial literacy]… definitely the conversations there changed how I think about including it in our curriculum.”
For Cultivating Community, the workshops on financial literacy were useful for developing what skills are needed for farmers to be successful in financial literacy and a framework from which to re-shape curriculum content. The delivery of such curriculum has also been transformed since the field school. Teaching enterprise budgets, for example, is being reconsidered to deliver in a more compelling or approachable way. Content shifts have focused more on working with banks and credit unions and shifting away from direct cash management, keeping with perceived general farmer skill shifts. The timing at which financial literacy is addressed has also shifted; it has now been integrated into the beginning stages of the curriculum, pointedly teaching it in the first couple of years, not just at the end of the participants time at the incubator.
As Cultivating Community begins a large expansion on their incubator site, the information and ideas about farmer development and independence that grew out of the field school have been used to shape how farmers are included in the delivery of training, which allows for expansion in a way that doesn’t severely drain resources.
This is happening by “training up” their participants to enable them and empower them to have teaching responsibilities, conduct peer-to-peer trainings, and to be able to help run the expanded acreage through an intensive educational push.
Alex: “The field school is a big part of that; and even if just in terms of shaping how the staff in our program are thinking about training and delivering some of that teaching. The sort of activities at the field school about enumerating what it is that farmers need to be successful graduates and going through that process as a group really [gave] us a list of things that we could start to transition to farmers and really focus on teaching-up so that they could take on some of those responsibilities themselves, that’s been super helpful.”
Access to Capital
Horn Farm Center:
Access to capital was viewed as a long-term goal for Horn Farm Center and the Field School shifted their awareness of the importance of consistent record keeping, leading them to add financial literacy requirements and move recordkeeping lessons to the beginning of the programs.
Alyson: “…a farmer looking down the road, realizing that he or she is going to need three to five years of financial records to go apply for a loan, do a business plan…what we saw in terms of [our current six-year incubator’s] record keeping in the last year has been from 0 to 100, it’s been a completely different way that he analyzes the work that he’s doing, how much it costs him…all those came directly out of our incorporation and requirement that from the application process to the end of the year recording, that each farm business create a farm business plan, have a cash flow budget, all those components that Jon and I picked up at the NIFTI field school, those came back directly and got transferred into how we were requiring our farmers to participate in our program.”
Since the Field School, Glynwood has created a database related to access to credit for their program. Glynwood has created a database, including slow money investors, traditional lenders, crowdfunding options, and grant opportunities, related to access to credit for their program. They are in the process of reviewing their presentations of borrowing strategies, and connecting with personal contact and regional opportunities to facilitate these relationships and learning. Participants are able to discuss options for credit with personalized technical assistants.
Access to Land
The Horn Farm Center has 189 acres and the incubator program is in its seventh year:
“…we have, in the past, been running on this idea that the farmers would be with us for three to five years and then they would at that point transition off to the land elsewhere to fledge the nest and continue. So what we are doing with [our] one farmer that we have right now because we have this resource of land, we are actually expanding what portion of that land is devoted to our program and we’re considering offering our farmers in our program to transition off the incubator site and onto our land.”
When they re-signed the lease this year with their current participant, they signed a two-year lease, allowing time within that period to further determine how to create longer term rents or leases to farmers on their own property. “We’re trying to deal with that access to land, internally.”
The idea of the incubator as a potential site for long-term land access came to them while attending the field schools, specifically at Glynwood, addressing the topic of land access:
“we talked about how we can be a support organization for our farmers not only within the incubator, but once they transfer out. So we realized that one big thing that we have to help them with that is we have land, so why were we feeling this need to push them out and have them move on? Maybe our role is to actually support them long term with transitioning them onsite here”
The field school helped Cultivating Community explore tools and techniques for how to get farmers on their own piece of land. Hearing from the other organizations and some of their participatory teaching methods was valuable as well, including the idea of linking farmers with other agricultural service providers and educational programs. The idea of partnership development helped shape how current training programs are provided. Overall, it guided redefinition of where in the curriculum Access to Land it should be addressed:
“For example, this cohort of farmers that are moving, they didn’t really start to talk about leases and what their options were for moving until five years into the program and so just even hearing from other folks about how they incorporated into their training program, spurred us to rethink where and when we begin to talk about those concepts” Alex
Access to land is now part of the curriculum scheduled for the spring, for all cohorts of farmers, not just the ones at the end of their time in the program.
Cultivating Community currently manages a piece of property that they are aiming to transition to a group of farmers that are able to manage it on their own. Collaboration with the Maine Farmland Trust and Land for Good has helped their program and farmers learn more about how to contact and communicate with landowners and the processes involved with buying and leasing land.
Glynwood has communicated the challenges of accessing land to incubatees, and plan for their participants to begin the process of researching options for accessing land in their second year. This will enable time for participants to find good future prospects, while still developing with the support of the incubator. During that second year, the participants work with the staff at Glynwood to ensure relevant matchmaking, focusing on which type of land tenure is best, and ensuring that participants are in good financial positions to undertake the transfer process. As various decisions throughout the process are made, depending on the participants’ interests and abilities, Glynwood provides continual support and network connections. Glynwood is part of a larger network, Hudson Valley Farmlink, that aims to connect farmers and landowners
While not an expected outcome, the 2017-NIFTI-Regional-Guide is a significant success of this project. As programs began discussing how to measure their participant’s preparedness for independence, time after time the conversation turned to how varied the skill and experience levels were among participants. This evolved into discussions of the “ideal” or “appropriate” candidate for an incubator, and how this varies between programs. The Regional Guide represents a response to these challenges, by working to further network programs in order to help them better understand the offerings and preferences of other programs in the region, with the goal of ensuring that anyone who is interested in farming can be shepherded towards the most appropriate opportunity, even if it is not the one they initially approach. While this resource was unexpected, we hope it will be of use as we continue to distribute it beyond the Incubator community in 2018.
Further research should be conducted on benchmarking as it relates to farmer progress on the incubator, and how benchmarking tools can be developed for a variety of skills that farmers self-identify as priorities.
Many programs expressed the desire to explore the concept of “success” as it relates to non-farming outcomes of incubator participants. For example, if a participant leaves the incubator after four years and does not establish a farm business, but goes on to work in a food hub or another value aligned organization/field, should that be counted as success? This would require an analysis of the “ecosystem for success” for a new farmer, and what other support roles people can plan within the community to increase their likelihood of success. Perhaps we could then work with incubator staff to move participants that don’t have a future in farming towards another aligned profession. Research on this topic could be quite interesting. Many programs also expressed interest in the community and psycho-social benefits of participation on the incubator.