Training and Tools for Assisting Small and Mid-Scale Producers of Horticulture Crops with Business Decisions

Final report for ES13-118

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2013: $79,857.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Steve Muntz
Southern SAWG
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Project Information

Abstract:

Four, day-long trainings and five, one-hour webinars were developed and delivered for agricultural service providers on topics related to improving profitability of horticultural producers. Each webinar honed in on a different farm business decision issue.  The day-long trainings, held in Mobile, AL (2015), Lexington, KY (2016),  San Antonio, TX (2016) and Edinburg, TX (2016),  focused on key farm data, analyzing the data, and decision making to increase profitability and attain farm goals. Trainers used PowerPoint presentations, a role-play video and interactive discussion to address the complex nature of managing a diverse farm business.  All webinars are available online

Project Objectives:
  1. At least 80 agricultural professionals who work with small and mid-scale producers of horticultural crops will gain a greater understanding of the key activities needed for farm owners and managers to make well-informed business decisions that can help them attain their goals and increase their farm profitability. These activities will include understanding what farm data to track, how to collect and store the data, how to analyze the data, and how to make business decisions based on key drivers of farm profitability.
  2. At least 75 agricultural professionals who participate in this project will gain confidence in their ability to discuss recordkeeping techniques and business decision-making with producers who they assist, and will be able to recommend specific farmer-friendly tools and other resources that the producers can use to track important farm financial data, analyze the data, and make business decisions that lead to increased farm profitability.
  3. At least 60 agricultural professionals who participate in this project will incorporate more effective assistance on recordkeeping and business decision-making into their farmer assistance.

Examples of behavior change expected:

  • Project participants incorporate information about recordkeeping and business decision-making into production training and other education for small and mid-scale horticulture producers, with a focus on increasing farm profitability.
  • Project participants include more in-depth education about recordkeeping and business decision-making that leads to increased farm profitability when assisting small and mid-scale horticulture producers with loan applications, USDA program applications, or new enterprise decisions.
  • Project participants include education on recordkeeping and business decision-making that leads to increased farm profitability when training beginning farmers who are interested in horticultural enterprises.

Our intent is to equip more assistance providers, who are often the primary information contacts for farmers, to be able to provide assistance in a whole systems way by discussing recordkeeping and business decision-making within the context of production and marketing, instead of as a separate, and often neglected, topic.

 

Introduction:

Although definitions of sustainable agriculture have always included economic viability, most of the early small and mid-scale farmers striving for sustainability have focused on production practices and marketing strategies to achieve this goal.  More recently, many of these farmers are recognizing the need for improved recordkeeping and business practices.  Based on feedback from thousands of small and mid-scale farmers who have attended 68 Southern SAWG (Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) conferences and trainings since 1992, we have seen many more requests for information on record-keeping, business management, and profitability.  Farmers are also requesting that educational sessions include actual farm data or farmers as instructors who will share real-life experiences. 

In response to this demand, Southern SAWG developed and conducted a series of “Growing Farm Profits” courses aimed at horticultural producers across the Southern region who want to track key farm data to improve their farming operations and calculate profitability for their farm enterprises.  Course participants are given a framework for understanding profitability, and farmer-friendly business tools to set up their own record-keeping and cost analysis systems.   Participants are introduced to many concepts and systems, with the Veggie Compass Whole Farm Profit Management recordkeeping system serving as a critical teaching tool.  Real farm data and real life decisions are shared to help farmer participants gain a better understanding of how to put risk management strategies into practice on their own farms.  Course participants are also provided with extensive take-home materials, including a wide variety of recordkeeping templates that are ready to use. 

Farmer response to each of our Growing Farm Profits courses has been extremely positive both right after the courses and six months later when three quarters of participants indicated that they were already making use of the lessons they learned from the trainings and 83% said they had already begun setting up their own record-keeping and/or cost analysis.

While over 250 farmers have participated in these courses, Southern SAWG has only been able to serve a small portion of the need and unexpectedly, a number of agricultural professionals attended our Growing Farm Profits courses and asked for further training on integrating business education and recordkeeping with their production and marketing assistance.   

This project was specifically developed to multiply the educational benefits of the Growing Farm Profits course by providing training and course resource materials specifically for agricultural professionals.  They, in turn, can conduct their own trainings or incorporate the educational techniques and tools into their on-going outreach and assistance to producers.  In this way, thousands of more producers can be reached with information that can assist them in increasing farm profitability, making their farms more sustainable.

In developing the training, our team examined other SARE funded projects that have contributed to better tools for collecting and analyzing production and marketing data including a Cornell University Project (ONE11-145), a project by the Land Stewardship Project (ENC03-073), and a project by the Innovative Farmers of Ohio (LNC05-252).

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jean Mills

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

This project did not result in any specific publications.  The focus was on direct training to service providers. All participants in the day long trainings received a flash drive that included all presentations and numerous other resource documents.  The 5 webinars that we held were all recorded and are available at a newly established page on the Growing Farm Profits section of Southern SAWG’s website, here.

Below is the basic agenda from the one day trainings that were held.

GROWING FARM PROFITS

TRAINING FOR SERVICE PROVIDERS

Agenda

9:00 am           Registration and pre-training survey

9:30 am           Welcome and Introductions of Presenters and Participants – Steve Muntz

10:00 am         The Lay of The Land   –   Jim Munsch

10:30 am         Managing the Farm as a Business   –   Jim Munsch 

11:15 am         Benchmarking  –   Ellen Polishuk

Noon              LUNCH (In TX, Preparing Farmers to Meet with Lenders Presentation by Farm Credit)

1:00 pm           Learning from the Veggie Compass Tool   –   Ellen Polishuk

2:30 pm                 BREAK

3:00 pm           Managing Labor for Profitability   –   Ellen Polishuk

3:30 pm           Finding Resources   –   Jim Munsch

4:00 pm           Drawing from the Wisdom of the Group –   Steve Muntz

4:30 pm           Q&A/ Feedback/Evaluation/Resource Distribution    –   Steve Muntz

5:00 pm                Close

 

 

 

Outreach and Publications

This project built off the success of Southern SAWG’s “Growing Farm Profits” training course that has assisted over 250 small and mid-scale producers of horticultural crops with decision making for farm profitability.  

Recognizing the value of this approach with farmers and the limited ability of Southern SAWG to provide more direct farmer training, the project team designed a similar “Growing Farm Profits” course specifically for farm service providers.  This “Growing Farm Profits – In Service Training” was held at four different locations over two years: Mobile, AL in January of 2015, Lexington, Kentucky in January 2016, San Antonio, TX in November, 2016 and Edinburg, TX in November 2016.  

Classroom instruction was provided by a team of two trainers, both with a strong track record of providing effective instruction.  Jim Munsch (independent consultant, farmer and developer of the Veggie Compass Whole Farm Profit Management recordkeeping systeml) laid the foundation of managing the farm as a business.  Ellen Polishuk, a successful, diversified vegetable farmer from Virginia, made the theory come alive by providing real data and experience from her farm.   Making use of Veggie Compass she showed how a farmer with 50 or 60 different crops, selling in a variety of different markets can track key information and then use that information to determine which crops are actually profitable in which markets.  Her presentation made it abundantly clear to participants how  such information is the foundation  for future farm planning.  Recognizing the knowledge and experience of the participants gathered, the team also sought input from the participants regarding what business decision making tools work for them in their work with farmers.

Classroom topics included: Managing the Farm as a Business, Benchmarking, Learning from the Veggie Compass Tool, Managing Labor for Profitability, Finding Resources and Drawing Wisdom from the Group.   Since many extension travel budgets have been cut in recent years, a travel scholarship process was established to assist with transportation to the training that was held in Alabama and 18 individuals utilized the scholarship in assisting with their travel costs. 

Participants in the four trainings came from 11 different states and provided feedback to the trainers both in terms of the value of the training itself as well as what other kinds of information they could use to better assist farmers with this challenging area of farm management. 

Participants in the trainings, were asked to complete both a pre-training survey and a post-training survey to determine if their level of confidence in assisting producers of horticultural crops had increased as a result of the training.  A jump drive of resource materials including all course presentations, Southern SAWG’s “Veggie Compass” tutorial videos, numerous sample records and record templates and an abundance of other supporting information was provided to all participants in these courses.

Training events were promoted through Southern SARE state coordinators, the Center for Crop Diversification, Southern SAWG and other avenues.    Participation at the events varied from a low of 18 participants to a high of 23 participants.

Southern SAWG contracted with an independent party to do a one year follow-up survey with participants in the trainings in Mobile, AL and Lexington, KY to determine if the participants had implemented anything they had learned at the training. 

The project team also developed a series of single topic webinars that addressed some particularly challenging aspects of profitability management faced by farmers.  Webinar topics included:  1. Record Keeping for Profit Management for Vegetable Growers, 2. Cost-Benefit Analysis for Vegetable Equipment Purchasing Decisions 3.  Schedule F vs Profitability Accounting for Vegetable Farming   4. Depreciation and Profitability Management and 5. Preparing Farmers to Meet with Lenders.   All of the webinars were recorded and made available on a new site for Agricultural Service Providers on Southern SAWG’s “Growing Farm Profits” web page.  One of the webinars included an integrated video role play.   Trainers for these webinars included our course trainers Jim Munsch and Ellen Polishuk as well as Gary Matteson Vice President of the Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Programs and Outreach for The Farm Credit Council and John Hendrickson, farmer and Senior Outreach Specialist for the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Participants in each of the webinars were polled at the beginning of the webinar and were asked to complete a short survey after the webinar to gauge if the webinars had been of value to participants.  In addition a one question follow-up survey was sent to participants from 6-18 months after the webinars to determine if they had been able to use any of the information learned in their work with farmers.

Southern SAWG reconfigured our Growing Farm Profits online site to include a page specifically for Agricultural Service Providers.  All of the webinars developed by the training team were placed on this site and are available for future use and reference.

Outcomes and impacts:

This project built off the success of Southern SAWG’s “Growing Farm Profits” training course that has assisted over 250 small and mid-scale producers of horticultural crops with decision making for farm profitability.  

Recognizing the value of this approach with farmers and the limited ability of Southern SAWG to provide more direct farmer training, the project team designed a similar “Growing Farm Profits” course specifically for farm service providers.  This “Growing Farm Profits – In Service Training” was held at four different locations over two years: Mobile, AL in January of 2015, Lexington, Kentucky in January 2016, San Antonio, TX in November, 2016 and Edinburg, TX in November 2016.  

Classroom instruction was provided by a team of two trainers, both with a strong track record of providing effective instruction.  Jim Munsch (independent consultant, farmer and developer of the Veggie Compass Whole Farm Profit Management recordkeeping systeml) laid the foundation of managing the farm as a business.  Ellen Polishuk, a successful, diversified vegetable farmer from Virginia, made the theory come alive by providing real data and experience from her farm.   Making use of Veggie Compass she showed how a farmer with 50 or 60 different crops, selling in a variety of different markets can track key information and then use that information to determine which crops are actually profitable in which markets.  Her presentation made it abundantly clear to participants how  such information is the foundation  for future farm planning.  Recognizing the knowledge and experience of the participants gathered, the team also sought input from the participants regarding what business decision making tools work for them in their work with farmers.

Classroom topics included: Managing the Farm as a Business, Benchmarking, Learning from the Veggie Compass Tool, Managing Labor for Profitability, Finding Resources and Drawing Wisdom from the Group.   Since many extension travel budgets have been cut in recent years, a travel scholarship process was established to assist with transportation to the training that was held in Alabama and 18 individuals utilized the scholarship in assisting with their travel costs. 

Participants in the four trainings came from 11 different states and provided feedback to the trainers both in terms of the value of the training itself as well as what other kinds of information they could use to better assist farmers with this challenging area of farm management. 

Participants in the trainings, were asked to complete both a pre-training survey and a post-training survey to determine if their level of confidence in assisting producers of horticultural crops had increased as a result of the training.  A jump drive of resource materials including all course presentations, Southern SAWG’s “Veggie Compass” tutorial videos, numerous sample records and record templates and an abundance of other supporting information was provided to all participants in these courses.

Training events were promoted through Southern SARE state coordinators, the Center for Crop Diversification, Southern SAWG and other avenues.    Participation at the events varied from a low of 18 participants to a high of 23 participants.

Southern SAWG contracted with an independent party to do a one year follow-up survey with participants in the trainings in Mobile, AL and Lexington, KY to determine if the participants had implemented anything they had learned at the training. 

The project team also developed a series of single topic webinars that addressed some particularly challenging aspects of profitability management faced by farmers.  Webinar topics included:  1. Record Keeping for Profit Management for Vegetable Growers, 2. Cost-Benefit Analysis for Vegetable Equipment Purchasing Decisions 3.  Schedule F vs Profitability Accounting for Vegetable Farming   4. Depreciation and Profitability Management and 5. Preparing Farmers to Meet with Lenders.   All of the webinars were recorded and made available on a new site for Agricultural Service Providers on Southern SAWG’s “Growing Farm Profits” web page.  One of the webinars included an integrated video role play.   Trainers for these webinars included our course trainers Jim Munsch and Ellen Polishuk as well as Gary Matteson Vice President of the Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Programs and Outreach for The Farm Credit Council and John Hendrickson, farmer and Senior Outreach Specialist for the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Participants in each of the webinars were polled at the beginning of the webinar and were asked to complete a short survey after the webinar to gauge if the webinars had been of value to participants.  In addition a one question follow-up survey was sent to participants from 6-18 months after the webinars to determine if they had been able to use any of the information learned in their work with farmers.

Southern SAWG reconfigured our Growing Farm Profits online site to include a page specifically for Agricultural Service Providers.  All of the webinars developed by the training team were placed on this site and are available for future use and reference.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Southern SAWG contracted with an independent party to do a one year follow-up survey with participants from both the January 2015 in-service training in Mobile, Alabama and the January 2016 in-service training in Lexington, Kentucky, to learn if the participants had implemented anything they had learned at the training. 

30 of the 39 participants in these two trainings provided feedback on the ways they have implemented the knowledge and tools they received (via email and phone interviews).  Of the remaining nine participants not providing feedback, two had retired or were no longer employed, 2 had changed jobs and/or moved and five were unreachable.

Of the 30 respondents, only 6 reported an inability to put the training into practice due to the following factors:

  • other work and management needs
  • limited structure and capacity to outreach with producers
  • no opportunity
  • challenges working with producers based on their time availability and/or attitudes towards recordkeeping and analysis

The remainder shared a variety of ways they have implemented the training.  The following are summarized examples with the number of participants implementing the practice noted in parenthesis (many of whom are adopting multiple strategies);

  • Resources are now part of participants outreach toolkit with producers: improved record-keeping strategies for tracking information, farm-accounting, cost/profit calculations, business planning (6)
  • Sharing training resources/working with colleagues (6)
  • Presenting resources at producer trainings and workshops (including incorporating these resources into other existing training programs) (9)
  • Participants working one-on-one with producers (8)
  • Participant working one-on-one with beginning farmers (1)
  • Participants implementing the Veggie Compass with producers (3)
  • Implemented different aspects of the training and resources on personal farm (2)         
  • Read/researched some of tools further (2)
  • Used in developing new tools/publications for producers (2)

We did not do a formal follow-up survey with the participants from the Texas trainings since the trainings had been held relatively recently.   We did contact the local organizers of the trainings to learn of any fairly immediate results.  We learned that participants from the San Antonio training had integrated the Veggie Compass  tool into the “Austin Foodshed Investors Rolling Roadshow Events”.  Each of these six events reached 10-15 producers.  In addition one of the farmer participants in the San Antonio training has been using the Veggie Compass tool extensively.  We also learned that the lead organizer from the Edinburg training developed a one hour summary session about the Veggie Compass tool that has been presented in Corpus Christi, Texas and will be presented in several other south Texas sites.   The intention from these introductory sessions is to generate interest in a full-day training on Veggie Compass to be held in June, 2017.  In addition that same lead organizer is assisting a new producer in using Veggie Compass.

Follow-up from webinar participants involved a single question asked of participants anywhere from 6-18 months after the actual webinar.   The question we asked participants was:  “Since participating in the ‘xxxx’  webinar, have you been able to use any of the information gleaned in your work with farmers?”   Participant response rate and responses are tallied below.

Webinar Follow-up 6-18 months post webinar

Webinar

Webinar Date

Response Rate (percentage of participants who responded to the survey)

Yes,  I used this information in my work with farmers (percentage of respondents who replied affirmatively)

No, I have not used this information in my work with farmers (percentage of respondents who replied negatively)

Record Keeping for Profit Management for Vegetable Growers

10-22-15

50%

70%

20%

Cost-Benefit Analysis for Vegetable Equipment Purchasing Decisions

11-19-15

77%

20%

70%

Schedule F vs Profitability Accounting for Vegetable Farming

12-17-15

72%

46%

46%

Depreciation and Profitability Management

9-29-16

70%

43%

57%

Preparing Farmers to Meet with Lenders

10-20-16

47%

78%

22%

 

 

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

This ultimate contribution of this project will be improved decision making by farmers for profitability on their farms.  This series of trainings and webinars has increased the level of confidence that agricultural service providers have in assisting diversified horticultural producers with numerous key factors necessary for those farmers to both understand their current profitability and to manage for improved future profitability. 

Based on the results of our follow-up surveys, we anticipate that 75 of the participants from this project will effectively utilize the knowledge they gained from the project with the farmers they assist.  If each of those service providers assists only five farmers each over the next three years with this knowledge, there will be a total of 375 farmers who would improve their skills for profitable farm decision making. 

Also based on the results of our follow-up surveys, we anticipate that 12 of the 75 individuals mentioned about will share their knowledge with colleagues who will then be better equipped to help the farmers with whom they work.   If five of these service providers also assist five farmers over the next three years that will be an additional 25 farmers who would improve their skills for profitable farm decision making.

This makes a total of 400 producers we anticipate will be making better decisions regarding profitability on their farms over the next three years due to the work of this project.  

 

Future Recommendations

Profitability is critical to the sustainability of agriculture and Southern SAWG’s “Growing Farm Profits” program has proven to be an effective method of getting both farmers and farm service providers more engaged with the challenge of managing farms for profit.  The one thing still missing in this course is the integration of real-life application that ensures that some of the lessons learned really take hold.    In the future, Southern SAWG hopes to propose a program for farmer/farm service provider teams who would participate jointly in a Growing Farm Profits training, establish some annual profitability management goals for the farm and then work together on seeing those goals through in the coming year with additional technical support from the Growing Farm Profits team.  

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.