Building Resilient and Successful Farm Businesses in the Southern Appalachians

Progress report for LS20-323

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Organic Growers School
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Cameron Farlow
Organic Growers School
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Project Information

Abstract:

“Building Resilient and Successful Farm Businesses in the Southern Appalachians” provides farm businesses support through the start-up years and beyond by serving farmers in the Southern Appalachian mountain region with comprehensive education, training, mentoring, technical assistance and support services. Through our year-round roster of programs, the number of successful beginning and expanding farm enterprises will increase, specifically, more than 150 farm businesses will receive valuable production, business, marketing, finance, and networking training.

In our 28 years of serving farmers, we regularly hear about their need for specialized, one-on-one support to address their specific challenges and create efficient systems that promote longevity and resilience in their farm business. This ongoing support will prepare farmers to start farming, seize business opportunities, add/change enterprises, secure financing, achieve long-term land tenure, define marketing plans, meet income goals, and become more resilient and adaptable in the face of a changing climate.

These services target Journeyperson farmers, defined as farmers in years 3-10+ of their farming journey. Focused support during these critical years helps small farmers overcome the challenges of scale and burnout that often break farm businesses. 

Since 2008, OGS Farmer Programs have directly supported over 1,000 farmers and farm workers. Our current roster of programs includes:

  1. Farm Dreams: An exploratory workshop for aspiring farmers.
  2. Apprentice Link: Free online resource for aspiring farmers to find on-farm training and farms to find reliable, qualified employees.
  3. Farm Beginnings® Farmer Training: A year-long, 200+ hour whole farm business, financial, and marketing training course. 
  4. Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT): A farmer-led network and a series of on-farm educational tours for farmers.

Guided by our 3-year plan, OGS will expand our current farmer programs to include:

  1. “Farmer Mentoring Services” open to Southern Appalachian farmers of all stages to receive mentoring and technical assistance. 
  2. “Journeyperson: Advanced-Beginner Farmer Education” for farmers in years 3-10 to build their skill base as farm business owners.
  3. “Recruiting and Serving New Audiences” with coalition building and strategic partnerships that allow us to adapt our services to be accessible for limited resource, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers, and underserved rural communities in the Southern Appalachians.

All of our programs are farmer-led, and farmer-informed, and designed synergistically to directly address the needs of our regional farming community. This offers a trajectory of training that aligns with SARE’s goal to increase the sustainable production practices and profitability of our local farmers.

Successful farmers care for the land, generate income for themselves and others, produce food for their region and strengthen their communities. In a traditional economic sense, small farm entrepreneurs bolster rural development through job creation and by keeping a larger percentage of local dollars circulating in the local economy. Entrepreneurs are the backbone of rural development, and a strong small farm industry can catalyze and launch other new entrepreneurial ventures that depend on the profitability and success of the farm sector.

Project Objectives:

ONGOING PROGRAM IMPLEMENTATION & COORDINATION:

    1. Farm Dreams: 40 total aspiring and apprentice farmers will participate in 4 one-day workshops. They will learn and implement values clarification, skills and resources clarification, resource identification, and complete an educational plan for pursuing a career in farming.
    2. Apprentice Link: 30 organic/sustainable farmers will be profiled on the online Apprentice Link listing. A minimum of 5 farms will hire apprentices/employees through Apprentice Link. OGS staff will Identify, create, and compile resources for training farmers to be efficient mentors & employers. 
    3. Farm Beginnings® Farmer Training: 20 total beginning farmers receive 200+ hrs of comprehensive whole-farm, production, and business training, which includes 12 winter classroom sessions, 8+ CRare matched with an experienced farmer mentor for 15 hrs of one-on-one support and technical assistance, and graduate in September each year.
    4. Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT): A total of 60 farm business members and 80 farm apprentices will participate in a total of 20 on-farm workshops & 6 Farmer Round Tables that allow members to join a farmer-to-farmer mentoring network; learn about innovative methods of sustainable production, business & management models. Each member receives a digital copy of our farmer-written 600+ page Farming Handbook.

NEW PROGRAM DESIGN & IMPLEMENTATION:

  1. Farmer Mentoring Services 
      • A total of 10 farmers are matched with a Farmer Mentor and receive 15 hours of one-on-one coaching, consulting, and mentoring services and supported with technical assistance, development, management, site-planning, and business planning. The program is open to farmers of stages, skill levels, and production models. 
      • Farmer Mentors receive guidance and support to help equip Mentee farmers with:
        • Problem-solving and troubleshooting skills to address project- and site-specific issues.
        • Direct connections for innovative transfer of knowledge.
        • Support for goal setting and action-based next steps.
        • Regional best practices in sustainable/regenerative farming
      • Additional tasks include recruiting mentors, coordination, oversight, troubleshooting, ensuring success.
  2. JourneyPerson: Advanced-Beginner Farmer Education
      • Assess the feasibility of & design a Journeyperson program to start in Winter 2020. Geared towards beginning farmers in years 3-10 to assist them with enterprise refinement, assessing scale, systems design to increase efficiency, holistic financial planning, etc. 
      • A total of 10 farms are enrolled and participate in the first two years of the program.
        • They receive 15 hrs of one-on-one mentoring with an advanced farmer mentor
        • They receive scholarships to participate in professional development opportunities to increase their knowledge and skill-base.
        • They participate in 2-3 financial risk management-focused intensives that address the challenges of farm enterprises as these farmers evolve their businesses past the start-up phase. Topics may include:
          1. Managing Farm Labor will cover legal and financial considerations, how to choose the labor structure that best fits your farming model, and employee management best practices.
          2. Advanced Enterprise Development will cover what influences farm profitability, recordkeeping, and assist farmers with whole decision-making in regards to enterprise development.
          3. Holistic Financial Planning will cover holistic goal setting, planning for profit, creating an adaptive annual financial plan. 
  1. Recruiting and Serving New Audiences:
    • Ensure that staff, board, farmer-instructors, and program participants are trained in racial equity through local trainings, consulting, and curriculum.
    • Spanish language interpretation and childcare are offered during events.
    • Ensure that farmers of color are decision-makers, teachers, mentors, and participants in all OGS farmer programs.
    • Increase partnerships with local allies working with communities of color and veterans’ support groups. 
    • Strengthen relationships with partners and workshops offered in GA, SC, TN, VA and/or more rural parts of WNC.

A total of 200+ farm businesses will receive comprehensive training over the course of this project. OGS Farmer Programs are designed to directly address the needs of the regional farming community, including low-wealth, disadvantaged farmers, and offer a trajectory of farmer-led training. Through participation in our programs, farmers start to farming, seize business opportunities, add/change enterprises, secure financing, achieve long-term land tenure, define marketing plans, meet income goals, and become more resilient and adaptable to climate change.

Big Picture Goal:

We want more farmers on the land using organic and sustainable practices and a system in which family farms can flourish. As we inspire, educate and support regional farmers to use organic and regenerative practices, and incorporate holistic farm business planning we expect farmers to survive and thrive in a changing climate.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Gwen Casebeer - Producer
  • Jamie Davis - Producer (Educator)
  • Dr. Jeanine Davis - Producer
  • Tom Elmore - Producer (Educator)
  • Krista Fayette - Producer (Educator)
  • Kimberly Hunter (Educator)
  • Kevin Lane - Producer
  • William Lyons - Producer (Educator)
  • Andrea Van Gunst - Producer (Educator)
  • Marie Williams - Producer (Educator)

Research

Involves research:
No
Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Each workshop, training, and mentorship opportunity we offer is designed to align and cover one or more aspects of the following “Core Learning Components” including:

  1. Whole Farm Planning (Values Determination and Goal Setting, Soil Health, Ecology, Skills Assessment, Enterprise Investigation, Determining Scale, Land Access)
  2. Financial Planning (Financial Literacy, Budgeting and Enterprise Planning, Accounting and Recordkeeping Systems)
  3. Marketing (Exploring Market Models for Small Farms, Branding, and Promotions, Market Research, Determining Price)
  4. Business Planning and Management (Legal Structure and Business Set up, Basic Business Plan Components, Tax, Legal, Insurance, and Risk Management)
  5. Connecting with Resources (Farm Financing Strategies, USDA Programs, Local Farm Advocacy Organization, Farmer Networks, Professional Development)

For each workshop, mentoring, and training appropriate, applicable, and comprehensible materials, such as worksheets, resources, and handouts will be distributed and employed during and after the workshop. Specific examples include financial tracking worksheets, instructions for building soil health, skill and resource assessments, soil testing instructions, labor-management assessments, enterprise development worksheets, etc. 

While we originally planned for all project elements to be conducted in-person due to the COVID pandemic we shifted all programming online. We employed a combination of live webinar-type workshops, pre-recorded videos, and participant cohort meetings. We worked diligently to maintain high-quality education opportunities, despite the change in format. These online workshops and trainings include strategies for teaching adult learners of diverse ages and backgrounds, with multiple learning styles. When possible, we also tried to maintain ample class time to complete exercises that reinforce and help integrate concepts as they learn, and gain practice using specific tools. 

Sustainable, organic, and regenerative agriculture experts, as well as financial and business planning experts have been or will be chosen as instructors because they have direct experience as farmers or working with farmers to assess and reduce production-related risks, provide legal guidance, business/financial planning and marketing expertise. All of our instructors are professional farmers or agriculture support professionals which provides peer-to-peer access. This direct connection to peers in farming proves effective with farmer retention, compliance, understanding, trust-building, and adoption. Furthermore, participating with fellow farming peers allows for sharing experiences, challenges, and successes and therefore increases networks of support and adds richness and depth to learning. This building of camaraderie and shared reality within the farming community increases the likelihood that the farmers will implement what they learn. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Consultations
6 Online trainings
8 Published press articles, newsletters
22 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 We hosted 3 online farmer discussions and training in the first 2 months of the Pandemic (March-April) to help farmers connect, and share resources and their experiences trying to meet the new challenges and demands of the time. Topics we covered included new farm & food safety protocols, managing labor & exposure, online market platforms, and general sharing of changes people were making.

Participation Summary

219 Farmers
10 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Farm Dreams: Held two online workshops in 2021, serving 21 aspiring farmers in total.

  1. January 30th, 2021 with 9 aspiring farmers.
  2. February 9th, 2021 with 12 aspiring farmers. This workshop was co-taught with Cooperative Extension.
  3. See the Farm Dreams webpage here.

Apprentice Link: 34 farms are currently listed on the Apprentice Link website, seen here

CRAFT Farmer Network: We held 9 total events between April-October. The membership in 2020 included:

  • 64 Apprentices/Farmworkers/Students
  • 42 Beginning Farmers (10 years or less)
  • 26 Seasoned Farmers (10+ years)
  • 132 Total Members served

CRAFT Farm Tours 2020

Date

Format

Farm Host

Topic

April Video The Culinary Gardener Vegetable Production
April 23rd, 2020 Live Webinar Black Trumpet Farm & New Roots Market Garden Apprentice Orientation – Transitioning from Apprentice to Farmer
May Video Mountain Gardens

Growing Herbs

May 28th Live Webinar Grassroots Farm & Dairy & Acornucopia Project Vertical Integration
June Video Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy Community Farm & Cooperative Extension Pasture Walk
June 25th Live Webinar  Beacon Village & Balsam Gardens Food Safety & Pack House Tour 
July Video Black Thorn Farm Shepherding in the Mountains
August  Video Lane in the Woods Farmstead Cheesemaking
October Video Full Sun Farm Cut Flowers

Farm Beginnings Farmer Training: 28 participants from 4 different states were accepted into the 2020-2021 Farm Beginnings cohort, the class kicked off in November 2020. So far the students have participated in:

  • 17 online winter training sessions from November 2020-April 2021. These included pre-recorded farmer and expert presentations, live zoom Q&A sessions with the presenter, in-class work time, cohort development, and peer-to-peer facilitated discussion. See the original course schedule here. More sessions were conducted due to the unique needs of the class. 
  • Students attended two conferences, ASAP’s The Business of Farming Conference on February 25-27, 2021, and OGS’s Annual Spring Conference March 13-31, 2021
  • Students have been paired with an advanced farmer mentor and completing 15 hrs of one-on-one support.
  • They will participate in the 2021 CRAFT farm tour season, and in the online Holistic Crop Management Course
  • This cohort will graduate in September 2021.

JourneyPerson Farmer Training: We planned to launch and pilot this program in winter 2020. However, we ultimately decided to postpone the program launch due to low enrollment. After speaking with several target audience farmers we heard that this was primarily due to the added burdens these farmers were facing as they pivoted to meet the farming demands brought on by the Pandemic. The initial structure of the program may have been a deterrent to others. We are currently re-evaluating how the program will be structured to make it more appealing and feasible for farmers in years 3-10 of their farm business development. We aim to re-launch the program in winter 2021. 

Mentor Farmer Services: We launched the program in October 2020. See the program website here. We are accepting applications on a rolling basis. 4 matches have been made and are currently in process. These farmers are receiving up to 30 hrs of one-on-one support with their mentor over a 12-month span. We are in the process of matching 5 more beginning farmers with a mentor. 

Outreach Materials:

Learning Outcomes

219 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

53 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
6 Grants received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the local agriculture community and especially new and beginning farmers, those who have been farming 10 years or less. Access to land, markets, and capital provides a unique set of challenges that new and beginning farmers face, reflected in the Organic Growers School (OGS) 2015 Barriers to Farming Survey and repeated in the newly released 2020 Farming in NC Report.

We interviewed three new and beginning farmers, all graduates of OGS’s Farm Beginnings® program, and currently participate in Apprentice Link and/or the CRAFT Farmer Network. A major theme throughout each interview was the increased uncertainties newer farmers face, exacerbated by this pandemic. It was also evident that each farmer had developed planning and tracking systems, allowing them to make informed, adaptive decisions based on real data. In addition, each farm is well networked in the food and farming community, particularly due to their participation in CRAFT Farmer Network and Farm Beginnings programs, making access to information and other farmers easier. 

They had to adjust their production planning and quickly try to find alternative outlets and were expecting reductions in revenue, also related to anticipated land transitions.

There have been some surprising silver linings as well. One farmer, who previously sold at farmers markets and to restaurants, expressed that this pandemic has forced them into thinking about marketing ideas they wouldn’t have thought of before, such as a CSA. And, they have actually seen people in their more immediate area are joining the CSA. They have found they can tap into customers they wouldn’t have before, who are passionate about local food and don’t want to go to farmers’ markets.

Other farmers are experiencing this loyalty and support from customers as well, as customers realize the value of local farms and foods and how fragile the global food system and delivery structures are.  The farmers all seem excited about that possibility and hope that it doesn’t take another disaster for people to continue to see that local food is closer, safer, healthier, and good for our local economy. 

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.