Final report for FNC21-1263
Our farm has occupied an indoor facility producing edible flowering plants, leafy greens, and assorted fresh herbs.
Prior to receiving the grant, our practices were most focused on manufacturing and less on full-cycle sustainability practices. This grant project has allowed us to develop the engagement framework for introducing small and historically-underserved producers to sustainability planning and technical resources to accomplish their goals.
Over 50% of farmers have lost money every year since 2013. Small farmers (operations under $350,000 per year) have been hit harder than most; accounting for just 1/4 of food produced in 2017, down from almost 1/2 in 1991.
Motivations for entering, or remaining in, farming diminish when farmers are forced to run operations without leveraging shared resources.
Demonstration and Education Project
Technology has made farming more efficient, but most of those benefits have been realized by corporate farmers who are building up large holdings as small farmers are forced to sell out, or face impending bankruptcy. More than ever, small farmers need business management and marketing assistance to remain viable and increase income.
The owners of small operations can capture the economies of scale and specialization available to larger producers by sharing pooled resources and shared outside expertise.
Drive small producer business activities by connecting industry experts, performance analytics, comprehensive databases, and proven best practices. Our project services are broken down across two segments of network activity — (i) integration and planning services, and (ii) activation and engagement solutions.
- Develop systems database for small producer business planning, specialty crop administration, and e-commerce marketplace supporting regional direct-to-consumer distribution and delivery.
- Engage and onboard ten (10) small (<$250,000 p/yr) and historically underserved producers across St. Louis (City), St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Franklin County, Washington County, and St. Clair County (Illinois).
- Establish operation, finance, and engagement benchmarks, measuring performance over a 23 month period.
- Analyze and share findings through virtual conferences, social media, website and community activities.
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Our project is designed for a farmer-centric approach, our modules are scaled so that GRŌers and facilitators play an equally active role in the business development and planning process. Our platform services are cloud based and provide on-demand access to our training and engagement modules. GRŌers learn with formal and informal forms of assessment, project-based operations portfolios, and program participation. In our GRŌer-centered environment, facilitation and assessment are connected because operational learning is continuously measured during modules.
11 of 13 modules are inquiry-based learning systems designed to produce individualized results for program participants' benefit. Our program begins with developing farm personas across four (4) areas important to small farmers: credit and finance, crop and rotation planning, labor and employment, and conservation planning. Participants will then be led through an initial opportunity planning module that will create benchmarks, performance dashboards, preliminary budgets and market forecasts. Following these modules, participants will receive one-on-one coaching and assistance designed to optimize individual results.
2 of 13 modules are cooperative learning systems designed to produce collective outputs for the community at large.
All materials, presentations, interviews, and demonstrations will be available to participants within our online resource library. Pre-recorded program sessions and interviews with industry experts and project partners will be available to participants on-demand, and one-to-one facilitation will be used for practicum. Additionally, participants will be invited to engage with us at both on- and off- farm activities. Content of general interest will be made available via social media, blog, vlog, and podcasts.
COVID-19 forced our project to pivot and avoid what may have plagued previous opportunities for disparate communities to engage in education and training. The project acquired additional resources for telecommunications and web hosting, that has served to facilitate enhanced presentation, interview, engagement, and research-based inquiries. This tool allowed participants to call-in, appear via video web-interface, and see presentations and demonstrations both on-demand, and live.
Pre-survey, in-person, and virtual interview sessions were used to gauge the current knowledge of participating producers, host virtual workshops, trainings, and offer community days with industry experts. These sessions utilized phone, email, and web-interface to gauge participants' capacity, lessons learned, overall satisfaction and responsiveness to project offerings. To date, the project has served as a resource network that has enhanced the knowledge and skillset, provided education and development consult to new, beginning, and historically-underserved producers for active capital raises and pipeline funding support opportunities.
With enhanced communication tools used during year 1, the project is currently developing resource guides and training sessions in connection with collaborators, trusted researchers, federal and state support agencies. To date, the project has hosted technical support sessions with business development officials, attorneys, and specialty consultants for participating producers. Associated media and project demonstrations are planned for year 2.
Participants were offered accounts that offered access to customized reporting on a monthly basis, and working with an advisory firm producers learned to create their own commercial reports based on current market developments. The project attempted to build upon existing guides for producers to learn: record management, accounting, farm income, business expenses, conservation planning, asset valuations, calculating depreciation, understanding gains and losses, property dispositions, installment sales, casualties and loss, self-employment tax tables, fuel refunds and credits, estimating tax, and related indices. The project collaborated with a local research project hosted at a St. Louis-based private institution to develop cost estimations and education frameworks for safe food transport and handling programs. Target producers were offered the opportunity to participate in, and obtain certifications for produce and product safety training offered by extension services.
The project worked with participating producers to understand opportunities for participation in federal, state, and local market planning opportunities. Resources and seminars developed in collaboration with producers, researchers, market analysts, and industry stakeholders has resulted in over 75 hours of technical assistance workshops being hosted and producers creating their own specialized market opportunity plans. Participants were invited to farm tours and virtual farm planning sessions with extension agents, agricultural consultants, and experienced farm managers to understand how to identify and visualize operational success. Over 200 hours of direct technical assistance was offered to get new and beginning farmers capital ready. Resource guides were compiled to improve financial literacy, and designed to improve target producers rates of success. During the first year of the project, participants were invited to evaluate their financial positions, and worked with university extension agents, farm credit professionals, and USDA Farm Service Agency loan managers to develop cash flows, pro forma balance sheets, and project income statements relative to their operations. Beginning producers were invited to in-person training sessions in connection with state and local weights and measures officials to learn about laws and regulations for labeling, weight, and measure of fresh and packaged food products. Producer sessions offered information on the importance of calibration, proper use of measurement instruments, maintenance, and tools for calibration.
The project created a collaboration with a regional sewer and water district, resource conservation agency, and local working group to develop assessment protocols that private landowners and producers could utilize to address their related concerns. There is a need for more federal and state agency assistance to promote and understand the needs of urban production methods, and new issuance of technical service provider certifications in targeted communities to ensure land owners and historically-underserved producers are able to participate in conservation programs. Participants expressed interest in operations-based enhancements for organics, soil health, and environment-focused improvements to their operations, but lack meaningful access to service providers experienced with agriculture programs administration and reimbursements.
Our project is on target to
- engage and onboard ten (10), or more, small and historically underserved producers;
- develop the systems database frameworks proposed;
- establish best in-practice resources for new, beginning and historically underserved producers; and
- refine year 2 activities based on participants' needs and feedback collected.
The project measures achievement in the number of engagements, resource frameworks developed, and technical assistance hours offered to participating producers. Based on feedback from participants, legacy systems have not provided timely targeted outreach to historically-underserved producers, or in some instances failed to meaningfully consider or process historically-underserved producer opportunities that may have been available though otherwise qualified.
The project exceeded engagement expectations, and was able to offer education, training, and direct service to 65 participants. At the end of the first year, operations-ready producers secured microloans for operations and ownership. During year 1 of the project, participating producers secured over $75,000 of committed grant and secured debt financing for their agricultural operations. During year two, project participants were invited to listening sessions with agricultural finance experts from the USDA Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and community credit finance organizations. New agricultural loans were obtained totaling $125,000, and producers received over $100,000 in grants.
Working with participants, the project created apprenticeship pathways in collaboration with federal, state, and local workforce development agencies. During the first year, the experienced agriculture producers were surveyed to analyze their human capital and on-farm labor needs, determining that the most important needs were related to management, cultivation, planting, and marketing. Also, during the first year, the project’s leadership team was able to connect with state workforce development agencies to assess programs’ equity and access for recommendations for improvements. Resultant findings were leveraged in year two to develop new resources that were designed to encourage, promote, and recruit youth and young adults to careers in urban agriculture.
The project collaborated with private landowners, engineering firms, not for profit corporations, and developers to design demonstration centers for urban agricultural production, flood mitigation, and natural resource promotion. Participants were able to secure over $30,000 worth of engineering services, obtained specialized resources for water conservation, engineering management, and survey services that positioned them to obtain over $75,000 in land improvements. Not for profit organizations secured collaborative research grants with USDA sub-agencies that will be used to promote urban conservation strategies within the St. Louis region. Beginning producers were connected to the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Transitions Incentives Program, and some executed leases for additional acreage in target communities. During year 2, the project’s leadership participated in community meetings, hosted sessions, and conducted land assessment tours with civic officials in the City of St. Louis to help inform professionals of the ongoing struggles of urban producers. Project efforts were included in the City of St. Louis’ Economic Justice Action Plan’s Neighborhood Transformation Strategy, and project leadership was invited to present with key regional stakeholders for best practices of promoting long-term sustainability of urban agricultural land lease and use strategies. The project has been instrumental to elevating conditions and concerns of producers, land owners, and developers to create more equitable urban planning strategies that can be leveraged into the immediate future of the region.
Participants expressed desire for more engagement with specialized agricultural marketing professionals and elected officials to assist in expanding direct-to-consumer opportunities following the project’s end and have been invited to enhanced sessions in collaboration with a leading research university and consulting fellowship program to create market promotion plans and new models for distribution effectiveness within the target communities.
A third-party 2022 end-of-year report was provided to producers recapping changes in climate impacts on production, trade regulations, demand trends, exports, and pricing.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The project hosted virtual and in-person listening sessions, one-on-one consultation sessions, and coordinated presentations and conferences for small and historically-underserved producers with federal and state farmer support agencies. Enhanced sessions invited international trade professionals to engagements to discuss export opportunities. Participants were encouraged to develop individual assessment profiles and apply framework and advisory service plans based in best in-class expert network support.
During year 1 of the project, we hosted five (5) public outreach events that were organized within the community of urban producers and network maintained by interested project stakeholders. Community events gained interest and support from producers, community gardeners, and support groups in the target communities. Early listening sessions with producers served to organize and inform the technical support framework that has been delivered and year 2 sessions.
During year 2, the project hosted multiple learning and engagement days with federal, state, and local officials to discuss the challenges that participants identified in year 1. At the conclusion, the project participated in a series of listening sessions with officials from the USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service for over 50 producers, and hosted a meeting with the Chief Administrator of the USDA Farm Service Agency to discuss future developments in urban agriculture. Local officials took notice of the project, and helped to support new programs for engagement in the City of St. Louis.
Project learnings are ongoing. However, to date we have experienced the challenge of synthesizing planning and development opportunities for target, and participating producers in specialty crop operations. Our work with new, beginning and historically-underserved producers has forced the project to assess assumptions and refine operational plans to develop new efficiencies with the community-of-interest in mind.
The project's purpose is intended to identify the barriers, and design the operational framework for target producers to create and use efficient systems for management and planning for finance, markets, sales, and tax. The primary advantage is that the project's framework is built upon existing resources, expertise, and cross-industry professional experience to develop a new system for qualifying and creating new, beginning, and historically-underserved specialty crop producer opportunities.
Additional information, or recommendation for, needs related to the the project are still being developed. The community of interest has disparate resources and needs, and the industry opportunities for new, beginning, and historically-underserved producers presents additional season-, information-, and interest-based challenges for this project. Upon information collected by survey, these challenges are not unique to this project and upon belief, similarly situated large, institution-affiliated actors or others failing to appreciate the value of meaningful inclusion from disparate producer groups tending to serve as a deterrent to project success. This interference serves to frustrate the purpose of the project, and fails to lends assistance toward the project's outcomes and success to goals. For this reason, this project has recognized that is is of vital importance to respect the participating producers' wishes and decline to state their name(s), location(s), or provide non-aggregate data to the project's reports at this stage.
Participants learned how to develop their own farm benchmarks, assess performance, and create pro forma models for new opportunities. Participants were introduced to key regulatory stakeholders at federal, state, and local levels and introduced to new agricultural programs that tend to promote solvency and sustainability.
The project investigators were able to learn various methods of agriculture production, how to address operational deficiencies, and build a body of knowledge that can be leveraged in future consultation practice. New collaborations were developed that will help to inform the growing activities in the midwest focused on urban agriculture and improvements to value-added production systems.
Developing a robust e-commerce platform will require significant capital and financial resources. This project sought to explore the operating framework necessary to alleviate small and historically-underserved producers' capital struggles, and create new direct-to-consumer opportunities. However, there is a myriad of issues that require more investigation and investment to overcome, including: regulations, crop safety, licensing, permitting, and local ordinance restrictions. Historically-underserved producers lack access to the capital needed to make many of their plans actionable, and this project sought to create the shared resource database that would help to alleviate many of the common business, finance, legal, and marketing challenges they face.
An urban agriculture producer in St. Louis City was able to obtain land.
An indoor agriculture producer in St. Louis City was able to negotiate a warehouse lease.
A floriculture producer was able to obtain grant financing to purchase land and seeds.
A not-for-profit corporation was able to obtain a grant to develop a mobile food service opportunity for regional producers.
A value-added producer was able to assess market opportunities to expand offerings online.
A new producer was able to evaluate consumer markets to better understand opportunities to create value-added dairy products.
Urban producers were introduced to Farm Service Agency professionals to learn about loan programs suited for their operations.
Rural producers were introduced to conservation planning programs offered by federal and state agencies.