Growing Farmers Training Program

Final Report for LNC11-333

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $164,676.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Ingrid Kirst
Community CROPS
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Project Information

Summary:

This project addressed the need to educate and train beginning farmers who were immigrants, refugees or limited-resource individuals. They learned sustainable, small-scale farming methods with an emphasis on direct-market vegetable production. Community Crops built on the winter workshop series and on the incubator farm that was already in place. We chose to use a combination of classroom based learning and land-based training to assist beginning farmers start their own businesses. Experts lead discussions on their particular fields including business planning, whole farm management, pest control, season extension and food safety. Crops utilized a farm advisory committee and past participant surveys to shape and improve both the workshop series and the incubator program. We also added in-field sessions in the summer. These sessions were a mix of land and classroom training that specifically touched on seasonal skills and topics.

 

Introduction:

The Growing Farmers Training Program worked with limited-resource producers to help them start and succeed at farming. A Limited-Resource Producer is defined by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as farmers who gross farm sales of $40,000 or less for the past three years with no off-farm income, have total household net income below 75% of the non-metropolitan median for the state/county, lack capital, labor or equipment access, have farms significantly smaller than the average, or face social, cultural or language skills with below-average formal education. In this report we will use the term limited-resource producer to refer to immigrant, refugee and low-income beginning farmers.

Our project expanded outreach to a larger number of participants attending workshops and field days, and growing on the training farm. This funding allowed Community Crops to build upon the successes of our 2007-2009 SARE project and further expand the number of local producers in our area.

This report covers the time period from November 2011 through May 2014. This included two growing seasons, 2012 and 2013 and three workshop series, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Project Objectives:

  1. 80 new and existing farmers per year will gain increased knowledge and skills in sustainable business management, marketing and productions techniques and systems through workshops and field days.

    Throughout the grant period, we had 85 participants in our workshop series and our field days. These farmers gained knowledge on business skills from local experts. They also saw first-hand sustainable farming practices. The knowledge they received improved their businesses. We found that the majority of farmers preferred the winter workshops to the summer workshops. Attendance decreased dramatically from winter to summer. When we reached out to farmers, many of them lamented not being able to attend, citing needing to work in the fields as the reason for their absence for summer classes.

  2. 150 families will purchase community supported agriculture (CSA) shares each year, with produce supplied by participants and the demonstration farmer-teachers.

    In 2012, we had 163 CSA members, and in 2013 there were 265. This grew the market for our farmers at Prairie Pines and gave them experience in wholesale marketing. Our CSA grew large enough to also support some off site farmers as well. We found that this market was crucial for many of the farmers, both on and off site, and their success.

     

  3. 10-15 limited resource producers per year will access land at the Crops farm to begin their farm business. They will gain skills and experience inorganic production, farm management and marketing through field walks, marketing support and one on one planning meetings.

    In 2012, our incubator program was located at Sunset. We had 11 farmers start the season. In 2013, we moved to Prairie Pines which was a larger location and allowed us to start 13 farmers on site. We found that by allowing farmers to get their businesses started some of them inevitably found it to be too much for them. We count these stories as successes as well, as it allowed them that experience.

     

  4. Gross earnings from farming of individual beginning limited resource producers will be at least $1000 in their first year, at least $ 4000 in their second year, and third-year farmers will earn at least $6500

    In 2012, farmers who were first year participants earned an average of $2500 from wholesale sales alone, second years earned on average $6200 and third-years earned $4675. The third-year farmers had many other markets, and we estimate that all together they earned $7000 on average in all of their markets.

    In 2013, farmers who were first year participants earned an average of $1700 from wholesale sales alone. Second years earned about $4000 and our third-years earned an average of $7000 from wholesale sales. Some of the farmers only had wholesale accounts while others focused on restaurants and farmers markets. We found it difficult to collect data on the various markets. Not many of them would share those numbers, and when we did collect them, they were often estimates. Going forward, we are focusing more on getting accurate numbers on the various markets and sales. The numbers that were reported qualified most of our producers for Schedule F reporting and the third-year farmers did have enough data to qualify for a Farm Service Agency Loan.

     

  5. 25-35 regional limited resource producers per year will share stories and knowledge with one another. Community Crops was involved in or hosted 11 different chances for limited-resource producers to come together to share knowledge and experiences. Through these events an informal network was started. Now there is a facebook group, for producers only, and approximately half of the members are Crops producers and mentors. This allows producers to ask questions and get answers as well as share experiences both positive and negative. We had planned to hold a regional gathering of staff and beginning farmers from other incubator sites, but scheduling it was challenging, as many of these producers were simply to busy. We had hoped by covering travel costs and offering a small stipend to attend, it would encourage attendance, but that wasn’t sufficient. In the future, we organize an event at the end of the season so that more participants could attend.

     

  6. Farm advisory committee provides consultation on needs and opportunities for project.

    The farm advisory committee met seven times in the past three years. They worked hard to provide feedback that ended up shaping the current workshop series, as well as the Growing Farmers program as a whole. The workshop series curriculum was fine tuned and restructured to provide more relevant training. The farmers that were involved had varying levels of experience allowing us to draw from their needs and knowledge.

     

 

  1. 4-6 additional service providers will be identified and receive support from Crops staff on how to better meet the needs of limited-resource producers (USDA, Extension).

     

    Crops staff worked with area agencies to strengthen the training our participants received. We focused on finding experts to cover each workshop topic. We brought in a USDA agent to speak about the opportunities and programs USDA has for beginning farmers. A micro lender presented about business plans, how to write them and why they are important for planning. We found extension agents to talk about pest control and common pests in our area. Finally we brought in seasoned farmers who could speak from experience on seed starting, integrated farm management, and season extension. As part of presenting to our workshop participants, Crops staff worked with the presenters on how they could most effectively share their information with a diverse, multilingual audience. Presenters also learned additional techniques based on participant questions during the sessions.

 

Long term goals of this project were:

  • 20 limited-resource producers will realize their farm goals through long term leases or farm ownership

  • Supply of local, organic and sustainable produce will increase for the local community

  • 3 socially-disadvantaged producer referrals will be made for the Farm Ownership Loans and/or Operating loans through the Farm Service Agency

  • Agricultural land will be maintained in sustainable farming

We are continuously working toward these goals and tracking this data. Production on sustainable land has increased over the course of this grant period, resulting in more vegetables on the marketplace. We have found that it is hard to connect limited-resource farmers with land available to purchase. The price of land in Nebraska and throughout the region has increased dramatically, making it challenging for a beginning farmer to purchase land. Long term leasing is a more realistic goal, but there are not many suitable properties as many are too large for the amount of land that a sustainable vegetable farmer needs, and others lack good water access. Crops is looking into strategies to get more farmers onto acres including finding land to sublet to these farmers for the long term.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kirstin Bailey
  • Warren Kittler

Research

Materials and methods:

Recruitment of Farming Participants: To recruit farming participants we gave presentations and worked with various social service agencies that provided outreach to the immigrant and limited-resource population. We also recruited through formal and informal farming networks. Many participants heard about our program from past participants as well.

 

Curriculum: Utilizing feedback from our Farm Advisory Committee, we tweaked our curriculum to suit the needs of our participants. Using feedback from our participants, we would address popular questions and lead discussions on topics in the next class. For the 2014 workshop series, Crops employees created a binder full of relevant material that went further in depth on the topics presented. This gave the participants reference material and a chance to read ahead to ask specific questions. Our workshop classes were held on Saturdays in the winter from 9 until 4 with an hour break for lunch. We had presenters come in the morning and generally scheduled farm tours in the afternoon. When possible, we had the same local farmer who presented in the morning give a tour of their farm in the afternoon. This way participants could see the information they received put into practice. We toured farms with a variety of levels of experience. We had some farmers who had just started their business, as well as established farms that had been around for a few decades.

 

We are currently improving our curriculum again to meet the needs of our limited-resource farmers. We are adding a class and updating the materials that we give the participants. It will also flow better and cover a wider range of topics in high demand. Participants benefited from our one-on-one class, so next year off-site farmers can have staff come to their farm and help them improve their businesses. This is something that workshop participants who have land have requested. This also will allow us to keep in better contact with our off-site participants and collect data on a greater number of farmers.

 

Both on-site and off-site participants are asking for more information on niche markets. They want to diversify and set themselves apart by specializing in more unique products. We are now in the process of researching an advanced workshop series for farmers who have been through their first year and are ready for more specific knowledge.

 

The workshop series continued into late spring and early summer with the summer workshop series. This series was less successful because participants tended to be busier and did not have time to leave the field. We tried a variety of times and days and none of them truly worked. We also tried presenting them as skill sessions, shorter classes that are only two hours long and take place during the week after 5 p.m. They were better attended than the summer Saturday classes, however attendance was still low. Feedback from surveys indicates that people want to attend these seasonally relevant classes, but we are still working on finding an optimal schedule.

Farm Incubator: Upon completion of the winter workshop classes participants were able to apply to farm at our incubator farm. This allowed limited resource farmers the opportunity to put into practice the techniques and knowledge they received from the workshop classes. This also allowed them to start their business with a built in market (the CSA) as well as technical assistance from staff. We found that having a built in market for farmers really helped them get started with selling right away. It also allowed staff to be more hands on with the marketing process as well as the production ensuring the farmers felt comfortable presenting their products in other markets.

 

In 2012, we had 11 farmers in the incubator portion of our program. In 2013, that number went up to 13. When they are accepted into the program, they sign agreements that clearly outline the guidelines of the program and what is expected of them. This agreement also outlines what they can expect of staff. We found that having clear definitions really helped the farmers going forward. These farmers benefited from personalized field walks, market support and one-on-one planning. Staff gradually decreased assistance through the three years, allowing farmers to increase their independence. This year we are also adding a rubric that helps quantify their experience and provides a starting point for a conversation regarding their future participation in the program. Starting farms is definitely a sign of success, but we also consider people who tried farming and decided it was not the lifestyle for them a success. We allowed them to try it in a secure environment without significant financial commitment.

Research results and discussion:

SARE funds allowed us to expand our incubator program and make our workshop series stronger. 85 participants received an excellent education in sustainable agriculture and small-scale vegetable farming. The CSA far exceeded our expectations allowing us to educate many more families on sustainable agriculture while providing a larger market for farmers, both on-site and off-site. Economically, the farmers were able to keep more dollars in the local economy and strengthen the local food marketplace.

 

The winter workshop was well attended throughout the funding period. In winter of 2014, we sold out the series with 31 participants. The final class really enjoyed the peer to peer discussions that we incorporated. This created an chance for them to network with each other, develop relationships and share experiences. Participants enjoyed it so much that we ended up changing our overall class format to allow for more of this type of interaction. Going forward, we will be using the first two classes to gauge if future classes would also enjoy this type of interaction. We have also decided to add a follow up class after the growing season. This would be an informal class that would allow for a discussion of how the first year went for the farmers. This would allow staff to collect data as well as help farmers with some common problems.

 

Some of our farmers in our incubator program far exceeded our expectations of financial success. These farmers were very motivated and had a lot of time to devote to their new business. These farmers sought out markets other than our CSA and built relationships with local grocers, restaurateurs and had their own farmers’ market presence. These markets factored into their success. Other farmers were not as motivated or did not have time to devote to their businesses. They had fewer markets and were not as diversified. This lead us to develop a set of interview questions that helps us identify limited-resource individuals who will be successful in our program.

 

Crops employees have become more involved with the changing face of agriculture. The success of the classes and the incubator farm depend on staff to remain current. Through training and collaborations they have been able to pass on current trends and future markets to our participants both in the workshop series and on site at the incubator farm. This allows our farmers to be better prepared for changes in policy and in markets. There are now more wholesale markets and producers; this change has prompted us to add that to the curriculum of the workshop class. Food safety policy changes have lead staff to incorporate GAPS (Good Agricultural Practices) into our training. Next year staff attend the classes to get our site GAP certified.

 

 

Research conclusions:

The past three years of feedback from participants in the Growing Farmers Workshop Series has helped us shape and refine the classes. The classes have already proven to be a viable part of the sustainable agriculture landscape in southeast Nebraska. We just need to find the balance between agricultural training and business training. We have also grown our farmers in a way that has produced more farmers’ market participants resulting in stronger farmers’ markets. A direct result of that fact has been an ongoing conversation with Old Cheney Farmers’ Market manager about requiring that class for all new market vendors. This past workshop series had a whole class centered around the topic of farmers’ markets and how to plan for them in the field and from a business perspective. This is just one example of catering to our participants needs as well as the needs of the sustainable community. As we move forward listening to the participants and remaining at the forefront of techniques and markets will be key to ensuring the successes of our farmers. Becoming more involved with the participants of our workshop series will also ensure their success. Their success will strengthen the local food economy, ensure that markets are more diverse and help satisfy the demand for more local food. The demand for local food far exceeds the amount available. With our largest class ever finishing up their first growing season, Crops has helped train these farmers that are working on meeting that demand.

 

We are currently engaging in a continuous dialogue with the Old Cheney Farmers Market, Open Harvest Food Co-op and the Nebraska Food Co-op on how to expand the season for farmers as well as the marketplace. Season Extension classes and skill sessions have become an important part of our training. These efforts are pushing the boundaries of the season and expanding the income of new farmers.

Economic Analysis

Our farmers in the incubator program are earning a small profit. Some are earning more than others depending on their markets, dedication, and time. We are still subsidizing some of their costs, but most of that savings is invested back into the business at this stage. This allows them to leave the program with the materials they will need to find success on their own land.

Through our CSA, we can track a portion of income for the farmers we purchase from. We purchase primarily from beginning farmers who have gone through the training program. In 2012, we purchased about $30,000 in produce primarily from participants in the incubator program. In 2013, we purchased a little over $35,000 worth of produce from area farmers, including $20,000 from the incubator program. The remainder was purchased from off-site farmers who are connected to the workshop series either as mentors or as past participants.

 

Farmer Adoption

We have found that to expand the local food system with sustainable produce, we need to educate farmers and allow them to start their businesses in a situation that allows them to experiment. These farmers need a space to try out techniques and to see if this lifestyle is for them without the financial commitment of buying land. Land prices are extremely high right now, with sellers offering 50 to 100 acres at a time, not the 20 or less appropriate for small scale farmers. The high cost of land also becomes a barrier to starting a farm. We also found that existing farmers need a source to turn to for the latest in sustainable techniques. We have found that the winter workshop series model works well for both new farmers and the more experienced. We continuously are reaching out to farmers for input on topics they would like to see incorporated into the workshop. We also are reaching out to groups that can help us connect to the limited-resource individuals who would like to start a farming business.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We have shared information and our experiences these past few years in a variety of ways. Through meetings, listservs, newsletters and presentations, we have made ourselves available.

  • Our program manager as well as executive director participated in the well attended National Incubator Farm Training Initiative conference in 2013.
  • Our program manager traveled to Kansas City to talk to the program manager of Cultivate KC’s Incubator program.
  • Staff have presented the program to students, professional groups and groups of immigrants over the past three years. This allowed us to reach new populations, educate our community and students about sustainable farming and the opportunities it presents.
  • We have shared our curriculum and educational materials with other programs that are starting up incubators. We have also shared it with organizations that have started workshop series similar to ours including the Center for Rural Affairs.

Three articles were published during the grant period about the project:

Article on an open house held at the incubator site:
http://journalstar.com/news/local/local-farmers-showcase-produce-up-close-and-personal-during-farm/article_a13b1a50-bd61-5118-b68e-9792b2efafc3.html

Article on the first Holiday Harvest Farmers Market, held November 2013:
http://journalstar.com/news/local/farmers-market-a-hit-warm-weather-not-required/article_93ac9cc8-f2fd-595d-886b-959bc4ac242a.html

Article on the incubator site and its many features:
http://journalstar.com/niche/neighborhood-extra/lawn-and-garden/prairie-pines-introduces-children-to-nature/article_0c5aecd3-5395-5320-913f-6912319beb8f.html

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Farmers are continuously asking for more information on animal production as well as niche markets. Currently our curriculum only covers vegetables. However, delving into this market requires more staff education as well as a different training facility. This would also have to be a whole different workshop series that explored different marketing techniques, business plans, humane treatment of animals and how to raise animals sustainably. Food Safety is another area that will become increasingly more important to educate our farmers on. It has recently become a topic of conversation all over the United States, with federal regulation in the works. While we have high standards for produce at market and in our CSA, we believe that becoming Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified would be another marketing tool the farmers could use.

Another area that needs additional studying would be the benefits of subletting land out to beginning farmers. As discussed earlier, the biggest challenge that beginnning farmers face is finding a place to start their businesses. Offered parcels of land are often too expensive or don’t have a long-term lease option. If we could guarantee a five year lease, more farmers would graduate from our incubator farm and continue with their business plans. Helping farmers achieve their dreams in the most cost effective manner possible is an on-going challenge that we continue to address.

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.