GRŌ, a cloud-based management and training system for speciality and lifestyle farmers.

Progress report for FNC21-1263

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $26,930.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: GRŌ
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Description of operation:

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.

Summary:

Problem

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.

Objective(s)

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.

Project Objectives:

Short-Term Goal(s)

  1. Develop systems database for small producer business planning, specialty crop administration, and e-commerce marketplace supporting regional direct-to-consumer distribution and delivery. 
  2. 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).
  3. Establish operation, finance, and engagement benchmarks, measuring performance over a 23 month period.
  4. Analyze and share findings through virtual conferences, social media, website and community activities.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Nashad Carrington - Producer
  • E'Lisa Moss - Producer
  • Tosha Phonix - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

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.

Methods

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.

GRO - Program Methods

Materials

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.

 

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Mid-Report

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.

Research results and discussion:

Mid-Report

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.

Participation Summary
17 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

12 Consultations
10 Online trainings
4 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

12 Farmers
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

In order to carry our project activities, we have 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. Sessions with participating producers have been geared toward developing individual assessment profiles to generate operating 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 will be built upon feedback and relevant producer needs.

Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

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. New, beginning and historically-underserved producers  This challenge 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.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
10 New working collaborations
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.