Linking limited-resource immigrant farmers to EQIP programs

Final Report for ONE13-195

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,565.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Daniel Ungier
Cultivating Community
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Project Information

Summary:

This project worked to address the knowledge and skills gap experienced by socially disadvantaged immigrant and refugee producers in the area of conservation practices. It specifically focused on providing training, technical assistance, and limited-literacy recordkeeping materials for the purpose of successful implementation of five EQIP contracts from the NRCS (cover cropping; crop rotations; Integrated Pest Management; drip irrigation; and mulching) as an intentional method to focus the training provided on specific practices. The project worked with 24 producers in 2013. Of this group 11 had their own EQIP contracts, and were direct beneficiaries of the contract payments. Of the group 16 were Somali-Bantu, 3 were Central American, 3 were Sudanese, and 2 were Congolese. This group covered a wide range of educational levels and farm experience, though the majority had limited literacy in English. The majority had also farmed in their countries of origin. The project relied primarily on a quantitative pre-and-post knowledge assessment to measure participants’ change in knowledge and a qualitiative evaluation to assess the effectiveness of the training methodologies that were designed and implemented. The purpose of the project was to generate disseminable tools and methodologies for better instruction of farm conservation practices to this underserved demographic. Final products developed under the project included Plain English recordkeeping tools for EQIP practices, curriculum outlines, as well as planned outreach with other immigrant and refugee farmer training program through the Refugee Agricultural Partnerships Program (RAPP) and the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI).

Introduction:

Refugees farmers in the Northeast are both a growing demographic within the agricultural community and a historically under-served population. Although refugee farmers often have significant farming experience, many lack the resources to build success agricultural businesses in America.  Resources and educational opportunities developed by most agricultural service providers, understandably, have been designed for a certain target audience – farmers that share the same cultural, linguistic and social background as the service provider. Although this has led to creative and effective synergies between farm training and technical assistance organizations and producers, it has also led to a relative paucity of educational materials for audiences coming from different backgrounds, and particularly for limited literacy beginning farmers in the US, who remain isolated from many of these services.

 

With the rise of local foods growing and the number of farmers in the Northeast rebounding for the first time in decades, regions and localities of various sizes are setting ambitious targets for strengthening local markets. For example, the New England Food Vision has found that New England can attain the capacity to grow 50% of its own food by 2060. “can attain” are the key words here, as even today’s increase in farmers is not enough to fulfill such potential targets.  Refugee and immigrant producers, often arriving from countries where both they and their families had deep agricultural roots, can potentially play a tremendous role in augmenting these numbers, but for such a diversification of producers to take place, service providers will need to diversify their strategies and approach to education as well.

 

This project attempted to make a small gain on closing the gap in available training methodology for immigrant and refugee farmers by specifically designing and delivering curriculum around NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Providing training and technical assistances around the five practices associated with EQIP – mulching, drip irrigation, cover cropping, crop rotation, and integrated pest management (IPM) – were specifically chosen because teaching these best practices can be so clearly integrated with a service that is provided to farmers by the USDA. Furthermore, our organization was already working with immigrant and refugee farmers with EQIP contracts and observed that many producers could improve their implementation and understanding of these practices. Participants were also aware of the missed potential gains in soil health and so producer interest in participating in the project was high.

 

Peer networking with other agencies engaged in refugee farmer training confirms that challenges facing our farmers are shared throughout the Northeast. NASAP is the first refugee farm project in the region to work with farmers managing their own EQIP contracts. Developing and sharing effective technical assistance models for this group of new American farmers will enable more farmers to succeed in implementation of these contracts, and by extension, acquire the skills necessary to establish profitable and sustainable agricultural businesses in Maine.

Project Objectives:

This project focused on designing and delivering audience-appropriate training to limited literacy producers, thereby increasing the potential of producer enrollment in EQIP contracts to be a vehicle for learning and implementing best practices in the field. Our proposed solution to both staff and producer observed deficiencies in implementation was to work directly with 25 refugee farmers to provide hands-on training and develop effective technical assistance tools regarding these practices.  A second goal was to develop these services or training materials in a format that could be easily shared and disseminated to other service providers.

 

In evaluating our project, we found that it was in some cases difficult to measure the change in knowledge of producers in such a short time frame.  In our quantified pre-and post-training skills assessments, we found that some producers recorded dramatically increased assessments of their skills once they learned new content, while others actually recorded a decrease – a “more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” effect. Furthermore, because any of the five EQIP topics are in and of themselves potentially very expansive topics, we chose to evaluate on breadth rather than depth, and in an effort to maintain specificity around increases in farmers’ specific skills around each practice, we asked very specific questions in the skills assessment – ie, whether a producer knows the appropriate planting windows for each type of cover crop. This allowed us to quantitatively measure a change in knowledge around very specific pieces of information rather than in generalizations; however, whether the pieces add up to the whole – is the producer more prepared to manage cover crop? – is a different type of question.  We attempted to answer the latter question more qualitatively through program evaluation, but those results are not as quantifiable. In short, we found both strengths and limitations to our method of measurement, which is true for almost any evaluation of a methodology or curriculum.

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

Activities and strategies in support of our training goal included:

  1. Workshops about specific practicalities related to EQIP practice implementation
  2. Picture-based reference guides summarizing key information
  3. Developing new recordkeeping tools designed to work at the language level of most participating farmers
  4. Scheduling on-site technical assistance at times of EQIP practice implementation to provide demonstration and specific assistance as needed.
  5. Debrief sessions to discuss farmers’ field observations and compare results to previous years
  6. Pre and post-season knowledge assessments and farmers’ evaluation of the effectiveness of training materials and TA.

 

1)     Workshops about specific practicalities related to EQIP practice implementation

As curriculum design progressed, we chose to focus on some topics more in indoor workshops and reserve others for field education. Pest life cycle stages, underlying concepts of how cover crop relates to soil fertility, and water needs for healthy plants were three topics that we focused on indoors. Crop rotation was integrated into workshops centered around overall production planning, with an additional emphasis on documentation for NRCS requirements. Best practices for mulching, by contrast, is an example of a topic we chose to reserve for field-based education. 

In our evaluation methodology, which focused primarily on a pre and post season assessment, these workshops were not specifically evaluated separately from overall project implementation. This would have been helpful, but because generating quantitative, rather than informal, qualitative feedback from a limited literacy audience is very time consuming, project staff chose to focus on the pre and post season methodology for a more comprehensive picture.

 

2)    Picture-based reference guides summarizing key information, and

3)     Developing new recordkeeping tools designed to work at the language level of most participating farmers

 

As much as possible, we strove to make the reference sheets synonymous with the recordkeeping sheets, having learned that reducing the amount of documentation and papers makes it easier for limited-literacy participants to keep track of and utilize resources.  The reference/recordkeeping sheets worked best when they required regular and consistent use, so producers could become familiar with the format and comfortable with their use.  For example, the IPM recordkeeping worksheet, used regularly over the season, was successfully adopted by most producers; the reference guide to cover cropping was used more infrequently, since it was more of a guide designed to be used only when selecting a cover crop, and this meant it was simply less a part of a producer’s routine and consequently less familiar.

 

4)     Scheduling on-site technical assistance at times of EQIP practice implementation to provide demonstration and specific assistance as needed.

 

These technical assistance sessions provided  the core training  delivery of the project, though we found a need to adapt delivery methods over the course of the season. One of the challenges that staff encountered was the wide array of learning styles and preference for different types of learning settings among program participants. This is no doubt true in any educational setting and in particular on an incubator farm, where many practical factors such as availability and pressing farm needs also drive participants’ engagement with various learning environments. Consequently, we found that individual field technical assistance was a more effective way to teach this group.  If the producer can be part of a demonstration in best practices even once, as opposed to learning the material in a workshop setting, our observation was that retention of that practice is much higher.  Due to their isolation, many producers have little opportunity to be exposed to the practices of other established farmers in the area, so as a result this “demonstration” cannot as easily happen by visiting neighbors or peer-to-peer networking.  Individual TA, when done in a focused way, fills some of this gap from a lack of access to social resources from the broader farmer community. Yet for program staff, it proved essential to find the right balance of clear program structure and flexibility to serve a diverse, busy adult group of farmers in the field, and to still maintain a workshop schedule as much as possible despite producers’ busy lives.

 

  1. Debrief sessions to discuss farmers’ field observations and compare results to previous years.

 

We find that these types of debrief sessions and discussions are an important part of our training approach. Many service providers attempt to fill in the gap in immigrant and refugee farmer access to knowledge by providing intense, condensed workshops with the goal of getting a producer group “up to speed” – but learning doesn’t happen only in isolation. If such sessions are provided without integrating information with people’s own experiences, they can remain too abstract to be useful. We have found that facilitating discussions around people’s own observations and experiences is another important way of bridging the divide that marginalized producers face by not being part of a larger community of more integrated and established farmers.  A similar space can be created where producers share their experiences, identify what information they feel they are still missing, and learn from the perspectives of other producers who are part of the discussion. These sessions do not have their own learning objectives per se, but we found that drawing on producer collective wisdom – particularly if the producers’ predisposition is to undervalue their own wisdom - helps to ground the more formal workshops and training in their real lived experience.

 

  1. Pre and post-season knowledge assessments and farmers’ evaluation of the effectiveness of training materials and TA.

 

As described above, our pre and post training assessment is designed to measure producer improvement across all five EQIP conservation practies.  Producers completed a questionnaire where they ranked their confidence with specific skills or necessary knowledge on 22 specific topics related to each of the five EQIP practices on a scale of 1 to 4.  Staff compiled all of this data to measure the change in knowledge across specific items and across the five categories.

 

The following is a condensed timeline of project activities:

 

March 2013:

  • Developed new recordkeeping tools for each EQIP contract designed to work at the language level of most participating farmers, and reviewed these tools with both farmers and NRCS staff for feedback about their accessibility and their appropriateness for meeting EQIP requirements.
  • Conducted knowledge assessment of the five EQIP practices with farmers to provide baseline data for fall. We chose to complete our baseline assessment in written
  • Indoor workshops providing more in-depth training on the concepts underlying cover cropping and soil fertility, integrated pest management (pest life cycle stages), and drip irrigation (water needs for healthy plants and learning to assess water needs)
  • Developed reference sheets relevant to the EQIP practices.

 

April 2013:

  • Continued indoor workshops as above.
  • Hands-on TA developing crop rotation plan for 2013 growing season.
  • Hands-on TA with spring cover cropping (most farmers had winter rye standing, so this was less extensive than originally planned)

 

 May 2013:

  • Four weekly workshops on mulching, installing drip irrigation systems, and IPM, followed with individually scheduled one-on-one TA

 

June 2013:

  • One workshop each on IPM and appropriate water management through drip irrigation, followed with individual one-on-one TA

 

July 2013:

  • One workshop on mid summer cover crop plantings, followed with individual one-on-one TA
  • Staff assessments of in-field practices.

 

September 2013:

  • One workshop on mid summer cover crop plantings, followed with individual one-on-one TA

 

November 2013:

  • Post-season knowledge assessments and farmers’ evaluation of the effectiveness of training materials and TA.

 

Research results and discussion:

The pre and post skills assessment allowed producers to rank their perception of their skills on a scale of 1-4 on specific skills associated with each EQIP conservation practice. For example, the skills identified related to covercropping were:

 

I understand the different types of cover crop

I know how to choose a cover crop based on  my needs

I know how to correctly plant cover crop seed

I know how to manage cover crop during the season

I know how to intercrop or undersow

I know where to get cover crop seeds

 

This allowed two general lens of analysis: analyzing change in knowledge or skills for an overall practice or a specific skill; and overall level of confidence in specific skills.  Our data set included 12 producers who completed both the pre and post assessment. Of these 12, the following percentage reported a change in their skill level in each of the five EQIP practices:

MULCHING

58%

COVER CROPPING

75%

INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT

67%

CROP ROTATIONS

67%

DRIP IRRIGATION

58%

 

To some extent, there are many details lost in this level of aggregated data. For example, as is shown later, although fewer participants reported a change in knowledge related to mulching, this is also the area where producers started with the highest ranking of their own knowledge. See the chart below, where 100% indicates a participant scoring 4 in all skills identified for each category:

 

 

 

Before (average)

After (average)

MULCHING

 

72%

82%

COVER CROPPING

 

45%

52%

INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT

 

51%

59%

CROP ROTATIONS

 

53%

64%

DRIP IRRIGATION

 

56%

69%

 

This chart shows producers’ relative confidence with each EQIP practice and points to areas of needed improvement. For example, cover cropping both began and ended with the lowest scoring of confidence overall. Although 75% of producers indicated an increase in their skills and knowledge related to cover cropping, a total of 52% still indicates an average score per skill of just over 2.0 out of 4.

 

Although this data is very useful for identifying gaps in knowledge among this group of producers, it is difficult to extrapolate this data to speak more broadly about the more specific needs of immigrant and refugee producers (ie. is there a gap in knowledge in covercropping and IPM among all producers of this demographic, or would a different group identify a different need?).  It is furthermore difficult to assess whether or not these changes in knowledge are a result of specific training initiatives delivered as part of the curriculum.  A specific skill-by-skill analysis shows the specific areas where the most producers reported a change in knowledge. This provides more detail about the areas where the most learning took place. The practices with the greatest amount of people reporting a change were:

I know how to correctly plant cover crop seed

I know how to intercrop or undersow

I know how to apply row cover and other preventative approaches to manage pests

I understand the connection between overall farm health (soil health, weeds in the field) and pests

I understand the importance of crop rotations

 

By contrast, the practices with the fewest amount of people reporting a change were:

I understand the different types of cover crop

I know how to choose a cover crop based on  my needs

I know where to get cover crop seeds

I understand relationships between pests and crops (pests' favorite plants, times of year, parts of the plant, etc)

I can make maps of my farm fields

I can install drip irrigation correctly

This data potentially points to the fact that the curriculum around cover cropping was least effective, since most areas that demonstrated the least change in knowledge centered around cover cropping.

Research conclusions:

This project focused primarily on the development of effective curriculum, teaching materials, and recordkeeping guides for limited-literacy producers.  Our evaluation methods were on the one hand fairly comprehensive and detailed, and provide some important insights for staff for developing and refining our curriculum. However, from a more scientific perspective, the analysis is relatively unrefined and statistical significance is not taken into consideration. The limitations of analysis point to the general challenges of comprehensive evaluation of program delivery. 

 

For program staff, the most important findings were:

  • The importance of demonstration. Intercropping and undersowing had very focused demonstration days which seem to correlate with a greater increase in this skill than other skills related to cover cropping.
  • Persistent challenges related to unfamiliarity with the “lay of the land” of the agricultural landscape – ie, sourcing cover crop seeds remains far more challenging to producers than planting the seeds.
  • Recognition that lack of best practices may relate more to farm systems than lack of knowledge. For example, mulching being spread too thin may relate to a lack of a system (or labor) to distribute enough straw or hay bales throughout the field than not knowing best application rates.
  • Producers who often express some degree of confidence in a skill (ie, self reported a ‘3’ before the season) are less likely to report an increase than those who began with a ‘1’ or ‘2’. Since a ‘4’ is not defined as mastery and is therefore a reasonable goal to obtain, this begs the question, what type of curriculum content would help move people from a ‘3’ to a ‘4’?
  • Conceptual skill statements (ie, “I understand the connection between overall farm health (soil health, weeds in the field) and pests”) generally had higher rates of confidence than those around implementation – choosing the right tool for response to pest pressure, for example. This again points to a general higher confidence with understanding ecosystem processes on the farm and a lower confidence with the detailed minutae (ie, proper equipment) that is specific to farming in New England/the US.

 

Furthermore, the materials that we developed and the qualitative feedback received from producers of the course of implementation were intended to be easily disseminable and many of these materials can be shared with a broader network of service providers working with immigrants and refugees. The findings also point to a more narrowing focus of the particular challenges immigrant and refugee producers face, which will be shared as well.  We intend to share the materials both through the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), a federally funded initiative, and the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI) of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP).

 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The following sample materials from the training curriculum are attached:

-       IPM recordkeeping worksheet

-      Two  simplified recordkeeping worksheets of farmers’ field plantings (for planning crop rotations)

-       Photo of farmers’ crop plan

We intend to share the materials both through the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), a federally funded initiative, and the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI) of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP). The annual workshops of these organizations both fell outside the timeframe of the project (NIFTI met in September, before results were analyzed, and RAPP will meet in May). However, information about this project, its purpose and stated need, our evaluation methodology, have been shared on a conference call presentation with the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program. Educational materials that had already been developed were shared with conference call participants at that time as well.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

None conducted.

Farmer Adoption

Some of the most feedback that we received from participants included:

-       Newly developed recordkeeping worksheets are helpful, but (depending on the literacy level of the producer) technical assistance is needed to prepare for using these documents.

-       Producers did not feel ready to make their own decisions about what type of cover crop they wanted to apply in their fields and preferred to defer to a recommendation. This points to a general need for more direct experience so that farmers could observe the effects of various cover crop types in their own fields.

-       Technical skills – such as installing a drip irrigation system – were among the most challenging. In general, not knowing where else to seek assistance, and feeling isolated from the services that farmers typically access, was a primary source of frustration expressed by producers. 

-       As mentioned earlier, producers generally expressed a higher confidence with understanding ecosystem processes on the farm and a lower confidence with the detailed logistics of implementation.  For instance, a producer might understand the benefit of cover cropping and the types of differences in cover crop (difference in biomass production, effect on weed suppression, etc), but they may have a hard time sourcing the seed, knowing the application rate, and feeling confident in selecting the right product. Finding a way to supplement the producers’ base knowledge of the farm with specific information is critical to helping these farms succeed in general, and with farm conservation practices in particular.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

This project represents only a first step at attempting to create curriculum and materials to a demographic of farmers that differs from the American-born, US-educated producer that is most commonly served by farmer training and extension programs. As mentioned earlier, although this project produced many important findings for staff and disseminable lessons learned for other programs that serve a similar audience, statistically relevant evaluation of teaching methodology would likely be the work of a third party. Nevertheless, this project continues to point to a need for the agricultural community to develop materials and services appropriate to this demographic of producer. Farm viability for this demographic is more tenuous than for most, and yet the strong passion and deep family experience with agriculture provides tremendous opportunity for US food systems to benefit.

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.