A lack of trusted and useful information has been identified as a major impediment to adoption of more sustainable practices by farmers in the United States. Surveyed farmers report they receive the most useful and trusted information from other farmers. However, making contact with other farmers who have wisdom to offer is the most common stumbling block.
In Maine we have shown that a solution to a farmer’s ability to make contact with other farmers who are already using sustainable practices is a Farmer-to-Farmer Directory. Our project is an update of MOFGA’s first SARE-funded Farmer-to-Farmer Directory, produced over a dozen years ago. Under the original project, we created a directory of farmers who were exemplary in their use of one or more sustainable practices. The directory was very well received and is still being used; however after more than twelve years it was in need of an update. Many of the identified exemplary farmers are out of the business because of age, family matters, social issues, etc. And, of course, there were many new farmers to add.
Extension, NRCS and other farm advisers helped identify the exemplary farmers. The goal of the directory is to identify farmers with knowledge and experience to offer others, and to provide an opening for farmers seeking out advice. For example, after an early harvest of peas a farmer may be looking for advice on which cover crop to plant that best fits particular needs in their farm system. They would use the Directory and call another farmer saying, ” I saw you listed in the Farmer to Farmer Directory, and…..”.
The new directory, similar to the original one, is indexed by practice. Each entry includes farmer contact information and a brief description of the farm and the exemplary practices. The directory also includes photographs of the practices and farmers in action.
Unlike the first edition of the directory, we now have the ability to make the information accessible to more farmers though computer-based, interactive web posting systems. This will allow the directory to be much more easily and economically updated on a regular basis than was the edition of twelve years ago, which was only available in hard copy.
Vegetable, small fruit and livestock farmers want to make a profit while producing healthful food. Many simultaneously strive to improve their farm systems and minimize environmental impacts by using sustainable farming practices that conserve soil, water and nutrients; recycle fertility; and prevent farm chemicals from polluting soil, air and water. These farmers do not use, or at least minimize the use of, synthetic chemicals for pest control. Those who manage livestock use methods such as rotational intensive grazing that increase the productivity of cropland.
Few farmers know and have adopted all of the best sustainable crop and livestock practices, but many employ one or more. Most commonly, farmers identify a lack of trusted and useful information as the major impediment to adopting additional sustainable practices.
Surveyed farmers say that the most useful and trusted information comes from other farmers, but making contacts is difficult. One solution is a Farmer-to-Farmer Directory.
In 1993, MOFGA published its first Farmer-to-Farmer Directory and with Maine Cooperative Extension began cosponsoring the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference every fall. Both were part of a project funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is part of USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The 1993 directory became sorely outdated, so in 2005 SARE awarded MOFGA a grant to update it.
This updated directory has the same format as the earlier edition. I received help in identifying exemplary farmers from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension educators around the state, NRCS staff, private farm consultants, MOFGA certification inspectors and other farmers. Farmers were identified as exemplary growers if one or more practices on their farms stood out and other farmers could learn from them. The directory is cross-referenced by practice, farm and location, and includes contact information for farmers. Obviously, I might have missed some very noteworthy farmers and suggestions for future updates are welcome. This directory will be maintained on the MOFGA website (www.mofga.org) and be kept up to date.
The directory is not a how-to book. Rather, it is a list of farmers who have useful information and who are willing to share their expertise with other farmers. Practices are described only briefly. The aim of the project is to facilitate information exchange among farmers and increase awareness of the best, innovative and farm-proven, sustainable crop and livestock practices. Those farms producing certified organic products are noted in the text.
1. One hundred farmers in Maine will identify practices useful to their system and have farmer contact information for learning these practices.
We have fallen a bit short of this performance target. There are 85 farms noted in the directory. More farms that were noted in the first edition of the directory were lost than I originally thought, and so that brings the total number down. Still, I think the project is a success because the farms noted are very willing and able to share their wisdom with other farmers and collectively they have a tremendous pool of disdom.
Furthermore, while compiling the list of exemplary farmers I came across a growing number of rookie farmers who are just short of being exemplary, often only because of their young age and limited years of experience. These farmers are graduates of the MOFGA apprenticeship and journey person programs and have learned a great deal from their mentors. In just a small number of years I bet they will be added to the directory.
2. Fifty farmers will make new contacts and learn and adopt new practices for increasing farm productivity through better crop, soil, and livestock management, reducing the farm’s environmental impact.
This will happen over the next few years as the directory was just completed and is just now being distributed to growers and being posted on the internet. I will ask a sample of growers to keep records of contacts initiated by them or made to them as a result of the directory and compile that information in order to verify the success of the project.
The first milestone of the project was the crux of it all and that was the identification of farmers in Maine that could be considered exemplary because of one or more of their sustainable farming practices. I started by making contact from over 30 people who serve the farming community in Maine. These farm advisors have an accomplished awareness of who is farming with practices that improve the productivity of the farm and protect the environment. These people work for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, Seed Companies, MOFGA Organic Certification Services or are private crop advisors. Together we were able to identify over one hundred farmers who are potentially noteworthy for the directory.
I made contact and received responses from nearly all of the identified farmers by phone, mail or email and arranged times to visit the farm to document and assess their farming practices. The summers and the falls of the first two years of the project were spent visiting these farms and sitting at kitchen tables getting descriptions of soil care, composting, weed and pest management and other noteworthy practices. Discussions with these farmers, and farmers noted in the original Directory to update their entry, revealed the details and often resulted in choosing not to include the farm. But more frequently the visit resulted in a clear awareness on my part of the great resource out there among the farmers from which other farmers and advisors could learn.
The information collected was maintained in the Filemaker Pro 7 database program. The data includes contact information, a description of the farm and a account of the exemplary practices. The directory was created by turning the Filemaker Pro files into a Word file and then formatting it similar to the first edition of the directory. Photographs taken during the farm visits were selected and incorporated into the final version of the directory.
Printed copies of the directory will be provided to all of the farmers included in the directory, to all of the farm advisors that helped me identify farms, to any other farm advisor that I feel will make good use of it and additional copies will be made available by MOFGA. Additionally, the directory will be posted on the MOFGA website and be kept up to date.
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
The impact of the directory will be measured over the next few months and coming years. As demonstrated by the first edition of the directory, farmers will use the tool when needed during the growing season to gather information needed to solve a specific crisis, and will use the directory to gather information for whole system changes only during the off-season. I will ask farmers in the directory to keep track of contacts initiated by them or made to them in order to verify success of the directory in facilitating exchange of information among farmers striving to farm in the most sustainable fashion possible.