Formed in 2011, the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts (BFN/Mass) is a collaborative network of farmers and service providers dedicated to beginning farmer success. After a brief hiatus in 2014, BFN re-launched in 2015, with a new coordinator, new organizational structure and dedicated focus on building the capacity necessary to conduct a statewide assessment and gaps analysis of beginning farmer resources in Massachusetts, and strengthening partnerships with other farmer networks in the region. A leadership team and an advisory team were both formed in 2015, and have continued on in their capacity through 2016.
In January 2016, the BFN/Mass coordinator completed the beginning farmer resources matrix by gathering information from various service providers around the state. A new coordinator was hired in late February, and then in March of 2016 the new coordinator worked with members of the BFN/Mass Advisory Committee to develop an online survey. This was distributed throughout the state via partners, social media, and various statewide list serves through April, May, and June 2016. Over 150 beginning farmers responded to the survey, with 63 completing the full survey. Additionally, the coordinator conducted 13 beginning farmer interviews between June and August 2016 to gather qualitative data about the resource needs of beginning farmers.
Results from both the survey and farmer interviews were analyzed and presented to the BFN/Mass Advisory and Leadership Teams in late July 2016, and then gathered in a key findings report, which is now in the final stages of completion. Some key points from the survey were:
- beginning farmers in Massachusetts find strong resources regarding setting up a farm business, whole farm management, and production topics such as raising crops and raising livestock.
- resources are needed in areas of marketing, managing labor, infrastructure and equipment and tools, and how to nourish community relationships
- many beginning farmers utilize “one-stop shopping” websites for information and prefer video and listserve formats
- farmer-to-farmer networks developed through farming experiences remain a key avenue for information flow and resource gathering.
- many beginning farmers spoke to the continuing key challenges of affordable land and start-up capital access, appropriate labor management, and new marketing channels
- the three top resources were, in order, 1. UMass Extension and Stockbridge Farm, 2. NOFA-Mass, and 3. New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.
A draft of this key findings report was presented at the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative meeting in Grafton, MA in November 2016; in attendance were several key stakeholders in food systems and agriculture throughout the state. In January 2017, the coordinator will complete the key findings report, distribute it widely via websites, list serves, and partners, and meet with the Leadership and Advisory Teams to determine what impact the findings from our research project will have on the future direction of BFN/Mass.
Additionally, we continue to maintain and improve www.bfnmass.org as a home base where new farmers can find relevant resources, jobs/internship, blog posts, profiles, etc. We are working on making the site more user friendly and even more valuable as resource and one stop shop for farmers looking for resources on the web.
This beginning farmer survey and gap analysis is coming on the heels of the MA Food System Planning Process – which has already gone far in creating an inventory of training/resources; we want to expand on their work and hone it to focus on the beginning farmer population. There has not been a comprehensive assessment done of this kind, at this level, to assess and evaluate how well Massachusetts is meeting the needs of its beginning farmers. We hope that the end result will help make an evidence-based, ground-in-truth case for targeting specific needs of beginning farmers, especially among policy makers and service providers.
Our overall objective of this SARE Partnership Project is to expand the BFN/Mass Network by strengthening partnerships among service providers and farmers to identify gaps in programs and resources for new farmers, prioritize new programming, and improve effectiveness and utilization of existing programs and resources. To start, we will develop a team of beginning farmers to solicit input on BFN/Mass resources and to evaluate existing programs/services in MA and surrounding states. Many of these farmers are already members of the BFN/Mass Steering Committee, others recently volunteered to participate in the project at our Fall Forum event, and others will be identified through outreach on farmer listservs. Our goal is to have a representation of at least 10-15 beginning farmers at different stages of farm development (prospective, start-up 1-3 years, expanding 3-6 years, and maturing 6+ yrs) participate in the resource assessment project. In conjunction, BFN/Mass will bring at least 10-12 agricultural service provider organizations together (in-person small group or one-on-one meetings, larger service provider meetings, and conference calls) to participate in shaping the resource assessment process. Several organizations have already formally agreed to participate in this resource assessment project and many more have expressed interest.
Together, these farmers and service providers will create a matrix of currently offered programs and resources – by topic, target audience, geographic scope, and dates/times offered – and this matrix will be compared against the DACUM Profile for Skills/Competencies of Northeast Farmer. Any “major gaps” or missing core competency programs will be identified and “ground-truthed” by new farmers as a potential need. We will then conduct a survey of beginning farmers (goal of 150+ respondents) to identify the most pressing topics, skills, and resource needs and develop a comprehensive list of programs and policies that are needed in an order of importance and achievability. We will then schedule additional meetings with service providers and farmers to review feedback and discuss potential policy needs and collaborative programming to fill gaps. Our goal is to further increase collaboration, enhancement, and action to provide effective and needed resources for beginning farmers. Service provider connections will result in at least 5 new program or services to fill gaps in services and eliminate competing offerings (or purposefully acknowledging the necessity of geographic duplication of services) by streamlining and sharing resources.
Additional BFN/Mass activities to expand the network will also be addressed through this project, as described below:
Structure and Finance: Organizational structure, relationships, sustainable funding, and leadership capacity will be critical to BFN/Mass’ ability to grow as a statewide network. We will organize bi-monthly steering committee conference calls, an annual retreat, and create a listserv to facilitate communication. The outcome of structural activities will result in a dedicated leadership team who provide direction, inspiration, long-term sustainable financial resources, and coordination to a diverse network of farmer/service provider leaders over the long term.
Marketing and Outreach: Participating organizations will provide extensive outreach to stakeholders across the state. Marketing and outreach efforts will include development of promotional materials; linkages between BFN/Mass’ and partner organizations’ websites; an outreach schedule to strengthen social media presence and activity (quarterly e-newsletters, weekly Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.); workshops about BFN/Mass resources and tabling at state and regional conferences, farmer gatherings, workshops and events; and promoting BFN/Mass at career fairs and high schools. Results will increase participation and attendance by farmers and service providers by 100% in network activities at events and forums, increase website visits/page views and registered users, and create documented connections between farmers and service providers who cite BFN/Mass as their connection point.
BFN/Mass website, www.bfnmass.org: An up-to-date, user-friendly, “one stop shop/clearinghouse” website populated with current events, resources, farmer/service provider profiles, timely blog discussions, and other interactive features will keep farmers engaged and utilizing the website to find available resources. The website will be continually updated to meet these goals. Service providers will add offerings to the “Resource Map” which can be sorted and filtered; and a “Resource Finder.” Currently over 100 active service provider groups are posting resources, events, and services on the site. Our goal is to have over 400 by 2015.
Referral Network: When farmers cannot find information or resources through the website, we will offer personalized TA through a reliable Referral Network that is connected to resource networks regionally and nationally. At least 20 farmers/month will receive targeted referrals via phone or email. We will track and monitor use of the referral service and follow up with farmers to determine effectiveness and further identify gaps in resources or programming.
Create Educational Materials: Guest bloggers (expert farmers and service providers) can post articles with useful advice and resources for beginning farmers. Farmer profiles offer example agricultural career paths. Farmers and service providers can create user accounts to receive updates when new resources, events, blogs, or profiles are added. We will monitor the most popular topics via blog visits and time spent on those pages. Our goal is to develop at least 30 new farmer and service provider profiles and 40 blog posts and increase readership by 50% by 2015.
Centralized Event Calendar: By continuing to promote a statewide agricultural event calendar, we can track views and service providers can use the BFN/Mass calendar to plan events that do not conflict topically or geographically. Our goal is to post all events pertaining to beginning farmers in MA.
Host In-person Networking Events: BFN/Mass will co-sponsor at least four farmer-to-farmer events with other organizations engaging at least 80 new farmers in the network. BFN/Mass will host a Fall Forum where 100+ beginning farmers and service providers can meet and work together.
Include regional resources, service providers, and farmers: In Massachusetts many farmers operate near state borders. We will connect to farmers, businesses and other service providers across state borders of CT, RI, NH, VT, ME, and NY by adding at least a dozen new key service providers in neighboring states to the online resource finder and posting resources, programs, and events that occur near the MA border.
In order to execute an effective and well-thought out statewide resource assessment and gaps analysis of resources for beginning farmers in Massachusetts, it was first necessary to re-build the leadership structure of BFN and recruit farmers and service providers who were willing to explicitly help spearhead and get behind this project, and to receive advice on conducting a participatory research project. To this end, we recruited four farmers and services providers to join our Leadership Team in late Summer 2015, and we also recruited a new team of 14 service providers and farmers to join our Advisory Team – with the understanding that they would be there to guide the network as a whole and also to provide direct feedback on the resource assessment project.
The coordinator and Leadership Team then developed a draft outline of the project and timeline for implementation. We delegated major responsibilities amongst the members of the Leadership Team, and decided who would be in charge of developing and refining the survey instruments, which of us would be responsible for creating the resource matrix to map existing resources and services for beginning farmers (integrating research conducted and inventories created through the MA Food System Planning Process), and which of us would convene the focus groups of farmers and service providers.
As you will see in detail in the “Accomplishments and Milestones” section of this report, we were largely able to stick to the project outline during the implementation phase this year, with a few alterations to the research methods and timeline. Our overall goal of understanding what resources and information for beginning farmers exist adequately across the state and identifying the major gaps has been achieved. In the final months of the extended project timeline, we will distribute the key findings from our gaps analysis and decide how to proceed with filling the gaps that exist and how these findings will impact the direction BFN/Mass.
Structure and Finance: We have moved from monthly Advisory and Leadership meetings this year to hosting them on an as needed basis. Declining availability of the leadership team to find times to meet and the need to devote limited capacity to actually implementing the assessment and gaps analysis was the impetus for this change. However, both teams were kept abreast of updates and developments via email and bi-annual newsletters from the BFN/Mass coordinator. In January or February 2017, we will have a joint Advisory and Leadership Team meeting and will re-assess each members’ commitment to BFN/Mass and potentially reach out for new members based on the outcomes of out meeting. We continue to seek sustainable funding sources for our network; a development in 2016 was the launch of the Mass Food and Farm Special License Plate, now available at Registry of Motor Vehicle offices. A portion of funding from the initial purchase and renewal fees for this plate will benefit BFN/Mass.
Marketing and Outreach: Our leaders and advisors and their participating organizations and affiliations continue to provide extensive outreach to stakeholders across the state. Because of limited capacity and the focus on implementing the assessment and gaps analysis, BFN/Mass was not able to participate in many outreach activities. However, BFN/Mass literature was available at all outreach events attended by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project staff, including the Urban Farming Conference and SEMAP Conference in March 2016, the Summer NOFA conference in August 2016, and several others. We hope to increase our outreach capacities following the conclusion of our assessment and gaps analysis project.
BFN/Mass Website, www.bfnmass.org: A major accomplishment in November 2016 was the transition of the hosting of the BFN/Mass website to Tufts University for greater ease in making improvements and changes. This process had previously been slowed down due to lack of capacity on the Tufts IT side of things.
- In January 2016: The geginning farmer resources matrix completed by coordinator in partnership with local service providers, nonprofit organizations, farms, and Leadership and Advisory Teams. The matrix detailed current resources available to beginning farmers across the state and helped the project team organize thoughts around the development of a survey tool.
- In April – June 2016: The beginning farmer resource assessment and gaps analysis survey was live and distributed via partners, list serves, and various newsletters and websites. The survey had two main sections: the first collected data on respondents (i.e. number of years farming, current number of acres farming, current farming enterprises, age, location, etc.) and the second collected data on respondents’ perceptions of the quality and availability of various farming resources (which corresponded with the DACUM profile for a sustainable farmer in Northeast U.S.). A link to the survey is included above.
- In June – August 2016 the coordinator made the decision (based on the timing in the season and a few inquiry emails) to conduct farmer interviews instead of the originally planned focus groups. As the growing season got going it was much harder to gather 6-10 farmers from each region for a focus group. Instead, 13 beginning farmers (farming for 10 years or under) were interviewed to gather additional, more in-depth qualitative data on farmers’ perceptions of resource gaps throughout the state.
- In July – November 2016, the coordinator and a BFN volunteer (visiting social sciences researcher from France) analyzed the data that had been collected. Reports and graphs were used to understand quantitative data, and we cross-referenced respondent’s geographic location with their responses about the quality and availability of resources to understand geographic gaps in resources. The qualitative data was analyzed using ethnographic methods; we compared written transcripts of interviews to understand the emergent themes.
Our study and methods aimed to measure both the perceived availability and quality of beginning farmer resources, and also sought to capture basic demographic and farming information about our respondents, assuming that they might serve as a fairly representative sample of the beginning farmer population in Massachusetts. We included open ended questions at the end of our survey, and then conducted in-depth interviews for a deeper dive of data-gathering. The attached power point presentation does a great job of summarizing our data results and the discussion that our BFN advisory and leadership teams had around these results.
From our quantitative data analysis, the following is some important summary points of the data.
Of our 63 respondents:
- Over half were 25-40 years old
- Most had been farming 1-7 years
- Most are farming less than 5 acres
- Biggest response was from Pioneer Valley and Central Mass followed by Northeast and Southeast parts of the state
- Hardly any response from Cape & Islands, Berkshires
- Majority of respondents are growing vegetables, fruit, berries, flowers and herbs.
- Overall, good resources across the state for starting and setting up a farm business, for raising crops, and opportunities for professional development and education.
- Overall, more is needed on nourishing family & community relations, managing farm labor, marketing, reviewing and re-planning whole farm.
As mentioned previously, our survey also included three open-ended questions as well. Results from these questions are best viewed in the attached power point presentation, but a brief summary is included here as well.
For open ended question #1, “What are the top 3 most helpful beginning farmer resources?”
1.UMass (including Extension and Stockbridge School)
3.New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
- “Multi-service farm support organizations” seem to be the most helpful resource for beginning farmers
- Lots of other resources are mentioned once or twice; beginning farmers are finding information in a wide variety of places
- Resources such as technical assistance and mentorship are hardly mentioned while more conventional “educational” resources are mentioned often (workshops, conferences, etc.)
For open ended question #2, “What are your top 3 current needs in farming?”
- Business management, money and markets come to the top of the list.
- This indicated that while there is a wide variety of needs for beginning farmers, the clear need that rises above the rest is to be profitable.
- Labor, land, laws & regulations, and infrastructure come in all around the same level of importance
- “Business management” response seems to conflict with earlier results showing that there were enough resources to help with business start-up; perhaps need is help with sustained management or scaling up?
For open ended question #3, “Do you have any other comments or advise about needs for beginning farmer resources or information?”
Responses to this question are varied, but a few trends emerge:
1.Resources generally available in the eastern part of the state while a majority of farmers are located in the west. Especially during the growing season, travel to workshops is prohibitive for most growers in the western part of the state.
2.Many farmers indicated an awareness that resources are available, but they lack time to find them and would benefit from more of a “one stop shopping” type of situation.
3.Very distinctive desire expressed for sharing resources with other farmers, regionally, such as tools and equipment.
Finally, our beginning farmer interviews were very illuminating and helped us to flesh out the picture around needs for beginning farmer resources:
When asked where beginning farmers find information, interviewees responded:
1.Other farmers: developing a network of local and/or trusted farmers you can call is absolutely vital in the farming business.
2.Apprenticeships: the foundation for most beginning farmers and important in developing your “farmer to farmer network.” Especially important for farmers doing more niche agricultural enterprizes (i.e. raw milk cheese).
3.Active Listserves: helpful for farmers especially beyond the initial years for all kinds of questions, serves as a virtual farmer to farmer network – CRAFT, Google Groups.
4.Instagram/YouTube: Especially useful for video sharing of new techniques, equipment.
5.UMass Extension: farmers turn to their Plant Diagnostics Lab, NE Vegetable Management Guide, Soil Testing but discussed the gap in people help (no extension agents).
6.Books: Lean Farmer, Market Gardener, The New Organic Grower, The Organic Grower’s Business Handbook
7.“Local Leaders”: Chris Yoder of Vanguarden Farm, Dan Kaplan of Brookfield Farm, Greg Maslowe at Newton Community Farm, Roxbury Farm
8.Case Studies: how one farm scaled up from year to year, in terms of labor, equipment, etc.
When asked where the gaps are in beginning farmer resources, respondents said:
1.Land: active regional inventories based off on-the-ground knowledge; APR issues
2.Labor /Employment Guidance: laws and regulations but also how to manage people for a positive, education experience
3.Local Regulation Guides: on a wide range of issues, including conservation, construction, water, etc.
4.Money: not just what’s available but also a timeline of when and how you can prepare to apply for it
5.Markets: Growing markets for local growers especially with restaurants and small grocers, cooperatives
6.Supply Directories: up-to-date regional guides of where to purchase things that are needed for farms
7.“Start Up Packet”: checklists of things to think about for each year, skills to be acquired, training to think ahead
8.Internship Help: a way to make sure that folks are getting paid a bit more, and to make sure that farms don’t become too dependent on that labor
9.Mentoring/Experienced Farmer Consulting: would pay farmers to visit farm 2-3 times per season to give feedback on what they could do better
10.Taxes/Payroll/Bookeeping Guidance: help finding companies or individuals; what to pay for and what not to pay for
11.Case Studies: Step-by-step guides of how a successful farm made strides toward scaling up, year to year
Finally, some general observations from the interviews were:
- Wealth of resources in the eastern part of the state.
- Workshops offered during growing season mean taking at least a half or full day; Saturdays are hard because of markets, Sundays would be best.
- Beginning farmers tend to “age out” of workshops – no longer helpful, geared toward younger folks.
- Time is one of most difficult things in season – for this reason, video was cited as a preferred format
- Businesses that source directly from local farmers are really helping farmers distribute and scale up (Lettuce Be Local, Farm Fresh RI, Boston Organics).
- All farmers felt strongly that production experience comes from farmer to farmer and apprenticeships, business side of things is more difficult.
- Many farmers expressed sadness at not being able to pay interns and apprentices more money.
We continuously promote and update our website as a “one stop shop/clearinghouse” website, which is continually populated with current events, resources, farmer/service provider profiles, timely blog discussions, and other interactive features that keep farmers engaged and utilizing the website to find available resources.
Our Tufts work-study intern is responsible for working with Tufts IT on ways to make the website more user friendly and help the resources capture there be even more accessible. She is also updating the Massachusetts Farm Employment Directory for distribution in late winter/early spring 2017.
Referral Network: Right now, we have limited capacity to operate our Referral Network, but the coordinator responds to inquiries as time allows. She responded to an estimated 20 + referrals in 2016.
The results of the project are best summed up in the attached key findings report, which discusses the resources currently available in Massachusetts for beginning farmers and where the gaps are.
Ultimately, it became clear from the research that the following are the main opportunities to build up resources for beginning farmers:
- Videos: especially short ones, on a variety of different subjects
- Regional mixers in off seasons to better connect farmers and facilitate business networking
- Case studies on scaling up, so that newer farmers can learn from more seasoned farmers
- Land access education and inventory, especially for beginning farmers in E. Mass seeking 2 acres of land and under for a reduced cost
- Information on labor and employment
- Regional and local guides on laws and regulations
The Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts will continue to discuss with regional partners and service providers the best way of addressing these opportunities moving forward. In particular, BFN/Mass hopes to host an annual Northeast New Farmer Winter Mixer in conjunction with another winter conference, and may also seek funding to create and highlight case studies and videos on our BFN/Mass website.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
As part of this project, BFN/Mass was able to conduct the following education and outreach activities:
- Creation & Distribution of Key Findings Report (1): This key findings report is the main tangible outcome of our project; it summarizes the main gaps in beginning farmer resource and education needs across the state and also the strengths in current resource and education offerings for beginning farmers. As of June 2017, it has been distributed widely via social media, list serves, partner newsletters and websites, and other collaborative groups. It is intended to bring together farmers and service providers in conversation on how to make strides addressing the gaps in beginning farmer resources.
- Newsletters (4): The coordinator of BFN/Mass wrote and sent at least 4 newsletters to a mail list of 500+ subscribers on BFN/Mass happenings, beginning farmer resources, and updates to our beginning farmer resource assessment and gaps analysis project.
- Presentations (1): The BFN/Mass coordinator gave a brief and informal presentation about the draft key findings report to the MA Food Systems Collaborative in November 2016.
- Mixer Event (1): BFN/Mass helped to coordinate the 1st Annual Northeast New Farmer Mixer in December of 2015. Over 150 new farmers and service providers came together for workshops and networking. After a brief hiatus on 2016, we hope to hold the 2nd Annual Northeast New Farmer Mixer in winter 2017-18.
- Other – Leadership and Advisory Team Meetings (10): The BFN/Mass leadership and advisory committees came together over 10 times during the course of grant reporting period.
Additionally, we estimate that about 175 unique farmers and 30 service providers participated in our mixer, survey, and interviews.
services, educational opportunities, and resources available; increased connections to marketing, aggregating, sales, etc.
Our project did not directly aim to address farmer practices or behaviors; it was primarily aiming to inventory existing resources and perceptions of beginning farmers in the availability and quality of resources. As such, we cannot report on any behavior change, but the reception of the key findings report that is the main outcome of our project has been very good. Many service providers and farmers alike have attested to the importance of a study like this one and we are confident that the information gathered will be used as a springboard for new initiatives that address the gaps we uncovered. We also know that an off-season informal mixer for beginning farmers is an expressed need, and these informal gatherings will help to increase the sharing of resources, the aggregating of produce and other value-added projects, and potential new collaborations between beginning farmers and between service providers. We hope that future projects can evaluate the social and economic impacts of our regional mixers in greater detail.
Overall, our study’s approach and methods were appropriate for our intended purpose and guiding research questions, which were:
▪What resources (programs, training, technical assistance, educational workshops, support services) are available for beginning farmers in Massachusetts?
▪How effective are these resources at meeting the needs of beginning farmers?
▪What needs do beginning farmers have that aren’t currently being met? What are the major gaps that exist in available resources?
▪What kinds of programs and policies are needed to meet the needs of beginning farmers on their most pressing topics, skills, and resources?
To date, there had not been a comprehensive assessment done of this kind, at this level, to assess and evaluate how well Massachusetts is meeting the needs of its beginning farmers. Our study came about on the heels of the MA Food System Planning Process – which has already gone far in creating an inventory of training/resources; we wanted to expand on their work and hone it to focus on the beginning farmer population.
However, if this study were to be repeated, our team would make a few modifications in terms of research methods:
- We would more widely distribute the survey we administered, make it more readily available in paper form rather than just online, and perhaps translate it into Spanish or other applicable languages. When reviewing our respondent’s data, it became clear that the response pool did not reflect a fully representative sample of beginning farmers in Massachusetts. For example, urban farmers and minority farmers for whom English is not a first language or who had limited access to computers and internet did not fill out the survey. Additionally, it seems certain geographic areas are underrepresented, meaning we needed to collaborate with service providers and nonprofits in those regions to get the survey distributed. Finally, farmers with access to more than 1 acre did not respond to the survey much though we know there are many beginning farmers farming 1 acre plus.
- We would change the timing of our survey, to be distributed over the winter months rather than the start of the growing season. This decreased our response numbers.
- We would rephrase the questions of some of our survey questions to elicit more specific information.
- We did change our proposed research methods from focus groups to individual farmer interviews for the qualitative data collection. This was a good change; with additional time and resource, we would conduct more farmer interviews.
We did answer the question we set out to study, and as mentioned earlier, feel that our key finding report will guide the future direction of BFN/Mass initiatives as well as inform other service provider’s projects.