Increasing the effectiveness of assisting farmers with sustainable on-farm enterprise

Final Report for LS04-166

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $15,860.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Keith Richards
Southern SAWG
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Project Information


Southern SAWG facilitated a planning process that identified some of the most important research, education and other project activities that would increase the effectiveness of sustainable enterprise development assistance for family farmers in the Southern United States. Through phone interviews with people from 23 agencies and organizations that offer assistance to farmers and a meeting of nine leaders, we produced a list of strategic activities that would increase the effectiveness of this work. We distributed this list to over 40 agricultural assistance leaders and developed three project proposals that would address some of these needs.

Project Objectives:

1. Exchange program approaches, successes, models, and barriers among assistance providers working with farmers on aspects of sustainable enterprise development.

2. Develop a prioritized list of research and information needs among assistance providers to make their assistance more effective.

3. Develop a commitment from a core group to pursue projects that will carry out some of the most important research and strategies for delivering needed information.

4. Develop and submit at least one funding proposal to accomplish needed research and education.


In an effort to become more sustainable, an increasing number of family farmers are operating their farms as innovative small businesses. They are focusing on net profit margins instead of gross production records. They are producing products based on consumer demand, and exploring direct markets and market niches. They are diversifying into a wide array of products and services, and adding value in numerous ways (Cantrell, 2002; Green and Hilchey, 2002).

These farmers have begun looking to agricultural assistance providers for technical assistance that goes way beyond production needs. They are asking for assistance in areas such as business planning, product development, financing and capitalization, marketing, distribution, product labeling, entrepreneurship, and the development of cooperatives or other business partnerships (Born, 2001).

Many agencies and organizations in the Southern region of the United States are developing programs to meet some of these farmers' needs. Programs have been initiated by state governments and departments of agriculture, by land-grant universities, by sustainable agriculture organizations and farmers associations, by economic development agencies and electric cooperatives, by faith based groups and consumer organizations. Some run workshops or training programs for groups, while others work one-on-one with farmer clients. Many focus on specific aspects of sustainable enterprise development such as cooperative development, value-added products, or business training. Others offer varying services that meet several needs. Some have grafted enterprise development assistance onto programs that primarily focus on production assistance, while others offer production assistance in the context of an enterprise-focused program.

A few examples are as follows:

The Center for Profitable Agriculture, a joint project of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation and the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, provides information and technical assistance to farmers in Tennessee who want to add value to products, and improve the processing and marketing of their farm products.

The Coastal Plains Agri-Business Incubator System, created by the Wharton County Electric Cooperative, helps entrepreneurs in an eight-county region of Texas develop innovative agriculture and aquaculture enterprises by assisting with business plans, offering low-interest loans and bank referrals, providing training, and finding markets.

The University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture has developed the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute to train local citizens in rural northeastern Kentucky to become entrepreneurial coaches. These coaches will provide psychological and community-based support for potential agricultural and rural entrepreneurs, helping them access appropriate production, business and marketing services.

The Clinch Powell Community Kitchens, a part of the Jubilee Project in Hancock County, Tennessee, assists farmers and rural entrepreneurs with the development of recipes and production processes to create value-added food products from locally grown produce. They are promoting the production of gourmet products to supply the growing marketplace for specialty and organic foods.

RAFI-USA created the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund to help farmers and community groups in North Carolina develop new farm enterprises to replace lost tobacco income. The Reinvestment Fund emphasizes supporting agricultural entrepreneurship that creates quality jobs, contributes to the local tax-base, and increases the flow of funds around the local economy.

In addition to these on-the-ground agencies, there are a growing number of regional associations and national groups that provide information, funding, and/or networking support. Southern SAWG is one of these, providing information and education to farmers and assistance providers on value-added production, innovative marketing techniques, and sustainable on-farm enterprise development for the past 12 years. As part of a Southern SARE research and education grant (LS98-096) we researched the keys to success in adding value to farm products and developed a pilot assistance service for farmers (Richards, 2003). Drawing on our research findings, we facilitated a learning network of assistance providers who were helping farmers manage risk by strategically developing sustainable on-farm enterprises.

Yet, even after 13 years of assisting farmers and networking with other assistance providers, we still find that there are more questions than answers. While each assistance provider has had a degree of success in helping farmers develop sustainable enterprises (and seen some farms succeed), most would readily admit that there are huge gaps in assistance (and many more farmers who fail).

We all have a notion of what makes our assistance successful and where the barriers are to further success, but mostly we haven't shared our experiences and compared those barriers. We need to compare notes on what is working, what isn't, where the gaps are in research and education, and what further resources are needed. We need to see which problems have already been solved by others and only need information exchanges, and which problems are common to all and need some strategic research.

This planning project took a first step by bringing several major players together to compare experiences, prioritize needs, and point the way toward some needed research and education. It also nurtured a process for networking, developing joint proposals, and transferring information on innovative assistance programs among assistance providers.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Andy Hankins
  • Rob Holland
  • Jason Roehrig
  • Alan Ware


Materials and methods:

In the first step of our planning process, we gathered information through web research and by phone from a cross-section of agricultural assistance providers. We chose approximately 30 service organizations to interview for this project - organizations that seemed to be long-time leaders in sustainable enterprise service and/or innovative in their work. We tried to find a diverse balance of interviewees based on geography (across all 13 Southern states), type of agency (state government, university, or NGO), and type of service they focus on. Research associate Sarah Leavitt conducted phone interviews with key people from 23 of these organizations (listed in appendix A) during the winter of 2004-05.

The interview process collected information in three areas about each organization. (See appendix B for interview questions.) The first set of questions focused on background information and general program approach - mission of the organization, type of work in terms of sustainable enterprise development, number of staff, major partners, and sources of funding. The second set of questions focused on the effectiveness of their assistance - how their programs are evaluated, what programs they found to be most effective, their biggest challenges, and what other programs they would like to see. The final set of questions focused on the research and education components of the organization - where they get ideas and information, if they are networking with other organizations, and what research and education they feel would increase their effectiveness.

In April 2005, we facilitated a two-day meeting in Nashville, TN where nine assistance providers (listed in Appendix A) working with farmers on aspects of sustainable enterprise development had a chance to review the survey results and make modifications to more accurately reflect the state of sustainable enterprise development work in our region. Based on the survey results as well as their own experiences, this group developed a prioritized list of research and information needs to make assistance more effective in the South. After the meeting, a draft of the prioritized list was circulated back to the larger group of assistance providers for further feedback. This draft was then refined into a final report. The final report was sent to all project participants (and is available for free by request from Southern SAWG). A summarized list of research and education suggestions was also posted to the Southern SAWG website (

Through this process of working together, we assembled a group of several committed, potential partners to seek funding and carry out some of the top priority items of the crafted strategy. With some of these partners, we immediately developed and submitted one funding pre-proposal to Southern Region SARE. Later in the summer, we also used the project results to inform two other proposals.

Southern SAWG facilitated the whole process and provided administration. Keith Richards provided coordination for Southern SAWG, while farmer and long-time holistic management consultant Ed Martsolf provided close oversight, guidance, and meeting facilitation.

The core project partners were: Andy Hankins, Virginia State University (VA), Rob Holland, UT Center for Profitable Agriculture (TN), Jason Roehrig, RAFI-USA Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Program (NC), Alan Ware, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture (OK). These partners provided general guidance, helped develop the list of people and organizations to interview, reviewed information from the interviews, and helped develop the meeting agenda. Three of them also participated in the meeting and helped develop the final prioritized list.

Research results and discussion:

This planning project resulted in a better understanding of where we need to do research and conduct education to increase the capacity of assistance providers. We produced a summarized list of research and information needs in five critical areas to make sustainable enterprise development assistance more effective in the South. This list was sent to over 40 leaders of sustainable agriculture agencies and organizations throughout the South and posted to the Southern SAWG website.

In addition, we have compiled and made available for free an extensive 20-page report on all of the project findings. The report has extensive information on:
1. Which programs people feel are most effective in helping farmers.

2. Other programs or activities that respondents would like to see implemented in our region.
3. Barriers that are perceived as keeping organizations from being more effective in this work.
4. An expanded list of research and information needed to increase the effectiveness of this type of work.
5. Background information on some of the organizations doing this work in the South.

In the spring of 2005, we developed and submitted a pre-proposal to Southern Region SARE for a three-year research and education project to develop and test a process for assisting farmers and community leaders to create successful strategies for community-based food and agriculture systems development (see Appendix C). Although we were not asked to submit a full proposal, we will refine this concept and resubmit it to other funders.

The research from this planning project also directly informed a partnership project with USDA Risk Management to provide information and education to expand enterprise options and reduce production and marketing risks for Southern livestock producers in Management Intensive Grazing of Beef, Pastured Turkey Production, Meat Goat Production, and Pastured Poultry Production with an emphasis on broilers.

This project also led directly to several educational sessions planned for the 2006 Southern SAWG annual conference. In particular, "How Do You Know If a New Crop Will Make Money?" with Gary Bullen and "Marketing Networks" with David Smith and Laurie Moore.

This project created a better understanding for Southern SAWG and for other participants of the work of many organizations in the South and how they relate to sustainable enterprise development. We now know most of the people who are doing this work in our region and how to contact them. Through this project, many leaders of agencies and organizations who did not know each other before now have developed relationships that can be tapped for exchange of information and for future project partnerships.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Richards, Keith and Sarah Leavitt. Providing Better Assistance for Farmers and Ranchers to Develop Sustainable Enterprises: Results from a Survey of Assistance Providers. Available through Southern SAWG, [email protected], 479-587-0888.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Since this was a planning project, it didn't produce immediate demonstrable impacts at the farm level. But it directly informed three project proposals from Southern SAWG so far, and will continue to inform our work for years to come. We expect the results to also inform proposals and projects of other agencies and organizations assisting farmers in aspects of sustainable agricultural enterprise development. Ultimately this will lead to better informed and more effective assistance providers who can assist family farmers in business planning, product development, financing and capitalization, marketing, distribution, product labeling, entrepreneurship, the development of cooperatives or other business partnerships, and other sustainable enterprise areas.

No one project or one organization can transform our collective farm community into a more sustainable and more profitable set of businesses. By increasing the capacity of assistance providers in this work and making them more effective, though, more family farmers should receive assistance that lowers their risk in new business ventures and makes them more sustainable. This planning project helped to point the way.


Areas needing additional study

The following are suggested activities focused around five areas that were felt to be some of the most important to increase the effectiveness of sustainable enterprise development assistance to farmers in the Southern United States.

Research and education on sustainable/regional food systems

1. Identify the key components and principles of a sustainable food system. How do they connect and relate to make up the system?
2. Create an educational dialogue on sustainable food systems and their viability, their impact on the community, and opportunities for the farmer. What components are in place? What components need to be developed and how?
3. Facilitate the development of strategies (or "blueprints") for building more sustainable food systems in each state. This would include some type of assessment of current components and infrastructure.
4. Specifically describe the opportunities for farmers in the system, and help assistance providers understand how to provide assistance in a way that takes advantage of the benefits of these emerging systems.
5. Identify needed next steps for research and for successfully implementing sustainable/regional food systems in our region.

Enhance networking, collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships

1. Map where sustainable enterprise development resources are allocated.
2. Facilitate the coordination of resources through enhanced networking, collaborations, and partnerships.
3. Help farmers have input on development of resources and become more equal partners in assistance programs.

Create a marketing information service for direct marketers

1. Develop a system of on-going research on markets and price information at local levels. Especially look at market analysis on consumer demand for sustainably produced products.
2. Assess, consolidate and deliver this information to farmers. Develop a system for this information to be easily accessed by farmers.
3. Conduct research on gaps in marketing information.

Enhance enterprise information and entrepreneurship

1. Compile and circulate successful enterprise models that could be used by farmer entrepreneurs. Focus on components or principles of the enterprises that can be applied to other enterprises or other locations.
2. Provide training for assistance providers on how to analyze new enterprises, how to find and use enterprise models and budgets, and how to create enterprise budgets.
3. Facilitate entrepreneurship training for assistance providers, using expertise that is already in our region. Find a way to institutionalize this within organizations and agencies that assist farmers.

Research farmer coops and facilitate development of new collaborations

1. Conduct research on farmer cooperatives (or other marketing collaborations) to determine what assistance is successful, what assistance is not successful, and why.
2. Establish a staffed program for facilitating development of collaborative marketing and other sustainable enterprise activities among farmer groups.

A complete 20-page report that discusses many other research and education needs is available for free from: Keith Richards, Southern SAWG, PO Box 324, Elkins, AR 72727, 479-587-0888, [email protected]

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.