Final report for ENE19-154
Farms across the Northeast region suffer from serious legal vulnerabilities that threaten the strength and resiliency of farm communities as a whole. 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. At the same time, agriculture professionals say they do not have the knowledge, training, or resources to be effective in guiding farmers around legal issues.
This project resolved that problem by offering a series of educational products, including a comprehensive online workshop titled "Guiding Resilience," an in-depth land law issues workshop, and a semi-regular newsletter on farm law issues. The Guiding Resilience workshop covered the basics of farm employment, business structures, land matters, insurance/liability law, sales, and agritourism/processing while emphasizing specific best practices that reduce legal risk on sustainable farms. The general workshop was complemented by an in-depth workshop on land matters issues (the subject on which most ag professionals sought guidance) which provided 6 hours of detailed training on leasing, land purchasing, and more. Participants received an e-workbook and resources for finding further information and attorney guidance.
239 agriculture professionals attended the Guiding Resilience workshop or the Practicalities and Realities in Land Law workshop. Of those, from one quarter to 86% of attendees significantly increased their knowledge on the legal best practices in farm law. We witnessed 70-96% of respondents committing to make available educational materials or information on the best practices of farm law in their communities. Due to the expense and time required to convert this program to an online environment, halfway through the project, we were unable to do the extent of evaluations envisioned and cannot report verified numbers for the number of agricultural professionals who followed through on that commitment. We distributed 17 editions of our farm law newsletter to at least 2000 agriculture professionals (20% of whom open the newsletter), resulting in about 6,800 impressions on our audience about the relevance and importance of farm law to our community.
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.
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, and accurately guide farmers to legal resiliency.
This project resolved that problem by offering a series of educational products, including a comprehensive online workshop titled "Guiding Resilience," an in-depth land law issues workshop, and a semi-regular newsletter on farm law issues. The Guiding Resilience workshop covered the basics of farm employment, business structures, land matters, insurance/liability law, sales, and agritourism/processing while emphasizing 10 specific best practices that reduce legal risk on sustainable farms. The general workshop was complemented by an in-depth workshop on land matters issues (the subject on which most ag professionals sought guidance) which provided 6 hours of detailed training on leasing, land purchasing, and more. Participants will received an e-workbook and resources for finding further information and attorney guidance. We also distributed 17 editions of our farm law newsletter to at least 2000 agriculture professionals (20% of whom open the newsletter) which means we made at least 6,800 impressions on our audience about the relevance and importance of farm law to our community.
Just as this project was taking registrations and booking instructor travel for 12 in-person workshops scheduled across the Northeast, the global pandemic struck. This forced a complete revision of our educational approach from our initial approved grant. A dozen in-person workshops were canceled, many just weeks before they were scheduled in Spring-Summer 2020. The team went about completely re-designing the prior 7-hour in-person workshop structure and elements for an online environment. We set high standards for ourselves and created an online workshop curriculum that was engaging and stimulating and that held learners’ attention while providing networking opportunities and positive momentum. Although it took a lot of time and resources and was very successful. The curriculum comprises 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 complemented by selected reading homework. Learners also complete an individual assessment each week. Then, learners attend an online group 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 discussions 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. With our online workshop platform, we made state-specific resources available to all participants to select as relevant.
We carefully selected and implemented a workshop platform that was 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 the integration of our online resources, the workshop curriculum, and our new social media platform, as explained below.
Our pre-pandemic program design included a farm law newsletter that explained timely farm law and legal issues, while serving as a recruitment mechanism for the workshops. The pandemic, fortunately did not disrupt that strategy! The newsletter had over 6,000 subscribers, we sent 17 editions, and have a 20% open rate. We discussed a huge range of farm legal issues across the series. The pandemic actually seemed to assist us in recruiting for this program because Farm Commons gained extra visibility during the pandemic as a source of timely and accurate legal information on the rapidly changing environment for farm businesses during that incredibly intense period of March-June 2020.
We also used a private, internal social media platform for the ongoing support of our workshop participants. Learners returned anytime for at least a year from their registration date to post emerging questions, seek perspective, or read ongoing discussions on the platform. Questions and contributions were 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 gave staff an efficient way to answer ongoing questions learners encountered after the workshop. In the pre-pandemic program design we could not do this. Sacrifices were definitely made because of the pandemic, but there were also benefits that resulted because of it.
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.
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 are agricultural support persons and the remainder of whom are producers. We were able to leverage this opportunity to do outreach on this project's resources.
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.
As of March 2020, we were on track to achieve this milestone by the date stated. However, the pandemic forced the cancellation of all our scheduled workshops. We began a 9-month process of redesigning the curriculum, building the infrastructure to support practical online workshops, and re-scheduling all workshops for 2021 into February 2022. We hosted a total of 6 online workshop sessions of Guiding Resilience and one land law intensive workshop. Because of the large amount of time and resources necessary to cancel, reschedule, and re-do the outreach (while completely re-building the workshop experience to be suitable online) we could not meet our total goal of moving 450 participants through the workshop. However, reaching over half our goal without any additional resources does feel like a success for a project that landed squarely in the middle of the pandemic.
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.
It was wildly aspirational to assume that every participant would respond to every question in each of 5 assessments. It would have been better to stick with the original assumption that 20% would respond. However, landing in the middle at a near 50% response rate is fine.
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.
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.
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.
Ag professionals are fully participating in completing their weekly assignments in our online platform. We created a program design that required participation in the online platform in order to access the programming. Although this technique may not have worked for farmers themselves, it worked for agricultural professionals who may be more accustomed to mandatory training and following online training programs.
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.
This milestone is distinguished from the similar milestone above in that this one reflects how many ag professionals actually show up to the workshop for which they registered. We were fortunate to have very high rates of attendance for our workshops and only about 10 folks did not follow through. This is likely influenced by the fact that we charged $199 for the online workshops, and that's enough money for folks to take it seriously. When attendees had a conflict with a scheduled meeting, they watched the recorded session afterward. Some folks did fall behind and could not catch up but they were able to register again for a future session and pick up where they left off. The program provided so much value, folks were willing to invest in working through it.
We only held one in-depth workshop, rather than the 3 cited above. This also led to us not meeting the target attendance. This occurred because of the time and expense necessary to convert to online programming in the middle of the project.
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.
We had drafted and designed and were ready to distribute the print toolkit in our in-person workshops when the pandemic struck. We converted to mailing the workbook via postal mail, with a handful of participants receiving an e-copy after we ran out. Everyone received the workbook.
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.
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 we did not have success when we trialed this approach for a different project. Farmers had a very hard time filming themselves (both from a technical perspective and from a personal comfortability perspective) and the resulting video quality was not worth the large effort required.
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.
This milestone was made irrelevant by the pandemic- the entire program was converted to online.
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.
We had 6090 subscribers to our newsletter. We issued 17 editions, with a 20% open rate, which totals 6800 total impressions over the course of this project.
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.
We issued 5 short, timely evaluations at the close of each learning module. Although every participant responded to at least one, they did not all respond to every one. We've answered this question according to the total who responded to any of them. This was the result of converting the program to an online format- the approach to evaluations had to change for a 5-module program rather than a 1-day workshop.
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.
Because this project experienced significant delays over the course of the pandemic, we did not have enough time to do a 4-month later follow up evaluation for all participants. We could have done a 4-month-later evaluation on about 50 participants who attended our Spring 2021 workshops. But, it takes a lot of time and effort to get evaluations completed 4 months after a workshop ends at any reasonable sample size. Considering the extra resources it took to convert this program during the pandemic, we had nothing left to track folks down for a 4 month evaluation.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Participants in the project’s educational activities:
Below, please find a summary of the percentage of respondents for whom we verified an increase in knowledge around the selected issue.
86% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: A farmer who is making more in personal income from farming should consider filing as an S corporation
74% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: Nearly everyone who does work on a farm or ranch is considered an employee, even volunteers and interns
62% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: Whether a farm can utilize agricultural exemptions from employment laws depends on the type of labor being done
54% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: Insurance is the only mechanism to protect business assets from business liabilities
48% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: Due diligence is an important process to determine if farm/ranch land will be suitable
39% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: A good lease prevents problems before they occur by helping the parties come to consensus on a range of issues
35% showed significant increase in knowledge that: Business structures like LLCs and Corporations do not protect business assets from business liabilities
35% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: injuries from agritourism, value-added and other activities are generally NOT covered by general farm liability insurance
24% showed a significant increase in knowledge that: whether or not a farmer is liable for a specific injury depends on what other farmers typically do
A total of 200 instances of an agricultural professional indicating increased knowledge on a specific point exist. We did not have a good way to eliminate duplication. So, we simply reported above the highest number of ag professionals reporting increased knowledge on ONE of the specific points above.
Below please find a summary of the percentage of agriculture professionals for whom we verified intention to use the knowledge and skills they gained:
82% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: the process for writing a governance document for the farm/ranch
60% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: forming a business structure that limits personal liability
73% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: classifying workers as contractors, employees, or interns/volunteers
76% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: the distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural labor
76% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: how to develop a robust lease agreement
83% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: the importance and process of due diligence on a lease or land purchase
82% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: the role of insurance in managing the risk of liability for negligence
96% intend to start making (or improve their) available information on: the types of insurance that may be appropriate for different farm ventures
A total of 301 instances of an agricultural professional indicating intention to start or improve their information delivery on a specific point. We did not have a good way to eliminate duplication. So, we simply reported above the highest number of ag professionals reporting increased intention on ONE of the specific points above.
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
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.
Because of the significant delays and expenses of having to convert the entire program to a pandemic environment in the middle of executing it, we were simply not able to follow up 4 months later with workshop participants to assess the changes they actually made and the farmers they reached as a result. We did not have the time left in the project or the money left to invest in tracking down workshop participants months later. We regret this shortcoming while acknowledging it as a conscious decision in light of extreme circumstances to carry out this project during a pandemic. We accurately assessed the intention to make changes to their education and outreach after each workshop and expect that will suffice.
Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers
Again, considering the time and expense necessary to reschedule and rebuild the workshops for an online environment, we did not have the time or resources to follow our evaluations through to the farmers reached by the agricultural professionals.
Additional Project Outcomes
This project runs the risk of looking like a failure upon the stated outcomes. The circumstances in April 2020 certainly pointed to a looming failure with no viable way to carry out the project as we had envisioned it before the pandemic. However, we do consider it a success to have successfully redeveloped the curriculum and created a terrific online training experience. We fell short by half of our total agriculture professionals reached. And, we were unable to wrap up the evaluations as originally scoped because of the intense time and resource demands to reorient the project during a pandemic. But at the same time, we want to point to the success stories. The agriculture professionals we did reach had a terrific experience. We are confident, but cannot prove in the time allotted, that this project will have many positive reverberations in the lives of Northeast region farmers.
We asked in our evaluations: If a colleague said to you, "Tell me about this Guiding Resilience workshop and why I should attend," what would you say?
These are the results:
“This was one of the best built and mostly clearly delivered workshops I've ever attended. It gave me immediately applicable tools and also helped me consider ways that I want to stretch and grow to improve my knowledge toolkit and instincts as a farm support provider.”
"I learned so many little details that could be so significant in a worse case scenario- like are you covered by your health insurance while working in a self employed capacity? Maybe not, and farmers should look into that. I have already used information presented on land leases and communication in co- creating new leases for new farm land for our farmers. Before this class I felt really unsure that I was capable of teaching the risk management class in our Farm Planning Course and now I feel well prepared and understand what my role is and at what point I need to direct someone to an attorney."
"It's a really well designed course with smart and approachable presenters that will improve your skills and knowledge in supporting farmers in making informed business decisions."
"The Guiding Resilience workshop will help you feel confident in giving general guidance for some of the most important legal questions that farmers face, and just as importantly, will help you know when you need to pass a farmer off to a legal professional. Knowing that, you'll be able to give more robust support while knowing that you aren't overstepping the boundary around "legal advice.""
"This was one of the best built and mostly clearly delivered workshops I've ever attended. It gave me immediately applicable tools and also helped me consider ways that I want to stretch and grow to improve my knowledge toolkit and instincts as a farm support provider."
"The workshop offered farm law education in a very accessible way, whether you are working directly with farmers or if you just want to be aware of what resources are out there to point farmers to. Eva and Rachel made Zoom learning fun and engaging and were passionate about empowering educators and farmers alike about increasing legal resilience."
"This course really helped me to understand the different resources available that will aid me in guiding farmers to understanding their own power when it comes to Agriculture law and the impact that has on their operations."
"Do you interact directly with farmers and have them ask you questions that touch on legal topics (land use, business structures, diversification, etc)? If so this workshop is helpful to guide you in what information you can provide the farmers and what you can not."
“The workshop provided understanding of the most common legal issues facing farmers today. The breadth and depth are appropriate for just about any ag support org regardless of the degree of your direct involvement with farmers. The tools you leave with, both cognitive and access to references, will equip you with the confidence to advice your farmers appropriately.”
“If a colleague asked me about the Guiding Resilience workshop I would let them know that it's a great program, with manageable and clear assignments, a great learning environment, and moreover excellent materials. Guiding Resilience helps you approach seemingly intangible things like interpersonal relationships in forming land lease agreements and offer tangible actions and recommendations. I feel much more prepared to listen more critically to farmers sharing information about plans, ideas, and situations that might require knowledge and guidance on insurance, zoning, relationship building, and knowing when to interject, and what's important to share or ask. Thank you Farm Commons team for empowering this community to better help farmers!”
Success: Ag professionals want and need this information, and when they are provided it, they quickly assimilate it into their work with farmers.
Challenge: It's really hard to convince ag professionals to attend a 5-week/module online workshop as compared to a one-day 8-hour session. I think setting aside 1.5 hours each week for 5 weeks felt like a much bigger commitment than attending an all day workshop. We were surprised to learn this as we thought the conversion to an online format would make the program more popular. I don't know what to blame- is it that we're in pandemic times and commitments are challenging? Is it Zoom-fatigue? We didn't manage to crack that nut as the curtains are closing on this project.
When we offer farm law training, we always have a number of people who say, "this needs to be longer!" Or "I need more!" We feel good about those comments, but such comments don't square well with the fact that many people will not register for something longer, or for something that provides, "more." It can be extremely challenging to deliver an educational product that balances what people think they want with what they will actually take advantage of.
- Guiding Farmers to Legal Resilience (Workbook/Worksheet)