Building Farm Business Advising Skills through Collaborative Professional Development for Maine Farmland Trust and SCORE Maine

Progress report for ENE21-171

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2021: $77,619.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipients: Maine Farmland Trust; SCORE Maine
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Sarah Simon
Maine Farmland Trust
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Project Information

Performance Target:

30 service providers will deepen their farm-specific business advising skills and knowledge, and 12 service providers per year (between Maine Farmland Trust and SCORE Maine) will work collaboratively to provide enterprise budgeting, whole farm financial planning and other business-related technical assistance to 40 farmers who have a median of 17 acres in production and $72,000 in gross sales. Of these farmers, 10 of them (or 5 farms) report improved net margins or increased net profits.

Introduction:

Problem and Justification:  In a 2019 report on farmer needs and priorities in Maine, farmers repeatedly mentioned both the importance of profitability to farm viability, and the fact that absence of profitability directly and negatively impacts their ability to adapt their businesses, plan for succession, or adequately protect the natural resources of their land. Maine has 13,414 farmers according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture—many of whom seek assistance for business planning, succession planning, marketing, labor management, and more.  At the same time, Maine lacks enough service providers with both business and agricultural expertise to meet this need. In our survey of service providers during the planning process for this grant, the category ‘farm business management and financials’ had the most responses as both the unmet need most frequently expressed by farmer clients (55%) and the next area of learning needed for our service providers to expand their capacity (71%). The demand for farm business planning and support services far outstrips the supply of qualified service providers in Maine.

Solution and Approach: Maine Farmland Trust (MFT), a land trust with strong background in farm viability and business support programming, and SCORE Maine, the state chapter of a national organization which supports small business growth through free access to experienced mentors, will collaborate to improve overall capacity to support farmers and agricultural businesses. Over 30 service providers from these organizations will benefit from the training funded by this grant, which will include farm-specific business management and financials, Quickbooks, and facilitation. The training will provide a basis for a team model for technical assistance to be trialed by up to 12 service providers and 20 farms. MFT and SCORE will work together to improve and adapt existing templates and financial management tools for use with farmers. 

While MFT’s service providers have a deep understanding of Maine farming and farmers, they frequently rely on outside consultants to provide expertise in marketing, financial management and other specialized skills. By contrast, SCORE volunteer mentors have a wealth of specialized knowledge from decades of experience in their previous professions, but often are more unfamiliar with agriculture. This collaboration will produce opportunities for cross-training to enable this diverse group of service providers to broaden their knowledge and work more effectively to help farmers achieve their business goals. Group trainings each summer of the two year grant will enable a baseline of knowledge among the service providers, and will allow each service provider to work more effectively as a well-rounded individual service provider. In addition, this collaboration will also enable the start of a new model of team technical assistance to support the needs of up to 40 farmers on 20 farms over the course of 2 years.

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

MFT and SCORE will achieve the following during the two-year grant period:

Service provider recruitment and engagement

The SCORE network is a large and diverse community of volunteer service providers, and the interest survey indicates that at least 30 of those service providers are interested in working with farmer clients. Trainings will be opened up to the entire network of SCORE mentors and MFT service providers.The trainings will include an interactive component for service providers to meet each other and form relationships, laying the groundwork for the formation of teams. 

After the first round of trainings, service providers will be invited through a post-training survey to participate in the team technical assistance program by indicating their skills, interests and availability. Even if only half of the SCORE service providers choose to continue to this stage, that would be more than enough for the scope of the team technical assistance, which is designed to accommodate up to 12 service providers. Those selected will then be matched in pairs, and assigned farmer clients through the intake processes of MFT’s farmer business planning programs and SCORE’s general business assistance. Teams of 2 will create a scope of work to be undertaken with farmer clients over the course of the following year, during which time they also will have a second round of summer trainings. The application process, while not onerous, will create a deeper degree of commitment and the team structure will create accountability in the service provider relationships. Service providers will also be supported by retaining a consultant as a mentor to discuss questions and concerns over the course of the year. 

Project interactions and educational experiences

32 service providers will participate in the following training opportunities: 

  1. Participate in a consultant-led training in facilitation to support a team model of technical assistance.
  2. Participate in three consultant-led trainings in farm business management and financials.
  3. Participate in a consultant-led workshop on Quickbooks for farm management decisions using farmer case studies. 
  4. Cross-train SCORE volunteers in use of FarmCalc, a new profitability planning tool designed by MFT for diversified crop farmers and their service providers.
  5. Cross-train all service providers in the use of updated SCORE worksheets for farm business planning.

10-12 service providers will:

  1. Develop a team technical assistance system for 10 farms annually where MFT and SCORE service providers work together in teams of two to support farmers’ financial planning and decisions about farm profitability. Each farmer will create a scope of work and key deliverables with their service provider team that addresses their unique needs. 
  2. Receive ongoing mentorship to support technical assistance delivery from two of the consultants teaching farm business management and financials.
  3. Tool development: MFT and SCORE will train each other on current tools and materials each has developed, and will develop and implement plans to improve functionality for farmer clients (e.g. increase user friendliness/accessibility of MFT’s FarmCalc, develop farm-specific versions of SCORE workshops and materials).

Methods for supporting service providers

Service providers will have regular opportunities to learn and form relationships through regular summer training opportunities. In addition, they will work in pairs, with the support of a facilitation training at the beginning of the project to improve communication and develop structures for effective teamwork and service delivery. The pairs will also have the support of a highly skilled mentor service provider, whom they will have met as one of the consultants for the summer trainings. Service providers will also have the use of tools like SCORE’s worksheets and MFT’s FarmCalc, and they will be cross-trained in the use of these tools. Finally, there will be a mid-year survey during the team technical assistance period for service providers to assess how much they have advanced their skills (in facilitation, Quickbooks and farm business financials).

Milestones

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

130 service providers receive invitation to participate in 2 trainings taught by expert farm business consultants, and 30 respond by completing a survey to confirm desired training topics.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
130
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
130
Proposed Completion Date:
June 1, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
June 1, 2021
Accomplishments:

Service Provider Support Survey and invitation to participate in trainings was sent to 130 SCORE mentors and MFT service providers in May 2021. Thirty service providers responded. The survey gauged interest in working with agricultural clients, experience, and topics service providers wanted to learn so better serve ag clients. Topics selected by service providers interested in working with ag clients included: Farming basics and terminology; Time management for farm business owners; Debt capacity management, financing, and infrastructure planning; Sales and Marketing; and Climate-smart Practices.

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

Tool development: SCORE worksheets are adapted for farmer use by SCORE consultant.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
5
Proposed Completion Date:
September 15, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

SCORE identified which worksheets need adapting. Consultant began work.

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

30 service providers participate in 2 summer trainings (facilitation, farm business planning, cross-training in FarmCalc/SCORE worksheets)

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
September 15, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

10 Service Providers from SCORE and Maine Farmland Trust participated in the workshop, "Team Facilitation Skills" presented by Leslie Forstadt, PhD, Extension Professor, Human Development Specialist and Director of the Maine Agricultural Mediation Program and Karen Groat, Farm Coach and Maine Association of Mediators on 9/29/21. A follow-up "Team Coaching Skills" workshop is planned for 7/27/22.

SCORE and MFT service providers will cross-train on each organization's financial planning tools. When SCORE completes work on their templates, they will overview and provide copies to MFT service providers. MFT will demo FarmCalc for SCORE mentors. This "Tool Share" session is scheduled for 8/11/22.

A "Farming Basics and Terminology" workshop was planned in partnership with Wolfe's Neck Center. This experiential agenda included introductions to life cycles of annual crops, dairy animals, and broilers focused on the language and small business concepts that are unique, or more challenging, in farm business. Then participants will break into small groups for a "Reading the Farm"-style tour around the farm in stations to observe farming practices, use terminology, and hear how the farmers are making management decisions. This workshop was postponed from fall 2021 to fall 2022.

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

30 training participants complete post-training surveys measuring learning, skills and interest/availability to work in a team with a MFT and SCORE service provider to offer support to 1 farm next year.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
8
Proposed Completion Date:
September 15, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Eight service providers completed an evaluation following the "Team Facilitation Skills" workshop. 100% of the service providers were interested and available to work in a team to provide technical assistance to farm businesses.

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

Tool development: Software contractor upgrades FarmCalc to a user-friendly interface for use in farm technical assistance.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
5
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
3
Proposed Completion Date:
February 1, 2022
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
April 13, 2022
Accomplishments:

The newest version of FarmCalc launched publicly on 4/13/22. The tool has been redeveloped on a new platform that is more user-friendly. The information architecture was reconfigured to have more direction and divide the user experience into easier steps to navigate. Additionally, since the tool was being redeveloped, we were able to make the product budgets more flexible and customizable for livestock operations and value-added products. Now, farmers are able to calculate costs to raise an animal or crop, and then pass on a percentage of those costs to raise as well as add additional harvesting, post-harvest handling, and processing costs to specific products. They have the option of adding in overhead, equipment, and indirect labor costs so that unit costs of products are "fully-loaded". FarmCalc is available for free through a web browser on MFT's website at https://www.mainefarmlandtrust.org/farm-viability/farmcalc/.

FarmCalc was demo-ed at three farmer workshops in early 2022.

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

5 teams identified and paired with 10 cohort 1 farms.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
7
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
6
Proposed Completion Date:
February 1, 2022
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
May 27, 2022
Accomplishments:

Project Team created a Team TA Process outline for creating and pairing farms, as well as guidelines for TA providers working in teams.

The first farm client in Cohort 1 was identified and paired with a team of service providers to pilot the TA provider guidelines. Four additional farms were identified and paired with a team of service providers in spring 2022, totaling five farms and four different TA provider teams. Unfortunately this is lower than our Cohort 1 goal. 

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

5 teams meet with 10 farmers (meeting #1) for introduction and to define scope of work.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
7
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
6
Proposed Completion Date:
April 1, 2022
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
June 30, 2022
Accomplishments:

Each of the five client farms have had an inital meeting with their team of service providers. Most have started work. Services provided include: support crafting business plan, preparing cash flow projections, SWOT analysis, pricing strategy, loan application support, and recordkeeping systems. 

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

5 teams submit scope of work to technical assistance mentors & farmers for feedback and confirmation. This includes the number of future meetings and farm visits anticipated.
5 teams also schedule a service provider progress survey, and mentor meetings.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
March 15, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Final work product produced by 5 teams for cohort 1 of 10 farmers.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #10 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Summer trainings 3, 4 & 5 take place (farm business management, Quickbooks)

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
October 1, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

A follow-up "Team Coaching Skills" workshop is planned for 7/27/22.

SCORE and MFT service providers will cross-train on each organization's financial planning tools. When SCORE completes work on their templates, they will overview and provide copies to MFT service providers. MFT will demo FarmCalc for SCORE mentors. This "Tool Share" session is scheduled for 8/11/22.

A "Farming Basics and Terminology" workshop is scheduled for fall 2022. SCORE mentors prioritized this topic over QuickBooks.

The fifth workshop has yet to be planned.

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

New teams formed for work with cohort 2 of farmers (repeat process for a second year) to be completed March 2024.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
February 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #12 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Service providers receive final financial reports and evaluations from farmers and compile.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings

Participants in the project’s educational activities:

3 Nonprofit
7 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
30
Target: actions the service providers will take:

30 service providers will deepen their farm-specific business advising skills and knowledge, and 12 service providers per year will work collaboratively (between Maine Farmland Trust and SCORE Maine) to provide enterprise budgeting, whole farm financial planning, and other business related technical assistance to 40 farmers who have a median of 17 acres in production and $72,000 gross sales.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
40
Target: amount of production these farmers manage:

17 acres in production and $72,000 gross sales per farm.

Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers

Target #1

Target: number of farmers who will make a change/adopt of practice:
10
Target: the change or adoption the farmers will make:
5 farms which participate in the team technical assistance through this SARE PDP will improve the profitability of their businesses, which we define as improved net margin and/or increased net profits.
Target: total size/scale of farmers these farmers manage:
17 acres in production and $72,000 gross sales
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.