Martha's Vineyard fibershed project

Final Report for FNE13-778

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2013: $6,987.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Rebecca Gilbert
Native Earth Teaching Farm
Co-Leaders:
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Project Information

Summary:

The purpose of this grant was to see if we could form an internet marketing cooperative for shepherds and fiber artists of Martha’s Vineyard. The short answer is, no, we couldn’t make it happen in two years but we had some success.  The idea still has potential and the reasons it has not yet made it to fruition were not flaws in the concept. To date we have a website built but without a pay portal, we have a group of shepherds interested in group marketing, we have a logo, a label and some name recognition, and we have a better understanding of the ‘fiber community’ here on the island. We also know that there are lots of people looking to buy local fiber, and their numbers are growing. From this beginning I hope to continue to adapt the project and succeed eventually.

I learned a lot in the attempt, and I summarize those lessons here.

Commit only to what one knows how to do or secure a contract that will pay after work is completed by a deadline.
Know that enlisting support from people one has not worked with in the past is risky.
Start small.
Require some form of monetary commitment from future members of a collaborative effort.
Don’t advertise till one can produce results.
Expect to pay $2000 to $4000 to get a website like this started with a $600/year maintenance fee to make regular updates.

Introduction:

What Happened

I believe in this project because of the amount of awesome fiber on the island that goes to waste, and the growing interest in local agriculture. I think it is time for 'wear local' to join 'eat local' and 'shop local' in people's vocabularies, their thinking, and their shopping. The insignificant amounts produced on each of the island's small fiber farms are not enough on their own to warrant a web presence, but combined they are very impressive. The attempt to provide a marketing tool that brings together enough small farms, artists, and craftspeople to give us volume and diversity proved more complex than anticipated, and the other shepherds naturally wanted to see results before joining anything, but the potential for on-farm income for off season work remains.

There are three main reasons this project failed to reach the finish line in the time we gave it. Delays were caused by changing of personnel and slow response from web developer. which may have influenced the subsequent unwillingness of the other shepherds to jump on the bandwagon when the time finally came.

Project Objectives:
So Close, and So Far

The primary objective was to provide an outlet for local fiber producers and processors to sell their wares through the creation of a website for cooperative marketing. The first person who had agreed to do the technical side of building the website is a small farmer, and she realized soon after we received the grant in spring of 2013 that she would not have time. To her great credit she admitted that right away so we could all move on. It is not helpful to keep saying you will do something if you can't. This provides a lesson in integrity.

The second person to take on the job is someone I had worked with before. He built our farm's website.  He ran in to both technical and health problems and the work on the website was delayed well beyond the promised date,  so that the 'prime time' for launching the website came and went. Also, because he generously contributed half the value of the site, it got bumped a few times by more commercial projects. I made the mistake of paying him up front, which is never wise; I should have held on to half till the job was done. Because this is something I don't know much about, I don't know whether the $2,115. I paid was a bargain, or not. It will cost about $600/year to maintain.

Originally the site was going to be ready to launch at the 2013 Agricultural Fair in August. When it wasn't, I still promoted it, handed out labels with the address, and assured people that it would be coming soon, maybe at the Living Local Festival that October. In fact, the part of the site that we got from the web designer was not ready until too late to be in the 2014 fair.

I think the designer assumed that I knew more than I did about what was involved. What we got was not as complete a package as I had thought it would be. Right now, it is still not quite functional. It is all 'built' but lacking a pay portal. I looked into doing this myself, and it is beyond me technically, so this is something that will need to get done professionally before the project could be presentable.

One lesson I learned is that is is a risk to commit to a project that depends so much on doing things I don't know how to do. It was frustrating to be helpless while this dragged on and I could watch people's interest and belief in the project fade as deadlines came and went.

The other shepherds were very supportive of the idea in our initial meetings, but when the time finally came to contribute items for sale to be listed on the website, they all ended up taking a wait and see attitude. The conflicting information they had heard from me combined with all the delays, definitely contributed. It was the wrong time of year – everyone was tired and stock was low. When I try again, I will ask for some kind of commitment at the beginning, such as a small membership fee of $25 and an agreement to list at least three items. I will also provide a photographer since that seemed to be a confusing issue to some.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Glenn Jackson

Research

Materials and methods:
What I Did

My part of the website building came first – I had to decide what categories and structure I wanted to have, like the outline for an essay. I decided on Raw Materials (like fleece), Yarns, Finished Articles, Tools and Supplies, and Classes Workshops and Programs. Each of those categories can be broken down further as needed. I also learned how to post photos and descriptions of items for sale and practiced on things we have for sale here. I am looking forward to filling out these categories with goods from other farms.

I listed five specific goals in our grant, and made progress towards all of them, and then lost some ground as well.

A major reason for our lack of success was our inability to achieve goal #1, “create a core membership group of island shepherds and designers.”

This project was envisioned and designed as a team project resulting in a loose association of producers banding together for mutual benefit, and it ended up as a one woman show. The main reason for this was incompatibility between myself and my planned partner. Although we began with an enthusiastic group of fiber producers, the conflicting information and delays caused people to draw back. The first three meetings, (Jan. and Feb. 2013), each drew 15 to 18 shepherds and farm workers, all of whom were very positive. They all agreed that they had a hard time selling all their fiber. When my partner dropped out of the project, she told everyone that it was over, and in my attempts to avoid conflict I was not as vocal as perhaps I should have been. I think most of this has blown over by now, and when the website is working I will not be shy to approach the other shepherds once again.

2 “Build a roster of workshops and demonstrations that our members are available to present.”

Although we did not get the website to a functional state, a lot of good communication took place among fiber arts workshop presenters. In this area we enjoyed some of the benefits of cooperation. Several workshops were given by myself and others here at Native Earth Teaching Farm, including one on natural dyes and two awesome 'Spirit Suit' felting workshops. These collaborations will continue, and others are on the roster for the coming 2015 season. Recently I got a call from Featherstone Center For the Arts because they wanted spinners at the opening of their 'Year of the Sheep' art show in February. This is the sort of networking this project was meant to encourage.

3 “Design a label that members can use on goods that are primarily locally produced.”

We produced a very fine label, with a purple sheep logo on it, and a hand dyed merino tie. This label, and the posters to match, was designed in collaboration with graphic artist Max King, and has received lots of compliments from designers. We can't use these materials until there's a working website, but they are ready to go.

4 “Kick off a 'wear local' advertising campaign.”

I am not the only one promoting the 'wear local' idea. However, I believe I can see the effect of my work in this area. Lots of people talk to me about local fibers, natural dyes, etc. Having the MV Fiber display in the farm stand, along with the natural dye samples and fleeces lying around, has stimulated many 'teaching moments' with visitors of all ages. When I go to fairs and festivals, I bring my hand spindle, and other educators also talk more about local fiber as part of the general interest in local agriculture. I see more demand for local yarns from the knit store and at the flea markets and other venues. I also see lots of younger people interested in both fiber arts and sustainability, so I predict that this movement has not yet reached it's natural level.

5 “Make up a display which can be taken to fairs.”

We had a nice set of displays at the 2013 Agricultural Fair, one in the exhibit hall and one in the fiber tent. The one in the hall showed the making of a knitted toy, step by step, from raw fleece to a stuffed pig. Much of that fair display became a permanent teaching wall in the Native Earth Teaching Farm farm stand. During the 2014 fair, we displayed and demonstrated fiber arts, but since the website was not up, could not promote it. However MV Fiber did present two $50 awards for local fiber items, (one for adults and one for youth.) I also demonstrated at the Living Local Festivals of 2013-14. More on fairs and festivals is below under 'outreach.'

Research results and discussion:

Although we have not yet made good on our main objective, there were some positive outcomes. The 'wear local' concept is spreading and we have helped with that. The related idea of land management by grazing has also been spreading terrifically. The workshop presenters did some nice collaborating. All the shepherds have been thinking anew about marketing, and that process is not over. I have posters and labels and the structural part of the website ready and waiting till it is truly ready to use. When and if it is ready, I will start with a small group of vendors and see if from there we can grow into something not unlike the original vision of this project.

Research conclusions:
Mixed Results

Right now, if you go to MVFiber.com, you will see an introductory page with island sheep and wool pictures. I estimate that 92% of what was necessary to get the website operational got done, (and paid for) but then when we got no submissions, my feelings became so negative that I moved on to other things, and I almost gave up on this idea altogether. However, when I took a new look, and asked advice, I realized that the fault was not with the concept, and now I am going to keep at it for a while longer. I am encouraged in this by my adviser, Glenn Jackson, who has remained a steady and calm source of impartial good advice throughout the project.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We had quite a bit of print publicity at the beginning, with several press releases and a long article in the MV Times, which mentioned SARE and the amount of the grant; (uploaded below.) In person, we did outreach at two Agricultural Fairs. The M.V. Agricultural Society's Livestock Show and Fair during the third week of August is our region's primary agricultural event, drawing just over 30,000 people over the four days. At the 2013 Fair we had an informative display in the main hall, (photo) and an interactive display in the Fiber Tent where we demonstrated fiber arts and promoted SARE and the MV Fiber concept. We had a sign up sheet which gathered about 60 emails of potential customers. At the 2014 Fair we still did not have the website available, so I demonstrated in the fiber tent without featuring MV Fiber except to give awards to one adult and one youth entry using local fiber. I also promoted local fiber at two Living Local Fall Festivals, the 'local's fair' in October, a one-day event also held at the fairgrounds, drawing about 2,000. During 2014 I demonstrated natural dyeing there. Natural dyes and fiber arts are also featured at our farm, where the 2013 fair display became a permanent exhibit at our farm stand, open for tours three days a week in summer, and at our Popcorn Festival, held Columbus day weekend and attracting forty or fifty local families whom we never see in the summer.

In a way, all this publicity worked against me. The website's delay caused the project to miss the wave of excitement that I had painstakingly incited. Since I am planning to give this idea another go, I am not making anything else public unless it's actually working. For this reason I have not written articles or sought further press. I am still hoping to pull some chestnuts from the fire!

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Future Plans

The MV Fiber website as it stands, almost completed, is paid for for another year. Recently a young fiber artist has suggested getting it off the ground, and volunteered to take professional photos. It all hinges on the pay portal. If someone can get this working, I think I can do the rest. I would start with products from just three farms and one or two crafts people. These would be the people who worked with me last summer to present workshops, and we have some experience with one another. If it came to the point where sales were being made, I know from the meetings we held that I could then recruit more vendors.

I realize this project has strayed far from our original hopes, but none of it's failures were due to any problem with the idea itself, only in my attempts to carry it out. I still believe it will work, and appreciate the help and encouragement of SARE.

Future Recommendations

I have learned many useful things in the course of this grant, and I really appreciate the opportunity. I am much more humble than when I began, and when and if I apply for another grant, I will limit myself more to things I understand, with less dependence on others. I will work with people I have worked with in the past, and require commitment in some form. I will start with a small foundation with room for future additions, and I will make sure my tools are in order before I toot my horn. Finally, I would extend the time-line beyond what I think necessary, and then double it. Changing the culture is possible, but it takes persistence.

Speaking of patience, I would like to say thank you to Carol and the people of SARE who were so helpful and gave me another chance.

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.