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.
1. 60+ staff and partners of 26 incubators receive notices about this initiative, including specific training and technical assistance (T&TA) agendas and 2-year activity timetables
We sent outreach materials about this initiative in June and October of 2014 to our national list serve of over 200 IFPs across the country, and then sent targeted emails to 55 individual contacts at 36 IFPs that we are aware of (some of which may not still be in operation) throughout the Northeast. We also followed up with phone calls to projects within the Northeast that did not respond to emails. All outreach recipients were sent our milestones, links to sign up for the initiative, and an invitation to register for the project orientation. This general outreach was in addition to our specific calls to incubators that will be hosting our field schools and serving on the project advisory committee.
2. 20 incubators apply to the program and are accepted as project participants
We received applications from 24 participants from 15 IFPs. Additional projects expressed interest in engaging with the project and we anticipate more will come on board as we progress through the project activities.
3. 40+ staff and partners from 20 incubators sign agreements to participate in 2 year program, including field schools, web meetings, implementation, consistent tracking, and reporting
In the early stages of the project we received commitment letters from 18 core participants from 10 incubators, and 6 additional participants from 5 incubators who have agreed to engage at a more limited level. This was a total of 24 participants from 15 incubators.
The participant pool has thinned since original commitments were made, but the number of projects increased from the first Field School to the second. The first Field School on the topic of Basic Financial Literacy was attended by 20 IPS from 11 projects. The second Field School on the topic of Advanced Financial Literacy was attended by 17 IPS from 13 projects.
The third and fourth Field Schools on the topic of Access to Capital and Access to land were attended by 12 IPS from 7 projects. Reduced participation is attributable to staff turnover in four of the organizations committed at the onset of the grant, the decision of one of the participating organizations to re-structure their training program away from the incubator model, and the shutting down of another project originally committed. In order to manage these disruptions, we worked to onboard the new staff at partner organizations through one-on-one calls and follow up, which did lead to continued participation from two projects; however the original number of committed staff is still below our original expectations.
However, with the expansion of the evaluation tool pilot to the national IFP community, we have been able to establish a level of participation (19 projects) adequate for piloting the tool for shared measurement that was developed by Northeast incubators. This exceeds our original goal of ten projects.
4. 20+ incubator staff and partners from 10 incubators attend project orientation meeting at NESAWG pre-conference session to provide feedback and finalize benchmarks
NESAWG session had limited interest from participants – due in part to an exceptionally busy conference season and limited program resources – so we cancelled it in favor of a webinar-based orientation call which took place on November 12, 2014. We had 13 participants on the webinar from as many organizations, exceeding our target goal for organization attendance, but not for individual staff. We expect that each incubator project only felt the need to have one staff person attend. We received excellent feedback from incubator staff on the two outcome survey drafts we circulated for feedback in advance of the webinar and also were able to answer questions regarding program logistics.
5. 40+ incubator staff and partners from 20 incubators participate in 4 field schools over 2 years that primarily address farmer transition and incubator and farmer metrics (as described)
Northeast IFPs gathered for two Field Schools in 2015 and two Field Schools in 2016. Each Field School consists of a day and a half of training and workshops, and a half day reserved for a farmer panel and incubator farm tour.
The first Field School, hosted in Portland, Maine on May 7-8th, 2015 focused on the topic of Basic Financial Literacy. The agenda is attached. Julia Shanks, a food system consultant based out of MA, provided an interactive training on the basic components of Financial Literacy. Claude Rwaganje of Community Financial Literacy, presented on his partnership with Cultivating Community and how he has worked with their refugee farmers to develop important financial and business planning skills. A panel of funders from diverse organizations presented on what characteristics they look for in a farmer when considering providing them with a loan. The next day, a field trip and farmer panel took place at Cultivating Community’s incubator farm in Lewiston, Maine.
After these trainings, participants began the process of developing a shared language of evaluation by participating in a brainstorm. The prompt for this activity was to “imagine what financial literacy related connections resources documents and skills a farmer should possess upon graduation from the incubator.” This engendered a lively discussion on what IFPs should be expected to deliver to their participants by way of training and technical assistance. The results of this brainstorm were used to develop a sorting survey, through which core metrics were identified.
NIFTI staff worked with a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) consultant, Lydia Oberholtzer, to help break down core metrics into area, aspect, internal or external measurements, and how to measure. Final metrics will aid evaluation at two levels of detail:
National Level: gauge trends in IFP programming, illustrate collective impact and assist NIFTI in developing relevant training materials.
Program Level: determine efficacy of programs and the skills/knowledge gained by participants, assist program in developing strong curriculum and training.
The second Field School, hosted in Burlington, VT on September 10-11th, 2015 focused on the topic of Advanced Financial Literacy. Mark Cannella, from UVM Extension, provided a workshop on Financial Literacy, with a detailed breakdown of the documents and skills necessary to instill strong financial management in beginning farmers. Nick Bullock of Yankee Farm Credit shared information on farmer preparedness for loans. A farm tour of the Intervale Center’s incubator farm program showcased their Food Hub, Equipment Cooperative and infrastructure for farmers. A farmer panel also showcased their engagement with the Incubator and services received.
After the skills-based trainings, attendees participated in a showcase of their existing evaluation processes and a workshop on developing program-level metrics in the previously agreed upon core areas. Workshop time was structured around the following questions:
“How are Incubator Farm Projects currently evaluating their programs?”
“How can we incorporate shared metrics into existing evaluation practices?”
“How can we collect information on shared metrics?”
Prior to the training, each project developed an Evaluation Process Map. These were shared and discussed. A group activity was used to formulate program level metrics, and these were workshopped collectively. The result of this exercise was the basis for the “Framework for Shared Measurement”. The “Framework for Shared Measurement” was piloted by four projects over the winter of 2015. Incubator Farm Project Reports were submitted, which report on aggregated responses to participant surveys.
The third Field School held April 14-15, in Emmaus, PA, focused on the topic of Access to Capital. Amanda Knackstedt from Farm Credit presented on lender perspectives on access to capital, focusing on what lenders expect from farmers when applying for financing, and how lenders can work with farmers to demystify the process of successfully obtaining startup capital. Lyn Franklin Klime from Penn State Extension presented on lessons learned from his time supporting beginning farmers at PSU, and focused on how to best work with farmers to access capital. Finally, Rachel Armstrong from Farm Commons presented on the legal dimensions of access to capital, and focused particularly on alternative methods for accessing capital, such as personal loans.
On day two, participants worked to refine metrics related to access to capital, and provided feedback on the process of piloting the Framework for Shared Measurement. We adjusted language and order of questions based on feedback in preparation for the expanded pilot. A field trip to the Seed Farm incubator and apprenticeship training program and farmer participant panel showcased their approach and operations.
The fourth Field School was held in Cold Spring, NY on October 6-7th,2016. On the first day, we heard from Terrence Duvall of the Columbia Land Conservancy on options for land access and preservation for beginning farmers, as well as some of the pressures on land that are resulting in limited access to farmland. We received practical training from Jim Hafner of Land for Good on available resources, tools and partnerships for land access, and Noelle Fogg from New Entry discussed the process of working with farmers to set goals related to land access and their transition off the incubator.
On day two, we worked to develop metrics on access to land, and incorporate them into the existing Framework for Shared Measurement. This marked the completion of our work developing the tool in preparation for the national pilot. A field trip to Glynwood Farm’s livestock incubator program and farmer panel featuring two livestock operations and a composting business gave participants a different enterprise perspective on the role of farm business incubators.
6. 20 incubator staff and partners use tracking materials to establish baseline metrics on multiple project elements (programs, admin., farmer outcomes)
The original baseline survey distributed by NIFTI was completed by all participating projects. Feedback related to this survey was mixed, with many projects reporting that certain information was difficult or impossible to gather, and that the survey was too time consuming and not user friendly. In response to this feedback, the survey has been simplified and is combined with the collaboratively developed Incubator Farm Project Report. The Incubator Farm Project Report is based upon the Framework for Shared Measurement and makes use of mutually agreed upon core metrics.
The Incubator Farm Project Report was piloted by four projects in the Northeast over the winter of 2015, and collected responses from 23 farmers. Because of the limited number of participants in this pilot, the tool was released for a national pilot, and tested by nineteen IFPs, ten of whom reported data for 76 farmers.
7. 20 incubator staff & partners together with 100 farmers develop farming transition goals and developmental benchmarks with farmers to track over project period & beyond.
The 11 projects that participated in the first field school serve a total of 250 beginning farmers. These projects participated in collaborative activities to develop core metrics of farmer success. These core metrics are were piloted by 19 projects, and 10 provided feedback in the form of evaluation surveys. Farmers and program staff were able to share feedback during this phase, and their input was incorporated in the improved tools:
While the evaluation tool has been met with great enthusiasm by the Incubator Farm Community of Practice, both at the 2016 and 2017 NIFTI Field Schools, as well as on a Southeast Regional Call and a webinar for the West Virginia Farm Incubator Network, utilization data is not fully known, as all projects utilizing the tool do not necessarily report back to NIFTI through completion of the Incubator Farm Project Report.
The development of benchmarks has also proved more challenging than originally expected, and would be an excellent area for future research. Because participating programs work with various populations with inconsistent levels of expertise and experience, developing benchmarks, or expectations of progress at any given point in the program, is difficult. NIFTI has moved to recommending individualized TA for each farmer based on their individual goals, and monitoring progression in priority areas through use of the shared measurement tool and other evaluation practices such as demonstrated skill and informal observation. The recommendation with the shared framework is that programs work with their farmers to increase competency in the critical listed skills. However, benchmarks have not been developed, and progress is monitored on a case-by-case basis.
8. 40 incubator staff & partners participate in web forums, technical assistance exchanges, to help implement multiple tracking metrics and farmer transition planning steps.
Continuous throughout the project.
9. 40 incubator staff & partners use organized online and informal meetings and communications for shared learning and peer-based networking (Community of Practice)
Continuous throughout the project.
Our first webinar, “Teaching Financial Literacy to Beginning Farmers” was attended by 12 IPS from 7 of our core participants and was subsequently viewed online by all beneficiaries.
Six web meetings have been held for project participants.
Meeting 1 | 11/12/14
A brief orientation to the project, target milestones, and participant expectations.
Meeting 2 | 8/11/15
This meeting served to recap the evaluation work done at the first Field School, and outline the process for refining the original brainstorm into core metrics. This meeting also presented the central questions to be explored at the second Field School.
Meeting 3 | 11/20/15
This meeting served to review the Draft Framework for Shared Measurement, which is the product of the collaborative M&E work conducted at the first two Field Schools.
Meeting 4| 3/28/2016:
This call was opened to Northeast Incubators at large and reviewed the regional work that had happened to date, and opportunities for collaboration moving forward. On this call, recruitment and farmer assessment were identified as needs, and the linkages between these two topics were explored.
Meeting 5 | 8/11/16:
This meeting was a training focused on Recruiting Prospective Farmers for participation on the incubator project. Identifying appropriate participants with the right combinations of skills and experience was determined by the group to be the first step in developing a useful evaluation process, because farmers coming in with similar capabilities are able to be measured by the same scales and systems.
Meeting 6 | 11/29/2016
This meeting focused on program updates, summaries from the National and Regional Field Schools, a review of the Framework for Shared Measurement, and discussion on how projects have improved/adapted their programs based on learnings from NIFTI gatherings.
10. 20+ incubator staff & partners contribute content to be posted to centralized resources clearinghouse
Continuous throughout the project.
All participating IFPs have submitted their existing evaluation tools and evaluation process maps, as well as the tools they use to teach financial literacy. These resources, totaling over 30 have been uploaded to the NIFTI resource library.
The Framework for Shared Measurement, which is the culmination of IFP work at the Field Schools, will be added to the resource library in January 2018. Case studies related to program improvements related to this project are in final stages of graphic design and will also be posted and shared in 2018.
11. 50+ incubator staff & partners access and use downloadable manuals and toolkits, interactive forums, webinar recordings, and FAQs organized by topic area.
Continuous throughout the project.
Over 200 resource materials are available on our website in a searchable database. The framework for shared measurement has been distributed to the national listserv of 281 IPS and was presented to over 20 IPS at the NIFTI National Field School on October 26th , 2016 in Ann Arbor, MI. Once the revised Framework for Shared Measurement is uploaded to the NIFTI database in 2018, we will be able to track downloads from our site of this tool. NIFTI presented about this tool to 92 projects in November 2017 at the NIFTI National Field School.
12. 20 incubator staff & partners apply tools, skills, and other shared experiences to incubator and farmer development activities.
Continuous throughout the project.
The staff of IFPs involved in the Field School has reported specific ways in which they intend to utilize the trainings receive. The following list describes intended program changes resulting from the professional development trainings offered at each Field School.
Field School 1| Basic Financial Literacy
- I’ll incorporate financial literacy into our training program!
- I will work with our incubators on cash flow planning and other financial statements as they determine if they can transition out on to certain properties
- We will modify the type of information we collect from farmers on the Incubator; how we teach accounting/record keeping; and our expectations for graduating farmers.
- We’re hoping to incorporate workshops on financial literacy and accessing credit into our educational programming and Winter Conference.
- I really like the idea of collaborating with someone from the communities of farmers we work with to teach financial literacy in a way that is also relevant to farming and small business management. Thanks to the access to capital panel, I also have a better sense of when a farmer might need to be referred to expert help and what makes them more ready to apply for a loan.
- Our brainstorming of metrics set out for me a list of documents and skills to incorporate into our program.
- It helped me improve my financial literacy knowledge so I can work on those statements with farmers when they are planning a transition out on to a new farm.
- We have a clearer idea of the types of documents that farmers should be creating and we can outline that during the admissions process. If we require more information from them, like financial statements, we will be able to identify problem areas earlier in the process.
- Lessons will inform our evaluation strategy, which will shine a light on how we are doing towards learning goals. Lessons will also help us in how we direct participants to appropriate financial assistance.
Field School 2| Advanced Financial Literacy
- Suggestion of more business and financial literacy focus/more balance between farm skills training and business skills training.
- The intake, mid-term and exit evaluations will be incorporated into our plans, as will the importance of developing cash flow and Balance sheets during early part of incubatee training. Developing evaluation metrics will help to lay out clear objectives.
- I plan to have my incubator participants complete an annual balance sheet now so that I can see how their equity is growing in addition to their gross sales and net profit.
- Recognizing that creating a local food distribution system is challenging even in a foodie town in a foodie state, our program staff will be more active in facilitating relationships between farmers and local markets rather than putting all the responsibility on incubator farmers. Customized versions of the financial literacy tools shared at the Field School will soon be part of our farmer training program. Quantifiable evaluation metrics will soon be part of our program.
- Both the presentations and the comments by other incubator managers gave me a list of elements to incorporate into my program (Require balance sheets from Day 1; cultivate mentoring relationships; Intake survey to determine baseline…)
- I plan to create an ongoing evaluation process for our incubator farmers and other trainees to track their skills, goals, and progress. I hope that it will serve as a tool for both the trainees to track themselves over time, and for staff to understand how to be most helpful for each trainee.
- The basics of financial statements will be incorporated at earlier stages of the program and be used to build measureable goals
- Tracking the knowledge, skills, resources that each participant is gaining, and comparing them to the knowledge, skills, resources that are needed based on their long-term goals
Field School 3 | Access to Capital
- Ideally we will be better able to guide them through the process of accessing loans and other monies that can aid in the growth of their business. And if that goes well the hope would be that farmers could take the work we have done with them and use it to continue to grow their business even after they have left the incubator.
- Program staff feels better able to discuss the types of financing available and the procedures for obtaining that financing.
- Most farmers need access to credit to transition off the incubator or to invest in capital equipment. Better understanding the various programs and requirements is useful.
Field School 4 | Access to Land
- I’ve already used what I’ve learned at the training as I’m working with some land owners to set up a possible farming site. I also feel as if I can help my coworkers who are in charge of land acquirement in my organization with the knowledge I gain at the conference. The survey has also laid out an important resource to consider from everything from making business plans to assessing our program.
- At this point in time, the information will be archived. It is my goal that it will be revisited when the time is right, which will be when the planning process occurs. We are not there as of yet.
- Land access is a perpetual challenge for our program – the new perspectives, ideas, techniques, and reflections that emerged from this discussion will help us think about how to move forward organizationally and how to communicate these challenges with participants.
- We are actively involved in land access efforts in our region. The field school gave me some ideas for taking this a bit further, in particular @ the idea of mentoring/fee for service work that, I believe, will improve satisfactory matchmaking between landowners and farmers, and create more lasting relationships.
- The Intervale Center will continue to strengthen our land linking website by trying to add farmer profiles and make the website more user friendly. We may also incorporate New Entry’s land seeker questionnaire in to our current list of questions we ask for from land seekers. We will also work to collaborate more with funders like the Russel Foundation to leverage money to help farmers access land.
- We learned about methods and tools that will be useful in shaping conversations with farmers about what options are open to them re: land transition and access.
13. 20 incubator staff complete and submit tracking data and project reports on agreed-to schedules that show progress in multiple domains.
Quarterly after Jan. 2015
Baseline data was collected in 2015, however the ability to track progress using data that is abstracted through averaging of individual farmer results has proven difficult. Developing a tool that can serve multiple projects well and also illuminate progress along an agreed upon progression of farmer development will require further research. NIFTI is currently partnering with UCSC Santa Cruz to apply for continued funding for this work.
14. 20 incubator staff with some farmers develop and circulate case studies and success stories demonstrating qualitative changes to projects and farmers’ transitions’ to independence.
Sept. 2015 through end of project.
NIFTI identified three projects that were willing to develop case studies on their practices related to financial literacy, access to capital and access to land, as well as their motivations for working with beginning farmers. Case studies have been documented, but due to limited staff capacity, are not finalized. This product is currently in the hands of an intern who is working to finalize. We anticipate that case studies will be shareable in early 2018, as a resource to accompany the finalized framework for shared measurement.
15. 20 incubator staff submit final evaluation data and reports summarizing metrics
The finalized Framework for Shared Evaluation, was distributed in January of 2018 and has already been viewed over 75 times. Once projects complete the evaluations with their farmers, we will posess concrete data towards the completion of this milestone. However, previously mentioned limitations regarding the specificity of the data may make this reporting less useful than originally intended. Inconsistent participation in both trainings and evaluation surveys and will also complicate our ability to draw meaningful conclusions based on final data.
16. 20 incubator staff prepares final summary report describing project, goals, strategies, and outcomes; circulates widely
The Framework for Shared Measurement and accompanying case studies serve as the final report for this project, as it is where the learning and growth from the Field Schools has been distilled and where the process of their development has been documented. This tool and the story of its development will be shared with over 200 projects in January of 2018.
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
40 staff of 20 Incubator Farm Projects (IFPs) develop 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.
- 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
Additional Project Outcomes
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.