Northeast Training - Support Network for Agriculture Development

Final Report for ENE98-039

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1998: $132,392.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $5,353.00
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kathryn Ruhf
Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
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Project Information

Summary:

Overview:

This project strengthens the community and regional infrastructure for agriculture in the NE by enhancing the agriculture development skills of Extension and other professionals. Twenty four practitioners from nine states participated in a training, formed study teams to investigate and evaluate ag development projects, and produce findings, evaluative tools and other products. A regional Ag Development Symposium drew two hundred development professionals, farm advocates and others. The trainees developed new skills and relationships, and the region benefits from the formation of a network of ag development specialists. In addition, ag development is more integrated into local and regional economic development activities.

Methods/Approach:

* An Ag Development electronic list serve and website were created to provide professional dialogue and public access to ag development information, project profiles and study team products developed by NETSN leaders.

* 24 NETSN Leaders Group participants were recruited from throughout the NE. The group received three days of training. They formed four Study Teams that focused on: beginning farmers; public education campaigns; agriculture and smart growth; and farmers markets. The Teams gathered information on existing NE projects in these topic areas, and identified indicators and assessment tools to evaluate their economic, social and environmental impacts.

A regional Agriculture Development Symposium drew two hundred agriculture development practitioners, community development specialists, planners, agency and grassroots representatives, farmers and farm advocates to presentations, workshops, working sessions and informal networking. Each Team presented findings, and a workshop related to each Study Team topic expanded the leamings.

Results:

a. The NETSN leaders strengthened their understanding of the scope and depth of agriculture economic development, and developed an appreciation of the “three legged stool” of sustainability economic, environmental and social as it applies to ag development projects. They built skills in assessment and evaluation.

b. The Public Education Campaigns Team collected profiles from eight Northeast PECs, produced an in depth case study on one PEC, and a “handbook” on evaluation strategies and techniques for agriculture based PECs. The Beginning Farmer Team produced profiles on five NE beginning farmer programs drafted a set of social, economic and environmental indicators used at their field visit to the Ecosystem Farm at Accokeek Foundation. The Ag and Smart Growth Team produced a website: www.SmartAg.net. The Farmers Market Team produced a report, a bibliography on farmers markets, and a survey instrument to assess the economic, environmental and social impacts of a downtown market on the farmers and the community.

c. Two hundred people received information about ag development. Each received a binder of Study Team products and other information about the Symposium workshops, the NETSN project, etc. They exchanged resources and networked.

Impacts and Potential Contributions:

The Project increased the visibility and legitimacy of ag development and promoted the importance of integrating ag development with traditional economic and community development initiatives by seeing agriculture as vital economic activity for the region. The Project created a network of ag development specialists with new skills; participants are more able to provide effective leadership for a wide range of community-based and regional ag development opportunities. They have a greater sense of professional identity and collegiality from the shared experiences of the training and the team projects.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Judy Green

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

* Ag Development list serve and website: At the start of the Project, the “FAP-NE-AG-DEVEL-L” list serve was set up and has been in active use ever since. About 150 subscribers share information, discussion of issues, and professional development opportunities focused on ag development. Most subscribers are from the Northeast region, but some are from other regions and countries. The NETSN website was developed to provide public access to the huge array of agriculture development information and project profiles developed by NETSN participants. [Ed. note: this list is now known as CFAP-L ; it can be found at http://media.cce.cornell.edu/hosts/agfoodcommunity/afs_temp3.cfm?topicID=279]

* Leaders Group Recruitment and Training: In the fall of 1999, 24 participants for the NETSN Leaders Group were recruited from throughout the Northeast. Leaders were selected to provide a diverse group representing experienced local agriculture development specialists, Cooperative Extension and USDA field staff, State and local agency staff, NGO representatives, private sector consultants and others working towards a leadership role in local and regional agriculture development. Leaders wrote up one or more project profiles detailing their recent or current ag development work, identifying participating organizations, funding sources, outcomes and lessons learned.

The group met in March 2000 for an intensive three days of information sharing, skills building and planning. At the training, several existing ag development projects were critiqued. Leaders discussed why and how the social, economic and environmental impacts of agricultural development projects ought to be evaluated. An enormous amount of cross learning among participants took place.

Study Team Investigations: During the training, the group organized itself into four Study Teams to focus on particular approaches to agriculture development over the next eighteen months. The topics selected for investigation were: beginning farmers; agriculturally focused public education campaigns; agriculture and “smart growth”; and farmers markets. The four Teams spent the remainder of Year I developing a Team plan of work and budget, gathering information on existing projects around the region that use these approaches, identifying indicators and assessment tools to evaluate the economic, social and environmental impacts of these approaches. In Year 2, each Study Team implemented its plan of work. Originally it was envisioned that each team would host a Study Tour to reach out to a larger audience, but in designing the plans of work, some Teams selected other options.

* The Beginning Farmer Study Team investigated several beginning farmer service programs and compiled summary reports. Each investigation was shaped by a set of questions generated by the Team about the project or program and its economic, social and environmental impacts. In April 2000, the Team made a site visit to the Ecosystem Farm at Accokeek Foundation in Maryland, a non governmental, site based farmer training program under the direction of Shane LaBrake. Team members interviewed Shane and his three farmer trainees, and toured the farm and facilities. They also interviewed the Foundation president, board members and staff about their investment and success in serving beginning farmers.

The Public Education Study Team gathered profiles on several “public education campaigns” e.g. grassroots “buy local” campaigns as well as state run marketing campaigns. They gathered background information on such campaigns, and identified people within the NE involved in such campaigns and professionals with expertise in campaign assessment. Over twenty such folks convened in Millbrook, NY for a day long meeting. The meeting included a training component about marketing campaigns, and about appropriate evaluation tools.

* The Farmers Markets Study Team initially proposed to study farmers (tailgate) markets and public (permanent) markets, but the scope of study proved to be unmanageable, so they concentrated on developing a tool to evaluate the economic, social and environmental impacts of farmers markets. The team members collected background information an exhaustive bibliography on farmers markets and developed a series of questions. They made a site visit to the Millburn, NJ farmers market where they interviewed market farmers, customers and the market manager, and convened a meeting with town officials to glean their perspective. They produced a report of their findings.

* The Agriculture and Smart Growth Study Team began with an investigation of available studies and materials on growth management (“smart growth”) and agriculture. Confirming their intuition, there was very little conceptual or practical connection between agriculture development, farmland protection and growth management at local, regional and state levels. They decided to create a website on agriculture and smart growth, with information about the role of agriculture in growth management, with links to organizations and other sites.

Northeast Agriculture Development Symposium: The culmination of the Project was the Agriculture Development Symposium, held in Albany, NY, November 9 10, 2000. The Symposium drew two hundred agriculture development practitioners, community development specialists, planners, agency and grassroots representatives, farmers and farm advocates to presentations, workshops, working sessions and informal networking. Each Team presented findings, and a workshop related to each Study Team topic expanded the learnings.

Publications/Outreach

* All Study Team products were posted on the NETSN page of the Cornell Farming Alternatives Program website.

* Publicity for the Ag Development Symposium included 5 regional and national list serve postings, brochure mailing to a list of 500, including state departments of agriculture, Extension professionals, planning agencies, and farm organizations, and posting on the NETSN webpage.

* Symposium participants received a binder that included extensive information about NETSN and general information about ag development, and the products of each Study Team’s investigations. The binder also included abstracts from the workshop presenters.

Information and updates about the Project were reported in newsletters, including the Farming Alternatives Program newsletter and NESAWG NEWS.

Performance Target Outcomes

Outcomes

Results

The results of this Project may be reported in several categories:

a. The NETSN Leaders Group: From the intensive training about agriculture economic development, NETSN team members focused on identifying and building skills needed by ag development practitioners, and on how to evaluate the economic, social and environmental impacts of our ag development efforts. Team members strengthened their understanding of the scope and depth of agriculture economic development. They developed an appreciation of the economic, environmental and social indicators of sustainability as they apply to ag development projects. They built skills in assessment and evaluation. Together, they grappled with concepts of agriculture economic development as this group of diverse professionals wished to approach it. At the end of the training, the NETSN leaders were generally in agreement that our orientation was toward local and regional solutions, adding value and increasing market share, integrating agriculture’s multiple benefits and building “social capital” rather than toward global competitiveness, maximizing production and building technical solutions. For some, this was a substantial shift in orientation. The group concluded that for the Northeast, effective ag development strategies improve the economic sustainability of farming while providing environmental and social benefits to the community and region.

The March 1999 training focused on concepts of indicators and impacts. As a result, leaders became familiar with more sophisticated approaches to evaluating projects. For example, a “good’ indicator of success will address long term sustainability, not just short term effects and measure “social capital” as well as producers’ bottom lines. This understanding carried over into the Teams’ investigation of projects and into their work in general.

b. Study Team findings: The Public Education Campaign (PEC) Study Team collected and synthesized profiles from eight Northeast PECs. They produced an in depth case study on one PEC, and a “handbook” on evaluation strategies and techniques for agriculture-based PECs, with a chart of impacts and indicators, and description of evaluation techniques. The Beginning Farmer Team produced profiles on five NE beginning farmer programs. They drafted a set of social, economic and environmental indicators used at their field visit to the Ecosystem Farm at Accokeek Foundation. They created a listing of selected websites related to beginning farmers. The Ag and Smart Growth Team produced a website: www.SmartAg.net with five sections and links. The Farmers Market Team produced a bibliography on farmers markets, and a listing of relevant websites. They produced a survey instrument to assess the economic, environmental and social impacts of a downtown market on the farmers and the community. They compiled the results into a report that also includes background information on farmers markets

In each case, the teams did background research, and collected profiles. Three teams developed “participatory” tools to identify indicators and impacts. Two teams conducted program assessments/surveys. All team products and findings were carried on the website.

c. Symposium Participants: Two hundred people received information about ag development, focused on the Northeast. Each received a binder of Study Team products and other information about agriculture economic development, the Symposium workshops, the NETSN project, etc. Project findings were disseminated and discussed. The network of professionals engaged in agricultural economic development was acknowledged and expanded.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations

Based on the success of the Project, feedback from the Leaders Group, Symposium evaluations, and list serve dialogue, there appears to be a need to continue to provide support, training and networking infrastructure for the region’s ag development specialists and activities. Suggested possible areas for further activity include:

  • a biennial conference focused on ag economic development; sponsorship could be rotated among land grant institutions, in partnership with community based and other organizations focused on ag economic development
  • targeted regional or sub regional professional development trainings
  • outreach and networking to other related sectors (e.g. Northeast members of the National Association of Ag Marketing Officials, community development corporations)
  • further use of electronic technologies for information sharing, “distance learning”, etc.
  • “mini grants” for teams to investigate ag development initiatives (replicating the NETSN model)
  • further promotion of agriculture economic development as an integral element of local and regional economic development strategies, and further promotion of ag development as a professional niche.

It is clear from the findings of this Project that additional awareness about ag development among professionals, the farming community and the public is essential. At the same time, professionals engaged in ag development need more tools with which to assess the efficacy of development projects, particularly tools that address the three elements of sustainability, This Project offered an important step in that direction. NETSN leaders encouraged the establishment of a more permanent network infrastructure for NE ag development specialists, i.e. hire a coordinator, establish a coalition of NETSN partners.

Potential Contributions

Potential Contributions (Impacts)

One of the major overall impacts of this Project was to place agriculture economic development on the radar screen of a wide variety of professionals. The project increased the visibility and legitimacy of ag development and stressed the importance of integrating ag development with traditional economic and community development initiatives, by seeing agriculture as vital economic activity, with multiple benefits for the region.

Another important impact was the creation of a network of ag development specialists. As a result of this project, participants are more able to provide effective leadership for a wide range of community based and regional ag development opportunities. They have a greater sense of professional identity, and a collegiality developed from the shared experiences of the training and the team projects. In the words of one NETSN leader, “…there is no question in my mind that I will be able to better serve the people in my region through what was learned…[and from] the people that are networked.” They increased their skills to critically evaluate their own ag development projects and programs. They also developed “virtual teamwork” skills by working with team members across the Northeast to accomplish the Team work plans. This Project strengthened the capacity of two dozen professionals from a wide variety of settings to bring newly acquired skills and awareness to those settings, thereby creating a ripple effect throughout the rest of their organizations.

The NETSN Leaders Group crafted a consensus statement on the intended impact of ag development as they envisioned it for the Northeast:

  • to expand opportunities for natural resource based community economic development
  • to build, diversify and enhance markets for local production
  • to retain, expand and protect, farmland and the natural resource base
  • to strengthen public awareness of agriculture and build supporting communities

This vision of ag development is resonant with the principles of sustainability. Rather than focus on international trade, for example, or commodity based development, the leaders stressed factors such as quality of life, environmental factors, community infrastructure, and long term security. These values are embedded in each of the Study Team’s investigations and in the tools they developed to assess impacts. This approach presented considerable challenges, as it is much more difficult to develop indicators of environmental and social impacts than to examine bottom lines, volumes of produce or numbers of participating farmers.

With the exception of the Ag and Smart Growth Team (which focused on the development of a website), the teams engaged members of the community in their participatory studies. Farmers, grassroots organizers, municipal officials, organization and agency staff and citizens learned about ag development concepts and assessment. As a consequence of their participation, they are more likely to advocate for and develop viable programs to support agriculture. They are better able to participate in the design and evaluation of ag development initiatives founded on principles of sustainability.

As a consequence of their participation in this Project, the leaders gave evidence of shifts in their thinking about ag development. Participants from land grant institutions and state agencies were exposed to approaches and orientations favored by grassroots community development groups. Participants typically engaged in local action were influenced by projects implemented at the regional level. Because partnership approaches were emphasized, participants were exposed to models of effective ag development partnerships, such as among an RC&D, state department of agriculture and a private non profit organization. Also, the exposure and exchange across disciplines was a highlight for many of the NETSN leaders. Several leaders used the term “eye opener” referring to their experience in this project. The project did help participants become more sensitive to the environmental and social consequences of various ag development models and initiatives.

Because by definition, agriculture economic development happens at the systems (community or regional) level, it is very difficult to assess the extent to which this Project directly impacted farm production levels, farm level quality of life or farm profits. We could safely say, however, that as a consequence of this Project, professionals engaged in a wide variety of ag development activities will be more aware of and sensitive to elements of sustainability in their projects, and that their projects are more likely to consider the interrelationships among impacts, beyond the bottom line. Professionals are also more likely to think and plan in a more holistic and integrated fashion, within the food system, and beyond. For example, the Ag and Smart Growth Team created links that were previously non existent among ag development, growth management and farmland protection interests. Thus, in the future, regional planners and open space conservationists will be much more likely to act on the understanding that a viable agriculture economy is one of the best open space preservation tools. In another example, the Public Education Campaign Team’s guide to assessing public education campaigns articulates important links between encouraging consumers to “buy local” and encouraging other behaviors, such as supporting local bylaws that are favorable to farmers in their communities or supporting bond bills that enable acquisition of agricultural easements.

Two of the challenges in the design of this Project were around geography and time commitments of the NETSN leaders, Because the Study Teams were composed of participants from throughout the region, it was not feasible for them to meet as Study Teams. So all planning and implementation took place via email and phone, which made coordination and sustaining momentum difficult. Also, while participants were committed to the project, they were not compensated for their time, and with everyone’s extremely busy schedules, it required extra time on the part of the Project Coordinators to keep things moving. Study Teams identified team leaders and treasurers, and those folks put in extra time as well. Three of four Teams hired students or professionals to assist them with document preparation, using their SARE Team budgets to fund these. Several participants expressed disappointment that there wasn’t more “actual training”. The Project would have been strengthened by a better balance between the team and field work, and more hands on training and development of assessment tools.

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.