Increasing food yields from urban and peri-urban farms through deployment of small-scale agricultural technologies

Progress report for FW21-379

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Host Institution Award ID: G310-21-W8613
Grant Recipient: Sustainable Systems Research Foundation
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
David Blume
Whiskey Hill Farm/Blume Distillation
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Project Information

Summary:

Problem & research question: This project began as an effort to inform small farmers about the availability and deployment of new agricultural technologies that could increase productivity and profits and improve their quality of life and to conduct field tests on experimental plots at Whiskey Hill Farms.  The project developers made assumptions about who would participate in workshops (primarily Anglo farmers with college educations who were well-socialized into the U.S. agricultural system) and who actually came (Latino farmers will long experience but poorly-integrated and socialized into the U.S. agricultural system).  As a result, both research and educational objectives and activities pivoted to meet the needs of the latter group.  More detailed information can be obtained by the project developers via sustainablesystemsresearch@gmail.com.

Revised research: Due to a number of unanticipated issues, we were not able to conduct the research program described above, aside from planting experimental plots and harvesting the resulting crops.  Part of this was an inability to obtain the proposed technologies in a timely fashion (due to current supply chain disruptions); part was a result of working with a different demographic than originally anticipated.  Instead, we introduced workshop participants to the technology, techniques and practices in place at Whiskey Hill Farms,* which pursues a closed-loop regenerative agriculture strategy that produces green, net negative carbon products.  Workshop participants were able to plant experimental crops in Whiskey Hill's greenhouses and harvest the produce, however data were not collected on inputs and outputs as originally intended.

A major facet of the research we did conduct and focused on the "learning styles" of minority farmers, with a focus on Latino farmers.  We surveyed the literature and drew on our developing experience in the workshops and discussions with the participants.  See the brief paper "What is the structure of U.S. Agricultural Education and Practice? uploaded to "products."

Revised education: The original format for the workshop series was largely classroom-style presentations by a "sage on the stage," with field work in the Farm's greenhouses.  At the first workshop, it quickly became apparent that (i) the presentation format did not work for Latino farmers, some of whom did not speak English; and (ii) the "technical" needs of the participants were overwhelmed by their relative lack of access to the institutionalized agricultural sector in the Monterey Bay Region.  Accordingly, we revised both presentation format and content with considerable success.

Project significance & outcomes: While the research and education outcomes did not map onto those with which the project began, the project significance lay in the development of methods, materials and knowledge better matched to the needs and social contexts of Latino farmers in California.  It was also a learning experience for the project developers and these lessons have been integrated into subsequent workshop proposals and programs.  The participating farmers reported learning a great deal from the workshops and desired to continue participating in the program.

* Whiskey Hill Farms operates at the same site and in conjunction with Blume Industries, which produces ethanol from organic wastes. Whiskey Hill is a 14-acre organic farm pioneer in developing a systems approach to agricultural technology by recycling and reusing various inputs and outputs in farming and demonstrating the technology and best practices of a circular, closed-loop food economy. The organic by-products of the biorefinery are recycled into the farm’s greenhouses to collect bio-based commercial CO2 and CH4 products, enhance crop growth, and grow in-house feed for aquaculture operations. Solid and liquid organic wastes are captured in a large methane digester. Liquid outputs are piped into ponds to grow cattails that are turned into feed pellets and other products while eliminating nutrient runoff. Digester solid residues are turned into rich compost which is then worked into the soil, increasing soil productivity and carbon sequestration capacity. Crops are grown with vertical polyculture techniques, with tall plants providing shade for low ones. Hot water from the distillation system is piped through drip irrigation lines to warm the soil and encourage growth. Carbon dioxide from the distillation process is also piped into greenhouses, via the same drip irrigation lines, to maintain high CO-2 levels that feed plants and increase growth.

Project Objectives:

The core objective of this project was to increase the productivity of small farms using regenerative agriculture knowledge, tools and techniques. Small farm operators learned how to increase the productivity of their farms and how to effectively market and distribute their produce. Key knowledge and skills that were taught to achieve this aim included:

  • Understanding of the concept of ‘close-loop’ agriculture where “waste” is used to cycle nutrients productively through a farm.
  • Applied techniques to achieve closed-loop agriculture, including:
    • Efficient no-turn composting techniques
    • How to identify and use sources of organic waste
    • Techniques for soil health
    • Ethanol production
    • Crop rotations and cover crops
  • Applied strategies for organic pest management
    • Frogs & frog ponds
  • Companion crops
  • Farm management strategies, including crop planning
  • Marketing strategies. How to work with distributors, alternative markets (peer-to-peer, CSA), how to develop a brand and social marketing.
  • Relationship building. We facilitated activities to promote development of social networks and social capital among a group of Latinx farmers who are underserved by the traditional agricultural extension system.
Timeline:

Project GANT Chart 2020

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Kevin Bell (Educator and Researcher)
  • David Blume - Producer
  • Tom Harvey (Educator)
  • Dr. Ronnie Lipschutz (Educator)
  • Dr. Katie Monsen - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Josefina Lara Chavez (Educator)
  • Erendira Saenz (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

As noted above, we were not able to conduct the research program described above, aside from planting experimental plots and harvesting the resulting crops. Part of this was an inability to obtain the proposed technologies in a timely fashion; part was a result of working with a different demographic than originally anticipated. Instead, we introduced workshop participants to the technology, techniques and practices in place at Whiskey Hill Farms, which pursues a closed-loop regenerative agriculture strategy that produces green, net negative carbon products. Workshop participants were able to plant experimental crops in Whiskey Hill's greenhouses and harvest the produce, however data were not collected on inputs and outputs as originally intended.  Given the need to pivot, we decided to focus on the needs of Latino farmers and emphasizing education.

A major facet of the research we did conduct was sociological, focused on the "learning styles" of minority farmers, particularly Latino farmers.  We conducted a survey of the literature and drew on our developing experience in the workshops, discussions with the participants, and the expertise of Josefina Lara Chavez, who has worked with Latino farmers in the three county region for a number of years.  

Below are the original project goals and objectives:

Project goals: Technology deployment, data collection, best practices survey, data analysis, deliverables. SSRF has been provided with 20 Cityblooms modular hydroponic units (https://cityblooms.com/modular-farms/). These have small footprints, energy and water requirements, and are capable of producing food through four annual cycles. SSRF is collaborating with Sprout Labs (http://www.sproutlabs.io/about) in Santa Cruz, California, a UC Santa Cruz engineering startup, which is producing specialized units for data driven plant care and agriculture that permits informed decisions about irrigation rather than guessing, resulting in significantly reduced water use for landscaping and agriculture.  UC Santa Cruz engineering students will develop the data collection and analysis software and construct an online platform on which results can be displayed. IT hardware and software will be provided by SSRF. The farmer and SSRF will provide seeds, starts, nutrients and fertilizers, growing media, water, power and labor for the hydroponic units.  Irrigation controllers will be installed in existing irrigation lines in greenhouses. 

Objective 1 (April-November 2021): Installation & maintenance of equipment. SSRF and its team will install two hydroponic units and 20 irrigation controllers at the project site, plus wireless units to collect data from the two technologies.  This work will be done by farmers and technical team members, supervised by the agricultural technical specialist.

Objective 2 (November 2020-March 2021): Development of data collection system, database and website. In parallel, UC Santa Cruz engineering student teams will be assisting with the wiring of data monitoring hardware and testing of communications links, as required.  They will utilize the best available data collection and analysis software, develop a data collection protocol and system and monitor its operation and performance.  Student teams will work collectively and remotely as required.

Objective 3 (May-November 2021): Data collection objectives are to record and quantify a number of comparative inputs and outputs in order to measure changes in resource use and productivity.   We will record the following data t each research site: (1) materials in the form of seeds, plants, nutrients, fertilizer; (2) resource inputs in the form of water, precipitation, temperature, power (for pumps and fans), weather conditions, and other relevant parameters; (3) labor inputs in the form of hours worked on preparation, growing and harvesting; (4) outputs in the form of pounds of food produced; (5) sales in pounds and dollars of income. This procedure will be repeated for multiple growing cycles, with attention to any changes and differences in environmental conditions during each year. We will keep careful and detailed records and notes about operations, work and harvesting and utilize these in evaluating results.

Objective 4 (May-November 2021: Best practices research. We will conduct longitudinal survey and field research on practices, productivity and marketing of the two farms, collect data on inputs and outputs to evaluate unit productivity and calculate shadow costs of food over multiple production cycles. We will identify best local practices and comparison of productivity under varying environmental, organizational and operating conditions. This work will be performed by UC Santa Cruz student interns and SSRF staff.

Objective 5 (September 2021-March 2022): Data analysis & preparation of deliverables. The data will be compiled in a shared data store on the online web site, analyzed with simple analytical techniques, and plotted in the form of tables, scatter plots and other visual graphs and charts.  A final report and detailed supporting data, with illustrations and photographs, showing results and conclusions, recommendations, and future considerations; videos documenting various aspects of the project, made widely available on a regularly maintained online project site.  This work will be performed by UCSC student interns, SSRF staff and SSRF codirectors.

 

 

Research results and discussion:

Research results as described in the original proposal were limited.  Work on experimental plots--the core of the research agenda--was postponed by several months due to a late COVID-related start of the workshop series and seed were not planted until December.  The crops had not quite matured by the time of the last workshop in May.  We intend to be somewhat more realistic about the obstacles to conducting research on working farms and to develop a more rigorous and less complex research protocol.

Sociological assessment results: Existing agriculture education pedagogy and resources tend to reflect the particular disciplinary expertise and experience of their creators, as well as cultural and social factors specific to their assumed audiences. A great deal of expertise resides in agriculture programs whose practices and results are never published and are unique to specific institutions (e.g., community colleges).  In most of these materials, there is also an embedded assumption regarding producer socialization into the U.S. agricultural education, training and funding system. Minority and immigrant farmers find this system difficult to access.

We identified a fundamental tension between the “best practices” model of agricultural research and education as practiced in U.S. schools, colleges and universities, based on the “knowledge deficit” approach,[1] and a somewhat contrasting “social praxis” model, based on “the actions and interactions farmers undertake as they operate their farm.”[2]  The matrix below illustrates the contrast between these two idealized models.

 

Best Practices Model (Dewey)

Social Praxis Model (Freire)[3]

Assumed audience

Ag students, farmers with college degrees, Anglo farmers with long experience in U.S. ag system

Practicing farmers with little or no education, limited English language competence, capital poor

Epistemology

Science & research can generate results that demonstrate techniques and practices that increase productivity & profits across the industry

Skills and knowledge are transmitted horizontally and over time through families & communities, adapted to local conditions

Pedagogical approach

Top-down, from scientists, experts, extension through articles, publications, classes and experiential learning

Farmers’ knowledge is tested & accumulated in the field, and is shared in groups, meetings and personal exchange

Assumed relationships

Relationships are based on profession, expertise, markets and “low” cultural content[4]

Relationships are based on family, community, trust and “high” cultural content

Structural features

Farmers are socialized into formal requirements of the ag system & know how to navigate it

Farmers are socialized into informal arrangements & are excluded from the ag system due to language, immigration status, lack of access to capital

A potentially more successful approach focuses on learning by doing, adapted to the particular needs of and conditions faced by farmers.  Indeed, it is probably better to apply lessons in the field through demonstration and practice, followed by some amount of formal pedagogy. 

In the next round of these workshops (2022-23), we will engage directly with the farmers in the cultural and social milieus in which they work and live. We will treat their identified needs as central to the project and treat farmers’ situations, experiences and knowledge as critical to content and complementary to top-down research and instruction. Both instruction and materials will be provided in Spanish and English, with live, bidirectional interpretation, in a more informal discussion setting rather than a conventional classroom approach, and easily accessible and cognizant of the learning styles and experience of disadvantaged beginning farmers.  Workshop discussions will be led by Spanish speakers and respond to farmers’ questions and concerns.  Participants will be offered numerous opportunities to engage in hands-on application of technologies and techniques on small research plots and on their farms (divided between Wednesday evening classes and Saturday morning field activities).  Each workshop will include a debriefing to identify changes that need to be made in subsequent workshops.  Finally, participants will be compensated for lost work time.

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[1] Peter Mayo, 2020. “Praxis in Paulo Freire’s Emancipatory Politics,” International Critical Thought 10, #3, 454-472, DOI: 10.1080/21598282.2020.1846585

[2] José Garcia-Pabón & Marcia Ostrom, 2015. “Communicating with Latino Farmers: Cultural Aspects and Strategies,” Washington State University Extension, FS191E.

[3] Adam Calo, 2018. “How knowledge deficit interventions fail to resolve beginning farmer challenges,” Agriculture and Human Values 35: 367-81, DOI 10.1007/s10460-017-9832-6.

[4] Melissa M. Parks & Christine Anderson Brekken, 2018. “Cosmovisions and Farming Praxis: An Investigation of Conventional and Alternative Farmers along the Willamette River,” Culture, Agriculture, Food & Environment 41, #1: 34-44.

Participation Summary
10 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

10 Consultations
5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
15 On-farm demonstrations
3 Published press articles, newsletters
10 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

19 Farmers participated
13 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

The program consisted of participant informed development and delivery of a longitudinal education program. The program aimed to enhance the use of regenerative agriculture practices, farm management, and marketing to increase the productivity and profitability of small farms in the Monterey Bay region of California. Based on this, we developed a workshop series of 6 workshops held approximately 1 per month. Workshops were full-day and included direct instruction, dialogic learning, demonstrations, field work and relationship building exercises. Educational activities conducted included: multi-modal needs assessment, 6 full-day workshops, direct instruction, dialogic education, field work and experiential learning, demonstrations, relationship building/ outreach and program evaluation. All educational activities were conducted with simultaneous translation between Spanish and English.

All sessions were had simultaneous translation from Spanish to English and when possible sessions were conducted in Spanish.

The agendas, showing the topics and presenters from each workshop are below:

Workshop 1, Nov 13, 2021

9:00 – 10:00

Workshop goals and topics
Participant introductions
Summary of curriculum, materials, resources, and course development session

Ronnie Lipschutz
Kevin Bell

10:00 – 10:15

Break

 

10:15 – 11:45

Farm tour

Tom Harvey

11:45 – 12:30

Lunch

 

12:30 –   2:30

Course development workshop
Facilitated farmer discussion and revision of  proposed workshop topics and scheduling

Josefina Chavez

2:30 –   2:45

Break

 

2:45 –   3:30

Test bed planning
View test bed sites and develop plans for planting 

Kevin Bell

Josefina Chavez

 

Workshop 2  Dec. 11, 2021

9:00 – 10:00

Introduction to Dave Blume

Crop planning at Whiskey Hill

Dave Blume

10:00 – 10:15

Break

 

10:15 – 12:00

Marketing and distribution

Andy Martin

Dave Blume

11:45 – 12:15

Lunch

 

12:15 –   12:45

CAFF policy discussion

Jamie Fanous

12:45-2:15

Crop planning practice

Josefina Chavez

2:15 –   2:30

Break

 

2:30 –   3:30

Test bed planning
View test bed sites and develop plans for planting 

Dave Blume

  1.  

Workshop 3 Feb 19, 2022

9:00 – 9:30

Round table discussion: how you learn to farm

Molly Fyfe

Jakki Castorena-Davila

9:30-10:00

Compost

Dave Blume

10:00 – 10:15

Break

 

10:15 – 12:00

Developing healthy soils

Katie Monsen

Dave Blume

12:00 – 12:30

Lunch

 

12:30 – 1:00

Planning for planting

Dave Blume

1:00-2:15

Planting and propagation

Dave Blume

2:15 –   2:30

Break

 

2:30 –   3:00

Planting and propagation 

Dave Blume

  1.  

Workshop 4, March 12, 2022

9:00 – 9:30

Questions and Answers with SARE

Caylee Eller

9:30-10:00

Social Marketing for farms

Erendira and Celsa

10:00 – 10:10

Break

 

10:15 – 11:00

Management for small farms: tools and techniques

Micheal Olsen

Dave Blume

11:00-11:10

Break

 

10:15 – 12:00

Management for small farms: tools and techniques (continued)

Micheal Olsen

Dave Blume

12:00 – 12:30

Lunch

 

12:30 – 1:15

Propagation in hoop houses, cloning, starts

Dave Blume

1:15-2:00

Vacuum seeder demonstration  

Dave Blume

2:00 –   2:15

Break

 

2:15 –   2:45

Test bed, review and plant

Dave Blume

  1.  

Workshop 5, April 9, 2022

Time

Topic

Presenter

9:15-9:30

Welcome, agenda, questions

Josefina Chavez

9:30-9:50

Presentation & meditation

Elena Velez

9:50-10:10

Introductions & icebreaker

Josefina Chavez

10:10-10:40

Presentation on CAFF Tech Hub & phone work

Phillip Minnick

10:40-10:50

Pop quiz & raffle

Josefina Chavez

10:40-11:00

Break

 

11:10-11:45

Google My Business & phone work

Phillip Minnick & Sasha Pesci

11:45-12: 15

California Farm Directory & Technical Assistance on the Spot

Phillip Minnick & Sasha Pesci

12:15 – 1:00

Lunch

 

1:00-2:15

Tractor & seeder tryouts

Dave Blume

2:15–2:30

Break

 

2:30–4:00

Test bed, review and plant

Dave Blume

  1.  

Workshop 6 May 7, 2022

Time

Topic

Presenter

9:15-9:30

Welcome, agenda, questions

Josefina Chavez

9:30-9:50

Icebreaker (Loteria Mexicana)

Josefina Chavez

9:50-10:10

Reflection

Josefina Chavez

10:10-10:25

Break

 

10:25-11:15

Participant evaluations, assessments & future needs

Josefina Chavez

11:15-12:15

Context & what can you do this coming year; CAFF resources; healthy soils; food safety

Kevin Bell, Josefina Chavez

12:15-1:00

Lunch & schedule individual farm visits for May

Josefina Chavez

1:00-2:00

Compost demonstration: how to add 2 inches of soil per year

Dave Blume

2:00-3:00

Fieldwork- Harvest

Dave Blume

3:00-4:00

Celebration

 

8 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

This project supported Latinx small farms in the Monterey Bay region of California. Teaching these producers how to use regenerative agriculture techniques helps ensure that each farm that participated becomes more sustainable. The closed-loop techniques which were taught will reduce agriculture waste and reduce the need for synthetic or fossil fuel derived supplements. This enhances sustainable agriculture, environmental and human health.

Conducting this program of work has highlighted the needs for future programs which specifically address the needs of underserved producers, particularly Latinx producers in the Monterey Bay Region. Direct feedback from participants revealed that existing agricultural extension resources and programs are often not accessible, acceptable, or culturally relevant. Feedback from Latinx participants in this program was very positive with many feeling that the program had been relevant and useful to themselves and their farms.

We propose development of a targeted, bilingual technical assistance program specifically for Latinx small farmers on California's central coast, with a specific focus the practices of regenerative agriculture and a closed loop farm economy, and the TA needs, tools and opportunities to successfully operate on and manage their farms.

Through a series of focused workshops, on-farm activities and participatory research, TA staff would work with individual farmers to address their implementation of regenerative agriculture and closed loop practices, the structural and social barriers to land, capital, labor and markets, and the bureaucratic complications of accessing the resources available from U.S. agriculture agencies and institutions.

11 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project

Success Stories

No participants

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.