Final Report for LNE05-225
During this project’s nearly three-year history, Rhode Island has rediscovered its agricultural heritage and reasserted its support for its agricultural present and future. The hiring of a full-time Sustainable Agricultural Specialist/Agricultural Extension Agent at the University of Rhode Island (URI) has played a significant role in that shift.
The URI Sustainable Agriculture Specialist (two individuals serving consecutive terms) has served over 250 separate farms since being hired in February 2006. Over 70 farms received site visits, many receiving multiple visits over the course of a growing season. The Sustainable Agriculture Specialist completed over 1,000 phone and e-mail contacts with RI growers addressing topics from whole-farm consultation and start-up planning to one-time requests for pest identification.
The project co-sponsored three training sessions at URI—two Vegetable Twilight Meetings and a Soil Health Workshop—that highlighted SARE-sponsored research on Perimeter Trap Cropping, Soil Health, and Reduced Tillage for Vegetables. Nearly 50 farmers and agriculture service providers attended the three sessions.
This project was conceived to identify and meet the needs of Rhode Island’s commercial agriculturists, primarily by re-establishing the role of “Cooperative Extension Agent” at URI. Since then, the project manager has developed partnerships with nearly every commodity group in the state, has joined four state-wide committees in an advisory/participatory capacity, and has been involved in half a dozen regional collaborations.
The success of this project has led the University of Rhode Island–with funding and support from the RI Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture, the RI Natural Resources Conservation Service, the SARE Professional Development Program, and a USDA CSREES Managed Ecosystem Grant–to hire a full-time Agricultural Extension Agent to continue the work. The URI Agricultural Extension Agent is also working with a URI Plant Science professor on a Beginning Farmer/Rancher Development Program proposal designed to create a modular training program for URI students and Rhode Island farmers. In addition, the Agricultural Extension Agent is partnering with over a dozen Rhode Island agricultural service providers—including the Chief of the RI Division of Agriculture–on a project that will systematize and expand the state’s services for all aspects of Rhode Island agriculture.
Between 1964 and 1997, USDA estimates that Rhode Island lost approximately half of its farmland. With increasing tax liability, ever-higher prices offered by developers for agricultural land (the 2007 Census of Agriculture places the average value of RI’s farms at $16,828/acre—the highest in the nation), global competition and other factors, the potential for further loss of farms and rural lands is great.
Over the past 20 years, cultivation of ornamental crops—including greenhouse, nursery and turf—has displaced food and fiber production as the dominant agricultural sector in Rhode Island. While representing only one-third of managed farmland, ornamental crops and turf now account for 60 percent of all agricultural cash receipts in Rhode Island. In response to this trend, URI Cooperative Extension has built a strong Landscape Horticulture Program that provides a wide range of training and technical support to the “green industry’s” growers and retailers. Conversely, many years of reductions in URI Extension’s field- and university-based agronomy staff and extension specialists had greatly diminished its capacity to serve small-scale farmers of food, forage and specialty crops.
In 2004, URI Extension entered into a strategic partnership with the RI Division of Agriculture and Marketing and the RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education (RICAPE) to research and address issues and opportunities of farm viability, paying particular attention to small-scale producers of food, forage and specialty crops. Our partnership conducted structured forums, site visits and personal interviews with commercial farmers, producers and agricultural service providers. The result was a body of information evidencing farmers’ interest in becoming more profitable by increasing and diversifying production, introducing value-added products, growing for specialty markets, and engaging in agricultural tourism and alternative enterprises. Farmers and agriculturalists uniformly cited a concurrent need for technical support: problem-solving assistance and information and consulting services on sustainable agricultural practices. In response to these findings, URI Cooperative Extension, together with its strategic partners, turned its attention to rebuilding a comprehensive system of technical support for Rhode Island’s then under-served and diverse community of farmers and growers producing food, fiber and other non-ornamental agricultural crops.
In 2005, URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), Cooperative Extension received a two-year, $150,000 grant from the USDA Northeast Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) to develop and test a model to provide sustainable agriculture technical support services for small-scale farms. Project funding primarily supported a program manager position which was filled on February 20, 2006.
From the onset, our primary goal was to develop a new, more efficient and cost-effective model for agricultural outreach which could realistically be maintained over the long term. It was our belief that by using existing URI Extension assets; state, regional, and national information resources; electronic communication technologies; and a collaborative case management approach we could create a winning model for sustainable agriculture technical assistance and outreach education which could be continued long into the future.
TARGET 1: We seek to foster the adoption of new sustainable agricultural practices and/or farm viability and diversification enterprises and improve decision making and problem solving among Rhode Island farms through information gained from an Extension system of technical support and information access and referral to be developed and tested during this project.
This is an admittedly large and vague target and rather difficult to quantify. However, we can assert that the goal has been met in a fledgling way. The term “foster” suggests creating an environment that encourages a particular behavior. Through our website (http://cels.uri.edu/sustainableag) and our monthly newsletter (RI Ag Notes), we regularly present information that defines and supports the pursuit of sustainable agriculture. Through our partnerships with RI NRCS and local agricultural service providers, we also provide access to a wide variety of resources (financial, planning, etc.) that assist farmers in adopting more sustainable techniques or increasing diversification. By hosting Twilight Meetings/Workshops and providing face-to-face consultation services, we have increased farmers’ access to current research/practices and have improved the quality of their decision making and problem solving.
Education, in its various forms, is a critical component to our “fostering” goal, but education does not necessarily transfer to implementation . . . and implementation is the truest measure of success. It has been exciting, therefore, to see RI farmers implementing the practices to which we’ve exposed them. Last year a diversified grower of pumpkins, winter squash, summer vegetables, and tree fruit experimented with Perimeter Trap Cropping (PTC) after attending our Twilight Meeting on the topic. This year, nearly half a dozen growers have responded to my call for on-farm demonstrations of the practice. The numbers may seem small, but we believe the results of successful “real-life” trials will prove more motivating than anything else.
There has also been growing evidence of our work positively influencing the decision-making and problem-solving processes for farmers. Over the past several months, I have encouraged nearly a dozen farmers to create whole-farm business plans. Two farmers consulted with me and then followed up on my referral to a local professional who is offering free business planning services for farmers.
The take-away message for this target is that “fostering adoption of sustainable practices” is a somewhat nebulous goal that cannot truly be measured in the span of a few years. Our surveys have shown that many of the topics we’ve presented have been a first-time exposure for many farmers. The interest—gauged by survey responses and follow-up conversations—combined with the few actual implementations suggests that we will see greater adoption of these practices in years to come.
TARGET 2: Of the 200 farmers/producers accessing information resources through call-in and electronic means, 100 will use the information gained to address immediate production issues and improve farming practices.
If we were to rephrase the target in terms of requests received rather than particular farmers accessing information, we would be able to assert that we had indeed met—even exceeded—this target. Most calls/e-mails received by the Extension Agent arose from an immediate felt need and resulted in an immediate action. However, the ratio of farmers who accessed information to the farmers who implemented that information is low enough to say that we probably did not meet the 50% goal.
The reasons for this are many. First, the majority of our contacts with farmers have been Agent-initiated rather than farmer-initiated, due to the advent of our monthly newsletter. Consequently, farmers are passively receiving information rather than actively seeking it . . . and are less likely to immediately act upon the information.
Second, there are always farmers who decide not to implement a practice because it conflicts with a personal conviction. One example of this was a small grower I visited last summer. He grew mostly tomatoes and peppers for his own salsa . . . which he used in his “other” job as a Mexican restaurateur. His plants were infested with giant hornworms that he was vainly trying to control with a pair of clippers. After discussing treatment options, the grower concluded that he would do nothing this year and continue his practice of “growing more plants than the pests can destroy” due to his aversion to applying any form of pesticide.
Even though we did not meet this target, we have certainly improved information access, availability, and implementation among RI farmers. Over 250 farmers have received access to information resources during the course of this project. The RI Ag Notes, our monthly newsletter, gets mailed to 253 Rhode Island farms and e-mailed to 140 farmers. (Some farms receive both the electronic and the print version.) The newsletter includes a “From the Extension Agent” section that highlights a particular production/business topic, a calendar providing information on Sustainable Agriculture workshops and events in the region, lists of funding opportunities, and an ever-expanding classifieds section. Readership seems moderately high: last month I forgot to attach the PDF version to my monthly e-mail, and half a dozen people e-mailed asking where it was before I could resend it! It also seems that farmers are acting upon the information in the newsletter. This year, as part of our State SARE PDP grant, we are providing supplies and technical support to implement PTC on area farms. Four farms have responded to either request for more information or to participate.
Our website has been another source for farmer information, and again it seems to be yielding results. Farms are using the site to hire help, to learn about funding opportunities, and to link to other informational sites. While we have documented evidence of multiple farms hiring help due to our site, the greatest traffic seems to come from beginning farmers. Nearly once a week a “new farmer” contacts our Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent, and almost half the time they have found us on the web. The rest are referred by another agricultural service provider, the URI Master Gardeners, URI staff/faculty, or an established farmer.
By far, however, the most-frequently used—and most effective–resource we provide is the Extension Agent herself. Over the course of the project, over 70 different farms have received site visits from the Agent. Many of those farms received multiple visits over the course of a growing season. These repeat visits were frequently follow-up calls, though many farmers requested multiple visits for different issues. One diversified grower, for example, received assistance with Cryptomeria scale on Christmas trees, scab control in apples, borer control in peaches, and powdery mildew on cucurbit crops in one year. As a result of each visit, the pests/diseases were correctly identified and a treatment plan was recommended and implemented.
In addition to site visits, farmers have appreciated the telephone and e-mail availability of the Extension Agent, feeling confident that calls and e-mails will be returned promptly. Her presence at professional organizational meetings has also proved beneficial. Farmers feel that they “know” their Extension Agent after seeing her at several different events over the course of a year. The incidental contact also provides additional opportunities for farmers to bring up production issues. The Extension Agent has made an estimated 1500 service contacts via these three outlets.
This project has reinforced for us the idea that an effective extension service includes a long-term commitment to farmer education and support. There is a definite need for the “immediate solution” to a particular issue that can often be solved by a trip to the internet or a quick phone call. However, the true value of Extension lies in the cumulative affects of general information presented through a variety of media and supported by a real person interacting with farmers on a day-to-day basis. That value is becoming evident in RI Agriculture as individual farms explore new techniques (for example, reduced tillage or PTC) only after hearing about it in a workshop, getting a “personal” invitation through the newsletter, and being offered on-farm technical support by a live person.
TARGET 3: Of the 50 farms participating in the case management component of our project, we project that 35 will undertake new and substantive sustainable production practices, crop diversification and/or alternative enterprises/marketing or other farm viability improvements.
Our understanding of “case management” has been refined over the course of this project. Rather than separating “case management” and “non-case management” farmer interactions, project personnel has come to see every interaction with farmers as “case management.” This goes back to our belief that true Extension is not about one-time solutions to isolated problems; Extension is the cumulative effect of many short-term interactions. Seen in this light, we have indeed met this goal.
The Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent has visited (most times more than once) over 70 farms since the project’s inception. The “purpose” of these visits has undergone a shift over the years. Initially, visits were either Agent-initiated (as a way of reintroducing Rhode Island’s agricultural community to the presence of an active Extension Agent) or problem-based (usually addressing a specific, current production issue). As the Extension Agent has gained “face recognition” and credibility, the proportion of farmer-initiated requests have increased. The majority of these are again production-driven: pest control, nutrient management, marketing options, equipment availability, etc. However, these requests are increasing in scope, increasingly moving from a single part to the whole farm.
Rather than only calling during the growing season because he has an unidentified pest, farmers are beginning to request information in the off-season to inform their future plans. One farmer called for assistance with a penetrometer to gauge the impact his production techniques were having on soil compaction. Another asked for pruning information for fruit trees and has since begun training young trees to avoid heavier pruning in later years.
Perhaps the largest increase in “traffic” is coming from beginning farmers, however. The Extension Agent fields about one request a week (on average) from this group. These include high school students looking for experience in/education in agriculture, college students with horticulture degrees who want to farm, twenty- and thirty-somethings with experience managing farms for others and a desire for a place of their own, second- or third-career professionals who want to “escape the rat race” and enter farming, and “accidental” farmers who buy a piece of land and discover they purchased a farm. The volume of these contacts is not as surprising when one considers that the 2007 Census of Agriculture reports a 42% increase in the number of RI farms over the past five years. These new farmers are on the rise, and they are looking to Extension for help getting started.
As we evaluate the success of this project and look ahead to the future, it is imperative that URI Cooperative Extension and its partners retain a broad view of “case management.” Each contact we have with farmers influences farm management. Some results are immediate: a farmer reduces pesticide application that season by adopting a different cultural practice. Some are longer in coming: the student-farmer who shadows a day of farm visits and realizes that “sustainable” is bigger than, and not synonymous with, organic develops an agricultural philosophy that will one day influence practices on a farm of her own.
The first step in this project was to convene an Advisory Committee made up of a cross-section from the agricultural community. Members included farmers (“organic” and “conventional”), state agricultural officials, University staff, and agricultural service providers. This group met several times a year over the life of the project to evaluate progress and make recommendations. They also provided input into the project’s most pivotal decision: the hiring of the project manager/Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent.
After a lengthy search process, Whitney (O’Hanian) Langone, was hired to manage the project and serve as the University of Rhode Island’s new Extension Agent. She spent much of the first year “getting the word out” to the agricultural community. She attended each commodity group’s annual meetings and state agricultural events, wrote articles for associations’ newsletters, and featured in several newspaper articles.
The project manager also worked assiduously to expand her professional expertise and regional integration. To that end, she attended training sessions throughout the Northeast on a variety of issues–greenhouse management, agricultural marketing, Christmas tree production, etc.—and enrolled in relevant courses outside of work hours. She joined the Steering Committee for the 2007 New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference, and offered to moderate two sessions.
Arguably her greatest time commitment, however, was meeting RI’s farmers. Using the available farm databases from the RI Division of Agriculture and Farm Fresh RI, the project manager made appointments with and visited farmers, offering technical support and leaving information about the project. She also made impromptu visits—if she spotted a farm while traveling through the state, she regularly stopped to introduce herself. The overall success of this project owes a great deal to her ability to initiate relationships with a wide variety of people, both farmers and non-farmers.
A key element of the proposal was the development of a web presence that could serve the needs of RI’s farmers with minimal personnel. The project manager therefore began work on the “Sustainable Agriculture @ URI” site. Initial drafts of the site incorporated the blog concept: the manager would post weekly articles that could be archived as a searchable database arranged by topic. Readers would have the opportunity to post responses to the articles, upon approval of the project manager. The hope was that farmers would begin conversations between each other, serving as farmer-educators of sorts.
At this point in the project (March 2007), the project manger had to transfer to a different state with her husband. Within six weeks a second project manager was hired, Kristen (Dame) Castrataro. Her first project was to work with the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) Information Technology (IT) to complete the website. Months of collaboration led to an eventual overhaul of the site, including virtual abandonment of the blog. The consensus between IT and the program manager was that most people accessing the site would be seeking a quick source of information rather than an open forum. The project also purchased a web maintenance program so the program manager could independently design and maintain the site.
The final result was the URI Sustainable Agriculture Website: http://cels.uri.edu/sustainableag. The site, which the program manager continues to maintain, links users to information on growing commercial crops and raising commercial livestock. An “Ag-links” page provides connections with the project’s affiliates as well as local agricultural associations and regional extension experts. The Events Calendar allows growers to quickly and easily identify relevant seminars, workshops, and agricultural events. The newest “Opportunities” page offers farmers, funding sources, and farm help a chance to advertise themselves. At this point in time, the site is efficient, organized, and streamlined. The project manager would like to see it become more comprehensive and interactive over time, but the realities of time and personnel currently keep modifications to a minimum.
The 2007 URI/CELS-RI Community Food Bank Project (RICFB) was an exceptionally successful example of an integrated program undertaken by this project. With funding provided by the RICFB, the RI Division of Agriculture, SARE, and in-kind contributions from URI/CELS, the project manager planned and supervised the growing and harvesting of 4.5 acres of specialty squash and cole crops at the URI/CELS agronomy field. Harvesters included students in URI 101 service learning classes, community members, 4-H club members, and CELS/URI staff. The fields produced over 76,000 pounds of produce which was distributed to needy families through the RICFB.
The RICFB project also served as a demonstration plot for trials of selected vegetable varieties and perimeter trap cropping (PTC), a technique which was virtually unknown in RI at that time. On September 13, 2007, the project manager hosted a Vegetable Twilight Meeting at the crop site. This training program allowed project staff to report on production results and techniques including an in-depth discussion of IPM/PTC. Guest speakers from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut presented research-based information on the principles of PTC as well as other IPM practices in cucurbits and brassicas.
The project manager had attended the 2007 SARE Summer PDP Meeting and Farm Tour and learned about SARE-sponsored soil health work. Encouraged by the success of the Vegetable Twilight Meeting, she subsequently arranged for a Soil Health Workshop at URI. On November 8, 2007, twenty-nine farmers and agriculturalists attended to hear researchers from Cornell University present information on the elements of soil health and reduced tillage for vegetable crops. Field demonstrations showcased the use of penetrometers, a rain simulation sprinkler, and a zone tiller in assessing and managing soil health. The program concluded with a demonstration by RI Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff of its Soil Quality Assessment instrument.
After each program, the project manager compiled and evaluated survey results. One of the recommendations from the surveys was creation of an agricultural newsletter. The project manager followed up on the suggestion, and in January 2008 the first edition of the RI Ag Notes went out via email and post. Like the website, the newsletter is still a work in progress. Each month’s edition includes a simple change: masthead improvement, formatting to PDF, inclusion of a new section.
Also like the website, the information provided can be summarized as “short, sweet, and to the point.” The project manager picks one topic a month to highlight in “From the Extension Agent.” The remainder of the newsletter is a restatement of the information on the website’s “Opportunities” and “Events/Calendar” pages. Farmer feedback supports providing the information in the two forms: most farmers claim to primarily access information through only one medium.
While emails from and discussions with farmers suggest that the newsletter is meeting a felt need, the project manager would like to expand the RI Ag Notes. Thoughts include a RI Farm Profile and informational updates from industry professionals. Time and personnel again pose a problem, however. For several months, an AmeriCorps student has volunteered time to assist the project manager in formatting the newsletter. Once she graduates in May, the project manager will again resume that role.
The major research component of this project was to determine if there existed significant unmet needs for sustainable agriculture technical support for Rhode Island’s commercial farmers, what that need looked like, and how URI could best address that need. To that end, the project developed a written survey which was widely distributed to the Rhode Island agricultural community. Access to the survey was available though several means. Surveys were distributed and collected at each of the URI-sponsored grower-meetings. A copy of the survey was included in the URI/Extension Sustainable Agriculture Twilight Meeting Program, the February 2008 RI Ag Notes, and in several agricultural producer newsletters. An interactive version of the survey was posted on the URI Sustainable Agriculture Website. The survey format was primarily multiple-choice, but there were also opportunities for respondents to clarify their answers. Some questions also allowed for multiple answers.
Our interpretation of these survey results together with face-to-face farmer interviews is that, overwhelmingly, Rhode Island’s small-scale food and fiber producers need and value timely crop information, technical support, and training. Moreover, the majority of farmers favor a cooperative extension system that provides live, one-on-one information (via phone and e-mail) and in-person service delivery in the form of on-site farm visits. This information was compiled in July 2008 into a “popular report” designed for distribution to the Advisory Committee and for posting on the Sustainable Agriculture Website.
Due in large part to staffing changes throughout the project, the Principal Investigator asked for and received a six-month extension to continue the work started under this grant. That enabled the project manager to continue farm site visits, engage in additional regional collaborations, and host a second Vegetable Twilight Meeting not recorded in the popular report.
Held at the URI Agronomy fields on August 18, 2008, the meeting highlighted three areas: 2.5 acres of PTC winter squash, 2 acres of carrot and brassica variety trials, and a small area of organically-grown heirloom tomatoes grown on different kinds of mulch. Jude Boucher from UCONN shared information on Reduced Tillage and PTC; Rebecca Brown (URI Plant Sciences) gave the results of her tomato work; Kristen Dame explained the variety trials. Follow-up surveys suggested that one educational experience is not enough to change most individuals’ behavior . . . and therefore a vibrant and effective agricultural Extension program should provide multiple educational opportunities on the same critical topics.
- By November 2007, 50 farmers had participated in the case management component by accessing information regarding new sustainable practices, farm viability/diversification enterprises, and/or business improvements. By March 2008, that number has grown to over 250. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least 20 farms have implemented one new practice such as developing a business plan, trying an alternative growing practice, or entering a new market.
By February 2008, 250 farmers had used electronic information channels established specifically for this project, including telephone, email, and web-based systems. Telephone and email have been the greatest resources in meeting this milestone: the project manager has engaged in over 1000 such contacts. Our monthly newsletter is mailed to 253 farmers and emailed to 140. (Some farms received both versions.) This has exceeded our goal of 200 farmer contacts. The Sustainable Agriculture @ URI website is live 24/7. Unfortunately, our IT department has been unable to configure a hit counter that works with our server, so we cannot determine the precise number of daily hits on the site. However, the project manager weekly refers farmers to the site for production information, local resources, and the like.
By February 2008, the pieces of a new and sustainable RI Extension system of on-the-ground technical support providing access to timely agricultural research were in place. A Sustainable Agriculture Extension Agent was in place by February 2006, telephone and email services by March 2006, a web presence by August 2007, and a print/digital newsletter by January 2008.
Substantial support of long-term Extension services to RI’s commercial growers came in June 2008 when SARE R&E funding for the project manager’s salary dropped below 100%. At that point, the University of Rhode Island had to decide whether or not to discontinue the position with the end of SARE funding. Members of RI’s agricultural community—farmers, ag service providers, and Advisory Committee members–wrote to the University encouraging continuation of the position. RI NRCS provided supplemental funding in the form of grower-related contracts. The project manager joined with a colleague on two successful grant applications. SARE approved the use of state PDP monies to support a portion of salary. The University then stepped up and committed the remaining salary. It was then that URI truly revived its commitment to providing Extension services to her commercial farmers.
Outreach and education efforts included presentations at local grower meetings and agricultural events, participation in statewide committees and organizations, newspaper articles, television appearances, newsletters, emails, website, and farm visits. Publications include a popular report available in hard copy (24 copies printed) or on-line at http://cels.uri.edu/sustainableag/index.html, 200 “Technical Support” Brochures that have been distributed at farmer meetings and agricultural events, a stand-alone tri-fold display that has been presented at local fairs, festivals, and grower meetings, RI Ag Notes, a monthly agricultural newsletter distributed in print and digital formats, and event programs for distribution at grower meetings, workshops, and twilight meetings (approximately 25 each event).
All methods have been effective at educating the public of our activities: each outreach venue has resulted in increased telephone and email traffic. However, all have not been equally effective at reaching the target audience. The “mass media” approaches—TV, newspaper, etc.—garnered more reactions from the non-farming public (homeowners/hobby gardeners) than from commercial farmers. Unsurprisingly, the farmer-specific methods resulted in increased numbers of farmer-initiated inquiries.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
A.Re-established Rhode Island as part of the Northeast Region’s agricultural community.
•Project manager(s) served on the steering committee for four regional grower-training programs: 2006 Reading the Farm; 2007 Greenhouse Tomato Conference; 2007 New England Vegetable & Fruit Growers’ Conference; 2009 New England Vegetable & Fruit Growers’ Conference.
•Project manager(s) assisted in promoting regional grower-trainings via email, print newsletters, and website.
•Project manager(s) hosted regional experts on production issues in three separate events.
B.Re-established the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension as a site for farmers to access timely information on sustainable practices, diversification opportunities, and the like.
•Vegetable Twilight Meeting: September 13, 2007
A total of 45 people attended, including RI farmers, local agricultural service providers, URI Master Gardeners, and URI staff and students. Program evaluations distributed at the end of the Vegetable Twilight Meeting showed:
19 out of 29 respondents (65.5%) had a first-time exposure to PTC at the meeting
19 out of 29 respondents (65.5%) intended to use/recommend PTC in the future [with an additional 3 out of 29 (10.3%) being unsure]
average usefulness rating of the meeting was “4” (on a 1-5 scale with “5” being “very useful”)
•Soil Health Workshop: November 8, 2007
A total of 29 people attended, including RI farmers, local agricultural service providers, and URI staff and students. Post-program feedback/assessment indicated that the primary goal of the workshop was met: 93% of participants felt more informed about soil health after attending. An unexpected secondary benefit was the sense of community and the genuine appreciation expressed by the farmers. Their positive comments suggest that they would welcome future programs or workshops.
•Vegetable Twilight Meeting: August 18, 2008
Twenty-four farmers, ag service providers, and URI faculty/staff attended. The post-survey results support our belief that Extension requires a long-term approach rather than a single-shot effort. At our 2007 Vegetable Twilight Meeting, 65.5% of respondents reported a first-time exposure to PTC compared to 48% in 2008. For the Reduced Tillage (RT) questions in 2008, 1/3 of respondents reported a first-time exposure, and ¾ of all respondents were interested in attending additional RT trainings.
C.Re-established an interactive system of information access and site evaluations for farmers.
•Provided 24-hour access to agricultural extension resources via the Sustainable Agriculture @ URI website. The site is arranged by commodity group and features links to common production issues. An “Ag-Links” page highlights regional extension services, RI agricultural groups, and national funding/information sites. The “Events/Calendar” provides information on local and regional agricultural trainings/events.
•Provided the “human” touch by enabling clients to contact the project manager via telephone or e-mail. The manager has participated in over 1000 such contacts over the course of the project.
•Provided on-farm consultations to over 70 different farms during the project.
•Outreach materials created for the project include:
oA popular report available in hard copy (24 copies printed) or on-line at http://cels.uri.edu/sustainableag/index.html
o200 “Technical Support” Brochures that have been distributed at farmer meetings and agricultural events
oA stand-alone tri-fold display that has been presented at local fairs, festivals, and grower meetings
oMulti-media outreach such as television appearances and newspaper articles
oThe “Sustainable Agriculture @ URI Website”
oRI Ag Notes, a monthly agricultural newsletter
oEvent programs for distribution at grower meetings, workshops, and twilight meetings (approximately 25 each event)
D.Results of the “Survey Addressing URI Cooperative Extension’s Sustainable Agricultural Project”
The “Survey Addressing URI Cooperative Extension’s Sustainable Agriculture Project” was designed with several questions in mind:
•How frequently did farmers access Cooperative Extension Services?
•What forms of communication did farmers prefer to use when interacting with Cooperative Extension personnel?
•What services did farmers appreciate about the existing extension system?
•What services did farmers feel were lacking in the existing extension system?
A total of 74 farmers returned completed surveys.
Survey results indicated that Cooperative Extension services are important to Rhode Island’s farmers. Almost 2/3 of respondents contacted the extension office at least once in the last year. Nearly 1/3 required pest identification.
Perhaps the most important results involved the communication methods farmers preferred to use with Cooperative Extension. Results indicated that the majority of respondents preferred to contact their Extension specialist by telephone. To receive information, there was a near split between paper mailings, e-mail, farm visits, and phone calls. Only nine individuals selected the website.
The services farmers most appreciated about URI’s current extension service were (in order of preference) site visits, pest identification, telephone consulting, and the website. Every survey opportunity—the general survey as well as event-specific surveys—included a number of free responses complimenting the services provided by this project.
The economic repercussions of this project are already underway. The measurement, however, cannot be made in dollars and cents. Rather, it is evident in the sense of optimism one feels when gathered with local farmers. It is also seen in the increased interaction between URI Cooperative Extension, RI NRCS, RI DEM/Division of Ag., RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education, RI Farm Bureau, the RI Conservation Districts, and the many other agriculture service providers in the Ocean State. The manager for this project is a key participant in two exciting grant proposals in RI—one for creating a beginning farmer program at URI and another for restructuring the RI Agricultural Community. (The latter project has also received state SARE PDP funds for the creation of a RI Agricultural Collaborative.) Each of us involved in these projects is hoping that, at the end of five years, Rhode Island will have a solid, self-sustaining system in place for training and equipping new and existing farmers in every aspect of farming—from machinery and land acquisition to business planning to on-farm technical support services. With that, perhaps we will see another 42% increase in RI farms at the publishing of the next Census of Agriculture. .
This project is coming to be seen as one of the most influential projects currently influencing farm viability in Rhode Island. The farmers are increasingly utilizing URI Cooperative Extension as a resource for information and services. With easier access to personalized recommendations, farmers are more willing and able to explore new opportunities for sustainability and diversity.
The project manager also advises the State Conservation Committee and the State Technical Team, two groups that influence policy and practice on RI agricultural lands. These activities combined with the grant proposals mentioned earlier, could determine the future framework for farming in Rhode Island. While one cannot reliably predict “what-ifs,” it is arguable that Rhode Island’s agricultural landscape would look much different today if this position had not been funded.
Areas needing additional study
During the course of this project, RI agriculture has received a great deal of attention from those within the project as well as from those without. In order to maximize our agricultural potential, it is clear that Rhode Island farmers need the following:
•Access to affordable farmland
•Education/training for beginning as well as established farmers
•Greater coordination between the state’s agricultural service providers
•Improved agricultural infrastructure (processing facilities, machinery, etc.)
The success of this project has encouraged farmers and agricultural service providers to believe that, working together, we can resolve these issues. The first step—multi-agency, multi-state collaboration on two ambitious grants—is underway. Continued communication and collaboration will follow. The future of Rhode Island agriculture has never looked brighter.