The Ask Aunt Nellie Project - A Crowd-Sourced Connecticut Farm Management Knowledge Base

Progress report for FNE23-046

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2023: $15,797.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2026
Grant Recipient: Cobblestone Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Project Leader:
Diane Dorfer
Cobblestone Farm
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

The Ask Aunt Nellie Project seeks to build replicable, dynamic, crowd-sourced resource spreadsheets for Connecticut farmers. 

To achieve this goal I plan to:

  1. research and test spreadsheet hosting platforms
  2. build and test spreadsheet templates
  3. launch the spreadsheets through the NCTFA website
  4. conduct outreach activities for farmer engagement
  5. simultaneously manage the spreadsheets
  6. work with experienced farmers to review the spreadsheets and fill in gaps
  7. make comprehensive, well-organized, user-friendly spreadsheets available to farmers through the NCTFA website, and other farmer education portals
  8. write a “user’s guide” for NCTFA
  9. conduct end-project outreach via articles and meetings 
  10. write a tutorial for other new-farmer groups who’d like to replicate the project
  11. do final NE SARE reporting



The problem the Ask Aunt Nellie (AAN) Project seeks to solve is that of access to farm management knowledge.

When I started farming, I had no one in my family with farm experience; I did not have a mentor. But if I could have turned back time, I would have had my great aunt Nellie. She died when I was a teenager, but she was a real farmer. I was completely enamored by her the one time I met her. She had an old barn full of mysterious equipment, a compost pile, a wild garden, and she cooked with dill. All new experiences for me. I started my farm when I was 39, but if I'd had a family member to turn to, it would have been Aunt Nellie. This is the Ask Aunt Nellie Project.

The goal of this project is to help fill the knowledge gap for new farmers, many of whom do not have the benefit of intergenerational knowledge. As another farmer said, in reference to this project, "I think this is a fabulous idea. We are just about 1 year in on building our farm and you are right - lots of time figuring out where to buy things.  I'm sure that we paid more than we should have for lots of things!  Usually we just had to get things in and move on." When beginning farmers do not have access to intergenerational knowledge or a consistent mentor, they spend more time, money, and mental effort on decisions that experienced farmers can make quickly, with confidence. 

Connecticut has a strong culture of farmer support, especially among younger farmers. Much of this networking is due to the work of the New CT Farmer Alliance (NCTFA), with whom this project will partner. I sent a quick email to the NCTFA listserv, to get a sense of interest in a project like this, and 24 people responded enthusiastically, many of whom volunteered to help in any way. The AAN project will solve the problem of farmer access to knowledge by bringing together Connecticut's farmers to build a knowledge base that is accessible to everyone.

The AAN project will build farmer knowledge through a dynamic, crowd-sourced collection of online spreadsheets. These spreadsheets will include farm inventory & agricultural suppliers, farm-friendly professionals, CT-appropriate seed varieties, wholesale price lists, and group ordering opportunities. Farmers will be able to "ask" where to find a resource, and other farmers will fill in data to answer the "questions." Comprehensive outreach will happen during the project to ensure farmer engagement, and the AAN project will persist beyond the grant funding cycle through the support of the NCTFA.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jiff Martin - Technical Advisor
  • Mary Claire Whelan


Materials and methods:
  1. Research and test spreadsheet hosting platforms - 

I will use a free/open source platform, so the spreadsheets can continue to function outside the granting period. I will use a platform that will enables open access for farmers, allowing folks to 1) add fields to the spreadsheets, such as adding “potato plow” to the implements sheet, 2) enter resource data into the spreadsheet, such as where to buy a potato plow, 3) make comments on other people’s entries, such as if a listed store has closed, and 4) not allow anyone except project administrators to change other people’s entries. Please see the attached sample Google Sheet for a frame of reference. Preferably the chosen platform will be mobile device-friendly.

I will research possible platforms to host the AAN Project spreadsheets, such as Google Suite Forms and Sheets, Airtable, or Wiki platforms. It is also possible to build a knowledge base platform with Wix, which is the host for NCTFA's website. Google products are free and familiar to many farmers. If using Google Sheets, farmers could sign up for open access to the spreadsheets through the NCTFA website, and then be given editor access to the sheets. Airtable is a platform that hosts relational databases which allow input data from multiple users. Airtable is a database, not just spreadsheets, so information can be cross-referenced amongst multiple sheets, better enabling user functions like bulk order management and administrator upkeep of the project. Airtable also has free subscriptions. Another possibility is a Wiki platform. There are many open source (free) Wiki platforms, such as DokuWiki and Foswiki, and a very large number of extensions amongst them, so it’s likely I could find a product that will suit the project’s needs. Finally, another option to explore is using a knowledge base template within Wix, where the NCTFA website is built, to structure the spreadsheets or database. The finer details of how the lists function will be determined by the features and limitations of the chosen platform.

After I research project hosting platforms and decide on a best solution, I will work with Mary Claire Whelen to test the proposed platform.

  1. Build and test spreadsheet templates

Within the chosen platform I will build spreadsheet/database templates to host all components of the AAN project. The broad categories of the project - farm inventory & suppliers, farm-friendly professionals, CT-appropriate seed varieties, wholesale price lists, and group ordering opportunities -  will each have their own set of spreadsheets. Each individual spreadsheet will be uniquely structured in a way that best enables new fields to be entered, easy searches, and quick views of data. I will also build user-friendly project links into the NCTFA website.

Once I have built the spreadsheet templates Mary Claire will review them and I will make changes as appropriate. I will then host an online beginning farmer work group to review the templates. I will recruit five beginning farmers through the NCTFA listserv and in a virtual group meeting ask them to work with the templates by entering data and using search functions. (Participating farmers will receive stipends, as seen in the budget.) I'll ask for feedback and revise the templates appropriately.

After the spreadsheet templates are complete I will build a system to register farmers for using the project. While a static version of the sheets will be available on the NCTFA website, farmers will need to sign up to contribute to the project. I could use Google Forms to collect email, name, farm name & location information, and then enter new users into the system, but it's also possible that through hosting platform research I'll find a different approach.

  1. Launch the spreadsheets through the NCTFA website

At this point the skeleton of the AAN project will be complete, and the project will be made live through the NCTFA website with directions for how to use the project and user guidelines. To be clear, when the project launches most of the spreadsheets will not be populated, there will just be some examples for what to enter in different fields. So under "tractor implements" I will not have an exhaustive list of implements. Farmers will build the list by making entries for things they're looking for, the other farmers will enter the resource data. In the beginning, I'll enter some resource data to get the ball rolling, but mostly these spreadsheets will be populated with farmer input. The exception to this will be the seed varieties spreadsheets. The NCTFA has hosted a virtual seed variety discussion for the past two years, and notes from those meetings will be used to populate the seed variety spreadsheets, though farmers will be able to make additional entries. Recordings from the discussions will also be hosted within the AAN project.

  1. Conduct outreach activities for farmer engagement

I will write outreach materials for Gleanings, CT NOFA's publication, and the CT Dept. of Agriculture's Weekly Agricultural Report.

I will do in-person outreach at the CT Farm Bureau's Ag Expo, UConn Extension's Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Grown ConNECTed marketing workshops, two Solid Ground training workshops, the NCTFA Build Your Network, Grow Our Future gathering, and at the CT NOFA Winter Conference. I will do virtual zoom work meetings organized through the NCTFA listserv and a virtual workshop at the CT NOFA Winter Conference. Jiff Martin and Mary Claire Whelen have also committed to doing outreach through their programming, and Jiff will make in-kind contributions of printed materials.

I will send informational materials to the hosts of appropriate social media pages.

Through all these efforts I will explain the core mission of the AAN project and help farmers understand the value of the project. I'll help farmers sign up for the project, and guide them through using it.

  1. Simultaneously manage the spreadsheets

Over the course of the funded project I will be available through a project-dedicated email account to assist farmers with using the project. I will monitor the lists and sign up requests on a weekly basis, at least, and enter new users, make structural fixes, and editorial changes as needed. Will O'Meara, CT farmer and NCTFA Steering Committee member, first proposed the idea for a wholesale price list and will be responsible for managing the list. Salary for this work is included in the budget.

  1. Work with experienced farmers to review the spreadsheets and fill in gaps

I will work with six other experienced vegetable and livestock farmers from around the state to review the spreadsheets and fill in any gaps. I currently have three committed livestock farmers, and two vegetable farmers, with one vegetable farmer from western CT yet to be determined. These farmers will all receive a stipend, as seen in the budget.

  1. Make comprehensive, well-organized, user-friendly spreadsheets available to farmers through the NCTFA website, and other farmer education portals

With Jiff Martin I will connect the AAN project to other farm service provider's websites.

8. Write a “user’s guide” for NCTFA

At the end of the funding period, NCTFA will take responsibility for maintaining and updating the AAN project. I will write a user's guide for them so that moving forward anyone could easily administer the project.

Steps 9 & 10 are detailed in Outreach.

Research results and discussion:

Step 1.) Research and test spreadsheet hosting platforms, will begin in February 2024.


Research conclusions:

None yet.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research
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.