Keeping vegetable farmers growing through one-on-one professional peer coaching

Progress report for ONC23-126

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2023: $49,970.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipient: FairShare CSA Coalition
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Beth Knorr
FairShare CSA Coalition
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Project Information

Summary:

Over the last 10 years, FairShare’s network of diversified vegetable farmers has seen an increasing number of experienced growers exit the industry – an observation shared by partnering organizations in the Midwest Vegetable Growers (MVEG) network. From climate change and labor shortages to narrow profit margins and poor quality of life, fewer growers are able to envision a future for themselves in farming. In partnership with farmers who have identified this need, this project will explore peer-to-peer farm coaching as an innovative tool to support established farmers and keep them farming. Guided by certified coaches who have extensive experience as producers themselves, farmers will build key skills that help them make decisions that support both their business and life goals. By engaging farmers before they feel like exiting is their only option, coaching will connect them with the right support at the right time. We will reach farmers through several outlets, including: the MVEG network, which is led by FairShare and operates in WI, MN, IL, IA, IN, OH, MO, and MI; FairShare’s network of over 350 producers and agricultural professionals; and nearly 30 farmers who have already registered their strong demand for this service. 

Project Objectives:
  1. Establish a peer-to-peer farm coaching program serving diversified vegetable producers across the north central region.
  2. Enhance alignment between producers' business plans and their skills, interests, and values. 
  3. Keep farmers farming through increased business success and improved quality of life.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

In order to achieve what we set out to with this project, an important first step was convening a 10-member Advisory Team composed of Extension professionals (2), certified coaches (3), and farmers (5) - with additional administrative and logistical support provided by a FairShare staff member. We unexpectedly received a significant amount of additional financial support for this program almost right away, which dramatically impacted our timeline. While we had originally planned to launch the farm coaching program in the fall of 2023, the spend-down requirements that came with this additional funding meant that we instead worked diligently to launch the program in May of 2023. Advisory team members' input during these early months was crucial. The questions they asked and the input they shared during several working meetings helped shape and refine the program so that it was ready to support farmers much earlier than originally anticipated. 

Key questions we engaged with included: What is coaching, and what isn't coaching?; What intake and broader communication processes will best support this program?; What lessons have been learned through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Farm Coaching program that we might apply here?; What degree of consistency should exist between the program's 3 coaches in terms of the support they provide to farmers they are working with?; and What are some unique challenges we might see in connecting farmers to coaching services?

With the farmer members of the advisory committee participating in coaching themselves, we have been able to pull back the curtain and learn a great deal about what feels effective about the program and what might benefit from some additional tweaking. One specific programmatic change tied to this feedback was the decision to shorten the coaching timeline from 12 to 6 months, as farmer members suggested that scheduling coaching sessions more frequently seems to support more active engagement and decision-making. 

 

 

 

Research results and discussion:

We are now beginning to conduct program evaluation with participating farmer coaches and will look forward to sharing that feedback and how it impacts the program overall in our final report. However, we do have preliminary testimonials from a few participants that suggest the impact of the farm coaching program has been positive. One participant shared that, "Taking the time every week or two to meet with my coach for an hour keeps me grounded, reminds me of my goals, and continues to help me prioritize the well-being of both me personally and my business. I truly have not found anything more valuable to me as a farm owner.” Meanwhile, another farmer pointed to a few specific things that coaching helped her engage with. "My experience with farm coaching helped me create a Farm Stand Manager position and pass on some of my daily responsibilities to that manager, learn about my 'internal family' and how to appreciate and respect the different parts of my family, and face two of my greatest unspoken fears about farming."

Participation Summary
53 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

28 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

53 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

One of the first things our team focused on as this project got off the ground was creating a program webpage, which we integrated into FairShare CSA Coalition's website. Putting careful thought into articulating what farm coaching is and what it is not has helped us craft a clear message to use in our outreach activities. 

Sharing the farm coaching program through farmer-facing articles and conferences (e.g. the Organic Broadcaster, the Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference) has been an effective way to promote the program and its services. Early on, we were also able to introducing the farm coaching program to a large group of farmers during a featured presentation slot at a Midwest Vegetable Growers Network meeting. We have also centered farmers' experiences with this coaching program in creating our outreach materials. 

At this point, we have engaged with at least 53 farmers through this project. Twenty farmers participating in an experiential farm coaching session at a regional farming conference. Thirty-three farmers have submitted coaching inquiries. Twenty-eight of those farmers completed an exploratory coaching call, with 23 of them choosing to formally participate in farm coaching. Of those 23 farmers, 2 of them are outside of the subsidy range which also speaks to the value that farmers are placing on farm coaching support services. 

 

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.