Participatory, Community-Driven Agriculture: A new model for small farms that actively engages customers in the cultivation of food and culture

Final report for FNC22-1339

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,970.00
Projected End Date: 01/15/2024
Grant Recipient: Solid Ground Farm
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Weston Lombard
Solid Ground Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Solid Ground Farm is a 13 year old, 17 acre sustainable education center focusing on agroecology and agroforestry. While we primarily grow fruit and nut crops, we also have several production beds focusing on growing stable crops and vegetables using hand tools and minimal inputs. As all of our land is steep, our production beds are terraced in order to conserve soil and encourage water infiltration. We have been using terraces for about 10 years in our gardens and orchards and have practiced permaculture and organic production since the beginning.


In just several generations, Americans have lost touch with the traditions, culture, and skills that used to produce our food and livelihoods. Modern life and the specialization of labor have focused our attention away from the land and our connection with nature is greatly diminished. However, people yearn for an opportunity to reestablish this relationship, seeking out community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism opportunities, and cultural events that remind us of our agrarian heritage.

At Solid Ground, we are pioneering a new farm model that is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially responsible, and which brings farming back into the lives of everyday people.  Our participatory farm membership model provides the land, tools, guidance, and support to successfully engage participants in the growing of their own food in an innovative community-powered agriculture program.    Program participants are invited to weekly structured work parties, periodic skill-building presentations, and seasonal community celebrations. These activities are designed to help build a new agrarian culture by teaching people the skills necessary to produce their own food.  With expert guidance and help between sessions, participants will actively engage in each phase of the growing process. They will learn to grow food sustainably by selecting, planting, maintaining, and harvesting crops.

Project Objectives:
  1. Launch, test, refine, and promote a new economically viable community farming business model that helps to strengthen a new sustainable agrarian culture while preserving and celebrating traditional agriculture knowledge and skills.
  2. Share and celebrate the success of this method of community agriculture through several tours and harvest events.
  3. Write up a business-model handbook to share with other farmers and landowners.


Materials and methods:

We want to engage more people in the food system and build community and culture around gardening. The goal of the grant is to explore a business model that could make this accessible to participants and profitable for farmers and land owners.  Our belief is that the best way to build community and culture is through shared work and celebrations, and that the best way to learn new skills is through direct participation and guided mentoring. Our project seeks to make this opportunity accessible and then to support it's success through proper guidance and assistance.

We also believe that by looking at this as a business instead of just a communal effort that we can promote its integration into the current economic system, ensure that the work of organizing and supporting the endeavor is paid and valued, and provide a path for others to adopt similar models.

However, because this project was grant funded we didn't get perfect economic feedback on our program.  For instance we were able to offer the program for free to participants for the year and don't have clear feedback about how many people would have actually participated at the rate needed to generate a profit. Also, because we had line items in the budget for certain supplies and tools, we made sure to spend it all, but could have done this in a leaner fashion.  To approximate real life answers to the costs and potential revenue associated with this project, we surveyed our group after the program was completed to see who would return and at what rates where the program offered again.  We also created a more frugal budget, added several options, and came up with a new business model that we are going to launch in 2024.  This business model is still a proposition and not yet tested so take it for what it is.

You can find information about our new Farm Engagement Program here.


Research results and discussion:

We began the project by recruiting 10 families to participate in weekly learn-to-farm work sessions with monthly presenters.  Using a scheduling app we found a day and time that worked for most people. Those that thought they could make the time work, but didn't listed it as a first choice ended up not being able to continue after the first 2 sessions because of work conflicts and we recruited two new families to join us. 

We had another family leave mid season because of a need to focus on their own farm. We invited a few friends to join in mid-year to keep our group active.  Of the 10 families it seemed that on average 7 would show up each week, including some die hard families that always made it and then a rotating cast of other families that came as often as they could. In the future if we wanted 10 families there each week, we might recruit 15 and count on some dropping and others only coming periodically.

Of those that were with us at the end, in intake surveys 3 reported being entirely new to gardening, 4 were somewhat experienced, and 3 were very experienced.  After the over 6 month experience 7 reported being very confident in growing there own food and 3 reported being confident in being able to grow their own food.  As for reasons for participating, the highest measurements in the survey were "to be part of a like-minded community" and "to socialize", followed by "to spend time outside doing physical work", and surprisingly the least important part was "to save money on grocery bills" followed by intermediate interest in "learning to grow ones own food" and "obtaining fresh food". These results were encouraging towards our overall goal of growing culture and community and suggested that more farm engagement programs could be successful.

As for our production goals, we had a very general goal to provide fresh food to participants similar to a CSA but the main goals were skill building and growing community.  Fortunately, we also had a great growing season and only several crop failures from among a dozen main crops attempted.  Beginning in mid May and continuing into November, we distributed a weekly share of produce to each family that supplied the majority of their produce needs for the season. On average we would supply 5-7 pounds of produce per participant per week, but allowed participants to take what they felt they could consume in the week, resulting in some large families taking more and individuals taking less.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
4 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
5 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

8 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Working with three different groups of students at Solid Ground School (36 students) and one group of college students from Hocking College (7 students/student farmers), I engaged students in the site assessment and planning process. We worked together over several weeks to analyze and assess my farm's landscape and processes in order to choose the best site for the production garden. We looked at soils, sun exposure, access to water, general accessibility, analyzed the microclimate and discussed how the garden will fit into the overall farm ecosystem. Based on this analysis and a general assessment of each sites strengths and weaknesses, the college students then picked the most suitable site and submitted designs as their final project. After consideration of the strengths of each design, we created a final design to implement. The elementary school students and I then used an A-frame level to mark contours and prepare for excavation. Next we marked out where the fence will go and began to split posts for implementation.

Since excavation, 15 prospective participants have been given tours of the site.

Garden Design

After final recruitment we began our farming project in earnest with a group of 10 families.  Each weekly session was like a mini workshop and learn to farm work party, but we also invited special guests and local farmers to give monthly presentations to the group. These included classes on the soil food web, seed starting and garden planning, compost, integrated pest management, processing, and seed saving. Read more about the weekly classes here: Solid Ground Community Farming Journal (1)

At the end of the summer, we were invited to give a talk about the project at Ohio University for their fall Sustainability Summit. A few members and I presented an overview of the the project to a group of 30 students and professors at the Baker Center. You can view the slideshow here: Community Farming Presentation

To further engage the public and celebrate our success, we hosted an end of the season harvest potluck for all of the participants, presenters, and friends and family.  It was the best farm fresh potluck that I have attended featuring creative dishes from our garden as well as harvested and foraged ingredients from the surrounding farm and forest.  We had 24 participants at this event and used it as an opportunity to collect feedback and gather data to improve the project moving forward.

Harvest Potluck

Our final event of the season was a collaboration with Solid Ground School.  They were having an event to launch a fundraising campaign and gave us time to speak to the gathered group of 45 families to talk about our program and the new farm engagement opportunities that we will be launching in 2024.

See photos from throughout the garden season here:




Learning Outcomes

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

The planning process has created many opportunities for education. Student farmers learned to perform a site analysis and assessment based on PA Yoeman's Scale of Permanence and the permaculture design process. They learned to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a site, imagine how the project can be efficiently integrated into the overall ecosystem, and ultimately gained the skills to make an important and impactful decision with real life practical, economic, and ecosystem consequences.

The program itself presented many opportunities for in-depth learning, beginning with site preparation and fence building. We explored how to properly prepare a locust log and dig and set a fence post, string and tighten wire, brace corner posts, build gates, and build a deer and rabbit proof fence.  We then prepared the beds by cultivating the ground to remove weeds, broad forking to loosen the soil and then spreading compost to build the soil. Our next lesson involved seed starting and garden planning, including record keeping. We mixed seed starting soil, set seeds in labelled trays and then put them in the greenhouse to be tended. We made spreadsheets to calculate time to maturity, harvest schedules, etc. Our next lesson included an introduction to the soil food web and ways to feed soil microbes. We explored sheet mulching for bed establishment and did some cut and carry lawn clippings as mulch.  Next we did a class on tool maintenance and proper use of hand tools to ensure that our newly purchased tools last long into the future and are properly used and stored.  Because some participants were entirely new to farming, we did lessons on property watering and harvesting as well as classes on cultivating and weeding (which we remained selective plant thinning to honor the many volunteer plants that grace our gardens).  As plants matured, we had guest instructors help us with processing by canning, fermenting, pickling, and dehydrating.  A featured speaker did a pest identification and management walk through, wherein we learned what insects were eating our plants and strategies to deal with them.  We experimented more with mulching, successional planting, and the timing of harvest for some crops unfamiliar to most of us like okra, sesame, and ground cherries.  Our final class was on seed saving.  After planting garlic and putting the garden to bed, we reflected on lessons learned and experiences gained and got great feedback from participants about the community feeling that we grow, the sense of connection to the land, and the confidence to grow our own food.  Overall is was a profound and life changing experience.

Project Outcomes

15 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Success stories:

The idea of community farming and group land tending that this project was based upon, inspired me to apply for a US Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry grant that took these same ideas of removing barriers to entry, working collectively for the common good, and using mentors to share knowledge. In the fall we were awarded a $317,000 grant to do a form of community forestry that will continue or work to engage people in tending ecosystems as we grow culture, economy, and community rooted in relationship to our land.

After participating in our program one community farming member stated "Working together, sharing food, and gathering weekly has really given me a sense of community and connection that I haven't found in other places."  

Another said that "while I have my own farm, I come here for the sense of beloging and to be among like minded people. Working here fullfills my social needs more than anything."

Information Products

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.