Building the Resiliency of Farms through Farm Law Education of Agriculture Professionals

Progress report for ENE19-154

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2019: $155,725.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2022
Grant Recipient: Farm Commons
Region: Northeast
State: Minnesota
Project Leader:
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Project Information

Performance Target:

192 agriculture professionals who learn about the 12 legal best practices for farmers in farm employment, business structures, land matters, sales, agritourism, and insurance/liability law recommend at least one of those 12 legal best practices to a total of 2112 farmers.

Introduction:

Farms across the Northeast region suffer from serious legal vulnerabilities that threaten the strength and resiliency of farm communities as a whole. The problem is especially acute on direct to consumer and organic operations, as well as those exploring innovative business models that include agritouristm, on-farm processing, or educational programming. Only 33% have an adequate insurance policy for their farm operation, and only 7% have an operating agreement or bylaws for their farm business. Upwards of 40% of farmers are not complying with the complex, difficult farm employment law obligations of direct to consumer farms.  Farmers themselves are very aware of their limited knowledge on farm law as the average farmer rated their confidence at just 42%.

Farmers are asking for legal guidance from Extension agents, nonprofit staff, accountants, and other farm professionals, with 93% of professionals reporting that farm law questions arise in their work. 80% of these professionals would like to attend a day-long workshop offering the fundamentals of farm law, while instructing them in how to safely, accurately guide farmers to legal resiliency.

This project aims to do exactly that, through a series of 9 “Guiding Farmers to Legal Resiliency” online workshops across the Northeastern region. These workshops will cover the basics of farm employment, business structures, land matters, insurance/liability law, sales, and agritourism/processing while emphasizing 12 specific best practices that reduce legal risk on sustainable farms. These general workshops will be complimented by 3 in-depth workshops on the first 3 subjects. Participants will receive an e-Toolkit with easy-to-distribute handouts and resources for finding further information and attorney guidance. The workshop is complemented by an e-newsletter offering ongoing support.

Cooperators

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Educational Approach

Educational approach:

For the 2020 annual report purposes, it’s more useful to delete the old Education Plan and start fresh, considering the enormous changes that the pandemic has brought to our educational approach. 

Curriculum Format:

Over the course of the next year, we are offering 9 online workshop sessions which explore 5 areas of law equally: land matters, business structures, employment, liability/insurance, and agritourism/processing. Each workshop will have 50 registrants per session. Of these, 3 go in-depth into business structures, land matters, and employment law. We have had to drop the insurance and liability in-depth session as the project has consumed far more resources than anticipated with the need to redevelop it mid-stream for a pandemic environment. 

We are very excited about the format for our online workshops! This was a huge undertaking that involved completely re-designing the prior 7-hour in-person workshop structure and elements for an online environment. We set high standards for ourselves, and set out to create an online workshop curriculum that was engaging and stimulating, that held learners’ attention while providing networking opportunities and positive momentum. Although it took a lot of time and resources, we have been very successful. The curriculum is now comprised of 5 modules, done over a series of 5 weeks. Each module includes pre-work, which is 1-2 pre-recorded videos that teach ag support persons the core legal knowledge they need to assist producers. The videos are complimented by selected reading homework. Learners also complete an individual assessment each week. Then, learners attend a group online meeting each week as well. The group meeting focuses on train-the-trainer communication and dispute resolution skills that are essential to legal resilience. Learners go through activities and discussion in large and small groups together. We have also re-designed our workshop workbooks. As a result, each learner engages in a wide variety of learning forms from watching videos, to doing activities in a book, to participating in online discussion.

Previously, we were offering 9 in-person workshops geared to specific states. But, moving online makes it so that people from any state can login to any session. Thus, it’s more efficient to allow people to register for the workshop time most convenient to them, rather than the session designated to their specific state. Each workshop will now cover the state specific issues of all 13 Northeast region states. This is possible only because we have converted to an online format. With our online workshop platform, we can make state-specific resources available to all participants to select as relevant. This is also more helpful to ag support persons whos work crosses state lines. 

We carefully selected and implemented a workshop platform that is easy to access and immediate to understand. it is accessible via mobile phone and desktop, and we are building in closed captioning in the recorded video and live feed for accessibility purposes. We also had to rebuild our website to seamlessly manage integration of our online resources, the workshop curriculum, and our new social media platform, explained below. 

Recruitment:

Moving to an online format has greatly changed our recruitment methods. Because each workshop session is not geographically bound, we can do broader outreach to the NE region as a whole, and do more sustained outreach over time. This will allow us to capture ag professionals at the time most convenient to them to register. We are actively recruiting workshop participants at this time, and are having great success. Our April workshop is currently close to capacity, and it is still 5 weeks away. We are relying on listserv outreach, our email newsletter, Facebook, and personal invitations sent via email. We anticipate these methods will work sufficient to fill three workshop sessions: April, May, and June. For the later summer and into autumn, we will recruit via direct mail and media outlets. We will also use word-of-mouth from prior participants. We have a robust outreach plan and a new website to handle registrations effectively. 

Our pre-pandemic program design included a farm law newsletter that served as a recruitment mechanism. The pandemic fortunately did not disrupt that strategy! The newsletter currently has over 6,000 subscribers and has been a big success in driving registration to our workshops thus far! Our pre-pandemic plan also included the partner Land for Good on the land matters intensive workshop. That partnership is going forward as planned, with a June date scheduled for the online workshop. 

Instructional Methods

As discussed in the Curriculum section above, our online workshop contains a mix of pre-recorded videos and selected reading for pre-work, combined with a weekly online group meeting comprised of a series of group discussions and activities. The online meeting contains only a bare minimum of powerpoint based presentation. Rather, it is highly interactive and emphasizes ways to help famers learn the “soft skills” of legal resilience that rest on good communication. By contrast, the pre-recorded homework videos emphasize the knowledge acquisition, which has received positive reviews from our pilot participants as they can pause and rewind to review key points. We know our agriculture professionals value networking, and the instructional methods leverage this desire. We coordinate small group activities using the same cohort for each 5 weeks, allowing participants to deepen their relationship to each other. At the same time, other group activities are conducted with a random combination of program participants, ensuring folks also develop contacts with many fellow learners. 

Question and answer time is vital for this audience and the online format now allows us to offer a full 30 minutes of question and answer per week, which is far more than we could allow in an in-person event. The last half hour of the online meeting session is reserved for questions, allowing those without questions to leave early. We are also utilizing a social media style platform to support our learners. (This platform is custom developed by Farm Commons for our online workshops- it is not on Facebook and is entirely private and fully moderated by our staff.) All question and answer elements are recorded in our social platform for any learner to read and, just as importantly, to contribute to the response. This is a powerful opportunity for the workshop to contribute to networking and to collective knowledge generation. In an in-person workshop, Farm Commons staff was obliged to serve as the “authority” at the front of the room, and it was too inefficient to seek input from the entire group of participants. The online platform makes this much easier. 

Although the pandemic gave us some new advantages like the social media platform, we had to lose other things. We had already decided to revise the farmer co-presenter role to hosting one of our in-depth trainings on a farm, with help from the producer. But, we’ve decided it’s too risky to plan an in-person workshop at all, so that is now cancelled. We could have chosen instead to develop farmer videos, but decided not to. It’s simply much less useful to put a farmer on a Zoom meeting to talk about his or her experience with agriculture support persons. We are committed to using the online meeting time to it’s highest use which means it needs to be spent on skills building and interactive discussion that cannot be done through independent methods like watching recorded videos. (In this pandemic-fatigue environment, No one wants to log into another Zoom meeting to listen to a presentation!!) We have considered asking farmer co-presenters to record videos ahead of time and integrate the videos into the pre-work. However, the costs of having to cancel 9 in-person workshops and completely re-design our curriculum mid-stream (as well as design and pay for the technological capacity to host online workshops) have forced us to cut this element from the workshop plan. We are confident that because many of our ag support persons are also producers themselves, that we will be able to capture the perspective of the producer him or herself in the online program, under the new design.  

Beneficiary Support

To continue on the thread above, the new social media platform provides invaluable ongoing support. Learners can come back anytime for at least a year from their registration date to review the discussion on the platform. Questions and contributions are added to the social platform by successive workshop sessions, compiling a wide body of knowledge and resources for all ag professionals in the region. This also gives staff an efficient way to answer ongoing questions are learners encounter after the workshop. In the pre-pandemic program design we could not do this. The pre-pandemic program design emphasized a print workbook that we were to hand out in each workshop event. We wrote and designed this workbook before the pandemic began, but had not yet printed it before we had to cancel all our workshops. Now, we have to go back and re-write and re-design specific elements to suit the online format. Because it has consumed a lot of resources to cancel, re-schedule, and start over with recruitment of workshop participants, not to mention re-writing all our curriculum, we likely can’t prioritize physical printing of the workbook. If we did, we’d also have to send them via postal mail to registrants and the budget does not have that flexibility. 

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Recruitment:
2300 agriculture professionals in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts learn about the project through announcements highlighting the relevance/importance of farm law issues, description of workshops, event dates/locations, and invitation to receive e-newsletter.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
2300
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
3000
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
3000
Proposed Completion Date:
September 30, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
February 18, 2021
Accomplishments:

In March 2020, we launched The Sprout, our newsletter designed to keep agricultural professionals up to date on the latest farm law developments. Our timing for launch was fortuitous as it started just as the pandemic was picking up steam. The demand for farm law information relative to the pandemic was huge. Our newsletter and staff capacity quickly shifted to meeting this incredible demand for information on how the pandemic impacted farm liability, food safety, access to government programs, and many other legal dynamics. We quickly secured about 6000 subscribers, half of whom we can confirm are agricultural support persons and the remainder of whom are producers. We continue to issue the Sprout on a regular basis and it is now the primary outreach mechanism for our workshop series. 

I am marking this milestone complete because we have met it as designed. But, we will continue to release and depend on the Sprout through Autumn of 2021.

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

OLD Milestone: 585 agriculture professionals register for one of the 13 project workshops that will be held throughout the region in 2020 (goal is 45 registrants per workshop). Each registrant receives a link to a pre-workshop survey and pre-workshop assignment. 9 of these workshops cover six areas of farm law: land matters, business structures, sales, employment, liability/insurance, and agritourism/processing. The remaining 4 workshops are focused entirely on one subject, with 1 workshop addressing each of these topics in depth: liability/insurance issues, land matters, business structures, and farm employment law.
NEW Milestone: 450 agriculture professionals register for one of the 9 project workshops that will be held online in 2021 (goal is 50 registrants per workshop). Each registrant engages in pre-work that includes watching a video, doing reading, and completing an assessment, before attending a weekly online meeting with peers, over the course of 5 weeks. 6 of these workshops cover five areas of farm law: land matters, business structures, employment, liability/insurance, and agritourism/processing. The remaining 3 workshops are focused entirely on one subject, with 1 workshop addressing each of these topics in depth: land matters, business structures, and farm employment law.
We are tentatively reducing the number of participating ag service providers to 450, but are looking for additional ways to get back to our original target of 585.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
585
Proposed Completion Date:
September 30, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

As of March 2020, we were on track to achieve this milestone by the date stated. However, the pandemic forced a cancellation of all our scheduled workshops. We began a 9-month process of redesigning the curriculum, building the infrastructure to support effective online workshops, and re-scheduling all workshops for Spring 2021. We now have our workshops scheduled, and registration is off and running for the first one. 

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

OLD Milestone: 117 agriculture professionals (20% of those registered for a workshop) respond to the pre-workshop survey assessing legal questions fielded, current knowledge, and opportunities to relay knowledge to farmers. Results inform development of workshop topics and toolkit distributed at workshops.
NEW Milestone: All agriculture professionals registered for the workshop respond to weekly self-assessments as part of the course design. These self assessments serve a similar purpose. assessing legal questions fielded, current knowledge, and opportunities to relay knowledge to farmers for the specific audience in the workshop.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
117
Proposed Completion Date:
September 30, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We succeeding in this milestone by April 2020, as part of our initial process to refine the in-person workshop curriculum. However, this milestone became a moot point when we had to cancel all in-person workshops. At that point, new opportunities opened up to us. In a 5-week modular workshop, we could do ongoing evaluation and assessment of each individual workshop cohort. This would allow us to do some modest customizing of each workshop for that cohort’s needs and experiences. Thus, I added a new milestone to capture the online workshop delivery. 

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

13 agriculture professionals (one in each state) engage in detailed interviews about the survey questions to further inform development of local workshop topics and toolkit.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
13
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
November 30, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
February 28, 2020
Accomplishments:

By February of 2020, we had completed a dozen interviews. But as with the previous milestone, the point became moot when we had to re-develop the curriculum. We couldn’t afford the time to re-do the interviews but they were still useful to understand learner’s needs. 

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Learning
OLD Milestone: 117 agriculture professionals (20% of registrants) complete pre-assignment before their workshop to identify the agriculture section of the zoning code in which they live.
NEW Milestone: 450 agriculture professionals (100% of registrants) will complete weekly homework assignments including watching a video, reading a selection, and completing a self-assessment. These same professionals will also engage in activities and discussion with fellow learners during the online meeting portion of each week's programming.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
117
Proposed Completion Date:
September 30, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

OLD Milestone: 442 agricultural professionals (75% of registrants) attend the 9 overview and 4 in depth workshops throughout 2020, learning how, when, and why to convey crucial farm law information about farm employment, business structures, land leasing and buying, sales, agritourism, and insurance/liability law, while networking.
NEW Milestone: 450 agriculture professionals (100% of registrants) attend the 6 overview and 3 in depth workshops throughout 2021, learning how, when, and why to convey crucial farm law information about farm employment, business structures, land leasing and buying, agritourism, and insurance/liability law, while networking.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
442
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

This milestone has been modified to accommodate a higher expectation of showing up for the workshop. We feel it is reasonable to assume a higher attendance rate because we are charging $199 for participation in the online workshop, as opposed to the $35 we were charging for the in-person event. 

Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

OLD Milestone: 442 ag professionals who attended the workshops receive a printed Guiding Farmers to Legal Resiliency Toolkit to serve as an ongoing resource when legal questions arise from farm clients. The toolkit includes photocopy-ready guides to basic farm law subjects, 12 “best practice action step” sheets on specific legal issues, lists of online and in-person resources for farm law assistance, and a journal for tracking their communications with farmers.
New Milestone: 450 ag professionals who attended the workshops receive an electronic Guiding Farmers to Legal Resiliency Toolkit to serve as an ongoing resource when legal questions arise from farm clients. The toolkit includes photocopy-ready guides to basic farm law subjects, 12 “best practice action step” sheets on specific legal issues, lists of online and in-person resources for farm law assistance, and a journal for tracking their communications with farmers.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
442
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We had drafted and designed, and were ready to distribute the print toolkit in our in-person workshops when the pandemic struck. We have since redesigned it for the online format, but can’t afford to print it in person considering cost overruns in other areas. 

Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

OLD Milestone: We plan to feature 1-2 farmers in our workshops in the spring of 2021 focused on a targeted farm law issues that farm has experience with. This forum will directly connect agricultural service providers with farmers themselves, heightening curriculum quality with practical, on-the-ground stories and networking.
NEW Milestone: We have elected to eliminate this milestone, in light of having cancelled all in-person events for the duration of this project.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
2
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
24
Proposed Completion Date:
June 30, 2021
Status:
Incomplete
Accomplishments:

We were going to host one of our previously-planned in-depth workshops on a farm in Vermont in Spring of 2021. In Autumn of 2020, we decided that we would not host any in-person events for the duration of the project. We contemplated incorporating farmers via video, but decided the cons outweighed the benefits, as discussed in the Educational Approach section. 

Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

OLD Milestone: 200 agricultural professionals will watch a condensed, recorded version of "Guiding Farmers to Legal Resiliency," made available as an online video, with an e-version of our Toolkit. (February 2022)
NEW Milestone: This milestone is now irrelevant as the entire project is an online workshop series.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
200
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2022
Status:
Incomplete
Milestone #10 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Follow-up
650 agriculture professionals receive our bi-weekly "Guiding Farmers to Legal Resiliency" e-newsletter with timely updates, relevant news stories, farm law details, and opportunities to provide feedback and collaborate.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
650
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

As of February 2021, over 6000 individuals receive this newsletter, although it is occasionally issued monthly, as the news cycle dictates.

Milestone #11 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

449 agriculture professionals (70% of those reached via workshops/video) complete a post-workshop evaluation, detailing intention to provide farmers with one or more of 12 specific legal best practice recommendations.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
449
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #12 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

192 agriculture professionals (30% of those reached via workshops/video) complete a post-workshop evaluation 4 months after their workshop or video self-study, detailing whether they provided farmers with recommendations about one or more of 12 specific legal best practices and to how many farmers they provided this assistance. Participants may receive additional requests for follow-up reporting during 2021 as needed.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
192
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2022
Status:
In Progress

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
192
Target: actions the service providers will take:

192 agriculture professionals who learn about the 12 legal best practices for farmers in farm employment, business structures, land matters, sales, agritourism, and insurance/liability law recommend at least one of those 12 legal best practices to a total of 2112 farmers.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
2112

Additional Project Outcomes

Additional Outcomes Narrative:

This project was originally designed to use an effective, proven, existing curriculum. When we had to cancel all in-person workshops, our curriculum became obsolete. As a result, we had to completely re-build our curriculum for an entirely new environment, while implementing a new registration system plus new approach to marketing the workshops. We challenged ourselves to create a truly enjoyable online workshop experience over the course of 5 weeks that would build authentic skills with our audience. Although it has delayed our project by 6 months to achieve this unexpected work, the results are incredibly strong. We spent the time to select an effective workshop platform that clearly lays out each week’s materials and expectations. We selected software that would allow for efficient and comprehensive question and answer time, while leveraging the collective knowledge of our learners. We are currently piloting the curriculum and it looks like a strong success. 

The upside of this investment is that we now have a curriculum that can serve many more agriculture professionals with little per-person additional costs. We are hopeful we will exceed our targets for individuals reached, despite the delay and unexpected costs to develop and implement an online curriculum.

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.