Farmer educators for a pilot grazing demonstration project in Vermont

Final Report for ONE03-005

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2003: $8,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Gwyneth Harris
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
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Project Information

Summary:

This project was conceived through a process of program evaluation and farmer feedback to address a need for more advanced workshops and trainings on grass-based agriculture. In addition, the VGFA board wanted to keep and strengthen the role that farmers play in determining the content and direction of program offerings. The VPN coordinator took on the task of creating a pilot farm demonstration project, using working farms for demonstration throughout the year, and tapping the knowledge of farmers at different workshops and meetings. Work began in the spring of 2003, with the majority of the workshops being offered in the summer of 2003.
The intent of this grant was to provide funding to allow cooperating farmers to be educators in a demonstration project, by compensating them for fifty hours of work throughout the year.
The demonstration project planned to incorporate the work of the VPN with the funding provided by this grant to create a network of demonstration farms, which would host workshops, demonstrations, and group visits during the year, and allow for information to be shared at a variety of levels. Through the two year duration of the project, workshops were offered and farmers provided technical assistance through presentations and farmer-to-farmer meetings. The grant funding allowed farmers to be reimbursed for the time that they contributed to the project, as well as for the use of their farms as demonstration sites.
This report will outline project accomplishments, as well as noting challenges encountered in project design and scope.

Project Objectives:

The success of the program will be gauged by the programs offered, number of people reached by these programs, and changes in behavior reported by this audience. Our goals were as follows.
Each satellite farm will reach a minimum of 30 people throughout the year (a minimum total of 240 people in the first year). Of these people (farmers, agency personnel, agricultural professionals, consumers, and community members) 75% will report that the demonstration attended caused a change in behavior which will support the adoption of sustainable grazing practices.
We will reach a minimum of 30 agency personnel and agricultural professionals from NRCS, the University Extension Systems, and other agricultural organizations. At least a third of those attending programs will go on to work on a grazing plan in the year following attendance at the demonstration or workshop (ten new grazing plans). At least a third of those attending programs will lead a field trip to a demonstration satellite or hub farm in the year following the workshop (ten visits to demonstration farms).
At least 50% of farmers who participate will alter their grazing management system or add elements of grazing to their farms in the year following the demonstration or workshop attended. These changes in behavior will be monitored through paper and phone surveys.
Each hub farm will see a minimum of 75 visitors throughout the year, resulting in increased awareness among farmers, consumers, and agency personnel of the benefits of sustainable grazing practices. This will be measured by informal evaluations of visitors, and a follow-up phone survey.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Brent & Regina Beidler
  • Cal Blessing
  • Sam Comstock
  • Dan Hewitt
  • Kevin Kaija
  • Leo "Joe" LaDouceur
  • Bill & Kathy Moulton
  • Jesse & Marion Pomeroy
  • Kyle Thygesen
  • Doug Turner
  • Margaret Wilson

Research

Materials and methods:

This project aimed to incorporate a new element—demonstration farms—into an existing program, oriented toward providing technical assistance, resources, outreach and networking to graziers in Vermont and beyond. In theory, the demonstrations could be administered as a part of the overall work of the Vermont Pasture Network (VPN) program, while the grant provided funding to pay farmer participants.
As the grant began, farms were visited and the VPN coordinator worked to develop a schedule of workshops for the summer of 2003. The majority of the work was comparable to other years, with an added dimension of developing a series of workshops at each farm, and creating longer term aims for the workshops. The summer of facilitating the workshops began earlier than in other years, on May 2nd, and ran through November 8th. Despite this long season, and the fact that 20 separate workshops were presented, the farmer cooperators were unable to use up all of their hours. In the second year, some of these hours were used, but at the end of the project, we still have not used all of the time allotted to the project.
Several factors have contributed to this end result. Firstly, VPN program work has interfered with the time available to focus on this grant program, and secondly, farmer participation has required more monitoring and coaching than expected. In hindsight, development of a program like this one would be better served with a coordinator able to put more time into the administration and oversight of the project. The areas that suffered from lack of personnel time were farm demonstration project development and program evaluation. However, the workshops presented were of high quality and reached a large number of people. The format of the workshops was to develop with each farmer a set of goals that they would like to reach on their farm, and then share the project with the ag community through on-farm workshop and pasture walk presentations. The type of project varied widely, from a basic fertilizer trial at one farm, to sharing information on land clearing techniques developed over the space of 20 years on another farm. The workshops presented are listed below:
Farm Demonstration Workshops
2003
May 2, Fence Design and Layout, Vermont Technical College Dairy Farm, Randolph VT (16 attendees)
May 20, Fencing Options, Methods & Equipment, UVM Extension Office, Brattleboro, VT (14 attendees)
May 22, Government Assistance Programs & Sheep Grazing, Three Owls Farm, Granville, VT (8 attendees)
May 29, Dairy Grazing Part 1: Making The Best Of Your Land Through The Seasons, Simplicity Farm, Waitsfield, VT(6 attendees)
June 3, Horse Grazing Part 1: Land Management Concerns Of Boarding Horses On A Small Land-Base, East Hill Farm, Plainfield, VT (8 attendees)
June 17, Beef Grazing Part 1: Grain-Free Organic Beef, Bowman Hill Farm, Barnard, VT(6 attendees)
June 19, Equine Health and Land Management Workshop, Jericho, VT (10 attendees)
June 23, Sheep Pasture & Feed Management, Scott Farm, Brattleboro, VT (12 attendees)
June 26, Finding Land for Your Grass-Based Farm, Vermont Technical College, Red Schoolhouse, Randolph Center, VT (7 attendees)
July 17, Horse Grazing Part 2: Facilities Management Concerns Of Boarding Horses On A Small Land-Base, East Hill Farm, Plainfield, VT (5 attendees)
July 22, Organic Fish & Kelp Fertilization of Pasture & Hay Land, Beidler Family Farm, Randolph Center, VT (12 attendees)
July 24, Starting Over: Experienced Graziers Relocate their Farm, Pomeroy Farm, Weston, VT (10 attendees)
July 24, Potluck supper “Consumer Night”, Pomeroy Farm, Weston, VT (9 attendees)
July 29, Dairy Grazing Part 2: Making The Best Of Your Land Through The Seasons, Simplicity Farm, Waitsfield, VT (8 attendees)
July 31, Regulatory concerns for starting up a grass-based sheep dairy and cheese making facility, Three Owls Farm, Granville, VT (8 attendees)
August 4, Beef Grazing Part 2: Clearing Land with Beef Cattle, Bowman Hill Farm, Barnard, VT (12 attendees)
August 14, Horse Management Workshop, Larsen Barn, Moretown, VT (18 attendees)
September 9, Organic Fish & Kelp Fertilization Of Pasture & Hay Land, Beidler Family Farm, Randolph Center, VT (12 attendees)
September 22, Sheep Grazing For Fiber Production, Scott Farm, Brattleboro, VT (6 attendees)
November 8, Beef Cattle Can Green Your Farm, Albany, NY (73 attendees).
2004
August 11, Water Quality for Healthy Animals, Land, and Communities, Vermont Technical College Red Schoolhouse and area farms, Randolph Center, VT (6 attendees).
July 26, September 13, & November 20, Healthy Horses, Healthy Land: Parts I, II, and III, Randolph, Burlington, and Central Vermont Farms, (67 attendees).
One of the demonstrations is outlined below to give a better understanding of the type of project that took place. This was gives an idea of the time involved in facilitating the project, and again points to the need to reassess the program, and plan demonstrations over a longer period of time.
The Beidlers joined the Vermont Grazing Demonstration Project because they wanted to look at their fertility program, and assess different materials and the efficacy at improving the yield and quality of grazed and harvested forages. They felt that this information would be helpful to farmers deciding to transition to organic, but unfamiliar with the options and effectiveness of the many products available.
We chose three areas to look at—one grazed all summer, one cut for hay early on and grazed for the remainder of the season, and one harvested for hay exclusively. Each area was sprayed in strips, leaving control areas between applications. For this small study, we teamed up with Charlie Taplin of Floating Bridge Organics to look at a commonly recommended product—hydrolyzed fish and seaweed. Charlie donated the product and his time, as well as sending in soil tests to see what impact the applications would have on soil fertility, and Gwyneth Harris worked with Brent to take forage samples, and transport them to the UVM lab for analysis. Yield was measured by clipping and drying samples, using an electronic capacity meter (or pasture probe), and measuring yield in bales for the hay land areas.
The results were shared in two workshops at the farm during the summer. The first walk in June showed little difference in the treated versus control areas—forage analyses and yield measurements showed no significant changes. However, there were some higher readings for yield on the treated areas, and it was a chance for Charlie to explain the procedure and the product he was using.
A group of 14 farmers spent the morning walking the pastures and hay land, and discussing not only the product used, but other organic fertility options. The Beidlers talked about the manure that they have used in the past, and their current composting project to lower the volume of material spread, and increase the stability of some of the nutrients—especially nitrogen. A nearby heifer barn had given them some manure, which was then composted and spread on hay land. There was some concern with this material that disease organisms might make it through the composting, and so Brent was incorporating it in areas where he tills to replant hay crops. This creates two separations from the cows—putting the material under the sod to break down, and then using a crop that is harvested, dried, and stored before feeding out to the cows. The primary concern was Johne’s and other diseases that are not always apparent in a herd. The Beidlers stressed that even though they were comfortable with the disease control and records in the heifer herd, they wanted to add some extra insurance for their cows.
The second walk in September showed some changes in the yields on the treated vs. untreated areas. The yields were slightly higher in all of the treated areas measured with the pasture probe. However, we did not see changes in the forage analyses or soil tests. This, Charlie noted was probably due to the mode of action of the seaweed product—it is sprayed on in a liquid form, and taken up through the leaves of the plants primarily. It is a soluble product, and so it leaves little residue in the soil and is used principally for immediate growth processes in the plant. The participants in the study agreed that it would be interesting to see how the application of hydrolyzed fish and kelp would affect growth in areas with poor soil fertility. The soluble fertilizer might well give a much needed boost to low fertility stands being grazed or harvested for hay during renovation. It might also function better in a drier year, giving the plants access to water soluble nutrients not moving through the soil during dry periods. However, it was noted that this increase is not as pronounced as with applications of soluble nitrogen. Another benefit of the seaweed is that it does not cause animals to reject forage, and the areas can be grazed immediately following application without toxicities.
While the Beidlers did not think that the seaweed would be an economical addition to their operation, with easy access to plenty of manure and compost, there were several attendees who did not have this source of nutrients—in particular, farmers producing organic hay were interested in finding cost effective ways of adding nutrients without relying on farm manure. Charlie Taplin was interested in continuing this study, here or at another farm, for an additional year, and it seems that it would be much more effective to look at the applications over time and in different settings.
In addition to the on-farm demonstrations, farmers spoke at several additional events, including a summer grazing management course, and field trips to several of the demo farms in the second year of the grant. It was particularly effective to use funds to cover farmers’ time speaking at events in collaboration with other programs. In so many cases, education is minimized due to limited funds, or farmers are not able to justify leaving the farm and their income producing activities there, in order to speak at events for free. I would like to continue to find funds to support this farmer participation in educational events.
Another way that farmer time was utilized, was through coordination of “discussion group” meetings, allowing farmers to visit established farms for informal discussions of management techniques, and feedback on specific issues. These groups vary from the demonstrations in that they are generally by invite, the discussion is more oriented toward mutual sharing and inquiry, rather than being in “presentation” format.

Research results and discussion:

Each farm planned to reach an average minimum of 30 people throughout the year (a minimum total of 240 people in the first year). Of these people (farmers, agency personnel, agricultural professionals, consumers, and community members), we projected that 75% would report that the demonstration attended caused a change in behavior which will support the adoption of sustainable grazing practices. However, the evaluation portion of this study was not completed, so numbers are not yet available to measure this impact.
We have reached twice our target audience of 30 agency personnel and agricultural professionals from NRCS, the University Extension Systems, and other agricultural organizations. It was not possible to measure our main goals, that “At least a third of those attending programs will go on to work on a grazing plan in the year following attendance at the demonstration or workshop (ten new grazing plans)” and “At least a third of those attending programs will lead a field trip to a demonstration satellite or hub farm in the year following the workshop (ten visits to demonstration farms)”, within the time frame of this grant, and so we are considering applying for an extension. It has also been difficult to measure the visitors to the hub farms.
Overall, this grant has been a great learning experience. The most successful aspect has been the workshops and farmer presentations that it enabled. The idea of developing a whole network of demonstration farms, I believe, is beyond the scope of this grant, and currently beyond the scope of the Vermont Pasture Network Program. Such an ambitious undertaking would require a full time coordinator, part-time “hub” facilitators (which could be provided by interns, etc.), and more buy-in from individual farmers, based upon measured benefits to their operations. Most of all, to be effective, a project like this would require more personnel time than was available. This grant has been a first step in this direction, and I am happy with the progress so far. As the Vermont Pasture Network continues to develop, with the addition of a new employee, I hope to be able to complete the evaluation portion of this grant.

Research conclusions:

To date, most of the workshops have been completed, although we are somewhat behind schedule with other aspects of the project. It will be necessary to develop a formal evaluation tool to gather impacts of the project, beyond simply transferring information to farmers and others.
A total of 333 people participated in the workshops, including 76 agency personnel and agricultural professionals. These numbers exceed the benchmarks set for the project, even though not all of the presentation work scheduled for the farmer educators was completed.
Perhaps the largest oversight in the inception of this project, and in the actual execution of the demonstrations, was not assigning money to program administration. While the farmer educators used most of their hours, we have not been able to fit in enough workshops to use all of their time. Innovative ideas to help us to finish out the grant have helped in this regard. For example, facilitating on-farm meetings at the demonstration farms, utilizing a “discussion group” model, and giving primary oversight of the meetings to the farmers themselves. Another issue has been different levels of participation—whether because of time constraints, personality, or other factors—resulting in some farmers using more than their allotment of time, with others only using half. We were able to pay some farmers for extra hours to compensate for this.
Five farms developed projects that helped them to answer questions about their grazing management.
Two public facilities brought grazing into their planning process, looking at layout and options for fencing, as well as ways that grazing demonstrations to the public could be incorporated into their missions.
While logistical challenges have not allowed full development of a project at the southern Vermont extension office, the Vermont Technical College Farm has made significant changes in their overall management system, through changes in program goals. While this grant is not responsible for making the changes happen at the VTC farm, it was one of the incentives for farm staff to begin looking at alternatives. Over the course of the past two years, the confinement dairy herd has been transitioned to a partial grazing herd, with heifers and dry cows out on pasture throughout the grazing season, and some of the milking herd as well. The farm has installed a watering system and high tensile fencing on the main farm, where they rotationally graze the cows and heifers. There are also plans over the next year to begin grazing an organic heifer herd on land currently set aside as a buffer for a neighboring organic farm.
Two of the farmers involved in this project (Brent Beidler and Joe LaDouceur) have also been able to speak about their farms to audiences at other grazing events. The funding allowed them to share their experiences within the context of grazing classes, broadening the type of information shared, and bringing a farmer perspective. In addition, some of the farms were used as field trip sites to demonstrate certain techniques to class participants.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The project is inherently focused around outreach, to farmers, agency personnel, and others. The primary outreach will be completed through the workshops, demonstrations, pasture walks, and farm visits which are a part of this project.

In addition, the project will be written up at the end of the pilot year, with reflections on the information shared, as well as the overall efficacy of the project. Included in this report will be the ideas and ratings gained through the evaluation process, outlines of all project events, and testimony from participating farmers. This report will be available in written form at agricultural events throughout Vermont during the winter and spring of 2004.

The report will be presented at two formal meetings in the winter of 2004, either in poster format or orally. The first of these events is our own Vermont Grazing Conference, attended annually by approximately 300 people from Vermont and the surrounding states. The second is the NE Pasture Research and Extension Consortium Annual Meeting, where close to 100 researchers, extension agents, and farmers from all over the Northeast (West to Ohio and South to North Carolina) come together to discuss the research and extension needs of farmers in the region.

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.