As a result of participating in the cohorts, 83% of participating farmers (n=30) who gross at least $50,000 annually, report improvement in quality of life and personal wellness as measured pre-post cohort intervention. After implementing social sustainability plans, participating farmers and 108 family members or employees report positive changes to the farm environment or reduced employee turnover.
Problem and Justification:
Social sustainability requires adaptation and resilience in the face of change and stress. The well-being, quality of life, and social sustainability of US farmers, farm families, and farmworkers is a great concern because of farm labor shortfalls, global markets, climate change, and changes in technology and consumer preferences. Most farm sustainability efforts center on economic or environmental concerns; few sustainability projects focus on social sustainability with educational interventions to enhance relational skills and social supports. Maine farmers attending a recent farmer field tour and Northeast farmers responding to a social sustainability survey expressed a desire for peer learning and opportunities to convene at retreat to discuss issues of social sustainability. Agricultural service providers will also feel more prepared to identify/address issues of social sustainability when farmers validate the need.
Solution and Approach:
Applied research with farmers and agricultural service providers will test the validity of three facets of social sustainability: 1) health and well-being; 2) equity; and 3) community connections. The process will inform educational curriculum development for a series of two farmer retreats and an online learning platform that address self, family and employees, and community connections. All participating farmers will develop and implement individualized social sustainability strategies tailored to their specific needs and farm context. Evaluation approaches (i.e. surveys, interviews) will document the outcomes, impacts, and behavior change on farms and in communities. To promote social connectedness and foster a peer community of practice, project participants will share insights and information with other farmers and service providers via formal educational channels at conferences and other professional gatherings, and via informal peer-to-peer networking. In turn, increased feelings of support and community, which build resilience in times of stress and economic strain, will result. Through outreach, farmers will learn from program participants about social sustainability: how to build community connections, support equity, address health and well-being, and improve on-farm work environments for themselves and family members or employees. A toolbox of curricula, educational materials, and facilitation guides about social sustainability will be created, and 20 regional agricultural service providers will access materials and increase confidence adopting education strategies to address social sustainability.
- As a result of participating in the retreats and professional development, at least 33 (90% of participants from both retreats) implement social sustainability strategies to change the farm environment or reduce employee turnover and report improvement in social sustainability as measured pre-post cohort intervention.
- 20 service providers report increased confidence understanding and addressing farm social sustainability as a result of participation in advisory group membership, retreat(s), work with cohort farms, or attending a training.
- At least 90 of the farmer cohort participants’ employees/family members (75% return rate of at least 125 surveyed) report positive changes in social sustainability on the farm through actions taken as part of social sustainability strategies (e.g. farmer behavior, farm policies, workplace culture).
How can indicators of “social sustainability” measure farmer community connection, equity, health and wellbeing? How do deliberate interventions (retreats and online communities) create experiences of social support for farmers? How do farmers’ individual actions through their social sustainability strategies and community outreach enhance social sustainability with family members, employees, and other farmers?
- Social sustainability cannot be measured through indicators.
- Social sustainability cannot be changed by deliberate intervention, planning, and peer dialogue.
- Intervention methods are equally effective (in-person or on-line) in enhancing social sustainability.
- Farmers will not experience social connection from an ongoing online community.
Validation of Social Sustainability Indicators
To assess which metrics meaningfully capture or describe social sustainability from a farmer’s perspective, surveys will be developed based on farmer-participant input via focus groups and survey, literature reviews, and consultation the advisory team and other experts. Inquiry will focus on: 1) health and well-being; 2) equity; and 3) community connections. At least 300 Northeast farmers will review and prioritize social sustainability indicators in these areas. At least two online focus groups with farmers will reflect upon the indicators prioritized and proposed measures to quantify changes in social sustainability. These indicators will frame the verification surveys used throughout the project.
Data Analysis & Interpretation
Fifteen hours of focus group audio recordings have been transcribed and subsequently analyzed using a two phase coding process developed by the project’s research team and advisors. Using the coding rubric and notation process developed by the team, independent readers first conduct a descriptive analysis of each transcript to identify and classify each occurrence of relevant data within general conceptual categories ascribed to farmer social sustainability by type (indicator, stressor, strategy) and thematic dimension (well-being, community connections, equity & fairness). Subsequently, a second round of interpretive analysis is conducted on each transcribed conversation to characterize the socio-relational context and connections to key overarching themes that emerged as common factors across all focus group conversations. As these classification schema are not mutually exclusive, each instance (data point) is tagged with all applicable categories, effectively creating a cross-referenced index of the intersectional factors identified across all 9 focus group conversations when compiled.
Regarding the thematic dimension of community connection, one farmer hosts periodic gatherings on the farm with customers and other community members. They said, “…it’s been lovely, what a difference it’s been to just sit and appreciate, you know, the work at some point during the week and have other people’s perspective and just have the conversation around what it is to be a farmer…And it’s been lovely. It’s not just about sales. It’s really about just making the connection.”
As another example, the thematic dimension of equity is addressed by a farmer who spoke of their employees, “So we talk constantly, since we’re all part of a linear value chain, talk constantly about what what’s coming up in their life, what might be a constraint for them, because we have to keep things moving through a pipeline, and I make sure that everyone feels like their agenda is really respected…So it takes a lot of communication. And of course, in terms of the view, I have a, you know, a different view because I’m always looking at sort of the big picture…But I make sure that we all respect each other’s views, you know what I mean? And it’s, it’s been interesting. It’s also been really enlightening. And really, it’s been really beautiful, actually.”
As primary data analysis process nears completion, research team focus is shifting towards synthesis of research results for publication and using these findings to support ongoing program development. Additionally, a compilation of particularly resonant quotes, anecdotes and thought-provoking questions is being distilled from the raw ‘data’ to create a valuable program resource full of rich real-world content to draw upon for upcoming programming, outreach and other engagement materials.
The specific educational approaches used and content areas of focus for this project are co- developed by participating farmers, service providers, researchers and area specialists based on a participant action research framework. The early phase of work will focus on engaging farmers to refine project educational priorities and methods through a series of in-person and virtual focus groups held across the region. The results of these conversations will be used to hone the scope of long-term project goals, shape the nature of specific project activities, and to guide the development of effective educational methods and accessible outreach tools to be implemented in years 2-3 of the project.
Project years 2 and 3 will build to a capstone multi-day retreat, as the culmination of a combination of facilitated peer-to-peer and professional mentoring, and engagement in an online community of practice.
Ongoing Program Adaptation & Development
Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the timeline, delivery and scope of expected project activities over the past year. This extended period of uncertainty and change in the personal and farm-lives of project participants, and the strict public health limitations on interstate travel and in-person gathering have presented major obstacles to project implementation as it was originally envisioned. Though, instead of a total derailment of the proposed project, it has presented an opportunity to leverage the strength of our participant-centered research model to navigate a constructive change of course toward the same overarching project purpose and outcomes. To this end, much of the past year’s work has been devoted to the collaborative reflection, connection and reorientation necessary to effectively modify and realign project activities, methods, timelines, and even specific content items, in order to best meet the current needs of participants within the constraints placed upon us all by the continued pandemic.
We have made the decision to continue developing/adapting all program activities for remote delivery through this second year of the project. An initial series of online workshops beginning in early 2021 is being co-developed and delivered in collaboration with a diverse team of external educators/facilitators. These partners were engaged both for their deep personal and professional experience in social equity, interpersonal/relational dynamics, personal well-being and agriculture—as well as for their willingness to apply that expertise to support this project’s development by sharing their approach and guidance for effective remote engagement of social/personal/non-technical subjects. Each workshop will differ in subject matter and style, though all share common objectives of providing a grounding in the concept of social sustainability, supporting development of peer networks and mentor relationships, and soliciting input and fostering continued engagement from farmer participants.
Though we remain realistic/flexible in our planning, we are operating with the hopeful intention that these and subsequent remote program activities are building towards an in-person multi-day capstone retreat in year 3.
1. 100 farmers, farm family members, service providers, farm employees, and service providers participate in 3-6 in-person or online focus groups to prioritize and define indicators of well-being, equity, and community connection aspects of social sustainability.
We held 4 regional in-person focus groups in Midcoast Maine (Nov,2019), Central Massachusetts (Jan, 2020), Albary, New York, (Jan, 2020) and the Hudson Valley, New York (Feb, 2020). In addition, 5 sector-specific focus groups were conducted remotely via video conference in February and March (2020) incorporating farmer participants from across the northeast region: vegetable/fruit/orchard (2), livestock, dairy, and agronomic crops.
Our research team developed a coding rubric and two-stage analysis process for systematic analysis and interpretation of the focus group data derived from audio transcripts.
2. 300 NE farmers, farm family members, farm employees and/or service providers respond to survey to validate indicators.
In Progress – On hold, to be modified in support of pandemic-adapted program activities.
3. 1,000 Northeast farmers, farm family members, farm employees and service providers learn about the project.
In Progress. In light of pandemic constraints on in-person gatherings, the project outreach phase has been extended and strategy is being adapted for emphasis on web and social media modes.
An informational project website has been created <smallfarms.cornell.edu/projects/be-well-farming/> to serve as a nexus for ongoing project outreach and engagement with farmers. It will be updated and expanded over the remainder of the project as a central location to post program announcements, share program materials, facilitate peer networking, and develop a curated list of existing resources and references to support farmer sustainability. A public listserv <email@example.com> has been created to provide a platform for community dialogue and networking among farmers (and service providers) regarding topics of social sustainability and also to serve as a direct communication conduit for sharing program announcements, materials and other relevant resources.
4. Out of 100 focus group participants invited to apply, 40 people total (1-2 individuals per farm and up to three service providers) selected for in-person retreats.
In Progress – Timeline extended and invitee pool expanded to accommodate program adjustments related to pandemic constraints
5. 40 individuals complete pre-retreat self-assessment, participate in in-person retreat and begin selection of social sustainability strategies.
In Progress – Timeline extended to accommodate program adjustments related to pandemic constraints
6. At least three online professional development (PD) offerings and three state-based gatherings (one each in NY, MA, ME) held for retreat participants (n=40) and up to 60 additional farmers, farm families and employees in each state.
In Progress – Programming scope and activities are being adapted to accommodate remote, web-based, participant engagement due to ongoing constraints on in-person gatherings due to COVID-19. An initial series of 3 online workshops is being developed for early 2021 in collaboration with a diverse team of external facilitators selected for their personal and professional experience grounded in social equity, interpersonal/relational dynamics, personal well-being and agriculture. A second set of 3 sessions will be developed for summer 2022 as an outgrowth of this series, reflecting the knowledge gained and incorporating the input of farmer participants, facilitators and advisory partners.
7. At least 16 retreat participants (40% of the cohort) join in-person and/or online peer-to- peer meet-ups (in addition to the PD sessions) to provide and receive peer support.
8. At least eight retreat participants (20% of the cohort) share their findings about social sustainability informally with at least three other producers through localized peer networks
In Progress – Program strategy has been adapted and expanded to develop project website, listserv and social media venues to provide a range of remotely-accessible opportunities to facilitate participant engagement with one another as well as with program content/resources in light of pandemic-related limitations on travel and in-person gatherings.
9. At least 36 retreat participants (90% of cohort) participate in capstone in-person retreat (expected Spring-Summer 2022)
In Progress – The timing, scope and structure of this culminating program activity will be developed in collaboration with program participants and shaped by evolving public health restrictions.
10. Four of the participating producers and three service providers expand community outreach through presentations at farmer conferences that reach 75 new individuals, including 20 agricultural service providers.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Over the fall/winter of 2019-2020, a total of 9 farmer focus groups were conducted across the project region. Four (4) regional focus groups were held in-person in Maine, Massachusetts, and New York (2) in partnership with existing agricultural meetings, and 5 sector-specific focus groups were hosted online via Zoom for participants across the northeast from vegetable/fruit/orchard (2), livestock, dairy, and agronomic/row crop sectors. A total of 75 farmers and 4 service providers participated in one of the focus groups, and 26 farmers who could not attend reached out to request to be kept informed about project updates and future opportunities for engagement.
Performance Target Outcomes
increased social sustainability for farmer cohort participants
improved personal well-being, equity, community connections
develop/implement social sustainability strategies
improved work satisfaction, employee retention, personal well-being, equity, community connections on farm
improvement in worker/family perception of social sustainability on the farm
improvement in farmer behavior, farm policies, workplace culture
Additional Project Outcomes
Professional Community of Practice
By virtue of the diverse range of interests, skill sets and expertise on the topic of social sustainability represented among the advisors assembled for this project, the advisory team has become a learning community in its own right. In addition to providing direct input and guidance on this project, advisory meetings are structured to include a professional/network development segment where a member is invited to make a presentation or lead a discussion related to their particular area of focus. For example, project advisors Maria Pippidis and Bonnie Braun presented their work on Farm and Family Risk and Resilience and shared a recently published guide which provided an opportunity for the members to learn about a resource guide for resilience building in farm families. This activity enhances this specific project as well as the work of individual advisory members in their work outside of this project.
As annual regional gatherings and conferences begin to re-emerge as remote versions, our project team has been leveraging the opportunity to expand our outreach and farmer engagement by facilitating online workshops and presentations at these events. Recent programs have included “Dealing with Stress” a two-part webinar offered in partnership with MOFGA and University of Maine Cooperative Extension, as well as two extended participatory workshops at the online MOFGA Farmer to Farmer Conference: “Cultivating Emotional Resiliency” (52 participants) and “Farm Crew Management and Communication” (76 participants).
Quotes & Participant Anecdotes
Regarding the thematic dimension of community connection, one farmer hosts periodic gatherings on the farm with customers and other community members, noting:
“…it’s been lovely, what a difference it’s been to just sit and appreciate, you know, the work at some point during the week and have other people’s perspective and just have the conversation around what it is to be a farmer…And it’s been lovely. It’s not just about sales. It’s really about just making the connection.”
As another example, the thematic dimension of equity was aptly addressed by a farmer who spoke of their employees:
“So we talk constantly, since we’re all part of a linear value chain, talk constantly about what what’s coming up in their life, what might be a constraint for them, because we have to keep things moving through a pipeline, and I make sure that everyone feels like their agenda is really respected…So it takes a lot of communication. And of course, in terms of the view, I have a, you know, a different view because I’m always looking at sort of the big picture…But I make sure that we all respect each other’s views, you know what I mean? And it’s, it’s been interesting. It’s also been really enlightening. And really, it’s been really beautiful, actually.”