Integrated learning courses for organic and sustainable vegetable production

Final Report for LNE09-283

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $158,961.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Enid Wonnacott
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
Co-Leaders:
Dr. Wendy Sue Harper
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

The overarching goal of this three-year project was to increase economic viability and improve the sustainability of organic and sustainable production practices on vegetable farms in the Northeast. The primary tools were four workshops that offered training and mentorship focused on farm production and management skills, farmer-to farmer mentoring, collaborative learning opportunities among farmers and other agricultural professionals, and enterprise analysis. Four learning courses were created: Soil and Fertility Management, Pest Management, Marketing, and On-Farm Energy. Each course had a set of specific performance targets and methods designed to offer participants new management techniques or practices and mentorship, as well as enterprise analysis to help integrate what they learned into their farms.  The target was for 100 farmers to participate in the learning courses, for 70 to learn and implement at least 2 new production practices or marketing skills and for 16 farmers to complete an enterprise analysis to measure changes in profitability based on new practices adopted.  In addition, a target was for 20 farmers to develop a work plan with a farmer mentor.  Although the structure of both the Marketing and On-Farm Energy Courses was modified to couple the workshops with other learning opportunities taking place, and therefore more difficult to accurately determine the number of participants, we conservatively reached 105 farmers through the learning courses, with the majority (88-100% of respondents) stating that learned at least 2 new production practices.  Only 6 farmers completed a full enterprise analysis, with 5 of the 6 significantly increasing their new gross annual income from 37% to 565%.  Mentoring relationships were developed with 14 course participants, shy of our target of 20, but two mentor trainings were held and 75 farmers committed to serve as mentors and are interested in further training. Due to a change in the principal investigator in 2011, we received an extension in order to redesign and carry out the fourth course in the series, On-Farm Energy. During the course of this project, we saw an increase in late season and winter growing, a growing interest and need for season extension to meet new market demands and to mitigate climate change.  We used these factors to adjust the Marketing and On-Farm Energy learning course format to meet the interests of the farmer participants.

Introduction:

The goal of this grant was to increase the viability of organic and sustainable vegetable operations in the Northeast by providing new tools and information. This proposal was designed in response to a technical assistance survey in 2006, which found that organic vegetable producers in Vermont lacked in-depth educational opportunities, were interested in developing learning communities with other farmers, and sought the skills required to assess the efficacy of changes in their farm management.   In response, this project was designed to provide technical information using farmers as teachers, researchers, extension specialists, and other regional experts to provide a structured learning opportunity.  The essential elements of the project were to: 1) Develop four technical courses in organic vegetable production and marketing, 2) conduct enterprise analysis to assess changes in profitability, 3) hold on-farm demonstrations, 4) develop a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program, and 5) create collaborative learning opportunities among farmers and other agricultural professionals. The proposal responded to the growing demand for locally produced vegetables for both wholesale and direct markets – for some participating farmers that meant an increase in their capacity to meet the growing demand for fresh, locally-produced vegetables, while other farmers maintained their current level of production, but improved the efficiency of their production systems.

Performance Target:

The proposal, as submitted, had detailed performance targets, with each component of the project having different performance targets:  the four learning courses, mentoring, enterprise analysis, on-line courses and on-farm demonstrations.  Progress on reaching each performance target is detailed below.

Performance target for the Soil and Fertility Management Learning Course:
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new soil management techniques (chemical, physical or biological) and 17 completed a soil fertility management plan based on soil, plant tissues, or media tests that improved management of the soil for fertility, biodiversity and tilth.  In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a new management technique and 10 participants positively changed their fertility management based on their soil fertility plan.

Progress towards reaching performance target:
25 farmers participated in the course.  Of those 17 completed the post-course evaluation.  The 17 farmers responding (100%) learned at least 2 new techniques. Data showed that 7 learned over 5 new techniques, 7 learned 3 to 5 new techniques, 2 learned 2-3 new techniques, no farmers learned 0-1 new techniques; one farmer did not answer the question. The course was highly rated by the 17 farmers. 16 farmers “strongly agreed” that the course will help improve their soil health and fertility system and 1 “agreed”. 14 strongly agreed that they were inspired to learn more and 3 agreed. Farmers enjoyed the learning sessions with other farmers best. The soils course evaluation also showed that it increased farmers’ knowledge on soil health, soil fertility, and nutrient management and soil fertility planning. 14 farmers said by quite a bit, 3 said some, and no farmers said little or none. 

We were less successful at meeting the target of completed soil fertility management plans. One farmer completed their soil fertility management plan and 2 farmers mostly completed it. The rest needed more time, on-going technical assistance support or some data such as nutrient value of compost to complete their plans. We learned from the soils course that each course must consistently be focused on the performance target goals in each session, in this case completing a nutrient management plan, in order to achieve them.

Performance target for the Pest and Disease Management Learning Course:
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned the life-cycle and management for two pests, insects or weeds, or diseases on their farms and 17 developed 2 new management strategies. In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a technique that improved pest and disease management; and 10 growers increased their marketable yield of a crop by 10% due to their management changes.

Progress towards reaching performance target:
The Pest Management Course was organized by Eric Sideman, Vegetable Specialist for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.  37 farmers attended the course, exceeding our target.  Individual course sessions were highly rated by the 31-37 farmers that attended. On average 88.4% of farmers who took the course “strongly intended” to make at least 2 changes in their pest management strategies. Farmers expressed a preference for the learning sessions with other farmers. The pest course evaluation also demonstrated increased farmers’ knowledge on pest stage vulnerability, approaches to insect pest management, preventing seed rain, timing of weed management, the relationship of cover crops and weeds, and management of specific diseases and resources. Even though overall course evaluations were sent to the farmers, we were not successful at capturing evaluation data in the season after the course had been completed.

Performance target for the Marketing Course: 
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new marketing techniques and 17 developed a draft marketing plan. In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a technique and/or developed a new customer relationship/market during the previous growing season; and 10 growers met or exceeded a goal of their marketing plan (such as increasing or maintaining sales volume, implementing new pricing structures, or increasing gross sales).

Progress towards reaching performance target:
The marketing course was rescheduled to start on November 16th, 2010; however its attendance was lower than desired with 9 growers. When prospective participants were surveyed, the majority preferred that we couple the marketing workshops with other learning opportunities taking place.  Based on that, the course was changed from a three session course in the fall to a course that had one session in the fall, the second session took place as a 3 workshop “marketing track” at the January 9, 2011 NOFA-VT Direct Marketing Conference, and the final session occurred in January, 2012. 13 farmers participated in the 3 session marketing course. In addition to the five farms who developed marketing plans and completed enterprise analyses, 12 people who responded to a follow-up evaluation survey conducted in 2012 reported increased knowledge, skill and confidence in their ability to market their products. Of those, 7 farmers specifically reported improving their marketing via tools such as marking planning templates and worksheets and enterprise budgets. Participants reported that these tools helped them understand and manage costs and identify specific and achievable targets for sales volume, price points and market channels.

Performance Target for the On-Farm Energy Learning Course:
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new on-farm energy management techniques and 17 completed an energy audit, outlining strategies to increase their energy efficiency and/or reduction in energy use. In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 producer participants will have implemented two energy saving techniques and practices. These changes will result in a $500 reduction in costs from the previous growing season.

Progress towards reaching performance target:
Only four growers registered for the on-farm energy course, which was scheduled to start on November 4th, 2010. Although farmers expressed interest in the course topic, they said they could not commit to a fall course because many of them had started winter growing, a practice that was not taking place when this proposal was written.  Many farmers expressed they were too busy planting and growing winter greens, harvesting and handling storage crops, and selling at winter farmers markets and CSAs to attend a fall course. The increase in late season farming activities required rethinking the timing and duration of course activities.  Although the proposal, as written, was designed so that the courses would meet 3 times, with 3 classes over nine weeks, we adjusted the format to meet the needs of the participants, with the Energy Course designed to meet 3 times, at existing gatherings of farmers.  The first part of the On-farm Energy Course was a 6 hour intensive held on February 10, 2012, entitled Renewable Energy Options On-Farm and Alternative Fuels for Greenhouses.  The first half of the full day workshop outlined how to conduct an on-farm energy audit and various options for financing renewable projects, while the second half examined on-farm solutions to alternative energy and greenhouse heating.  Several industry experts including Encore Development, All-Earth Renewables, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Efficiency Vermont and farmers shared their experiences with solar, wind, cordwood, biomass, and wood pellets. A total of 23 people attended the workshop.

The second part of the course was held on December 5-6, 2012, and attended by 117 growers. This commercial-grower focused two-day conference consisted of 14 different workshops on topics including tunnel design and construction, winter growing systems, moveable tunnels, production and marketing, and niche crops for tunnels.  The workshops addressed elements of each of the learning courses:  Soil Fertility and Management, Pest and Disease Management, Marketing and On-Farm Energy.  Presenters included established farmers from Vermont and New England and researchers from both the University of Vermont and University of Maine.

The third part of the course consisted of on-farm demonstrations highlighting tunnel and greenhouse designs demonstrating renewable energy use and energy efficiency.  A total of 72 farmers and service providers attended these on-farm workshops.

Because different farmers attended the different sessions, we were not able to meet our original performance targets of development of energy audits and post-course energy savings.  Instead, we evaluated each session with a focus on what additional learning would be most valuable for the participating farmers, so that we could design subsequent workshops or demonstrations to meet their needs.

Performance target for Mentoring:
At the end of the growing season in which the 20 producers have participated in the mentoring component, completed surveys will show that 18 participants implemented two new practices that increase the viability of their farms due to management changes, new marketing strategies or production efficiencies.

Performance target for Quality of Life:
After the growing season in which the producer has participated in the mentoring component, completed surveys will show that of the 20 growers mentored, 16 growers had a positive increase or change in one of the following seven quality of life indicators:  1) Growers were able to take a family vacation; 2) Growers were able to have more time off; 3) Growers increased salaries, savings, or had profit to reinvest back into the farm business; 4) Acquired health insurance; 5) Contributed money to a retirement plan; 6) Growers had a more positive outlook on the farm business; 7) Had a more positive attitude about life and less overall stress; and/or 8) Growers were able to work fulltime on the farm.

Progress towards reaching mentoring and quality of life performance targets:
The objective was to facilitate 5 mentoring relationships per course, for a total of 20 mentoring relationships over 4 courses. With many farmers in Vermont who had served as unofficial mentors to other farmers, a priority of this target was to formalize our farmer-to-farmer mentor program, including roles and expectations, contracts, and payment structure.  Two, one-day mentor trainings were held; one in January, 2010, was developed in collaboration with UVM Extension and held in Montpelier for potential mentors in the soils and marketing course; 6 potential farmer mentors and 3 agricultural service providers attended. A second mentor training was held in 2011; 14 farmers and 5 agricultural professionals were trained.  We ended up having five farmers commit as mentors for 3 of the courses (Soil, Pest and Marketing) and four farmers commit as mentors for the On-Farm Energy course. In addition, due to our outreach about the development of the mentorship program as part of this project, we now have 75 farmers interested in mentorship. 

We were successful at developing 4 mentoring relationships in the Soils Course, 6 mentor-mentee pairs in the Pest Management Course, 2 mentor-mentee pairs in the Marketing Course and 2 mentoring relationships in the On-Farm Energy Course, for a total of 14 mentor-mentee pairs, shy of our performance objective of 20. The mentor and mentee pairs signed an agreement, detailing their objectives and what they hoped to accomplish, and established a structure for when they would meet.  Each mentor was committed to work with their mentee for up to 25 hours, and were compensated $500 for their time and $100 for travel. At the conclusion of the mentorship, both the mentor and mentee completed an evaluation that summarized their accomplishments, the total hours spent mentoring, the method of communication that was most effective, and suggestions for improving the mentorship program.  Mentorships generally included two farm visits (one to the mentor’s farm and one to the mentee’s farm) and e-mail and phone conversations.   For example, the mentor in the On-farm Energy Course reported that her mentees came to her farm to see her hoophouse construction, watering systems, and bed layout/planting plans.  The mentor visited the mentee farm to discuss fall planting schedule, greens variety, hoophouse management and bed layout. The evaluations showed that of the 14 mentor-mentee pairs, all 14 implemented at least two new practices that they perceived will increase the viability of their farms and increase their quality of life. The mentorship was really only able to address the quality of life targets of farm viability (#3), and the positive outlook of the growers (#6).  We would have to design a different evaluation framework to comprehensively assess quality of life indicators.

Performance target for enterprise analysis:
After the growing season in which the producer implemented changes as a result of participation in the courses or mentoring program, 13 participants of the 16 conducting an enterprise analysis increased their net profits by at least $1,000.

Progress towards reaching performance target:
Although 9 farmers signed up to conduct an enterprise analysis, only 6 farms completed the analysis.  5 of 6 completing the analysis significantly increased their net gross (versus net) annual income, as follows:

Farm 1 showed improvement in gross income of 83%, growing gross annual income by $9,555 from 11,445 in 2010 to 21,000 in 2011.

Farm 2 showed improvement in gross income of 37%, growing gross annual income by $72,684 from $196,329 in 2010 to $269,013 in 2011.

Farm 3 showed improvement in gross income of 98%, growing gross annual income by $48,000 from $50,000 in 2011 to $99,000 in 2012.  The farm also came in under budget on expense projections by 5%. 

Farm 4 showed improvement in gross income of 37%, growing gross annual income by $19,646 from $53,800 in 2010 to $73,446 in 2011. 

Farm 5 showed improvement in gross income of 565%, growing gross annual income by $22,382 from $3,963 in 2010 to $26,345 in 2011.

Farm 6 showed no improvement in gross income.  Gross annual income was $2,657 in 2010 and $2,333 in 2011.  Lack of improvement was because the farmer did not follow through on the action items and cut her season short due to pregnancy, maternity, and childbirth.

Online Courses (Marketing and On-Farm Energy Courses) Performance Target:
Six months after online courses are on the web, data collected will show that each course had 1,000 hits with web visits averaging 5 minutes or more. A producer’s questionnaire will show that 100 farmers have decided to make a positive change as a result of viewing online course materials.

Status of reaching the online courses performance target:
An Online Energy Course was developed, in collaboration with Chris Callahan, UVM Extension Agricultural Engineer, consisting of 7 videos from the On-Farm Energy and Greenhouse Tunnel Tour.  6 of the on-farm demonstrations were held in March and April, 2013 and the final workshop, Four Season High Tunnel Production, was held September 16, 2013 at Walker Farm in Dummerston, VT. Topics include: high tunnel vs. greenhouse use, house construction decisions, envelope decisions (sealing, insulation, blankets/curtains), heating (fuels and distribution systems), ventilation, watering / nutrient controls, controls and monitoring, ergonomics and workflow.  Seven videos, based on on-farm demonstrations from the Energy Course were uploaded to you tube, starting July 2, 2013, with the last video uploaded on October 31, 2013.  The videos average 35 minutes in duration and each detail a high tunnel vs. greenhouse use. The on-line course can be seen at: http://bit.ly/NOFAVTTunnelTour2013. Since being posted, there have been 503 total views, for a total of 60 hrs, and many farmers have commented that their will be more viewers this winter.  To date, there has been an average of 7 minutes per view. Whereas we did not complete an on-line questionnaire, we did receive some supportive testimonials – here is one from a farmer viewer: 

The video is extremely helpful and timely for our farm since we are adding in-ground radiant heat to a new greenhouse. Jon has a wealth of knowledge about growing vegetables with the added dimension of energy cost savings and technical advancements for collecting data on greenhouse growing. I learn something new every time I view this video. Thanks and keep em coming!

The Online Marketing Course was developed by Beth Holtzman, Coordinator of the New Farmer Project at the University of Vermont.  The online resources consist of informational resources and tools used in the marketing classes, in additional to other resources, at the New Farmer Project’s “Marketing Toolshed,” at http://www.uvm.edu/newfarmer. A portal to information and resources, the New Farmer Project website is used by a network of Vermont organizations serving beginning farmers (those with less than 10 years commercial experience).

Whereas online courses typically have a start and end date, the Marketing Toolshed allows farmers of all stages to access (and return to) a wide range of marketing resources and tools at the time they are relevant to the farm operation. As a result, the online educational offerings reached more people than originally intended. Between 2012 and 2013, the online marketing resource pages were accessed 3429 times, with about a third of visitors returning at least once within the year. On average, individuals visit three pages, and their average visit time per page varies between 2 and 7 minutes. The large variation reflects the fact that some pages primarily contain links to downloadable fact sheets, webinars, tools and other content, whereas other pages are quite content heavy.

Included on the website is a series of hour-long webinar recordings that cover building an online and social media marketing presence, principles of direct marketing through CSA, farmstands, farmers markets and PYO operations, managing food safety risks, direct marketing, developing a pricing plan, and marketing to restaurants. The slide sets and other supporting materials are also generally available for download. On average, about 15 people participated in each live webinar, and within a year an equal number viewed the recording.  Of the 276 people who responded to a 2013 New Farmer Project survey, 51 farmers reported making improvements in marketing as a result of services they received from a New Farmer Network partner organization or resources they accessed through the New Farmer Project website. The development of the webinars and website was also supported by the USDA BFRDP program and the Northeast Center for Risk Management Education.

On-Farm Demonstrations Performance Target:
An average of 20 producers will attend on-farm demonstrations. After the demonstration, participant surveys will show that 10 producers will plan to implement one new practice.

Approved change in performance target:  In May, 2010, we requested a change to the performance target, to have the option to hold either on-farm demonstrations or a session at NOFA-VT’s annual winter conference for commercial producers.  This request for a change is partly due to the positive farmer feedback we received on our winter conference session on winter growing (part of SARE GrantONE08-084). Farmers really liked hearing a panel of farmers talking on the same topic about things they discovered on their farms. We requested to use this as a model to include panels of farmers from the courses discussing what they had learned about soils, on-farm energy, marketing or pest management.  The approved rewritten performance target is: An average of 20 producers will attend on-farm demonstrations or panel discussions at the winter conference. After the demonstration or panel discussion, participant surveys will show that 10 producers will plan to implement one new practice.

Status of reaching the On-Farm Demonstrations target:
We held one on-farm soil management demonstration in September, 2010; 39 farmers and 3 agriculture service providers attended. A lunch-time roundtable on soil management was held at the NOFA-VT Winter conference in 2011 with 53 growers and 3 agricultural service providers attended. Our two soils workshops reached a total of 92 farmers. 

Two pest management twilight workshops were held for commercial growers in the growing season following the winter course. A total of 46 farmers attended, and participant surveys conducted at the workshop showed that 41 farmers planned to utilize the information.

As a follow-up to the marketing course, Marketing that Sells, held at the January, 2011 NOFA-VT Direct Marketing Conference, a summer workshop entitled Marketing Basics for New Growers, was held at the farm of one of the marketing course participants in July, 2011. The workshopattracted 15 participants. Due to continued positive responses from the first two courses/workshops, a third workshop, Business Planning for Farm Successwas held at NOFA-VT’s annual Direct Marketing Conference, Jan 8, 2012 co-hosted by Rose Wilson, project consultant, and Joe Buley of Screamin’ Ridge Farm. The workshop focused on enterprise analysis from a market selection perspective – how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses and financial repercussions of different marketing and sales channels. Students were provided with an overview of financial and business planning tools for implementing enterprise analysis at home. Three students followed up with Rose post-conference to obtain the cash flow spreadsheet and business planning templates. 25 farmers attended the workshop.

The on-farm demonstrations for the Energy Course were held in the spring and summer of 2013,  attended by 72 farmers and service providers. The topics of the on-farm demonstrations were a result of the priorities identified by attendees at the two-day Tunnel Conference.  We designed 4 tunnel tours, with a visit to 2 farms a day.  The tours were held on March 13 at Gildrien Farm in Middlebury and Woods Market Garden in Brandon. March 20th, a tunnel tour was held at Waterman’s Berry Farm in Johnson, and High Ledge Farm in Woodbury, and on April 3rd at Jericho Settlers Farm in Jericho and Riverberry Farm in Fairfax.  A July workshop was held at Walker Farm in Dummerston.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Chris Callahan
  • Beth Holtzman
  • Lisa McCrory
  • Eric Sideman, Ph.D.
  • Rosalie J. Wilson

Research

Materials and methods:

The project was designed as a series of 4 course topics, with 2 taking place in the first year and 2 taking place in the second year of the project. Participation was open to any farmer in the Northeast but the courses and workshops all took place in Vermont. Farmers and researchers from around the Northeast assisted in the planning, teaching and evaluation of the courses. Each course had a principal course contact who brought together a diverse planning team, determined the level of each course (intermediate or advanced) and established the baseline of information that would be helpful for participants to have before starting the course. 

Each course was designed to last 2 months, meeting every 3 weeks for classroom and hands-on learning.  The course topics were selected based on the farmers’ response to a pre-course survey to determine their predominant technical assistance needs. The topics for the four courses were proposed to be 1) Soil and Fertility Management, 2) Pest and Disease Control, 3) Greenhouse Management, and 4) Marketing.  Instead of greenhouse management, the topic was changed to on-farm energy, with a focus on greenhouse tunnels.  The course content was approached in a variety of ways including on-farm application, small-group investigation and discussion, text-based seminar, problem solving, and lecture based instruction. Each course also included a specific focus on 2-3 economically important crops and how to manage them within the context of the course topic. Each course participant received a binder of articles and fact sheets relevant to the course as well as at least one published reference text.  For example, participants in the Pest and Disease Control course received a copy of the “Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management,” a product of SARE project ENE02-067.

Instead of notebooks of paper, it was decided by all 4 course leaders to give farmers all information in electronic format on a course flashdrive. Farmers were told that they could have a paper copy if the flashdrive was not suitable for them, but they all decided they could work with the electronic format and used the course to ramp up their computer knowledge.  This allowed us to give every farmer all course Powerpoint presentations, reading assignments including links to written web materials, links to extension websites for video educational materials, and spreadsheet tools that farmers can use to, for example, better manage soil fertility on their farms.

Between course meetings, farmers were given homework to pursue one or more goals related to the course topic. Attendees were supposed to then go back to their farms to apply these new skills, and journal their experiences and observations. In order to support self directed learning, the courses included information on how to establish on-farm research trials, and the record keeping and evaluation tools needed by farmers to better understand whether or not a change of production practices has increased the sustainability or profitability of their farms.

Farmer mentors were selected from each course (14 total) to work with 14 farmer mentees to establish a work plan with goals and farm management plans relating to the course topic.  Mentor trainings were held in both 2010 and 2011 year to help farmers learn how to develop the most effective farmer-mentor relationships.

In the season following the courses, farmer participants from each of the four courses either hosted an on-farm technical workshop based on their studies, or presented at a conference of farmers.  The workshops and farmer mentoring were important components of the project because they offered multiple mediums for delivery and application of information.

The Soil Course recommended that farmers attend all three sessions, because they needed to complete a nutrient management plan.  The Pest Management Course allowed more flexibility, with farmers attending one, two or all three sessions.  This flexibility made a difference, as we had a higher attendance in the Pest Management Course.  We had to modify the course design of both the Marketing and On-Farm Energy Course, due to low enrollment.  When we queried farmers who had expressed interest, and then did not sign up, they said it was due to several factors including the economic downturn, the impacts of Tropical Storm Irene (August, 2011), and the fact that many commercial vegetable growers started winter growing and could not commit the time to a three-session course. Instead, they recommended that we couple the Marketing and On-Farm Energy Courses with other learning opportunities taking place. Although this was a successful strategy to meet the project objectives of course content and participation, it took away from the development of a learning community of farmers who all take part in the 3 courses together, and more defined mentor-mentee relationships.

Research results and discussion:

Milestone 1 and 2: 2000 farmers throughout the Northeast will receive information about the four learning courses through articles or direct mailings in summer 2009. 300 farmers will seek additional information through fall 2009.

NOFA Vermont was notified of its funding in April of 2009.  All four courses were advertised at the start of the project in 2009, and then each individual course marketed separately, closer to the start date. Publicity included a notice in our monthly e-newsletter in August and September, reaching 353 certified organic growers along with 3500 additional farmer and gardener contacts. Brochures were mailed to 143 certified organic vegetable growers in early fall. Notices were included in the fall NOFA Notes newsletter, reaching 1400 people of which about 50% are producers and agricultural service providers. 256 vegetable growers received a direct mailing: this was a combined list of NOFA Vermont and the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Associations mailing list for farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. 

Additionally, electronic information on the courses were sent to 180 agricultural service providers and organizations in the Northeast. This list included extension, farm bureaus, industry vegetable groups, and organic farming organizations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. 

30 farmers called about additional information for the soils course and 20 farmers called about additional information about the marketing course. We realized that so many vegetable producers in the Northeast are web savvy and that it would have been helpful to institute a tracking system on brochures placed on our website to accurately track interest in these courses.

The Marketing Course was postponed until fall of 2010 due to low enrollment. We learned that in this economy it is very important to have course scholarships available for farmers. We were able to develop 5 scholarships for the soils course based on requests. The economic downturn and impact of weather conditions resulting in a poor strawberry crop and major problems from late blight in tomatoes gave farmers far less income to spend on education. We received many inquires about scholarships, with one farmer saying he could “either take a course or buy seeds.” NOFA Vermont used organizational funds to help 5 farmers take the soils course at a 50% rate reduction.

We met the milestone for the fourth learning course, On-Farm Energy Management by advertising the first part of the energy course predominantly through the NOFA-VT Winter Conference brochure, reaching 3,000 people.  In addition, it was posted on-line, and advertised through our e-newsletter.  The Tunnel Conference held in December, 2012 was advertised through the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association e-list and the 132 certified organic vegetable producers of NOFA-VT received a post-card with a link to additional web-based information.

Milestone 3:  100 farmers will attend the four learning courses, approximately 25 farmers per course. The first two courses will take place between December 2009 and March 2010.  The second two courses will take place between December 2010 and March 2011. 

Course 1:  25 farmers signed up for the Soils Course, although not all farmers attended all three of the course sessions. 18 farmers attended session one, 22 farmers attended session 2, and 19 farmers attended session 3. The Soils Course took place in January and February of 2010.

Course 2:  Pest Management.  44 individual farmers signed up for the Pest Management Course. 35 farmers attended session one on insects, 31 farmers attended session 2 on diseases (which was postponed because of inclement weather), and 37 farmers attended session 3 on weeds. The Pest Management Course took place in January, February and March of 2011. 

Course 3:  Marketing.  The Marketing Course was rescheduled to start on November 16th, 2010; however its attendance was lower than desired with 9 growers. When prospective participants were surveyed, the majority preferred that we couple the marketing workshops with other learning opportunities taking place.  Based on that, the course was changed from a three session course in the fall to a course that had one session in the fall, the second session took place as a 3 workshop “marketing track” at the January 9, 2011 NOFA-VT Direct Marketing Conference, and the final session occurred on January 8, 2012. 13 farmers participated in the 3 session Marketing Course.

Course 4:  On-Farm Energy.  Four growers registered for the On-Farm Energy Course, which was scheduled to start on November 4th, 2010.  Although farmers expressed interest in the course topic, they said they could not commit to a fall course because many of them had started winter growing, a practice that was not taking place when this proposal was written.  Many farmers were too busy planting and growing winter greens, harvesting and handling storage crops, and selling at winter farmers markets and CSAs to attend a fall course. The increase in late season farming activities requires rethinking the timing and duration of course activities.  Based on that, the Energy Course was designed to meet 3 times, at existing gatherings of farmers. The first part was held in February, 2012 as part of the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, attended by 23 farmers.  The second part was held in December, 2012 in collaboration with the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association High-Tunnel Conference and was attended by a total of 117 people, although not all of the classes were strictly on-farm energy management.  The third part took place as a series of 4 tunnel tours, held on-farm between March – July, 2013, attended by 72 farmers and service providers.

Milestone 4: Of the 100 farmer participants, 70 producers will learn and implement new practices during the summer and fall of 2010 or 2011. 

All growers returning surveys in the Soils and Pest Management Courses learned from 2 to more than 5 new techniques. Since the Marketing and On-Farm Energy Courses were part of other gatherings (NOFA-VT Direct Marketing Conference, NOFA-VT Winter Conference, VVBGA High-Tunnel Conference), the evaluations are tied into those conference evaluations and were not targeted enough to be able to meet this milestone.

Milestone 5: Of the 70 producers that learn and implement new practices, 16 farmers (4 per course) will complete an enterprise analysis to measure changes in profitability based on the new practices adopted. Eight enterprise analyses will be completed during the fall of 2010, and eight during 2011. 

Four farmers signed up for an enterprise analysis in the Soils Course, with only one fully completing the analysis, one partially completing the analysis, and two deciding not to because of changes to the farm.  No farmers signed up to do enterprise analysis in the Pest Management Course or On-Farm Energy Course.  Five farmers signed up for enterprise analyses in the Marketing Course, with all five completing the analysis. So, of the 9 farmers interested in completing an enterprise analysis, only 6 were fully completed, and we did not reach our milestone. Although, there were two workshops that were held to introduce course participants to enterprise analysis, reaching 49 farmers. The marketing workshop, for example, focused on enterprise analysis from a market selection perspective- how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses and financial repercussions of different marketing and sales channels. Students were provided with an overview of financial and business planning tools for implementing enterprise analysis at home. Three students followed up with the marketing consultant post-conference to obtain the cash flow spreadsheet and business planning templates. 

Milestone 6: Of the 70 producers that learn and implement new practices, 12 will hold on-farm workshops that will reach an additional 200 farmers. Six on-farm workshops will be held during the field season of 2010, and six during 2011. We requested and were approved for a change to the performance target tied to this milestone. The approved change allowed us to reach farmers through both on-farm demonstrations and winter conference sessions. 

We held a total of 8 on-farm workshops, (1 soil, 2 pest management, 1 marketing and 4 on-farm energy) hosted by 11 of the farmers participating in the learning courses with a total of 172 participants.  In addition, we held a soils roundtable at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, with a panel of 3 farmer course participants, attended by an additional 53 farmers and 3 service providers.

Milestone 7: 3 farmer mentors will be selected for each course (12 in total) and will work with up to 20 farmers to establish a realistic work-plan with goals and activities for improving the sustainability and profitability of their farms. The farmer-to-farmer mentors will work together for a year following the completion of the courses. Six mentor pairs will work together in year 2 (April 2010-March 2011) and six mentor pairs will work together in year 3 (April 2011-March 2012). 

Three farmers served as mentors to four mentees in the Soils Course in the spring of 2010, five farmers served as mentors for six mentees in the Pest Management course in the winter of 2011, two farmers mentored two mentees in the Marketing Course in the fall of 2010 – winter 2011, and four farmers were selected to mentor for the On-Farm Energy Course participants in 2013, but as of the close of the grant, only 1 farmer mentor completed mentorship with 2 farmer mentees.  That brings the total of farmer mentors for the four courses to 14, completing their mentorship with 14 farmer mentees.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

The most notable web content that grew out of the project were the online courses in Marketing and On-Farm Energy. The Online Marketing Course was developed by Beth Holtzman, Coordinator of the New Farmer Project at UVM.  The online resources consist of informational resources and tools used in the marketing classes, in additional to other resources, at the New Farmer Project’s “Marketing Toolshed,” at http://www.uvm.edu/newfarmer. A portal to information and resources, the New Farmer Project website is used by a network of Vermont organizations serving beginning farmers (those with less than 10 years commercial experience).

An Online Energy Course was developed, in collaboration with Chris Callahan, UVM Extension Agricultural Engineer, consisting of 7 videos from the On-Farm Energy and Greenhouse Tunnel Tour.  6 of the on-farm demonstrations were held in March and April, 2013 and the final workshop, Four Season High Tunnel Production, was held September 16, 2013 at Walker Farm in Dummerston, VT. Topics include: high tunnel vs. greenhouse use, house construction decisions, envelope decisions (sealing, insulation, blankets/curtains), heating (fuels and distribution systems), ventilation, watering / nutrient controls, controls and monitoring, ergonomics and workflow.  Seven videos, based on on-farm demonstrations from the Energy Course were uploaded to you tube, starting July 2, 2013, with the last video uploaded on October 31, 2013. The on-line course can be seen at: http://bit.ly/NOFAVTTunnelTour2013. Their effectiveness is detailed under the section “Status of reaching the online courses performance target”  above.  This project also held many on-farm demonstrations and workshops, as detailed under the “status of reaching On-Farm Demonstrations target” above.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

Our verification process worked well, for the most part.  The challenges we had included following up with course participants after some time had passed following their participation.  For example, we proposed “In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a new management technique and 10 participants positively changed their fertility management based on their soil fertility plan.”  It was successful, of course, completing evaluations immediately following each course segment, but more difficult to get good evaluation participation at a later date.  In addition, we originally envisioned that a farmer would attend all three parts of a course, work with a mentor, attend on-farm demonstrations, etc… and really gain value from taking part in every part of the project. In reality, different farmers attended different sessions, some farmers who hadn’t participated in courses attended demonstrations, etc…  This meant that we were able to reach more farmers and service providers than we originally estimated, but it changed the nature of our evaluation results. We also found that it was difficult, the way our verification was set up, to evaluate improvements to participants’ quality of life.  The mentorship was really only able to address the quality of life targets of farm viability (#3), and the positive outlook of the growers (#6).  We realized that we would have to design a different evaluation framework to comprehensively assess quality of life indicators.

The immediate, and possible future impacts of our project on the farmers and the farm community are:

• An increase in profitable, commercial organic vegetable farms that can meet the growing current and future market demands for organic fruits and vegetables by extending the growing season. For example, whereas there were few organic growers growing for winter market when this project was proposed, nor winter farmers’ markets or winter CSAs, there are now organized winter markets and farmers who are growing to meet that winter market. Many of those farmers attended the Farmer to Farmer Advanced Conference on High Tunnel Growing, in December, 2012, held as part of the On-Farm Energy Course, and organized in collaboration with UVM Extension and the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association. They then followed up the conference by participating in the on-farm tunnel tour. 

• The development of a farmer to farmer mentoring program in Vermont.  There are many farmers over the years who have expressed an interest in helping beginner farmers or advanced farmers interested in starting a new enterprise.  This project allowed us to formalize that process by training farmer mentors, establishing mentor-mentee contracts, and setting up an evaluation process. The mentees participating in the project noted that they are more likely to ask a farmer mentor for assistance if there is a process in place so that the mentor gets compensated, and the mentors are now more likely to value themselves as educators. Informal mentoring will of course continue, and there is a value in that, but this project identified 75 farmers who are interested in serving as farmer mentors and understand the process involved in serving in that capacity.

• A learning community of commercial organic vegetable producers has expanded.  Through the courses, mentorship, on-farm demonstrations and workshops, there was significant information and resource sharing that took place – this created both a community of farmers, but also the exchange of information between farmers and other agricultural professionals.

 

Economic Analysis

The clearest information we gained about the repercussions of our project on farm viability were the farmers who completed the enterprise analysis with Rose Wilson, Business Development Consultant.  49 farmers participated in workshops focused on enterprise analysis, and 6 farmers completed an enterprise analysis.  Five of the six farmers completing an economic analysis reported improvement in gross income of between 37% and 565%.

 

Farmer Adoption

We have received very positive feedback from the farmers, in all components of the project.  The four course evaluations showed that the majority of farmers learned at least 2 new techniques, with many learning multiple new techniques.  Many of the learning sessions were taught by farmers, and the evaluations showed that the farmers enjoyed the learning sessions presented by other farmers the best. The farmer to farmer mentoring provided the opportunity for the greatest adoption of new techniques as mentors provided up to 25 hours of one-on-one technical assistance to their mentee. Farmers also benefitted from working one-on-one with a business consultant to develop an enterprise analysis.

The following responses are from three participants about the impacts on their farm operations due to their participation in the project:

“It confirmed my enterprise budget approach and broadened my understanding of COGS [cost of good sold]. This has led me to research competitors and look for ways to cut costs so I can make money on my products.”

“It led me to more precise purchasing of sweet corn seed. Figuring 22,000 plants to the acre and how many acres I had to work with, I was able to more accurately buy seed without having a lot left over of any varieties. I also put some corn ground into pumpkin and squash as suggested in the workshop. This increased the profitability of that land.”

“We more closely considered our costs and the prices we were receiving for our products, and decided to decrease production of some of our less valuable crops and increase production of some of our more valuable crops.”

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

– With the expansion of winter markets, and more farmers growing to meet that demand, there needs to be more research on winter growing, in general, and support for product storage and handling. 

– Market assessment. There was a lot of discussion among farmers in the marketing course of whether the market for farmers markets or CSAs is saturated, or are farmers not doing significant enough market research before they choose to grow a certain product.  Do beginning farmers, or advanced farmers transitioning to a new enterprise or scaling up their production, have sufficient marketing expertise to evaluate the best market for them, and what their niche is? We found that while many of the marketing course participants had significant production experience (both in their own operations and as employees of other farms), the course largely attracted farmers in earlier stages of business development (under 5 years). Exceptions were individuals with 10+ years operating a farm business who were seeking marketing education to respond to what they perceived as a) new opportunities or b) increased competition in their existing markets. The information and skills needed to develop a strategic and practical farm marketing plan can vary significantly from farm to farm.

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.