Immigrant Sustainable Farming Pilot Project

Final Report for LNC07-286

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2007: $75,303.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Ingrid Kirst
Community CROPS
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Project Information


Over the past three years, Community Combining Resources, Opportunities and People for Sustainability (CROPS) has implemented a Immigrant Sustainable Farming Pilot Project to help immigrant and refugee families begin sustainable farm businesses. The project met many of its goals, helped many people learn more about farming, and learned many lessons about how to work with diverse populations.


This report covers the time period from June 2007 to February 2010, the funded dates of the SARE project. This includes three growing seasons (2007, 2008, and 2009), and two formal training series in 2008 and 2009. The report details how Community CROPS met its objectives for the project and is well on its way to achieving long-term objectives.

Project Objectives:
Short Term Objective 1. Eighteen participating farmers with basic knowledge of sustainable farming and farming in Nebraska's climate and soils.

Over the course of the project, 73 beginning farmers participated in workshops and/or grew produce at Sunset Community Farm to learned about sustainable farming. Many of the farmers stayed with the program for multiple years. The target population was immigrant and refugee families, although CROPS has now expanded to allow limited-resource families of any background to participate. SARE funding covered workshops on organic soil management, weed and pest management, harvesting and post-harvest handling. In addition, hundreds of hours were spent one-on-one helping each farmer learn skills specific to them, whether that was how to deal with frosts or how to set up an attractive market stand. Much of the one-on-one training was provided while working in the field or at the farmers' market stands.

Additional trainings held during the summer included a visit to Shadowbrook Farm, a local organic vegetable farm, attended by CROPS farmers and other area vegetable growers, where Kevin Loth gave a presentation on harvesting and post-harvest handling.

Field walks were also held with individual farmers to provide them with feedback on their production, harvest and marketing. This was an opportunity for them to practice field management under the direction of CROPS staff, and plan activities for the coming two weeks. This was also a time for the Farm Manager to work directly with the farmers in their field to demonstrate techniques such as pest identification or cultivating with different kinds of hoes.

The farmers have been working intensively with the Farm Manager on cost/benefit analysis, seed starting and much more. This takes a lot of time, but means that we have farmers well-prepared for the growing season.

Short Term Objective 2. Eighteen participating farmers with basic business skills and initial business plan.

Our first “Explore Farming” class was held during December 2009, with 38 participants attending to learn about whether a small farm was right for them. Several of these attendees signed up for the full training series in 2010. This class was a success so we hope to hold 2-3 sessions in fall 2010 to help people think through the pros and cons of owning and operating a small farm business.

During both the 2008 and 2009 workshops, basic business skills were taught. In 2008, the Microenterprise Administrator from another local non-profit led a workshop on why business plans are important and how to write one. Four farmers wrote basic business plans at this workshop. In 2009, the same individual taught two workshops, one on writing a business plan and one on financial planning. Fourteen beginning farmers attended the first, and 16 attended the second. Five farmers wrote basic business plans with one-on-one follow up from the Farm Manager. Six farmers used invoices to track produce sales.

Short Term Objective 3. Eighteen participating farmers with the knowledge and skills to market their products.

A total of 22 farmers who attended trainings marketed their products. Twelve of these individuals farmed at Sunset, where they received marketing support throughout the entire summer, and the other 10 grew on their own farm (none of these were immigrants or refugees). Farmers sold their products through farmers' markets, grocery stores, restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), an online buying cooperative, and to friends and relatives.

Short Term Objective 4. Resource providers and technical advisors who are familiar with the needs of the participants.

We have found that effective resource providers for immigrant and low-income beginning farmers are those who are able to educate through pictures and hands-on demonstrations. Language barriers make classroom lecture settings challenging places to learn. Farmer peers have been most able to provide effective hands-on demonstrations, and relationships have been established with several existing farmers in the area. It has been a challenge to locate Extension educators in our area who have this practical, hands-on knowledge, but we will continue to seek collaboration from this group.

Short Term Objective 5. Participants meet farmer peers, mentor farmers and resource providers.

Participants met farmer peers and other resource providers through the workshops. Established farmers, Extension educators, a small business expert, a mechanic, chefs and produce managers all participated in presenting workshops to the farmers. Farm tours were also held at several successful organic farms in the area. Feedback was excellent when these individuals were brought in to teach the workshops.

Intermediate Term Objective 1. Ten new farmers will use their enhanced knowledge of sustainable farming and business skills to begin agriculture enterprises.

During the course of the project, fifteen farmers began farm businesses. Ten of these farmers were immigrants or refugees. Three of the participants began their business on land they already owned/rented and the remaining twelve began their business at Sunset Community Farm, CROPS' training farm site. Based on the skills they learned in CROPS trainings, and the technical assistance they received, the farmers sold vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers, poultry and eggs, all sustainably raised, to the local community.

In addition to those who began a farm business, 7 others attended workshops who had already begun a farm business, and maintained their business on their own farm after attending.

Intermediate Term Objective 2. Three new participants will use 'passing on the gift' loans for livestock, bees, nursery stock, etc.

At first, participants were reluctant to take loans for anything for their farm business. Even though they were interest-free loans, and could be repaid through sales, training others, or passing on similar tools or animals, most farmers wanted to be free of any such obligations. In 2008, two participants used three 'passing on the gift' loans for 2 flocks of laying hens and a planting of gourmet garlic. An equivalent amount of garlic was passed on to a first year participant in 2009. There has not yet been a suitable recipient for the poultry pass-on.

Instead of using the word loan, we are now offering the farmers the opportunity to buy supplies at the beginning of the growing season, and payment isn't due until they begin making sales later in the year. Although this is still a loan and requires a written contract, it has been much more acceptable for participants. They have purchased market stand supplies, seeds and hand tools in this way as they prepare for the 2010 growing season.

In addition, farmers saved money from their 2009 sales with CROPS, and then used the money to purchase seeds in 2010. They liked having the money set aside so they didn't spend it, and then not having to worry about coming up with the cash for seeds before they had sales in the growing season. Ideally, we would like the participants to open business bank accounts to keep funds separate and improve their tracking of business expenditures. Many are reluctant to do this. Some participants rely on government assistance and worry that this will be jeopardized if they have additional accounts with funds in them. Additional research needs to be done to determine whether this is the case for all participants, or if some do not open accounts because they do not know how or need to increased understanding of the benefits of doing so.

Intermediate Term Objective 3. Participants will sell crops to a variety of markets.

Over the course of this project, CROPS farmers sold their produce to a large number of markets. Initially, participants relied on CROPS staff to sell their products. They sold to the CROPS CSA, used the CROPS farmers' market booth, or asked staff to contact a grocery store to sell their produce to. Over time, they began seeking out their own markets and selling on their own. For example, most participants sold through the CROPS CSA and the on-line Nebraska Food Cooperative, both in partnership with Community CROPS. We helped them estimate their available produce and showed them how to package products, but CROPS staff took care of the logistics. We also helped them start selling to the local natural foods cooperative, first by going with them to make deliveries, then negotiating orders, and then finally turning the whole process over to the farmers. The farmers also sold at multiple farmers' markets, and to ethnic grocery stores, as well as high-end restaurants and friends. It was exciting to watch each family take control of their own selling and gain confidence in promoting their products.

Our experience over the past 3 summers has been that a beginning immigrant or refugee farmer should not begin their farm business by selling to grocery stores or restaurants. The CROPS CSA and farmers' markets are a better outlet for beginners. Our observation has been that farmers' market and CSA sales require lower production and business skills. If a farmer grows poor-quality product, the farmers' market format allows customers to select what they want and pass over what they don't want. When a restaurant is counting on a delivery, but doesn't see the product beforehand, they can end up receiving poor-quality product, but have no choice but to take it. Likewise, the CSA sales format allows CROPS staff to provide immediate feedback to participants if product quality is low. It is key for the CSA to be supplied by staff as well, since it is an upfront commitment to consumers. This makes it possible to reject product from participants if it does not meet quality standards, and use it as an opportunity for training in quality control. It also allows a cushion if a beginning grower doesn't have the quantity of product they had committed to.

Intermediate Term Objective 4. Participants will form networks for marketing, purchasing or sharing information.

Formal networks of farmers were not established during the project, but farmers began working together on various projects and helping each other informally. Participants in our program have been from many different countries, and speak many different languages. This may be a barrier to forming networks. Overall, participants' vision has been toward greater independence and family-based farming, so networks with other farms and farmers has not fit within their goals. Further work needs to be done to find successful examples of farmer networks across the country to present to our program participants to begin fostering greater vision of potential network opportunities.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • George Myers
  • Leslie Pillen


Materials and methods:

During the project period, Community CROPS built on its past experience to develop a strong training program in Southeast Nebraska, a model which, pending funding, has been selected for state-wide implementation.

SARE funding allowed Community CROPS to hire its first ever Farm Program Manager, a vital position to the success of the program. Leslie Pillen was hired in May 2007, and brought much-needed structure to the farm program. Over the two and a half year grant period, she developed the farmer training program, provided hundreds of hours of technical assistance to individual farmers, and established new sales outlets.

In addition to the Farm Program Manager, one full-time intern was hired from May-October each year to grow produce for the CSA and to help the beginning farmers at farmers' markets. With other grant funding, a part-time Equipment Maintenance position was also created in 2008. This person was responsible for operating and maintaining the tractors, mowers and tillers, and for some general site maintenance.

In 2007, the CROPS Farm Program was a small program. Farmers were required to attend 3 short workshops and agree to a basic contract to be eligible to use land at Sunset Community Farm. Anyone who applied was accepted, and there was limited technical assistance. A few families successfully produced food at Sunset, but others didn't realize the amount of work involved and weren't able to keep up with tending their plots. These participants ceased coming to work in their plots by August, when the weeds and grasshoppers really take off.

Hiring a Farm Program Manager was key to making the program a success. After the 2007 growing season, when several participants did not sell anything and eventually abandoned growing even for their own consumption, intake procedures were modified to better assess potential participants' level of interest in starting a small farm business. At the beginning of the 2008 growing season, the Farm Manager met with each applicant individually to assess their past growing and business experience, and their ability to commit time to growing. We were able to give farmers a realistic picture of the time and energy involved, and work with them to ensure farming was a good fit.

We were able to promote the program far more, and recruit more people, so we could select those who were truly able to commit to the program, and we were then able to spend more time with each of them, helping them learn the needed skills to succeed. Classroom trainings during winter/early spring were expanded to 5 Saturday afternoons. These covered writing a business plan, local sales outlets, field mapping, equipment use and maintenance, organic pest and weed control, post-harvest handling and a farm tour at a successful family farm.

During the summer, each grower received one-on-one support to make sales to grocery stores, restaurants and at farmers' markets, as well as pest management technical assistance.

In 2009, CROPS expanded the farm program to serve more farmers. Sixteen farmers were recruited in late fall 2008 for the 2009 growing season. Of these, nine actually attended the classroom workshops in spring 2009. The others dropped out for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, overtime work at their job, moving out of state, or just deciding they weren't ready to commit to starting a small business. While this was disappointing, we feel it was a success that people who were not prepared to start a small farm business were screened out more effectively. With only so much staff time for each participant, it is important that the participants are truly committed. CROPS decided to also open the workshops to native-born people, but did not offer space to them at Sunset Farm. Fifteen people attended one or more of the workshops, and seven either started or maintained a farm business that growing season.

The 2009 workshops were expanded from the previous year to 8 afternoon sessions. Topics included selecting a market, succession planting, seed starting, farm business planning, financial planning, organic soil management, Integrated Pest Management and organic weed management, field planning, and harvesting. Three farm tours were carried out during the workshops as well. Our observation was that the farm tours were the favorite activity of the beginning farmers. This was an opportunity for them to see first-hand how a successful farm operates, and meet veteran farmers.

While participants had applied to be part of the training program, and grow at Sunset farm that summer, the workshops were made a requirement for actually being eligible to rent land at the farm. By the end of the workshops, several participants had missed more than two, so ultimately there were six participant who grew at Sunset that year. Two additional participants maintained community garden plots instead, as this was more within their goals and skills.

During the 2009 growing season, more formal training measures were implemented, and these were very successful. Four summer workshops were held covering farmers' market displays, installing drip irrigation, insect pest management and post-harvest handling practices. These were hands-on workshops scheduled just prior to the farmers needing to apply the techniques learned in their own field. They were successful workshops and our future goal is to plan at least monthly in-field, hands-on workshops open to both program participants and any area farmers wanting to learn about a particular topic.

The other more formal training technique that was implemented was one-on-one, bi-weekly field walks with the Farm Manager. For 1-2 hours in the farmer's field, the Farm Manager covered a checklist of topics including harvesting, pest problems, planting needs and upcoming cultural practices to be done. These were a time for the participants to learn more about overall farm management, balancing the many tasks involved with growing vegetables. It was also a time for the Farm Manager to point out pest issues that were beginning so that the grower could address them in a timely manner.

Research results and discussion:

Over the span of the grant, 93 people applied to the program, attended trainings and/or started a small farm business. Twenty people who applied did not participate, but dropped out of the program before really even starting. For many this was due to realizing the time commitment was more than they could make; for others there were circumstances which arose such as pregnancy, moving out of state, or job changes. Several hours were given to screening these people and helping them begin planning their farm business one-on-one. Thus, 73 people attended one or more trainings over the course of the project. Of these, 17 people grew produce at Sunset Community Farm. Twelve people at Sunset started a farm business, which we defined as making sales of produce rather than just growing for personal consumption. Those who did not intend to start a farm business were eventually phased out of the farm site into community gardens. Three people started farm businesses on their own farm after attending workshops, and 7 people who attended workshops maintained their farm business. The remaining workshop attendees who did not begin businesses were either home gardeners who just wanted to learn more about production, or people who decided to start smaller on a community garden plot before jumping into a small farm business.

Because of the number of people who applied to grow at the farm but ultimately dropped out of the program, in fall 2009 we held one Explore Farming course. The goal was to reduce the number of one-on-one hours spent by the Farm Program Manager with people who ultimately did not participate. It was a successful event that had 35 people in attendance, and 10 of these individuals went on to register for our 2010 Growing Farmers Winter Workshops. We plan to hold multiple Explore Farming sessions in fall 2010 because of the success of the first.

The program has continually evolved over the period of the grant. In the beginning, encouraging people to sign up for land was not a good model. Wanting land and wanting training are two very different things. We have evolved the program so that it is now a prerequisite to register for the classroom workshops and attend at least 3/4 of these. Participants are also expected to meet one-on-one with the Farm Program Manager to develop a basic business plan and crop schedule before planting. They are expected to continue developing skills and gaining independence over the course of 3-5 years in the program, then graduate onto rented or purchased land (see separate outline).

Another evolution was away from serving just immigrants/refugees. The 2009 workshops were opened to anyone, so several native-born participants came. This proved to be a good experience as the native-born participants tended to ask more questions. Our sense was that the immigrant farmers had questions but weren't as comfortable asking them in front of a group, so some were asked by native-born participants. We plan to continue opening trainings to anyone, and provide interpreters to anyone who needs one. We have also developed a scholarship system for workshops so that limited-resource producers can affordably attend while those who can afford full price pay that.

Research conclusions:

One change that CROPS made over the life of the project was to emphasize the training when recruiting. Originally, we had recruited people who wanted land to farm, and this led to many people joining the program who were interested in the idea of farming, but not committed. They reluctantly attended training sessions, even when it was required to access the land. We now focus our recruiting efforts on the training series so the people signing up are those that want to learn. We let them know that there is the possibility of accessing land if they need it. In addition to getting more committed participants, this has allowed CROPS to open up the training sessions to any beginning farmer, which has significantly increased attendance at the sessions, thereby extending their impact.

Another outcome is that we started the project focusing on just immigrant and refugee families, to meet the needs of those who farmed in their home countries and wanted to return to that occupation in the United States. We found however, that there are many limited resource families who wanted to participate in the program, and have expanded it to meet this demand. Each group has different needs, so this increases the challenge, but we are committed to helping them start their farm businesses.

Economic Analysis

During the project, farmers sold over $28,000 worth of vegetables, eggs and poultry to the local community. One family sold nothing in their first year, but then sold $1300 in their second year and $4000 in their third year. They have now moved off the training farm and onto land they are renting from a local land owner. In addition, each family saved hundreds of dollars on their grocery bills, shared hundreds of pounds of food with friends and family, and donated leftover produce to local food programs. This increase in production helps all local producers by increasing consumer interest in buying local, fresh food, as evidenced by the increasing numbers of people coming to farmers' markets and looking for local food at grocery stores.

CROPS expanded the CSA each year of the project. It began in 2005 with 12 members, grew to 17 in 2006, 21 in 2007, 35 in 2008, 49 in 2009, and is planning to have 100+ shares in 2010. Grant funding from SARE and others has helped support the CSA as it grew. A business and financial plan was written for the CSA last fall, showing that at approximately 115 shares the CSA can be self-sustaining. This is an excellent sales opportunity for the beginning farmers at Sunset. They sometimes lack confidence when they begin their business, so successful sales to the CSA is an important way for them to gain confidence and pride in their products, then go on to sell at farmers' markets and to local grocery stores and restaurants. Farmer-supplied products in the CSA grew to 1/3 of the total by 2009, and 2010 plans are to purchase 1/2 of the products from the beginning farmers. This will translate to approximately $11,000 in sales for the farmers.

Thanks in part to the work funded by SARE, Community CROPS was awarded funding through the USDA's Farmers Market Promotion Program and Specialty Crop Block Grant to further develop our farm training program (now called the Growing Farmers Training Program) to be a comprehensive training program and curriculum for all beginning farmers in our area. Through this program, many new people will begin farming over the next two years.

Farmer Adoption

As part of this project, the farmers were expected to learn and apply sustainable farming techniques, as well as basic business skills. We saw a definite growth over the program in farmer knowledge of business and financial skills as they began creating business plans and projecting cash flow. They also began researching markets for their produce and projecting what they needed to plant to achieve their harvest goals. In addition, they learned about numerous sustainable farming techniques and applied many of them, including practices such as using row cover, mulching, drip irrigation and organic pest control.

As a training program, we must continually balance between recommending certain practices to the farmers and outright requiring it. While CROPS is not their boss, we have found that farmer adoption of various practices is higher when it is required of them, and that grant funding to subsidize the cost of some of these practices is very helpful to increasing their willingness to try them.

For example, many farmers were at first resistant to using drip irrigation for a variety of reasons. SARE funding helped purchase drip irrigation systems so that they could affordably use it in their fields. Because of this, we have made it a requirement for all participants. Otherwise, they tend to use flood irrigation which we believe to be an irresponsible use of water in our soil and environment. Over time, they realize the benefits of this system and choose it on their own, required or not.

Another example of an important business practice is invoicing. Participants have been resistant to keeping written records of anything, so in 2009 CROPS purchased triple carbon copy invoice books for each farmer. Training was held with each person on how to fill it out, and invoices became required for any CSA sales (grocery stores already required them, but we had previously made them on the computer for each person). With triple copies, one went to the grocery store, one went to CROPS, and the farmer kept one. All of the participants used the invoice books, meaning they were keeping records independently of staff, and more importantly to them, they got paid for their sales!

In future seasons we will continue to implement required practices for all farmers growing at Sunset Farm. It is more difficult to ensure adoption of practices by farmers who only attend workshops and farm on their own land. Post-workshop surveys have indicated low adoption of practices by these participants. Many were avid gardeners just wanting to learn more, so business skills and some production skills didn't pertain to them anyway. Those who did start a small farm business indicated that they had adopted some practices, and that after the workshops they felt more confident that when they needed information on a topic in the future, they would be able to locate it.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

CROPS has developed a number of basic materials to help the farmers in the program. A comprehensive Farm Manual details the responsibilities of each farmer and what they can expect from CROPS at our training farm site. A diagram of the program and what each farmer can expect each year is another important document. Numerous digital slide presentations on topics such as seed starting and marketing were also developed to aid the farmers in beginning their business.

Recruitment materials were also designed to promote the farm program. Colorful posters in multiple languages highlighted the benefits of the program.

Community CROPS provided presentations to many local groups throughout the project. For example, staff presented to community groups on the project, and how beneficial it can be to buy local food. Staff also visited a purchasing practices class twice a year at a local community college to talk with aspiring chefs about local food and how they can acquire it and make use of it. In addition, CROPS has had booths at festivals and conferences to promote local farmers and foods, and CROPS staff taught classes on topics from “How to Sell at a Farmers' Market” to “How to Start an Organic Vegetable Garden”.

In September each year, we hold a Farm Walk at Sunset Community Farm, an opportunity for potential farmers, our customers and the general public to come out and experience diverse sustainable agriculture production first-hand. Over 350 people attended the event in 2009, met the farmers in our program, and experienced locally grown food. It was an important outreach event, to promote both the farm training program, and buying locally-grown fresh produce. Fun was had by all as they sampled foods from the home countries of the immigrant farmers, ate soup made from vegetables from the farm and donated by a local restaurant, and petted chickens!

CROPS staff helped organize VegFest, a festival promoting local foods, held in Lincoln, which attracted hundreds of people interested in learning about what they eat and where it comes from. Dozens of farmers had stands with information and products for sale, and cooking demonstrations with local chefs gave people new ideas for increasing fresh produce consumption.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

More research is needed on how to best recruit potential farmers into beginning farmer training programs, and help them overcome the barriers they face once in the program. Interest is increasing amongst the diverse immigrant and refugee populations in Lincoln, but it is still a very small minority. It would be helpful to know what the most cost-effective strategies are to help farmers succeed. More study also needs to be done on how to help immigrants and refugees understand the different "types" of farming in the US. Many are familiar with subsistence-type farming in their home country. In the US that might be called "hobby farming", while commercial vegetable production looks different, even at a small scale of production. A hobby farmer may not care whether they make enough to pay themselves a decent wage, therefore financial records may not matter as much. Better ways for staff to talk about these differences need to be studied, and training and technical assistance needs to be tailored accordingly.

How to increase interest in running a small-scale sustainable farm business among immigrants and refugees also needs further study. Our hope is that as farmers successfully graduate from the training program and start their own farms, others will see these farms and desire to start their own.

The ratio of staff to participants also needs additional research. While hiring a Farm Program Manager was a huge step in developing the training program, additional staff are needed to maintain the diverse activities involved with the program. Number of staff to participants and division of duties would be a helpful thing to know from similar programs around the country.

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.