Progress report for ENE20-166
Twenty-five agricultural service providers work intensively with two farmers each and deliver at least one workshop by project’s end, reaching 300 farmers throughout the program. Service providers enhance their skills to assist farmers in keeping records, developing financial statements, evaluating farm financial health, assessing market channel profitability, and calculating cost of production and break-even points. One hundred farmers enhance their ability to keep business records, prepare accurate financial statements and assess their farm’s financial health.
Problem and Justification:
Farmers across all commodities are turning to agricultural professionals for assistance in financial management. Yet there is limited capacity in the Northeast SARE region as a result of retirements.
Over 50 organizations collaborated in 2017 to develop a report entitled, “The Blueprint” that identified a need for farm financial technical assistance. As “The Blueprint” (2017) details, skilled managers are essential to meeting the challenges facing today’s agricultural businesses.
A survey sent out in the Northeast SARE region had 73 respondents say there is a need in their area for agricultural service providers to assist farmers in financial management, only 2 said there was no need. In this same survey, 65 respondents expressed a desire to participate in this program, with another 15 saying “maybe.”
Data show that farmers benefit from direct technical assistance. The Vermont Farm Viability Program and the Carrot Project found that with two years of business advising, farms increased profits between 50-62% and farmers had “significant improvements in entrepreneurial skills.”
Solution and Approach:
This project applies effective adult education methods to a distance-based learning model, supporting participants as they learn complex skills.
Our project will equip 25 agricultural service providers with farm financial management skills in basic accounting, financial record keeping, and financial statement preparation, with the objectives of assessing farm financial health and recommending changes to improve farm profitability.
These skills sets will enable the agricultural service providers to equip farmers with entrepreneurial skills to increase profits and sustain businesses operations.
From January through March each year, 25 agricultural service providers will engage in five 90- minute, web-based sessions for a total of 15 sessions over three years. Supported by a coach, participants will apply their learning on at least two farms and also teach at least one workshop in the three years.
Prior to each session, participants will utilize an on-line learning platform with educational videos, readings, and podcasts to prepare. Participants will complete assignments housed on this platform to practice the skills they learned after each session.
Peer-to-peer learning allows participants an opportunity to problem solve and share successful approaches and tools with each other. These occur among five member cohorts who “meet” on-line twice yearly.
Our educational model is based on the following best practices in adult education:
- Adults are motivated by a sense of inclusion in a learning community. (Wlodkowski, 2008)
- There is almost no long-term retention without practice. (Ericsson & Pool, 2016)
- Meaningful feedback is essential to learning. (Wiggins, 2012)
- Adults make meaning by applying knowledge in authentic real-life situations. (Stein, 2010)
- Adults need safe learning environments. (Wlodkowski, 2008; Bell and McAllister, 2012)
- Adults want choice in their learning. (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Bell and McAllister, 2012)
The following outlines our educational approach:
Participants prepare for each learning session with materials (reading, videos, and podcasts), hosted on the on-line learning platform.
Participants engage in five 90-minute web-based sessions each year. These sessions include PowerPoints, examples, and interactive discussions. The sessions are held two to three weeks apart from January through March.
Following the sessions, participants practice and apply their learning with authentic farm-based assignments.
Web-based office hours are held the week following each session to process assignments and address questions.
Participants are paired with a coach, whom they access through phone or video streaming, to assist in their learning and in their work with farmers, building their confidence and knowledge.
When ready, participants engage at least two farms per year to practice their skills and transfer knowledge to farmers. We estimate 3-4 visits per farm per year.
Learning communities of five participants meet twice yearly using video conferencing. These sessions, facilitated by the program coordinator, focus on peer-to-peer learning. Participants will share experiences, tools, resources, and strategies for farmer engagement.
2022 Report Update: Due to feedback from participants (noted in the learning outcomes section of this report) we chose to update our educational approach around the learning communities (also referred to as Cohorts in this report) to meet more frequently than originally stated above. So now, 4 groups of 5-9 participants meet monthly or as needed by the cohort participants. Each cohort chooses what will benefit them the most including inviting speakers and other participants into the meet up. From this Educational Approach change, we have added a new milestone. (please see milestone 11.)
Participants will work with their coaches to teach one workshop to a group of farmers before project’s end, further solidifying their learning.
There will be two educational tracks: beginner and intermediate. The beginner track covers the same topics but at a more basic level. Participants select their own track.
2022 Report Update: Due to feedback from participants, we have shifted the educational approach slightly from beginner and intermediate division of classes, to all levels can attend the sessions which are identical to each other. This has allowed for increased attendance of classes because of more time option of the classes. Having a blend of levels in each class has increased diversity of questions and comments during the question and answer period that follows the class presentation. The most advanced students are offered an Advanced Topics learning opportunity in addition to the five 90-minute web-based sessions each year for Year 2 & 3. (See milestone 7)
The web-based learning will utilize a modified version of Julia Shanks’ “Farmer’s Edge” curriculum, a course demonstrated to increase knowledge.
The draft uploaded curriculum will build skills in following areas:
- Basic accounting
- Developing an electronic managerial record keeping system
- Developing and reading income statements
- Making accrual adjustments to cash-based accounting systems
- Developing and reading balance sheets
- Developing and using cash flow projections
- Assessing farm financial health - utilizing common financial ratios to assess profitability, solvency, debt repayment capacity and other metrics.
- Cost of Production
- Breakeven Analysis
- Market Channel Analysis
We utilized lists serves of organizations, spoke with and called agricultural service providers, emailed brochures, and contacted Northeast SARE State Coordinators to spread the word.
A link embedded in the brochure (see Milestone 1) allowed me to aggregate all the applicant information in Qualtrics. This then allowed me to select participants based on whether they could commit to the program requirements, and I then grouped applicants based on skill level. It worked super slick!
Given 46 viable candidates, I decided to seek out additional funds to accommodate more participants. I raised an additional $9,300 and accepted 36 participants. This was an added bonus, but took a bunch more work.
We took participants through the web-site today (1/2021)! We decided to utilize Julia Shanks "The Farmers Edge" website and she made us a specific section where we house class materials, homework, video recordings of the sessions, educational videos, and other resources.
Originally participants asked a bunch of questions on who to select, how much of the farmer's time is required, what farmers can expect etc. This was an unanticipated time sink!
During year 2, participants are all on different journeys with this. Below is information revealed during our cohort meet ups (our peer to peer learning group time)
Our Pennsylvania cohort of 5 participants are currently (Jan, 2022) running their Farm $ense Program where they are planning to meet the farmers that they will work with as part of their program and beyond.
In our additional 3 cohorts, many participants have shared that they are working with existing farmer clients, while a few have been unable to connect with farmers due to their change in jobs (and so have found easily accessible small business to work with instead of a farmer. eg. Both within their family- a child care center, a baker.).
Some participants have expressed feeling too nervous to work with Quick Books with farmers prior to feeling like experts with the program, however the learning content of Year 2 has made their work with farmers easier as it is less QB focused, and has content that helps them get farmers on board with the importance of accounting and financial planning!
As of 1/2023 participants are set up and working with their farmers as best they can.
This has been very successful for Year 1 & 2. After Year 1 we polled our participants and asked them a number of things including if they would like more homework for more accountability in their learning. Of the 13 participants who responded to the poll, 2 said they would appreciate more homework, 2 said no thank you, and 2 said they could go either way and would do it if it was given. The others did not respond to this specific question. However, compared to Year 1, we did include more homework assignments, and participants in each cohort group has expressed the usefulness of this for their learning. Some cohorts have come up with the idea of using the cohort meeting time to review homework for their peer to peer learning. We have yet to do this.
For year 3 we decided to do what some call a 'flip classroom' model. Our instructor Julia Shanks created pre-recordings that are between 35 min- 1 hour long with exercises to do within the videos. Participants can watch the video and download the slides. It takes participants between 1.5-3 hours to go through the video and do the exercises included along the way. These recordings and 'homework' are followed by an on zoom discussion about a week or two later. We are getting 100 percent positive feedback for this Year 3's program structure style!
From the mouths of participants during a cohort meet-up on 11/29/22:
"I am loving the way this class is pre-recorded."
"I love, love, love this class set up with the pre-recordings! I am getting so much out of it."
"Loving the way that this class is going! I am caught up on the previous pre-recorded sessions and hope to be ready for the next video discussion by Thursday."
We completed Year 1 & 2 with great success and are almost complete with the classes for year 3! We've had 100% positive feedback on Julia Shanks as an instructor. Each participant has stated in a cohort meet up, email or poll, that Julia is a fantastic teacher and they have learned so much.
We decided to add on some bonus learning for the advanced folks in the class for year 2. We called it "Advanced Topics on Farm Financial Management".
7 participants took a deeper dive into farm financial management topics that built on the subjects covered by Julia Shanks as a discussion, co-learning experience. An additional four sessions were offered February 2022. This series was taught/facilitated by Mike Sciabarrasi. Mike is one of the Northeast’s leading agricultural economists. He worked for UNH Cooperative Extension for 35 years, retiring in 2017.
By Year 3, we were able to plan for dates that worked well for participants and shifted the classes to between Oct-Feb. We also decided to go even deeper into an adult learning approach by using a 'flip classroom' model. With our 'flip classroom' structure for year 3, we had 100 percent positive feedback about the benefits of learning with this structure. We also added 2 extra sessions for our final year that include review. So seven, 90 minute discussion sessions following 35 min-1hr pre-recorded sessions that take participants between 1.5-3 hrs to complete with the included exercises.
In short review of our discussions post the learning through watching the recordings and doing the exercises. Discussions after-
session 1- was a lively discussion about how to read reports that come out of QuickBooks and how they differ from our general understanding of P&Ls and balance sheets.
session 2- how to organize financial statements.
session 3- channel analysis.
session 4- financial ratios and go through the Farm Finance Scorecard and an overview of reading financial statements.
session 5- revenue projections, using breakeven to set sales goals, and how to align it all with the farmers’ reality. Creating sale projections and budgets.
sessions 6 &7 still to come- In our final session we’ll talk about balance sheet projections and how to use balance sheet projections to project cash. Income statement projection.
Some quotes from participants:
"This program has given me the confidence to reach out to farms and help them think thru their current record-keeping system and brainstorm potential solutions and new/better/easier ways to keep track of financial data to make better business decisions."
"This program provided a connection with a team of folks working with farmers. It highlighted the unique issues faced by farmers when it comes to recording transactions. This program taught me new tricks in QuickBooks even after working with it for a very long time."
"While I have a decent understanding of Quickbooks and financial statements from my previous work history and managing my own business, teaching these things is a different skill set. Watching Julia teach us has helped me wrap my brain around teaching others."
"Helped me understand the structure and broad stokes principles of QuickBooks , and why its important for a farmer. I can more intelligently refer a farmer to the QuickBooks resources they need. However, I'm not at the point yet where I can offer any TA myself, really."
"I've become comfortable with discussing the initial set up of Quickbooks - especially working with CoAs, inputting sales receipts, and making set-up user-friendly for managerial decision-making"
"We do an FSA course and I am much more confident."
"There are many ways to use quickbooks and this course provided a great approach for beginners with lots of opportunities for getting questions answered. Loved the available online material as well.""This course has helped me immensely with my colleagues and clients. While I have not mastered QB, I have gained a better understanding of farm financials and am able to be helpful in that capacity."
Participants are very aware of this special part of this program, to work with a coach. They are encouraged to do so frequently! In year 1 & 2 we had some participants who met with their coach 1 or 2 times. We have not had it become a highly utilized part of their learning for every participant. However some are actively engaged with a coach. (participants have up to 6 hrs of coach time in year 2 with flexibility if they needed more). Participants are also aware of the benefits of learning through teaching farmers with the content they learn right away. However this takes a certain comfort level that some participants have and some are still gaining.
In the reporting in our cohort groups, I heard 3 participants rave about how helpful the Office hours with Julia have been, and that they consider this their coaching time. Others have mentioned that the cohort peer to peer learning time has helped them work through some of the sticky points with farmers and that has been sufficient for now. Many folks have said that they are so happy the coaches are available and hope to use them when they are working with a farmer and feel in over their heads.
Participants were overall more comfortable with working with their farmers with the content of Year 2 , rather than leading in the electronic managerial record keeping systems. However, a portion of participants have expressed that really learning Quick Books for their own businesses has made them comfortable in guiding farmers through the process. Some participants are working with existing clients and are adding on the knowledge they gain from this course to the financial management and guiding that they already do with farmers. Most participants have expressed during cohort meet ups, that they feel very empowered by the Year 2 content and are finding their work with farmers to be highly benefited by what they've learned.
In Year 3 coaches are more frequently being invited onto our cohort calls. This has been a great way of utilizing their skills to help participants feel more confident in their skills to work with farmers. During our cohort calls we begin with a go around and share how it's going with our farmers.
Quotes from participant in regards to working with farmers:
"I am doing a lot of Quick Books support in VT at Intervale, so I am getting a lot out of this class because of doing this work with the farmers I work with."
"This program has given me the confidence to reach out to farms and help them think thru their current record-keeping system and brainstorm potential solutions and new/better/easier ways to keep track of financial data to make better business decisions."
In year 1 the participants were not working with their coaches to the fullest. Some were expressing full satisfaction in learning from the classes, with Julia's office hours, and the cohort peer to peer learning meet ups. 1-2 meetings per year is what I have heard most participants share that they have had with coaches.
By year 2 participants were more comfortable with reaching out to farmers and to their coaches.They have expressed gratitude for the availability of the coaches for assistance with educational concepts, farmer engagement strategies, questions from farm visits, and other feedback, however most are not using the 6 hours per year of coaching.
In Year 3, the number of participants utilizing coaches is lower than Year 2. I believe this is due to the change in the class model benefiting participants confidence in the material because of their practice with the exercises and then a follow up discussion and Q & A. However the ones who are working with coaches seem to be doing so with a lot of interest and motivation. One very active participant asks "by when are we unable to use coaches any longer? Because when the program ends I will pay for a coach!"
We continue to have coaches join our cohort calls which is primarily helping to understand educational concepts, discuss questions from farm visits, and demonstrate how do do certain things in Quick Books or for farm finances from earlier years in the program or that were not covered in the classes. As and example, this month, 1/23, we will have a coach come onto our cohort meet up to demonstrate clean up of invoicing and accounts receivable.
The learning communities, referred to as cohorts in our program and in this report, have been key in program directors receiving feedback as well as peer to peer learning. Through conversation and listening, Sarah Williford coordinating and leading the cohort groups is able to get a read on how everyone is going for participants. Participants have an energized space in which to share information and ask each other questions.
The cohort groups are guided to come up with what will be most beneficial for them as a group including
- frequency of meeting
- communication tools
- ideas for how to spend their meeting time
- topics of what we'd like to discuss, share or have a coach come on so we can learn about it.
Cohorts consisting of 5-9 members each have chosen to meet monthly for year 2 into year 3. This is more than year 1 and what our original milestone proposed. This change is based on feedback from participants about the usefulness of the cohort meet ups. Also, the budget allowed for this increase in frequency of meetings.
Examples of cohort reports:
On Dec. 1st, 4 of us met on zoom and had a lovely check in.
We talked about farms we are working with or not working with yet.
We recapped on coaches' usefulness.
We talked about using zoom and email and google drive if needed instead of MS teams. Everyone on the call preferred this.
We came up with ideas for our group stemming from curiosity and interest in further learning. Those ideas are:
meet possibly monthly beginning in January.
Bring a CPA on to answer questions for our January meeting.
Bring in a loan officer to share with us what they look for in reviewing documents for loans.
On Nov 30th 3 of us met for 1 hr and had a lovely check in.
It was only Alex, Stevie and myself who know one another from a previous program. They are both so smart and had a lot of good ideas. We spent time discussing challenges they have with farmers they're working with and identifying root causes of the problems. Some ideas that came up for using the cohort meetups for are:
post class accountability with homework review.
Meet possibly monthly starting in Jan.
This group prefers to use zoom, email and google drive instead of MS teams.
On Nov 23rd, 6 of us met on zoom for 1 hr and had a lovely check in.
Things discussed were:
This group prefers to use a combination of email, zoom and google drive for communication over MS Teams.
Some folks feel challenged by QB online. We planned to have some practice time as a group the next meetup.
Other challenges- time itself, getting farmers engaged with accounting at the beginning.
We came up with ideas for our group from these challenges. Those ideas are:
We use cohort meetup time to practice Quick Books online.
Faith shares her for beginning farmers, financial management paperwork via google drive and we have a meet up where she leads us through.
We share 'marketing accounting to farmers' ideas via email and google drive, and discussion.
Sarah leads the group in a time management exercise if desired.
On Dec 7th, 4 of the Chamomile group met again and Wendy helped answer questions people brought about online quick books. We played around with the practice online QB. I think Wendy deserves a peer leadership teammate award! She's so willing to help the others in the group. And last year helped a different cohort group.
On Nov 30th, all 5 of the PA group met on zoom for 1 hr.
We discussed a variety of ways in which this group could be a support to one another in the overall learning in this program. And decided that we'd meet up again possibly in January. However this is also when they start your programs and begin actively working with farmers, so Sarah will be in touch.
We also decided that email and the PA MS teams would be our choice for communication.
We talked about deliverables for this program and Sarah shared that she gathers information for reporting through these meet ups and surveys.
PA has broad ban issues and they are feeling stimied by the pandemic in connecting with farmers. They are looking forward to seeing how their January Farm $ense program goes.
We talked about the usefulness of coaches.
This has continued to be a great change to our program.
In Year 2 Cohorts decided they wanted to meet every month or every other month and have come up with an initial list of top interests in sharing their peer to peer learning time together.
In Year 3 we continue with this model. Cohorts changed a little each year based on our participant's involvement in either the over all program (some who needed to leave based on their place of work changing or other circumstances) or in the cohorts themselves. Some participants who are active in the course sessions do not prioritize cohort meet ups because it is not their favorite learning style, or they do not have/make time. In order to have more impactful meet-ups, we downsized to 3 cohorts for year 3. This way we end up having between 3-8 people attend and make for a good learning experience.
Sarah Williford is coordinating and leading the cohorts.
One of our cohorts now has a very active email thread going with questions and idea exchanges for one another. When stumped, a coach or instructor comes in to comment and help. It's great!
Some examples of what we do together from year 2 & 3:
Chamomile Cohort is meets to hear a presentation from one participant in this cohort who has developed on-ramp worksheets for accounting and financial planning for farmers.
Calendula Cohort is meets to go over one participants case study with a farmer and help trouble shoot any challenges the participant is facing.
Lavender Cohort is meets (with other participants not in the cohort invited also) to hear from a participant who is a CPA. Folks will be bringing their questions for this 1.5 hour question and answer call.
Chamomile Cohort (plus other participants interested) learn about cleaning up invoicing and accounts receivable with a coach.
Combined Cohorts discuss the difference between using Quick Books online vs. desktop.
This is still in the works as of Year 3! Some participants have done this, and others will be. More to report come final report time after surveying the whole of participants.
At this point we have used the verification tools of surveys and one on one calls. This will be used for the final report. Thank you!
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Participants in the project’s educational activities:
This will be answered in the final report.
Based on feedback through polls to participants, in class, and in cohort groups, we learned that participants were having nervousness around beginning to work directly with farmers with the learned content in Year 1. Many of the more beginner to Quick Books participants stated they were not feeling confident enough in the content they were learning to turn right around and begin using the digital accounting methods to help farmers get started or help them clean up their current digital accounting methods. Year 2 proved to be easier content for participants to begin using with their farmers. Do to this feedback, we changed our educational approach a bit by increasing cohort peer to peer learning time, and having coaches who are working with farmers to invite participants to work along side them (see educational approach section) which led us to add another milestone (milestone 11). Now we have service providers who are using this material with the farmers they work with and we will be sending a survey between March-Sept 2023 to gain these numbers and information needed for the final report. Thank you.
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
Agricultural service providers work intensively with two farmers each and deliver at least one workshop by project’s end, reaching 300 farmers throughout the program to assist farmers in keeping records, developing financial statements, evaluating farm financial health, assessing market channel profitability, and calculating cost of production and break-even points.
Our verification method of surveying the participants and connecting one on one via phone about the target outcomes of working with farmers will happen between March 2023 and September 30 2023. After submitting this report for Year 2 of our program, and noted by you the reviewer, we see the importance of verification around our performance target outcomes and how to collect the information we need for this.
We will include numbers and information for the following areas in our final report:
Curricula, factsheets and other educational tools
Published press, articles, newsletters
Study circles / focus groups
Webinars, talks and presentations
Workshops and field day
Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers
Additional Project Outcomes
I raised an additional $9,300 dollars from the following organizations:
- Agricultural Viability Alliance (co-sponsored this event as part of their Professional Development Work Group goals)
- Penn State Energy Business and Community Vitality Team
- Cornell Cooperative Extension Oneida County
- Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship
- UNH Cooperative Extension Livestock Program
- Center for an Agriculture Economy
- Young Farmers
- Maine AgrAbiity
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)
- Maine Farmland Trust