Progress report for LS21-347
The COVID-19 pandemic is having an immediate and lasting impact on farms in the Southern Appalachians. Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) works with 800 farmers across Western North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. In a late March 2020 survey, farmers reported facing immediate financial hardships that could result in farm business closures or bankruptcy if disruptions to their market outlets persisted. Many farmers, (especially those who sold primarily to institutions, restaurants, and agritourism) expressed the need for assistance with transitioning their farm business models to produce for new and additional local market outlets in order to diversify and manage risk.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, ASAP has been creative and responsive to help farmers and customers continue to connect in a rapidly shifting market environment. While it is unclear how long the virus will remain a health threat, we know it will leave a lasting impact on our farms and how they market and sell their products. Since March of 2020, ASAP has assisted farmers to help them quickly adapt their business models and diversify to meet market realities. We are currently working with farmers to assess the effectiveness of diversification and adaptation strategies. Farmers are innovative and resilient and through this SARE R&E project we are building on what farmers have learned, what is working and what is not, and identifying the strategies and approaches that are emerging to create best practices for farmers based on real-world conditions. Through peer-to-peer learning sessions, targeted workshops at our annual Business of Farming Conference, specific resources and guides, one-on-one support, and training events in the field or virtual webinars, ASAP is delivering assistance and education that is validated through farmer’s lived-experiences and delivered in ways that meet farmer’s needs and situations.
Objective 1: Collect and analyze farmer input on challenges and opportunities in adapting their business in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and future changes in the market environment. It is critical to have farmer input and feedback as the effectiveness of tools and strategies can vary widely across the mountain region and can be influenced by a wide range of factors ranging from technology to community connections. Innovation rarely comes from those thinking in the theoretical and this project combines the theory and strategy of risk management with the learned experience across a broad network of farmers. This project relies on farmer input to determine strategies that are proven effective.
Objective 2: Conduct farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities. Trust and relationships are essential across training, technical assistance, resource development, and dissemination of information for farmers. With families, land, and livelihoods so deeply interdependent, it is difficult to communicate the complexities that go into owning and/or operating a farm business. Because of this, farmers are more receptive to the experience and perspective of other farmers. There is a lot of respect across the farming community for the amount of risk that goes into shifting production or marketing models, and that is one of the reasons it is crucial to engage and involve farms in both the assessment and development of learning opportunities for other farmers.
Objective 3: Create physical and digital resources to share best practices. There are numerous tools and resources available around every aspect of farming, yet to stay relevant there needs to be continued time and energy put into the creation and adoption of resources to meet changing and emerging needs. The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to identify characteristics and strategies that are proven effective in the face of immediate and dramatic change. Resources developed from this project will not only address the immediate needs of farmers responding to the disruptions of the pandemic but distill the traits that build farm resiliency that will sustain farms going forward.
ASAP works closely with our farmer network and partner agencies to provide resources, training, and technical assistance. With established trust-based relationships developed over years of collaboration, we are able to create impactful farmer to farmer learning opportunities. This ongoing and responsive relationship, designed to meet the changing needs of farmers in our region, helps us effectively collect input from farmers to direct our programming and share out best practices regarding risk management in selling to direct markets.
Educational & Outreach Activities
At the end of 2021, ASAP administered a direct market farmer survey to over 750 farmers. 160 surveys were completed and ASAP has begun analyzing those results. Results from this survey help to assess direct market opportunities and farmer production, marketing, and financial risk management strategies and challenges going into the next season. Preliminary results show that farms are generally rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, but are still facing significant challenges, especially managing increased production and marketing costs and navigating selling to new direct markets to maintain profitability. When asked what additional support farmers need, over half of all respondents requested support in understanding direct marketing opportunities and risks and navigating and connecting with new marketing outlets. Results and farmer feedback from this survey and conference evaluations will inform future training and resources development for this project.
During this reporting period, ASAP hosted the 2022 Business of Farming Conference. This full-day training took place Saturday, February 26th at the Mission Health / A-B Tech Conference Center in Asheville, NC. This conference featured 14 workshops covering marketing, farm financials, and market outlets and enterprise diversification, as well as a lunchtime Grower-Buyer Meeting, and free 1:1 consultations with regional agricultural resource providers (including the Small Business Center and NC Cooperative Extension). Workshops of note that featured farmer-farm learning included: Navigating Farm Programs, Resources, and Support, Diversifying with Value-Added Ventures, and Niche Meats: How Do You Make Meat Sales Work?
Outreach was conducted to 801 farms to promote this conference as well as consultation support and workshop offerings provided by the Small Business Center and NC Cooperative Extension. This same group receives regular communications about upcoming training, available services, and resources specific to direct marketing and business planning.
During this reporting period, ASAP conducted outreach and updated product offerings and market outlet data across 801 farms. Sixteen farms served through 1:1 consultations pertaining to marketing strategies, market planning and assessment. From these consultations, experiential lessons learned and best practices were gathered.
ASAP’s “The Regulatory Environment for Farms in Western North Carolina”, a resource providing an overview of regulatory components pertinent to farm business planning and market assessment, was updated in Q1 of 2022 to reflect current agricultural regulations and programs and organizations available to assist farms in meeting regulatory requirements. This updated document was distributed with ASAP’s Farmer Toolkit to attendees at ASAP’s Business of Farming Conference, as well as made available as an online resource.
Multiple farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities are planned for Q2 and Q3 of 2022, including a targeted working group participating in ASAP’s Appalachian Grown Farmer Resilience Project (AGFRP). This project is designed to directly support and learn from farms navigating disaster recovery. The short-term goal is to understand the experience and needs of farms hit hardest by recent flooding, help them access the resources and support they need to recover, and gather lessons learned to inform programs and share with other farmers. Long-term goals include building farm resilience to plan for, respond to, and recover from unforeseen disasters through creating and sharing resources, case studies, and farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities. Nine farms have been selected for this initial learning AGFRP cohort (a tenth farm is expected to be added in Q2 of 2022). Farmer-to-farmer learning sessions for this group will take place each month in Q2, and will focus on marketing, business, and production risk management.
An additional farmer-to-farmer learning opportunity has been planned for June of 2022 taking place on-farm, in Buncombe County. The host farm produces niche crops specially for alternative markets. This learning session will likely focus on marketing strategies and risk management through market mix and diversification.
These resources and offerings have been, and will continue to be promoted and disseminated through: direct emails to ASAP’s farmer network, weekly and monthly e-newsletters, online resource page, social media, and through articles in local print and digital media.
Short Term Outcomes (Yr 1):
- ASAP gained input and feedback from 218 farmers to inform our understanding about what particular direct marketing strategies work, or do not work for small farms navigating the changed markets due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other changes in the market environment and why.
- Successful direct marketing strategies were identified and incorporated into ASAP’s workshops, educational materials, and resources reaching 801 farmers.
- Farmers networked and learned from each other’s successes.
- 98 farmers learned and 72 made plans to implement new and modified direct marketing strategies.
Intermediate and Long Term Outcomes (Yr 1):
- Using what they learned through workshops and/or 1:1 support, 147 farmers developed and implemented new direct marketing strategies for their farm businesses.
- Through these strategies, 70 farmers strengthened the viability of their businesses and are more economically stable despite shifting market conditions.
- Over 51,000 acres of farmland stayed in production and out of development.
- Farmers continued to develop their production and market strategies to respond to the changing demands of the local market.