New England Sustainable Agriculture Conference - 1997

Final Report for LNE96-079

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1996: $36,478.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $6,805.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Kate Duesterberg
Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont
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Project Information

Summary:

The UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, working closely with an established network of agencies and farm organizations throughout New England, organized and hosted a New England-wide Sustainable Agriculture Conference November 16-18, 1997. The purpose of the conference was to provide an opportunity for farmers and agency people to interact and inform each other, and to convey and share information/strategies on existing and emerging sustainable farming practices and technologies

A regional planning committee was established, which included representatives from the 6 New England Extension Systems, NRCS, a Soil & Water Conservation District, farm organizations (including the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association and the Vermont Farm Bureau), and non-profit sustainable agriculture organizations. The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) co-sponsored the event and held their annual Resource Harvest in conjunction with the conference. NESAWG is a regional network of farm, environmental and consumer organizations, has been involved in efforts to promote sustainable agriculture through initiatives at the local, state, regional, and national levels, focusing on policy, food system development, and Land Grant sustainable agriculture programming.

The conference was held in Portland, Maine on November 16-18, 1997. Two hundred people attended the two and a half day event. Of these, approximately eighty were agency personnel (e.g., University, Extension, NRCS, FSA, State Depts of Ag), fifty-one were farmers, and fifty-two were from non-profit or advocacy or educational organizations. The committee had hoped to have up to 250 people attending, but found that several other regional conferences held in the fall (such as the Northeast CSA conference held in early November and the New England Vegetable and Berry Conference planned for December) prevented a larger crowd.

By the end of the conference we had received eighty-one completed evaluation forms. Of these, sixty-two percent said the conference was Avery effective@ in addressing issues important to sustaining New England’s agriculture. Seventy-seven percent said they learned about new techniques or ideas that they would use professionally. Sixty-two percent said they intended to adopt a new production or educational method as a result of the conference. Seventy-nine percent said attending the conference provided them with new contacts or improved their ability to network with people interested in sustainable agriculture.

Introduction:

The objectives of the conference were:

1. To provide a forum for Extension and USDA agency personnel to interact with farmers so that these groups can learn from each other and identify ways to work together to enhance the viability of New England farmers and the farming community.

2. To impart practical knowledge to agency people on ecologically and economically sound farming techniques that are being used and improved upon by farmers or developed by researchers or extension, and are therefore readily accessible to other farmers.

3. To provide practical skills to agency people in the areas of participatory education and research in order to facilitate wider utilization of farmer-based knowledge and to encourage collaborative problem solving.

Research

Research results and discussion:

The UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, working closely with an established network of agencies and farm organizations throughout New England, organized and hosted Practical Partnerships: A New England Sustainable Agriculture Conference on November 16-18, 1997. The purpose of the conference was to provide an opportunity for farmers and agency people to interact and inform each other, and to convey and share information/strategies on existing and emerging sustainable farming practices and technologies.

A regional planning committee was established which included representatives from the 6 New England Extension Systems, NRCS, a Soil & Water Conservation District, farm organizations (including the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association and the Vermont Farm Bureau), and non-profit sustainable agriculture organizations. The Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) co-sponsored the event and held their annual Resource Harvest in conjunction with the conference. NESAWG, a regional network of farm, environmental and consumer organizations, has been involved in efforts to promote sustainable agriculture through initiatives at the local, state, regional and national levels, focusing on policy, food system development, and Land Grant sustainable agriculture programming.

A list of the conference planning committee is included as Appendix A. Several of the committee members have also been involved in a New England SARE Professional Development project that the Center has been coordinating for the past four years. The new people involved in the planning, however, contributed much new energy and additional perspective to this project as the preliminary results will show.

After a couple of planning sessions, the committee prioritized the list of issues to be addressed and divided them into four theme areas: whole farm planning, sustainable commodity production, economic vitality, and beyond the farm gate – community connections. The committee’s intent was to focus on the process of how agencies and farmers work together on the many issues facing agriculture, including production and food system issues. For example, the greenhouse IPM workshop did not focus as much on IPM techniques as it did on how to build researcher/farmer collaborations in figuring out a(a) farmer information needs regarding greenhouse pest control and (b) how to design a research project to generate the appropriate information. We wanted to emphasize collaborative working relationships throughout the conference. For each workshop, at least one farmer and one agency person were identified as speakers. Some workshops were structured as round table discussions and others used the more traditional approach of a talk with slides and discussion. A brochure describing the conference is included as Appendix B.

Findings & Accomplishments

The conference was held in Portland, Maine on November 16-18, 1997. Two hundred people attended the two and a half day event. Of these, approximately eighty were agency personnel (e.g., University, Extension, NRCS, FSA, State Depts of Ag), fifty-one were farmers, and fifty-two were from non-profit or advocacy or educational organizations. The committee had hoped to have up to 250 people attending, but found that several other regional conferences held in the fall (such as the Northeast CSA conference held in early November and the New England Vegetable and Berry Conference planned for December) prevented a larger crowd.

Networking Opportunities. The conference attendees were an interesting mix of agency personnel, farmers, and non-profit organization representatives. Combining the event with the NESAWG Resource Harvest brought in more non-profit and food system-oriented participants who otherwise might not have attended an agency-sponsored event. The workshops and keynote speakers reflected a broader perspective on the issues of sustainable agriculture. For example, Molly Anderson’s keynote talk on the second day focused on the question of how community food systems and sustainable agriculture work together – where do these issues overlap? Do those who advocate for these issues have similar goals? And how can we work together to broaden our agenda? We had several workshops that focused on food system issues as well.

In addition, the conference provided an opportunity for participants to enhance already established working networks. The Northeast Food System Partnership, which grew out of a SARE-funded conference that took place in March of 1996, held a strategy session during the conference. Participants who came to Portland for this meeting also helped bring some new perspectives into the conference workshop mix.

At each workshop, there was at least one producer to provide a farm perspective. Having these leaders in sustainable farming from all over New England sharing their experiences added a practical, applied aspect to all issues addressed. In addition, approximately 1/4 of the total attendees were farmers; and this allowed all discussions in and out of the workshops to include constant measures of real world applications. One participant stated that “it was terrific to get to ask producers very specific questions about exactly how they do things.”

Participant Evaluations. By the end of the conference we had received eighty-one completed evaluation forms. Of these, sixty-two percent said the conference was “very effective” in addressing issues important to sustaining New England’s agriculture. Seventy-seven percent said they learned about new techniques or ideas that they would use professionally. Sixty-two percent said they intended to adopt a new production or educational method as a result of the conference. Seventy-nine percent said attending the conference provided them with new contacts or improved their ability to network with people interested in sustainable agriculture.

In answer to the question “what specific techniques or ideas did you learn that you could use professionally after the conference,” participants answers included the following comments.

• the benefits of rotational grazing
• cover crops, homeopathy, student-run farm strategies, arguments for smaller scale, ag, ideas for local marketing
• interesting workshop in insect control in sweet corn
• where to focus my efforts in developing a “farm plan”
• cover cropping, marketing, soil building
• relationship and links between ag and low income citizens; urgency of apprenticeship training; importance of farms to economic sustainability of wider community
• record keeping skills; working creatively with NRCS; pursuing grazing to reduce non-point source pollution; revisiting regional marketing to increase profitability
• importance of diversity to sustain small farms
• new ideas to promote in an educational format, i.e., programs with inner city youth, food security systems, etc.
• some new ways to link the community with ag education opportunities
• learned a lot about barriers new farmers face
• importance of whole farm concepts and plans
• local food system organizing
• ideas for connecting with chefs and marketing high-value products
• learned about IPM and intensive pasture management, as well as other techniques to promote food safety

With these answers (assuming the responses represent the sentiments of all who attended), the committee could conclude the conference was a success. We wanted participants to (a) learn some practical skills they could use back home; (b) begin to think about farm problems from a whole farm perspective; (c) be exposed to some new ideas and new ways of thinking; (d) to think about sustainable agriculture in more expansive ways, including the whole food system when appropriate; and (e) work together – farmers, agency personnel, non-profit and industry – to address farming, community relations, and all the issues surrounding a strong agriculture in the region. These address the four themes we choose as areas of emphasis for the conference – sustainable commodity production, whole farm planning, beyond the farm gate – community connections, and economic vitality.

Participation Summary

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The evaluations provided us with some indications that the conference was successful in imparting new technical ideas and ways to approach farming issues. Participants also had an opportunity to network, meet new people, and identify possible collaborators on future projects. It is difficult, however, to anticipate what the long-term impact of this event might be. Many of the ideas presented at the conference will require a great deal of strategic thinking if agencies, farmers, and other farming advocates are to identify creative solutions. Farming issues are not just production matters any more. We need to think about ways to grow food more sustainably, pay farmers well, make food accessible to all, reduce our reliance on non-renewable resources, build community, to name just a few. Coming to grips with such complex matters will require many more gatherings of people who care about the issues and much work in between to implement identified solutions at the local level.

The committee plans to send out a follow-up evaluation in about 6 months to identify what aspects of the conference were actually incorporated into participants= work. We utilized this method one year after our last New England Sustainable Agriculture conference (which took place in March 1995) and were able to identify more lasting impacts. In addition, we will conduct informal interviews with planning committee members to learn about local or regional educational and research projects which might be outgrowths of conference experiences.

Areas needing additional study

The survey asked for a listing of participants’ top training needs related to sustainable agriculture. Among those were:

• learning some of the basic principles of how to begin a new sustainable ag enterprise
• how to articulate the importance of sustainable modes of production; how to implement new practices within our still largely conventional ideological framework
• systems analysis, whole farm research, new ag enterprises
• realistic organic solutions to pests and disease; grower experiences
• specific practices related to soil building, cultivation, IPM, and harvesting
• urgency of “birthing” new farmers in the next 5-10 years, as many older farmers retire and put lots of acreage on the block
• problem solving sustainable systems in communities
• would like more links established with land trusts and related issues
• more value added production marketing
• how to involve farmers (especially those somewhat dispirited – e.g., dairy) in research projects that could benefit them long term
• more connections with bigger picture; must be aware of what is happening in the environment
• more communication between farmers and advocates about how to work on more dialogue and accountability sessions, mutual needs, discussions, etc.
• ideas and innovations related to daily work on different livestock enterprises, i.e., sheep feeder ideas, pastured poultry pens
• more economics, HRM techniques.

From these suggestions, we can conclude that conference participants need more technical training on sustainable farming techniques, including diversified and value-added enterprises. Many also expressed a need to gain skills and knowledge in looking at the broader picture of food systems and community linkages. Many were interested in marketing and business skills.

Based on this feedback, future projects or events might be tailored to specific interests. If the conference format is used, we may want to think about having in-depth sessions (perhaps 2 or full day) addressing specific topics, such as value-added and diversification or a whole day on food systems issues and building community understanding for the implications of locally based agriculture. Future planners may also consider subregional (e.g., southern or northern New England) one-day events on these specific topics.

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.