Fruit, nut, and berry farmers across the North Central Region utilize biodiversity in their farming systems for a number of reasons. Diverse crops and varieties can spread labor needs across the growing season and increase profitability by spreading risk. Diversification can also intensify productivity by utilizing biological niches, and diversified farms can enhance ecosystem benefits by mimicking natural systems. At the same time, however, poorly planned farm diversification could lead to diseconomies of scale and scope as well as other inefficiencies, management challenges, and barriers to competitiveness.
This project, “The Fruit and Nut Compass: Developing a Tool and Guiding Principles for Diversified Farms” was designed to help farmers take advantage of the positive aspects of diversification while avoiding its potential pitfalls. To do this, we had two main objectives: 1. Develop a decision support tool that integrates options for different fruit, nut, and berry crops as well as alternative marketing channels 2. Identify common principles that underlie success in perennial diversification for whole farm enterprises.
To achieve the first objective, we built on the success of Veggie Compass (www.veggiecompass.com), a spreadsheet tool developed by members of our project team, and and developed the Fruit and Nut Compass. The tool guides growers to project enterprise expenses and income over fifteen years for multiple crops and multiple markets.
To achieve the second objective, we used a participatory approach that draws from the knowledge, experience, and lessons learned from experienced farmers. We worked with a professional videographer, Windborne Media, to develop a series of case studies presented in a mini-documentary, called “Persistence.” The video highlights our research findings on the “principles of success” in a rich, engaging, and accessible way.
Our robust outreach approach combined in-person trainings and field days with targeted online content featuring the downloadable spreadsheet tool (including a user manual), perennial crop fact sheets to support the use of the tool, videos, and more. Additional outreach will include the publication of a peer-reviewed journal article, distribution of printed research briefs, conference presentations, and a public screenings of the case study documentary video.
The project included learning, action, and system outcomes.
- Farmers and agricultural professionals trained in the use of a new decision support tool to assess profitability of diversified crops and marketing channels
- Enhanced knowledge among farmers, researchers, and agricultural professionals about common principles, management practices, and compatible enterprises that underlie successful farm diversification
- Increased use of a decision support tool to choose more profitable crops and marketing channels
- More informed farm planning and management decisions for perennial crop growers
- More productive and profitable perennial farms across the North Central Region
- More pathways to success for a diversity of people interested in pursuing diversified perennial enterprises
- Increased agricultural sustainability through enhanced use of farm diversification
The idea for the project came from farmers who saw a need for more informed decision-making in diversified perennial systems. The combined outputs of the project strengthen grassroots enterprise development. Our goal is to provide farmers with a “Fruit and Nut Compass” …both a spreadsheet tools to guide financial decision-making and resources that explore ‘principles of success’ as identified by experienced growers…that will point growers in the direction for making diversified farms more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.
We hypothesize that perennial polyculture farmers require more comprehensive planning tools and that our team can develop an effective tool for such purposes with the help and feedback from our farmer collaborators as well as from conference presentation attendees. Furthermore, we hypothesize that beginning growers would benefit from a nuanced set of ‘principles of success’ as they plan and develop diversified, perennial farm enterprises. Farms will be more productive, sustainable, and rewarding if they are planned with careful financial projections and an understanding of how to maximize the benefits of intentional and well-designed diversified plantings.
Through ongoing meetings with our farmer team, we drafted multiple versions of the tool and incorporated feedback. We also including feedback following interactions with farmers and farm educators following presentations at conferences and workshops. Feedback was both verbal as well via short surveys following presentations about the tool. The “Principles of Success” have been identified, described, and discussed through a series of interviews, farm visits, and workshop discussions.
Farm visits and interviews were conducted by project staff using qualitative research methodologies to probe the question of “principles of success.” This included asking farmers themselves to define “success” and the myriad ways that they consider and evaluate their farms, their farming methods, and their livelihood as farmers over time.
Project staff transcribed and coded the interviews to identify key concepts and themes and then clustered the themes into 6 major categories which became the “principles of success.”
The end result was a list of principles of success which was used to frame a plenary panel discussion at the 2018 Perennial Farm Gathering (which the project co-sponsored) and which provided content for a forthcoming academic journal article as well as a forthcoming research brief. In addition, the principles of success are a central message of the case-study documentary film.
The principles of success identified through the project’s research activities were:
Principle #1: Land Access and Tenure
- Secure land tenure is vital when looking at perennial crops with long time horizons for establishment and positive economic return
- Many growers have to be creative and build on relationships and networks to gain access to land
- Bankers, lenders and government agencies need to provide resources to all growers regardless of background and social and economic situation
Principle #2: Networks, relationships, cooperation
- Farmer-to-farmer learning is the best source of information and inspiration. Visit other farms!
- Cooperation and cooperatives can be vital
- Join networks / finding and accessing organizations that offer resources and technical assistance (including USDA programs such as CRP, EQIP, etc.)
- Relationship marketing is important; do not just “sell product” but connect people to your farm, your farming values, and tell your farm story
Principle #3: Slow Growth/Long-term Planning
- Trial and error (learn from mistakes, learn by doing)
- Be ready for risk (losing crops to weather, pests, climate change, things not selling, etc.)
- Return on investment takes a very long time – You Must Plan for This!
- Have a financial safety net (on-farm business and off-farm jobs)
- Buy less equipment/infrastructure to start; do what you can with less physical resources
Principle #4: Balance within Diversity
- Carefully consider the management required for each new project/enterprise on your farm
- Partner/team with people with diverse skill sets/interests
- Work-life balance – this is not usually prioritized but it is essential to sustain one’s body and also to interest young people in what you’re doing
- Diversify the timing of crop harvest: both across years and within a season
- Think about cross-over equipment usage; choose different crops that can utilize the same equipment/infrastructure
Principle #5: Market Strategically
- Educate customers
- Find your niche/get creative (CSA share partnerships, agritourism, target distinct customer groups such as ethnic populations)
- Include an “easy-selling” crop in your crop mix
- Carefully consider the costs and benefits of direct marketing versus wholesale
Principle #6: Love the land, love the life
- Know the land and adapt your practices around it
- Try it out first. See if you actually like the physical, grounded work of farming
- Know that running a farm business is a lifestyle and will involve sacrifice
- Believe in the value of your work
- Focus on ecology: silvopasture, incorporating animals, cycling nutrients, rotational grazing, selective spraying, keyline design, berms, swales, managing water, creating pollinator habitat
- Be a little nutty!
- Hard work is a huge part of this: using your own time, long weeks, lots of hours, sacrifice
The two main results of our research were the development of the financial planning spreadsheet tool called the Fruit and Nut Compass and the “principles of success.” The Fruit and Nut Compass is still in the final stages of development. It will be publicly released this winter, hopefully before the end of 2019. The tool has benefited immensely from the iterative process of sharing early versions of the tool with farmers and would-be farmers. Feedback has greatly influenced the tool in terms of content, structure, options, and style. For example, the tool did not originally afford much flexibility in terms of land costs until it was recognized that indeed, some growers actually rent land for perennial crop enterprises before moving into more secure land tenure situations. The crop acreage section of the tool needed to be modified to allow for “checkerboard” or randomized plantings based on input we received from producers who do not plant in blocks or uniform rows. Style and colors were changed based on feedback to make the tool more appealing and make data input cells more recognizable. These are just 3 examples of changes that were made based on the iterative process we followed to allow for grower/user input into the development of the tool.
The most important conclusions and recommendations are that perennial crop farmers should plan very carefully in order to have a clear and thorough picture of expenses as a crop is planted and established and when they might expect a return on their investment, based on direct costs, infrastructure and equipment, as well as their own labor. One of the best sources for information on costs and potential income are existing, established growers. Thus it is vitally important that new growers connect with other growers via networks, associations, cooperatives, and other forms of grower organizations.
Following the finalization of the Economic Planning Tool, we plan to create how-to videos and educational workshops to teach the use of the tool. All Compass Tools created to date include a user guide but most growers and farm service providers need additional learning methods and motivation to use this type of tool which is one reason why videos and workshops are necessary. Another reason is the sophistication and time commitment associated with the Compass Tool. It is a comprehensive look at the financials of a fruit and nut enterprise. Accordingly, learning why you should use the tool and how to use the tools demands thoughtful and intensive training opportunities. In addition, our “Principals of Success” will be taught through grey literature and these concepts will also be a part of any Compass training workshops and, potentially, in stand-alone workshops as well as the Midwest School for Beginning Apple Growers (which is coordinated by project staff).
Educational & Outreach Activities
Many of the above activities are delineated more explicitly in the “Project Activities” tab, and refer to various workshops, presentations, webinars, and similar events. Outreach will continue well beyond the grant project via the CompassToolbox.com website, future training workshops that will feature the Fruit and Nut Compass, and one-on-one technical assistance as growers begin to use the tool and contact us with questions or for support.
- In the lifespan of this project, the main objective was to increase awareness of the financial planning tool we were creating. Several hundred people attended events where we discussed or shared early drafts of the tool. About a 100 completed and returned a survey where they shared feedback on the tool...what they liked and what they didn't like and suggestions for improvement. The feedback from participants at workshops and tours and conference provide a very rich source of ideas on ways to make the tool accessible and useful for producers.
This project was all about creating a new tool to help growers carefully plan and assess the profitability of diversified perennial fruit and nut enterprises. We have a large and growing pool of producers who are very anxious to use our forthcoming tool. We will be using a Qualtrics survey to document the number of downloads of the tool from CompassToolbox.com once the Fruit and Nut Compass is complete.