Training - Supporting the Next Generation of Northeast Sustainable Farmers

Final Report for LNE99-119

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1999: $108,449.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Federal Funds: $15,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $120,000.00
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kathy Ruhf
New England Small Farm Institute
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Project Information


This project addresses an issue of critical importance to sustaining northeast agriculture — supporting a new generation of skilled farmers. New farmers face significant barriers to entering and succeeding in farming careers. There are new farmers of all ages and backgrounds who seek access to the land, credit, training and technical assistance they need, yet the traditional service infrastructure is not adequate to address these needs. This project strengthened the support network for new farmers by establishing a Northeast New Farmer Network of service providers. It inventoried existing programs and services for new farmers and identified service gaps. It developed conceptual frameworks for understanding new farmers and their needs. It implemented several projects, including skills-based curricula, land link program development, and a customized business planning course and materials. It galvanized over nearly two hundred service providers in the Northeast to build awareness about and programming for new farmers.

As a consequence of this project, services to new farmers have improved and new farmers have benefited. New tools that are customized and targeted to new farmers are now available. Northeast service providers are more aware of the issues and needs surrounding new farmers and more committed to serving them. One hundred and fifty organizations have demonstrated their commitment by joining the Growing New Farmers Consortium. Providers also have more skills and knowledge to serve beginning farmers through their participation in trainings and network communications.

Over 150 farmers were engaged in study, testing and program development. Through pilot projects, over fifty new farmers gained skills and knowledge in career decision-making, business planning, securing farmland and competency self-assessment.


Securing the future of northeast agriculture requires that the next generation of sustainable farmers succeeds in overcoming significant barriers to entering and sustaining farming careers. USDA-ERS research predicts that only 250,000 farm entrants will replace the approximately 500,000 farmers who will retire between 1992 and 2002. "That so few young people are going into farming is one of the most critical problems of American culture" (W. Berry, 1997). With twice as many farmers over 65 years old as under 35, we have a crisis in the making. Yet service providers communicate daily with people who want to farm in the Northeast. These new farmers, of all ages and backgrounds, are seeking access to the land, credit, training and technical assistance they need to establish successful, sustainable farm enterprises.

This project strengthened Northeast service providers' ability to meet the needs of the region's beginning farmers by developing a regional network infrastructure for beginning farmer programs and services. It inventoried beginning farmer programs and services, and developed concepts and tools to understand the new farmer constituency. It designed and tested curricula for farming skills training and farmer/mentor training, developed customized business plan courses and materials, and strengthened programming and technical assistance on farm succession and transfer. This project was successful in drawing attention to this population, in increasing participation by service providers in beginning-farmer service provision, and in creating tools and products that had a direct positive impact on new farmers. Outcomes from this project assure that our valuable farms will be farmed sustainably, and that future farms will be managed by skilled entrepreneurs. With the support of this strong, regional collaboration -- led by six northeast land grant universities, two community colleges, and five private organizations -- the next generation of northeast farmers is better able to access the land, training, credit and technical assistance they need to launch successful, sustainable farms.

As a result of the successes of this project, the collaborators, led by the New England Small Farm Institute, received $1.7 million to further the region's efforts to serve and support new farmers in the Northeast. This new project takes the initial networking among providers and creates a service provider consortium which, at this writing, has 150 member organizations. It also creates new programs to address gaps identified in this project, and furthers professional development, outreach and advocacy.

Project Objectives:

NOTE: This grant was awarded before Northeast SARE formally adopted the outcomes approach. The project coordinator attended a SARE-sponsored outcomes training in June of 1999 and subsequently received additional funds and a timeline extension to pilot test the outcomes approach in this project. The coordinator and project team met with the Rensselaerville Institute (TRI) to "retrofit" the outcomes approach to this project. In this and following sections, the project coordinator will discuss and reflect on this process and the outcomes approach as tested in this project.

The objectives of this project as articulated in the original proposal are:

To establish a regional network of educational programs and support services that addresses the needs of both traditional and non-traditional beginning farmer "customers";

To establish and pilot test new service delivery partnerships, and curricula for on-farm competency-based farming skills training and on-farm mentor training;

To increase the capacity of regional land linking services to conduct effective outreach and offer needed technical assistance to beginning farmers seeking secure access to farmland; and

To develop regionally-relevant business training materials for sustainable farm start-ups, and promote access to credit programs for beginning farmers in the Northeast.

Working with TRI and using the outcomes approach, the performance targets were determined to be:

Two hundred beginning farmers locate and use the newly established new farmer network and 15 new farmer programs are either created or expanded;

Ten beginning farmers will gain identified competencies as a consequence of completing a skills training activity;

Twenty-five beginning and exiting farmers take one or more concrete steps toward accessing or transferring land and 6 beginning farmers obtain secure tenure on farmland; and

Eight beginning farmers complete a business plan, and three USDA FSA offices document a 10 percent increase in beginning farmer applications.


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  • Marion Bowlan


Materials and methods:

Objective 1: To establish a regional network of educational programs and support services that addresses the needs of both traditional and non-traditional beginning farmer "customers."

The approach here was to first develop a solid understanding of the new farmer constituency and to provide a framework for engaging the region's service provider community in serving new farmers. At this stage, the initial task was to stimulate awareness and involvement. The first step in developing this regional service network, the Northeast New Farmer Network (NENFN) was to convene a 15-member Advisory Group (October 1999) and nine new farmer focus groups (PA, NY, MA) in 1999 and 2000. These events formed the foundation of our understanding of the new farmer constituency and its needs and learning preferences. From these events, we produced several publications. "Listening to New Farmers: Findings from New Farmer Focus Groups," proposed a typology of new farmers and conceptual frameworks for understanding the characteristics of different types of new farmers. "Exploring the Concept of Farming Career Paths" posited alternative models for understanding how farmers develop their farming careers, with implications for service providers.

We identified Beginning Farmer Contacts in each of the twelve NE states. They formed the core of the emerging service provider network. We enlisted their participation to identify existing programs in services for new farmers. From this inventory, we produced two more publications, "The Northeast New Farmer Directory of Programs and Services 2001," and "Gaps in New Farmer Programs and Services." The directory is catalogued by topic, by state, and by type of provider, and makes a further important distinction between targeted and relevant programs. A web-based version was planned but not installed during this project. In the process of building the directory, we contacted several hundred agencies and organizations in the Northeast to inform them of new farmer issues and the project and to invite their participation.

In March 2001 we held a regional conference focused on new farmers and their service needs, co-sponsored by this project. It was attended by 100 NE service providers.

Objective 2. To establish and pilot test new service delivery partnerships, and curricula for on-farm competency-based farming skills training and on-farm mentor training.

The approach for this objective was to produce a framework, tools, and settings for new farmers and students interested in becoming farmers to learn farming skills. This included: a) understanding and communicating exactly what skills must be acquired; b) building the teaching skills of on-farm mentors (expert farmers who are committed to providing skill-based teaching on their farms); and c) establishing educational settings and partnerships where new farmers can learn these skills. The project collaborators selected a DACUM (Design A Curriculum) approach to curriculum development, originated at the Center on Education and Training for Employment(CETE) at Ohio State University. We created a fully developed occupational profile for a diverse, northeastern sustainable farmer during a two-day retreat with a panel of farmer experts. Twelve duties and 151 tasks were articulated. The original scope of this objective was expanded to include an extensive new-farmer training needs assessment through a series of focus groups involving over 50 new farmers in various categories.

The tasks and duties profile was verified by 40 additional farmers, and results incorporated into the final publication. Under the guidance of CETE, we reformatted the profile for use as a pre-training skills assessment tool and piloted its use in several settings. A post-training assessment tools was not completed within the project timeframe. Another panel of farmer experts developed a DACUM profile for on-farm mentors, describing the tasks and duties an on-farm mentor needs to be able to effectively teach farming skills. Both occupational profiles were published.

Two service delivery partnerships were identified at the beginning of the project -- one in Maryland and one in Massachusetts. In each setting, a land grant institution (UMD and UMass), a community college (Charles County C.C., MD, and Mt. Wachusett C.C., MA), a site-based training organization (Accokeek Foundation,MD), and New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI, MA) engaged in exploration and planning to enable students from academic settings to receive training in on-farm, off-campus settings.

Objective 3. To increase the capacity of regional land linking services to conduct effective outreach and offer needed technical assistance to beginning farmers seeking secure access to farmland.

The approach to this objective was to improve existing programming and to build regional service capacity in the area of helping new farmers find and acquire farmland. We implemented substantial program upgrades (e.g., new web-based access to the database, downloadable applications, new brochure, expanded casework services, fact sheet, comprehensive outreach and marketing, and tripled the referral database) for New England Land Link (NELL), a regional land matching and farm transfer program based at NESFI. To build regional capacity, we invited representatives of land linking interests (state departments of agriculture, land trusts, Farm Bureaus) from each New England state to a series of three meetings, where we focused on development of state-level farm transfer services and the coordination of multi- and cross-state activities such as shared databases, publications, educational workshops, and professional development. In May 2001, we co-hosted a New England-wide two-day professional development training for over 70 attorneys and other providers. Neil Harl, the farm estate planning guru from Iowa, was the featured trainer. Continuing Legal Education credits were awarded. We presented "Access to Land" workshops at six conferences, including NOFA summer and winter conferences, attended by a total of over 100 farmers.

Objective 4: To develop regionally relevant business training materials for sustainable farm startups and to promote access to credit programs for beginning farmers in the Northeast.

To meet this objective, the approach was to adapt an existing business planning curriculum, NxLevel, to northeastern sustainable farm start-ups, and to offer the customized course, with materials, to new farmers. One adaptation became a whole new course and workbook, "Exploring the Small Farm Dream: Is Starting an Agricultural Business Right for You?" Two customized NxLevel and three "Exploring the Small Farm Dream" courses were offered.

Research results and discussion:

First, a comment on customers and outcomes. We--the project leaders, with TRI--agreed that the primary customers for this project were new farmers, spercifically those in their first ten years of operation and pre-start-ups, of all ages and backgrounds. We debated about service providers as customers, as several of the activities in this project were targeted to building the capacity of providers to better serve new farmers, and toward increasing and improving services. We decided that service providers were intermediary customers; changing their behaviors would be considered milestones -- ultimately as a means to the end. We further understood that each of the project's objectives had slightly different sub-categories of primary customers: those seeking resources and information; those needing business skills; those looking for farmland; and those seeking farming skills. Some new farmers may fit into more than one category. Our final outcome was that "all new farmers will be successful, insuring a viable and sustainable northeast agriculture." Each objective also had its own desired sub-outcome.

Regarding milestones, these were also broken out by objective. Objective 1 was to establish a regional network of new farmer programs and services. For this objective, the project team and TRI staff spent long hours developing an outcomes framework for these activities, which were essentially systems development rather than customer change. Briefly, the activities involved:

1) investigating and describing the new farmer audience;

2) creating the NENFN network by:

a) inventorying existing new farmer programs and services,

b) disseminating a directory of those programs and services and fostering referral and communication; and

c) enhancing awareness and engaging participation by agencies and organizations who serve or wanted to serve new farmers.

3) reaching out to new farmers.

A web site was proposed to house the directory, and to serve as the portal for new farmers to find resources and for service providers to promote programs and refer new farmer customers. Thus, we conceived milestones in the form of numbers of new farmers hitting the web site, numbers making contact with a listed program, numbers using a listed program, and numbers changed as a consequence of using the listed program. We decided (and were encouraged by TRI) not to measure numbers of providers involved, changes in providers, increase in numbers of programs, or realted information.

While in theory the outcome focus on farmers served makes conceptual sense, in reality we were much more focused on the intermediary activities. Web site construction was delayed beyond the project timeline because our web site contractor defaulted on the contract and went out of business. Therefore, we could not measure anything to do with the web site, which was successfully launched in April 2002 as a multi-faceted interactive site. However, we did create a network of providers. The 60-page directory is the result of letters and phone calls to 231 agencies and organizations in 12 northeastern states to tell them about this project and to collect information for the directory. Were providers changed as a consequence of their exposure to this project? A recent follow-up survey to the March 2002 conference attendees indicates that as a consequence of attending the event:

87% of survey respondents picked up ideas, resources or contacts that assisted them in supporting and serving new farmers.

66% developed or offered a new program or service to new farmers; 66% provided more services or programs to new farmers.

75% increased their awareness of the educational needs of new farmers.

82% increased their awareness of the gaps in programs and services for new farmers.

Was the regional service infrastructure strengthened? As a direct consequence of this project, funding was secured to take next steps:

The informal NENFN service provider network became the Growing New Farmer Consortium (GNF).

Over 150 northeast organizations have signed on as GNF Consortium members, thereby committing in specific ways to serve and advocate for new farmers, and to participate in program, resource and professional development.

Objective 2 focused on developing on-farm skills training tools and on training students and on-farm mentors. The identified milestones were: 12 farmers complete on-farm mentor training and 10 enter into a mentoring contract; 60 students informed about the on-farm training opportunity and 12 are selected; of those, 10 gain identified competencies. This objective presents a good example of one where project leaders elected to make substantial course corrections during the implementation phase because we came to believe that the process design demanded a more thorough and time-consuming methodology. When these course corrections became necessary, we negotiated them with Northeast SARE and received approval. While this was in keeping with the outcomes approach, the process did raise questions about some of the assumptions of the approach. Was it preferable to take short cuts or compromise quality to reach the milestones and targets, or to adjust milestones and targets to engage in a better process?

In this case, the higher quality process -- one requiring substantial and substantive input from many farmers (19 panelists, 80 verifiers and 50 focus group participants) assured that the resulting product -- with implications for future use and impact on farmers -- was solidly grounded in the real needs and experiences of farmers, and not in assumptions. Additional funds from a private foundation were raised to support this additional work.

As a consequence of these corrections, and from events beyond our control (e.g. Charles County Community College becoming a different institution; Mt. Wachusett Community College's new natural resources technician degree program not being launched until after the project timeline) we did not meet the proposed milestones. However, we did create several products, and directly fostered the creation of an innovative regional on-farm mentor network, led by the farmers involved in the process of developing the tools. This is a significant milestone that was not originally anticipated.

Objective 3 focused on strengthening land link programming. Here, the objective is framed in terms of improved programs to new farmers. Identifying milestones in terms of farmer customers with TRI, we came up with: of 1000 farmers who hear about land link workshops, 100 attend, 60 join a land link program, 25 of those take measurable steps toward farm access or transfer, and of those, 12 new farmers secure farmland. We know that over 100 farmers attended various land link workshops and over 60 joined New England Land Link or another linking program in the region. We can document that more than 25 farmers took steps toward acquiring a farm. In terms of improved programs (with service providers as intermediary customers), changing provider behavior or attitudes would constitute a milestone; however, we did not quantify this milestone.

We did measure changes resulting from the two-day professional development training on farm transfer in May 2001. We conducted a survey in January 2002. A near 50% return from approximately 70 training participants told us that as a direct consequence of the training:

91% of respondents have new information and skills related to farm succession and transfer issues.

91% are better prepared to serve customers on farm transfer issues.

64% have served new customers on these matters.

70% have shared information or had a discussion about these issues.

64% have sought additional information or skills on this topic.

63% have provided a new service or new information related to this topic to their clients

79% are more likely to respond to inquiries about farm transfer.

91% are interested in more opportunities for training and networking.

These results tell us that we accomplished some kind of milestone related to changing provider attitudes and behaviors. We would need to reach the farmer customers that these providers ultimately served to measure their changes, and it was not possible to accomplish this.

Regarding program improvements, we focused on the NELL program. Program leaders conducted an analysis of new and exiting farmer satisfaction after implementing program improvements such as internet access to the database of farms, downloadable applications, and a two-tiered casework service structure. We also conducted an outreach campaign to recruit program participants and encourage referrals. NELL handled over 1000 inquiries a year during this project, with 83 new program members at the end of 2001, surpassing our milestone by a third. Forty-seven percent found NELL through service provider referral. These numbers are up substantially from previous years, a indication of the effectiveness of our outreach.

Another milestone indicator is that all the people who joined the program requested and got additional technical assistance from NELL, and 51 percent of new farmer members made initial contacts to potential matches. Forty-seven percent visited prospective properties; twenty percent followed up with further referrals or resource/publication acquisition.

Objective 4 proposed to develop two products to make the NxLevel business planning course, "Tilling the Soil of Opportunity," more relevant for beginning farmers planning sustainable farm startups. This objective is product-oriented; we selected milestones directed at new farmer participation in the NxLevel courses offered by the New England Small Farm Institute. The predicted milestones were: of 100 farmers who learn about the course, 12 will sign up, 10 will complete the program. At least 850 farmers were reached through a mailing and conference advertising. NESFI conducted the course twice, with a total of 18 participants; all but two completed the course.

It became apparent that NxLevel was not an appropriate curriculum for farmers in the explorer stage -- those not yet farming and not yet ready to tackle a full-blown business plan, but considering a farming career and wanting to develop a business concept. So, an add-on companion piece was designed. This became "Exploring the Small Farm Dream," a workbook and course. This course was held three times, with 33 participants, all of whom completed the course. Course completion was considered a milestone measurement.

Objective 4 also proposed to improve beginning farmer participation in FSA targeted loan programs by improving FSA outreach. This activity was not implemented because the Growing New Farmers Project (which overlapped in implementation) had a financing component that absorbed and built upon this part of the objective.

In terms of reaching performance targets:

1. Two hundred beginning farmers find and use the newly established new farmer network and 15 new farmer programs are either created or improved and expanded. Because the web site was not on line, beginning farmers were not able to find programs through the electronic directory as anticipated. The hard-copy directory was disseminated to service providers, and they may have helped farmers locate and use programs. We have evidence that over two dozen new farmer programs were either created or improved as a consequence of the activities associated with this project.

2. Ten beginning farmers will gain identified competencies as a consequence of completing a skills training activity. Students were not placed in on-farm training settings during this project, but about 80 students and beginning farmers learned something by completing the competency assessment tool designed in this project. In addition, it would be safe to say that over 60 new and prospective farmers leanred from attending any of eight conference workshops on topics for new farmers, though we cannot verify this.

In Maryland, initial discussions among the partners to establish a protocol for college students to receive credit for on-farm training experiences were promising. However, delays in Charles County Community College receiving funding to implement an intern program, along with a reorganization of the institution, resulted in not being able to place students. In Massachusetts, NESFI was closely involved with the development of an associate degree program in environmental technology with a sustainable farming track at Mt. Wachusett Community College. The degree program is underway, but the first students to enter the program were not eligible for internships during the timeframe of this project.

At UMass, the Stockbridge School of Agriculture entered productive dialogue with NESFI. The occupational profile and competency assessment tools were piloted in several Stockbridge classes, but no formal contracts for off-campus skills training were signed. The "Explorer Guide" will be offered as an inter-term course at Stockbridge School in the upcoming academic year.

3. Twenty-five beginning and exiting farmers take one or more concrete steps toward accessing or transferring land, and six beginning farmers obtain secure tenure on farmland.

From a survey to NELL applicants, we know that 24 new and exiting farmers contacted potential matches as a concrete step toward accessing or transferring land. Twenty-eight took additional steps, such as seeking further technical assistance or reading a related publication. Nineteen said that they had developed further skills or knowledge about the farm transfer process. As in all linking programs, actual "matches" are hard to track. We know of three beginning farmers from the NELL program who obtained secure tenure on farmland.

4. Eight beginning farmers complete a business plan, and three USDA FSA offices document a 10 percent increase in beginning farmer applications.

Five farmers who took the NxLevel business planning course completed business plans. However, 33 other new or prospective farmers completed a business concept and related farm development worksheets from the "Explorer" course. As a consequence of taking this course, all participants said they "feel better able today than at the start of the course to answer the question: am I ready to start a [farm'] business?" As stated earlier, work with FSA offices to improve beginning farmer loan application rates was not implemented during the course of this project.

Reflection on "interim results that seem noteworthy" (from the Final Report Guidelines) is important to this outcomes pilot. It was challenging for project leaders to distinguish -- and then balance -- the milestones and outcomes: the means and the ends. On the one hand, a focus on outcomes is sensible and really helpful. On the other hand, an orthodox use of the outcomes approach appears to minimize a full consideration and appreciation of interim results.

Complex projects and complex strategies that focus on institutional and systems changes are difficult to measure concretely. This isn't an excuse for sloppy or ineffectual projects; rather a challenge as to how we best measure and credit shifts in attitudes, awareness, ground-breaking participatory processes, and slow progressions toward program creation and innovation, especially when working with providers in order to serve end customers, such as in this project. What seem noteworthy are the insights about new farmers and conceptual tools that have sprung from our investigation, the tremendous initial response by the regional service network to the needs of new farmers, and the creation of an exciting regional on-farm mentor network that was not imagined at the outset of this project, but borne out of the project's DACUM process and partnerships with farmers.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

This project produced the following publications:

Northeast New Farmer Directory of Programs and Services (60 pp.)

Listening to New Farmers: Findings from New Farmer Focus Groups (57 pp.)

Gaps in New Farmer Programs and Services (8 pp.)

Exploring the Concept of Farming Career Paths (12 pp.)

DACUM Occupational Profile for Northeast Small Scale "Sustainable" Farmer

DACUM Occupational Profile for On-farm Mentor

Exploring the Small Farm Dream: Is Starting an Agricultural Enterprise Right for You? (A Decision Making Workbook)

Exploring the Small Farm Dream: Is Starting an Agricultural Enterprise Right for You? (Instructor's Guide)

Access to Land (a New England Land Link fact sheet)

Training the Next Generation of Northeast Sustainable Farmers: A Peer-Guided Approach to Curriculum Development, Final Report

Training the Next Generation of NE Sustainable Farmers: A Peer-Guided Approach to On-Farm Mentoring, Final Report

Web site design began during this grant period, but the site was not launched until 2002. It is now located at The site is designed to be a one-stop resource for northeast new farmers and for service providers. It houses a searchable directory (the same as the published hard copy), a calendar, publications and links, information about new farmers, and interactive discussion and distance learning courses.

Outreach during this project's timeframe centered on reaching NE service providers. We made contact with several hundred organizations with initial and follow-up mailings and phone calls to collect directory information and inform agency and organization representatives about the project and invite their interest and participation. A March 2001 conference, "Supporting and Serving Northeast New Farmers," drew 100 participants. The event was publicized in newsletters, on the Internet, on electronic list serves, and through a brochure mailing to a database of 800.

The land linking training event was publicized via direct mail brochures to 6,700 Bar Association members, Extension, land trusts, Farm Family Insurance offices, and land link programs throughout New England, and through ads place in the Massachusetts and Vermont Bar Association newsletters. To promote NELL, we sent information packets with press releases to state departments of agriculture, extension, Farm Bureaus, and land trusts, and press releases to approximately ten regional agricultural publications. Land link workshops were promoted on the web, through direct mailings to over 600 farmers, and through conference brochures.

No milestones

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The outcome statement for this project derived from our work with TRI was "all new farmers will be successful, insuring a viable and sustainable Northeast agriculture sector." There were substantial positive impacts from this project, but they fall short of being able to tell us about the success of all new farmers. We do have data on the number of farmers directly reached and what changes they made; we also have data on the impact on other audiences such as service providers. What is not possible to assess are the indirect and longer-term impacts on new farmers from the changes in attitudes and behaviors of providers, from the resulting program development, and from future use of products derived from the project. In a project that stresses systems change, an orthodox outcomes framework may marginalize these impacts because it seems much more of a stretch to link performance targets (specific behavior changes) and broader outcomes (overarching purpose or mission).

We can, however make some statements about the impact of this project. As a result of our networking with service providers, 150 northeast organizations (including 46 land grants and extension offices) have made specific commitments to serving and advocating for new farmers. Over 200 have received skills and knowledge about new farmer customers. Groups such as attorneys, land trusts and planning departments have been exposed to new farmer service. A $1.7 million USDA grant, leveraged with this SARE and other grants, now supports continuing regional efforts on behalf of new farmers.

Through outreach efforts, over 600 people are receiving news and information about new farmer topics. A region-wide on-farm mentor network was created. Over 150 farmers and prospective farmers have benefited from workshops, courses, self-assessment tools and presentations about business planning, access to land and credit, and on-farm skill building. An additional 100 were reached and benefited from their participation in land link programming.

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.