Progress report for ENE21-170
Sixty-five (65) service providers will be trained, and 18 will be certified to be trainers themselves, to provide “Agri-Cluster Retention and Expansion” (ACRE) strategic business planning programs for farmer-led marketing projects that will engage 120 farmers and 70 other value chain stakeholders.
Problem and Justification
Since the Great Depression of the 1930s, many farmer-led cooperatives, grower associations, marketing projects, and, more recently, food hubs have been launched in the Northeast. They have evolved in our region due to a combination of advantages—from unique soils and microclimates, to proximity to large diverse markets that require farmers to collaborate to achieve scale. Trends suggest, however, these advantages may be disappearing as a result of very savvy global competitors who are flooding our region with comparable, but cheaper, undifferentiated products. Our outmoded production and marketing approaches are under attack. We believe that NE farmers should not try to compete in a race to produce high volumes of cheap commodities. It is a race they simply cannot win.
Solution and Approach
Instead, we propose to build a community of practice and train and certify a cadre of agriculture service providers to use a US-adapted version of a French strategic business planning process for value chains. The “Agri-Cluster Retention and Expansion” program (ACRE) will train service providers to help farmer-led marketing projects carve out and defend their position in the marketplace. ACRE does this through a series of transparent and trust-building exercises that unite all stakeholders in the value chain—farmers, suppliers, laborers, buyers, processors, and retailers. In this collective action approach, a shared vision among all stakeholders is established, common goals and objectives are identified, and a strategic plan of work is developed with indicators to measure progress. The result is a more profitable and competitive value chain.
While a similar engagement of value chain actors is often applied to short supply chains (e.g., farm-to-school initiatives), it is rarely applied in the US at the midscale, regional level. We will encourage this approach in Northeastern commercial family farming areas: fruit belts, milksheds, viticultural areas, and vegetable-growing areas. Specific actions taken following an ACRE project might include processing lower-grade products not fit for retail, entering niche ethnic markets, starting place-based branding, and/or pursuing quality certification marks or state and federal marketing orders. Community and environmental projects can also be embedded in these initiatives, based on the interests of the enterprise leaders.
Our approach is informed by the PI’s previous work in the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt of Western NY and PA, as well as his study of the PERF method of strategic agribusiness planning in France. ACRE will build on the project team’s current "Muck Onion Value Chain Pilot Project" funded by the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. We believe that equipping a cadre of trained service providers (Extension professionals, farm leaders, and organization staff) with the ACRE process will lead to better decisions to launch, expand (or even close down) struggling farmer-led marketing initiatives.
- (Educator and Researcher)
Overview of the Education Plan
At its core, this project is a training-the-trainers initiative. We begin by launching a listserv-based community of practice (ACRE CoP) that engages a group of 50 service providers who will be trained to facilitate ACRE programs throughout the region. This will be followed by the implementation of 4 one-and-a-half day ACRE process demonstrations around the region. After this online and in-person training, some service providers will proceed to conduct ACRE programs for any new or struggling value-chain projects they are advising. Other providers will choose to become “certified trainers” of the ACRE approach. Thus, over time, we will foster greatly expanded impact in the volume of trainers, the ACRE programs conducted, and the number of farmers who ultimately benefit.
Recruiting Service Providers Interested in Value-Chain Strategic Planning
Methods of recruiting service providers include networking with FSA, the Association of NE Extension Directors, the Northeastern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, along with our own Extension/NGO contact lists. The promotion will include a link to an online application for membership in the ACRE CoP that gives the project team a baseline understanding of trainees, including their interests, knowledge, affiliations, farm experience or experience in working with farmers, specific objectives in completing the training, how they may eventually apply the training, and their level of interest in becoming certified.
Service providers accepted to the CoP will receive an ACRE Toolkit that offers step-by-step instructions to facilitating an effective ACRE program. The toolkit will include templates, worksheets and other handouts, and case study materials that will encourage self-paced learning.
Training Approach and Content (Core Competencies)
The CoP will be listserv-based with periodic Zoom training. Online training will introduce basic principles of strategic business planning in complex value chains. This online learning will then be applied in four regional ACRE intensive training and demonstration projects, in which our trainees will participate in a “mini-version” of an ACRE program (compressed into one and a half days) conducted by the project staff. We believe that the combination of online “classroom” training on principles, coupled with experience in the field participating in an ACRE program, will provide the key learning-by-doing approach that maximizes learning in the context of vocational training.
The core competencies that will be gained include but are not limited to the following techniques:
- Create a transparent and trusting environment that maximizes collaboration between business partners in a value chain.
- Cultivate a shared vision, mission, goals, and objectives among all stakeholders in the value chain.
- Examine the past, accurately characterize the present, and plan the future of value chain.
- Narrow down a wide range of issues (drivers, challenges, opportunities) to those that present “key-leverage” project opportunities to increase present and future resilience in the value chain.
- Establish indicators agreed upon by the stakeholders to measure progress in implementing the strategic plan, with full accountability.
ACRE Program Certification
Upon completion of their training, we expect service provider trainees in the ACRE CoP to proceed to launch ACRE programs with marketing projects in their home communities. Project staff will provide online mentoring. After conducting at least one ACRE project on their own, service provider trainees will be eligible to take an ACRE certification exam to demonstrate their knowledge of core competencies described above, such that they are confidently able to teach other service providers how to facilitate ACRE programs. Passing the exam with a 90% or better grade qualifies the trainee to receive an ACRE digital badge that can be included in LinkedIn, résumés, CV, and the like.
Though it is unclear at this juncture, our hope is that we will find an institutional home for the ACRE program at a land-grant university. We may also approach AgMRC or other online marketing resource centers about providing an online home for the toolkit materials and a portal to training opportunities.
REVISED EDUCATION PLAN
We are providing a revised education plan to reflect the significant changes to our approach to this project. Over the last year (DATES), our advisory committee was not very engaged with the project. This was largely the result of COVID and the complexities it introduced to our advisors' own work. We chose to proceed with the plan to create an online curriculum in part because we realized that, given the circumstances, individuals needed to follow a more self-directed and self-paced way to engage with the training. Our team, including our key advisor and consultant Philippe Jeanneaux, developed this alternative method together. There are two key reasons for the revision:
First, we expanded the application of the AgriCluster Retention and Expansion program (ACRE) beyond value-chains alone. Over the course of our first year of the project we have come to believe that, while value-chains and economic issues are likely to be a major focus of many ACRE projects, ACRE can also be applied to a more broad range of sustainable agriculture and food systems, including regional agroecology projects, and even community food security project. The fundamental activities of building trust, a shared vision, and a measurable set of objectives in a strategic plan dashboard are the same regardless of the topical domain. Thus, we anticipate the ACRE training course will have more broad utility and impact.
Second, due to the travel and meeting restrictions brought on by Covid, we restructured our ACRE training for service provider into a 15-unit Moodle course that is being housed in Extension Foundation Campus. We are in the later stages of design the course and expect to be beta testing this winter. We will go live in the spring of 2022 after outreach and trainee recruitment for our ACRE community of practice. We still anticipate great interest in this training. The training will include weekly Zoom meetings thru early summer. The remainder of the project may be similar in some respects to our original education plan describe above, including four possible in situ ACRE workshop demonstration sessions around the region, coaching trainees to develop their own ACRE projects, and offering a certification exam for those service providers who would like formal certification as an ACRE project facilitator. Of course, these things, too, may need to become virtual in some way. Given the ongoing pandemic, it is difficult to predict how we may ultimately engage with trainees.
The net result of these issues is that both our training content, core competencies, and pedagogy are now a bit more complex, requiring additional time for service provider trainees to complete. That said, we engaged a training program consultant to assist us in developing our self-paced Moodle course, with excellent graphics, animation, and voiceovers. The 18 units are grouped into three courses as follows:
ACRE COURSE #1 - Preparing to Launch an AgriCluster, including:
- Unit 1 Introduction to the ACRE Process
- Unit 2 ACRE Theory, Principles, and Foundations
- Unit 3 ACRE Fundamentals of Facilitation
- Unit 4 Core Group Formation
- Unit 5 Core Group Planning Meeting
- Unit 6 Setting the Stage for the ACRE Workshop
ACRE COURSE #2 - Conducting an ACRE Workshop, including:
- Unit 7 Launching the Workshop
- Unit 8 Shared History Exercise
- Unit 9 Shared Values Exercise
- Unit 10 Shared Vision Exercise
- Unit 11 Opportunity-Generating Exercise
- Unit 12 Initiative Build-Out Exercise
- Unit 13 Prefeasibility Analysis
- Unit 14 Drafting the Project Work Plan
- Unit 15 Workshop Wrap-Up and Evaluation
ACRE COURSE #3 - Ratifying and Implementing an ACRE Project Work Plan: includes:
- Unit 16 Post-Workshop Core Group Meeting
- Unit 17 ACRE Project Summit and Work Plan Ratification
- Unit 18 Project Implementation: An Overview
500 service providers will receive the recruitment invitation to join the ACRE Community of Practice (CoP); 75 apply, and 50 are accepted into the ACRE CoP.
We developed a database of over 1,000 Northeast Extension and NGO staffers that we used to reach out to invite ACRE trainees to join our community of practice. We created a Survey Monkey application form which included questions about applicant experience in strategic planning for value chains, and whether they were committed to spending the fall of 2022 and winter of 2023 completing the online course and participating in demonstration workshops. Fifty applications were completed and came from all NE states and the District of Columbia.
We decided to break the applicants into two cohorts: a beta cohort of 20 applicants to test the content of our 18 online ACRE Facilitator training units; and a gamma cohort of the remaining applicants to follow betas to test the improved unit content.
45 service providers will receive the ACRE Toolkit and participate in online introductory training on the ACRE program; 40 will report high satisfaction with this training.
The ACRE Toolkit has been drafted and used in the beta cohort online training during the Fall of 2022. The contents of the toolkit include the following:
1, Coursework Overview
2, How to Access the ACRE Online Training on NAFSN’s website The ACRE Notebook
3, ACRE Glossary of Terms
4. ACRE Templates
5. ACRE Checklists:
- ACRE PROCESS TIMELINE
- PREPARING FOR THE CORE GROUP MEETING FINDING A VENUE FOR THE ACRE WORKSHOP
- MATERIALS NEEDED FOR THE ACRE WORKSHOP SETTING UP THE ROOM FOR THE ACRE
- WORKSHOP CHECK-IN INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE ACRE WORKSHOP
6. Transcriptions of the Videos
7. References and Additional Readings
NOTE: since we split the participants into two cohorts (the beta's and the gammas), only the betas received the ACRE Toolkit and completed the training.
A 16 Unit interactive Moodle Training Course will be developed; 10 service providers will be recruited to beta test the ACRE Project Facilitation Course; 5 will complete beta testing; all 5 will provide practical feedback that will improve the course before it goes live.
We completed the three part 18 unit ACRE Facilitator training course in late summer. Each unit has graphical animation and voice overdubbing. Each unit has suggested resources and a required quiz for trainees to complete. The course in hosted by the North American Food Systems Network (NAFSN). Project participants are given gratis NAFSN membership and thereby free access to NAFSN online course content.
17 beta cohort participants started the course and 11 completed all 18 units, while 6 did not. Of the later, three dropped out for personal reasons and others simply did not have time to complete.
For each unit, each beta participant submitted feedback sheets (18 total) which generated a significant amount of content changes and improvements to the course.
15 service providers will apply to host a 1.5-day ACRE Intensive Training/Demo Project in their own community; 4 will be selected.
We are currently in the process of setting up our ACRE demonstration projects. The logistics of these demos are complicated since we changed our pedagogy to accommodate Covid as well as expended significant resources on the development of our 18-use online train course. As a result, we have little travel funding available for in-person training. Therefore, we are, considering how to implement hybrid training events that include live and in-person demos which are simulcast via digital streaming for individuals who cannot travel.
2 service providers will host 2-day ACRE Intensive Training/Demo Projects; 40 members of the ACRE CoP will participate (about 10 members per site); 20 farmers will participate in total across the 4 ACRE Intensive Training/Demo Projects.
Following the 4 demonstrations around the region, 10 ACRE trainees will launch ACRE programs with value-chain projects in their own communities; 80 value-chain stakeholders (farmers, suppliers, buyers, retailers, etc.) will participate; of the 10, 5 certified ACRE trainers will complete the entire ACRE program with their value-chain project; 50 farmers will participate in these new ACRE programs.
20 members of the ACRE CoP will complete the online ACRE Certified Trainer exam; 18 members will pass the exam and receive ACRE Certified Trainer awards.
3 certified ACRE trainers will then go on to teach workshops on how to conduct ACRE programs; 30 service provider trainees will participate; 20 new service provider trainees will complete the training.
10 newly trained service providers will conduct ACRE programs with 10 different value-chain projects; 100 value-chain stakeholders (farmers, suppliers, buyers, retailers, etc.) will participate; 80 farmers will participate in these ACRE programs.
65 service providers and 120 farmers participating in this project will be receive an online follow-up survey to measure training quality and project impacts. After follow-up reminders a 50% response rate will yield 93 surveys will be completed and analyzed.
45 service providers of the ACRE community of practice will be asked to participate in an live online focus group to discuss the follow-up survey results and give qualitative feedback. Of these 15 will participate.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:
Participants in the project’s educational activities:
Performance Target Outcomes
Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers
Sixty-five (65) service providers will be trained, and 18 of them will become certified, providing that training to 120 farmers plus 70 other value chain stakeholders, in 10 new value chain projects. An ACRE program includes taking a new or struggling cooperative, specialty crop association, or other value chain project through a strategic business planning process that builds confidence and trust among stakeholders across the value chain, which in turn leads to a stronger and more profitable enterprise.
The average farmer in the region has 133 acres x 120 farmers engaged = 15,960 acres
Additional Project Outcomes
We have created a AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion community of practice (ACRE CoP). This currently includes our the participants who have completed our beta training (11 individuals). Two participants have volunteered to serve as co-chairs of the ACRE CoP. Participants of the gamma cohort will be also be able to join in the spring of 2023. The purpose of the ACRE CoP is to build camaraderie among ACRE facilitators, to develop good practices, and develop continuing education beyond the grant period.
"Thank you for facilitating this experience, and for selecting me to participate in the beta testing. I truly gained a lot of knowledge with community-focused strategic planning." -- city government official.
"I really enjoyed the first half of the training, but unfortunately a lot of work obligations have come up and will make it so that I am unable to complete the second half. Thank you for all of your hard work on this project...I'm so excited to see where it goes!" --NGO staffer
"Hi Duncan! I did it! WE did it! Thanks a bunch 🙂 " --NGO staffer