Building Resilient Organic Farms through Communities of Practice

Progress report for ONC20-067

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $39,934.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

Farmers rely on other farmers for information and advice on practices. Traditionally, this has been through relationships with neighbors and nearby family. With organic agriculture, a beginning farmer or farmer looking to transition to organic might not know any other organic growers in their own neighborhood or personal networks.

Farmers can find it overwhelming to understand the regulations and best organic practices to follow on their farm. Today’s successful organic farmers reached this point by helping each other improve their operations.

MOSES will organize grower groups to provide the support of a wider community to beginning organic farmers. The farmer-led grower groups would be organized around geographic location and production practices. They would have MOSES support in promoting the groups as well as in providing content for their gatherings as needed.

A key to success for farmer-led groups is engaged leadership. In order to form strong groups, and to strengthen existing grower groups around the region, MOSES will form a Farmer-Leader Community of Practice (CoP). The CoP will have electronic communications, webinars or online meetings, and meetings at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. The activities will provide a platform for farmer-leaders to help each other and share information.

Project Objectives:

The long-term goal of this project is to build resilient organic communities throughout the region. The groups will contribute to the success of new organic farmers, lead to farmers improving their practices by learning from each other, and build lasting relationships and grower communities. The farmers will take ownership of the groups, and the groups will continue to organize with minimal input from MOSES. The CoP will help to ensure that the groups are successful in the long-term by supporting and developing group leaders. MOSES staff will complete a Best Practices document for grower group leadership.

Cooperators

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Research

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Online trainings
2 Published press articles, newsletters
43 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

1800 Farmers participated
500 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

This grant was originally written with in person meetings in mind. With the onset of COVID, it took some time to re-think and plan for our new context and the launch of the program was significantly delayed as we sought to help farmers be prepared for the season during the pandemic. What has come of it so far has been more issue- and interest-based groups forming rather than geography-based groups. The basic way that the groups have started is with one or two initial meetings between MOSES staff Chuck Anderas and a small group of farmers. One example so far is Growing Wellness. Growing Wellness is a group of farmers and others who are searching for support, resources, and community around mental health and stress. It currently consists of a moderated email group that is a safe place to share about mental health issues, and monthly meetings every fourth Tuesday of the month. People from the community volunteer monthly to teach about various issues in mental health. The structure for this was provided from a meeting with farmers. The farmers said they wanted to create a safe place where they could communicate with other farmers about mental health issues, build community, and get training. The farmers at the planning meeting said they would often be busy and not be able to attend every training, so they hoped that MOSES could record and distribute the audio or video afterwards. The format that has followed has been monthly meetings where the first part is recorded. Then, the recording is stopped and the farmers present can discuss the issue freely. Then MOSES staff upload the audio to the podcast feed and the video to the MOSES YouTube channel. So far, there have been 6 Growing Wellness meetings. These meetings have covered empowered decision making, nurturing mental health protective factors, suicide awareness and prevention, mindfulness, and care pods. One of the group facilitators, Hawthorn McCracken, wrote about the group for the MOSES Organic Broadcaster.

This group led to an expansion of MOSES's work with farmer and rural mental health. Because of the group, a staff member at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) contacted MOSES staff to see if we had ideas for further programming on mental health. The group, from the beginning, had discussed wanting to find a way to have a "buddy system" where the members of the group had someone who knew what they were going through that they could talk with in a safe and nonjudgmental way that would support them. A past contributor of the group, Chris Frakes, had shared how she was running a peer support program in southwestern Wisconsin. The model of peer support fit very well into the needs that the group had discussed, and the group met in November 2021 to advise MOSES staff on exactly what they were looking for in peer support. MOSES was then a subaward on a USDA grant through DATCP to train 14-18 farmers as Certified Peer Specialists. The training concluded at the end of February 2022, and MOSES will now hire up to four farmers to be Certifier Peer Specialists in support of their peer-farmers' mental health.

A similar format and approach are underway to support a few other groups, including farmer-researchers and farm workers. To support farm workers, we are working alongside UW social science researchers who have been studying organic farm employee management and long-term sustainability and have been developing relationships in that area.

There is also an anti-racism group called "Farmers Against Racism." This group has met a few times with BIPOC leaders and one time with a wider audience of about 40 farmers and agriculture professionals from around the Midwest. MOSES staff Chuck Anderas facilitated the meeting around the seven strategies identified in the document "Soul Fire Farm Action Steps & Policy Platform for Food Sovereignty." From this, plans are emerging to develop a system for farmers and others to donate land and resources to BIPOC farmers, a way for people to volunteer to help with grant writing assistance, and to continue anti-racism education.

This group has led to strengthened relationships with partners as well as invitations for MOSES staff to participate in the Agriculture and Antiracism Midwest Cohort led by Land Stewardship Project and PANNA. This group also led to an Organic University class of the same name at the 2022 MOSES Organic Farming Conference. 

Queer and Trans on the Land is another newly forming community for nonbinary, trans, and gender non-conforming farmers to share resources and (eventually) gather in place-based community. The group is based in Southwestern Wisconsin, but anyone in the region is welcome to join. Right now the group has started as a Facebook group, but the members hope to expand to other platforms as they grow. They are currently a virtual community and discussion group, but when it is safe again they hope to host potlucks, workshops, and maybe even retreats together. 

Two ways that this program has evolved over time is that we have made standing groups of all the different production types that we cover. First, rather than asking community members who are unaffiliated with MOSES to lead the groups, the groups are lead by our farmer Organic Specialists and our farmer board members. For example, grain farmer and Organic Specialist Carmen Fernholz and grain farmer and MOSES board member Charlie Johnson facilitate meetings with other grain farmers. MOSES staff prepare the facilitators ahead of time by sharing with them results from surveys and other feedback we get from farmers throughout the year. Then, staff are present at the meetings to take notes, observe, and ask questions. The meetings are intended to take place quarterly.

The first round of meetings happened in summer 2021. The purpose of the meetings was to advise MOSES staff on content and priorities for the 2022 MOSES Conference. As a result of the seven group meetings, around 43 of the workshops at the MOSES Conference we a direct result of the input and suggestions of the farmers. The result was an event that was farmer-led and farmer-produced from the earliest planning meetings.

The groups' planning for the conference is an example of the role that the Grower Groups are going to take in shaping the direction of MOSES programming and priorities in the future. Our plan is to have regularly scheduled meetings that correspond to the planning periods of the major parts of our work. Like what happened with Growing Wellness and the DATCP mental health grant, we hope that the groups will form the foundation of our plans and ideas for future programming beyond our existing offerings.

We also recently launched a farmer-focused social networking site called the Ag Solidarity Network (ASN) with several partners. We hope that the ASN will be a key way that farmers get connected to groups, to each other, to insight about their farms and communities, and to their influence over our work.

 

Learning Outcomes

1800 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Farmer needs to build community and connection are beyond production methods. This is demonstrated in the formation of 'issue' focused groups this past year. 

Organizational support by way of technology infrastructure for meetings and posting recorded presentations and created resources enables the ongoing success of these community of practice groups. 

Organizational support for farmer communities of practice also includes access to professional and expert collaborators/contributors to further a group's understanding of the issue of study that brought them together. 

The groups now form the basis for MOSES content priorities and planning. Showing results from their participation in our work will empower farmers to be more active participants in the creation of their own education and networks.

Growing Wellness YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDbgVNKGiK8tIIVNZuF-Rkek52cMP8Rlj

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.