NOFA-NH Technical Consultancy Program

Final Report for ONE14-226

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Ray Conner
Northeast Organic Farming Association of NH
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Project Information

Summary:

The Technical Consultancy Program contracted experienced farmers and related professionals from around the state to provide short-term assistance to support the success of beginning farmers and the viability of their farms. This is reminiscent of the cooperative extension model that is available through land grant universities, but different in that it is designed specifically to support organic and sustainable growers, and because it provides a dynamic ‘consultant marketplace’ of active professionals instead of a more limited teaching staff.

The program was modeled after a similar, successful program at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, which was developed from a SARE Sustainable Farmer Education program from 2001. NOFA-NH’s Technical Consultancy program offered beginning farmers access to five farmer consultants for one calendar year, free of charge, to assist in production and business planning, triage mid-season issues, and provide answers to general questions.

Unfortunately, despite NOFA-NH’s best efforts, the program was underutilized by NH beginning farmers.

Introduction:

The Technical Consultancy Program contracts experienced farmers and related professionals from around the state to provide short-term assistance to support the success of beginning farmers and the viability of their farms. This is reminiscent of the cooperative extension model that is available through land grant universities, but different in that it is designed specifically to support organic and sustainable growers, and because it provides a dynamic ‘consultant marketplace’ of active professionals instead of a more limited teaching staff.

The program is modeled after a similar, successful program at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, which was developed from a SARE Sustainable Farmer Education program from 2001.The NOFA-NY program is just entering its second year, and has made several changes that NOFA-NH will incorporate in its program design:

  • Initially, the NOFA-NY program limited access to the service to beginner farmers who had direct permission from NOFA-NY to use it. This created issues for the technical consultants, who had to cross-check interested participants, and confusion and service holdups ensued. The program NOFA-NY program is now available to all New York farmers who have less than 10 years of experience. NOFA-NH will do the same.
  • The NOFA-NY program also was initiated with many more technical consultants than it currently has. In the second year, they have focused on less than 10 consultants who are better trained and more knowledgeable of the program.
  • NOFA-NH is unique among its sibling chapters (MOFGA and the other NOFA’s around the Northeast) in that it does not employ technical staff. This program will ideally serve that purpose as well, answering the need for technical assistance without the overhead required for keeping year-round technical staff trained and paid as employees.
  • The Community of Practice, and intentional documentation and sharing of the consulting interactions and outcomes, is unique to this New Hampshire program as well.

The Technical Consultancy Program will complement NOFA-NH’s popular Journeyperson and mentorship programs, which provide longer term mentoring opportunities for new farmers. And it will fill a gap that exists in the state’s agriculture service offerings by providing short term technical assistance specifically for sustainable and organic farmers who have been practicing for less than 10 years.

Farmer Technical Consultants:

Jim Ramanek, Warner Rover Organics

Roger Noonan, Middle Branch Farm

Kate Donald, Stout Oak Farm

Andy and Christine Pressman, Foggy Hill Farm

Chuck Cox, Tuckway Farm

Project Objectives:

Outcomes:

  1. The goal was to have at least 30 constituents utilize the technical assistance program, however, only twenty-one constituents did so.
  2. One goal was to get feedback from every user of the program. Sending evaluations online isn’t often effective. The response rate was low.
  3. Although we aimed to have at least 5 experienced farmers receive earned income through their services, only four farmers received direct income from the program. The fifth farmer was never contacted for consultation, nor did he bill for any hours/submit notes.
  4. A very thin community of practice was made available for free on the NOFA-NH website on a page entitled “Farmer Resources (Ray’s List), wherein we compiled relevant information from farmer notes and added it to the existing resource list. You can see the resource page here: http://nofanh.org/farming/farmer-resources/

Based on the limited use, the program will not be continued for a second year.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Roger Noonan
  • Andy and Christine Pressman

Research

Materials and methods:

  1. April 2014: Developed a matrix of needed technical assistance areas using NOFA-NH surveys, evaluations and records of contact. The matrix included lists of experienced farmers from several agricultural production focus areas (specialty crops, dairy, grass fed meats) and practices (till and no till, permaculture, IPM), as well as farmers with an understanding of business and legal issues on farms.
  2. April 2014: Developed and initiated an application process for interested technical consultants. Consultants applied by providing professional history, biographical information, and a letter of intent to participate.
  3. May 2014: A selection committee reviewed applicants and selected five technical consultants. NOFA-NH hosted a conference call to describe the program and billing process and answer any questions. Consultants received an orientation packet and necessary supplies to record contact with beginning farmers.
  4. May 2014: Developed a catalog of technical consultants for the NOFA-NH administrative staff and beginner farmers to utilize as needed when technical questions and issues arose. Both the online and hard-copies of the directory of technical consultants featured consultant photographs, background information and areas of expertise. NOFA-NH specific email accounts were set up for each consultant, and no personal contact information was published.
  5. May 2014 – March 2015: Promoted the program to beginner farmers (New Hampshire farmers with 10 years or fewer experience) in all NOFA-NH events and communications and through partner organizations (Cooperative Extension, Department of Agriculture, Small and Beginning Farmers of NH, partner organizations, universities, etc.). In addition, there were press releases, program tables at agricultural events, and consultants stationed at various workshops promoting the program offerings.
  6. May 2014 – March 2015: In the eight months the program was available, 21 beginning farmers formally utilized the program.
  7. May 2014 – March 2015: Technical consultants collected user information for the beginner farmers they billed consulting time for and took notes on the questions and answers for the building of community of practice.
  8. May 2014 – March 2015: NOFA-NH program coordinator followed up with the beginner farmers to get feedback on their interaction, document whether the problem or issue was resolved, and make any notes to later be recorded for the community of practice.
  9. April 2015: Technical consultants sent records and invoices to NOFA-NH and were compensated for their time at an hourly rate of $50.
  10. April – June 2015: The program coordinator will compile collected documentation from the consulting interactions, and develop a free access ‘community of practice’ for the NOFA-NH website.
  11. April – June 2015: The program coordinator will evaluate the program with written and verbal assessments.

Research results and discussion:

Beginning Farmer Participation:

The unfortunate results of this project were that is was heavily underutilized despite a multi-pronged approach to marketing. We had a total of 21 unique users, many of whom utilized multiple consultants on multiple topics, but our goal was to support a minimum of 30 beginning farmers throughout the program year.

Community of Practice:

The note-taking by most of the farmers was incomplete/inadequate. Most farmers provided bullets of what was discussed vs. solutions/results that were discussed, despite extensive emphasis during training about what kind of information was to be collected and why. Administratively, we had a mid-project check-in scheduled, but, as the program had barely been used at that point, it was cancelled. Had this not have happened, the program coordinator would have either caught the error in note-taking practice and refined the process with the consultants, or perhaps would have just jogged their memories going forward.

The community of practice will not be particularly user-friendly and is embedded in “Ray’s List”, which is a webpage on the NOFA-NH website of recommended resources for beginning farmers. Were we to engage in a similar project in the future, it would focus more primarily on the consulting, and have less emphasis on the goal of collecting and distributing the information garnered from the consultations for use by a broader audience.

Research conclusions:

Twenty-one beginning NH farmers were able to get personalized consulting advice from experienced NH organic farmers. Four NH farmers were able to derive additional income through their consulting role with NOFA-NH. 

Of twenty-one surveys sent out to users twice, two were submitted. Of the two, both reported increased knowledge and skills, a change in production and business practices, and increased confidence as a result of their consultation.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Technical Consultancy Program Publication/Outreach:

  1. NOFA-NH E-news, FB, press releases, fliers, program webpage, and tables and announcements at NOFA-NH workshops/events 

  1. Announcements and fliers at partner workshops/events

  1. NH Market Bulletin

  1. Strategic marketing to partner organizations/agencies.

  1. Mailed a hard copy of the Technical Consultancy Handbook to all beginning farmers in NOFA-NH’s database who had a physical address associated with their name.

Post-Program Community of Practice Publication/Outreach:

As the information gathered for the Community of Practice was limited, the information has been added to “Ray’s List”, a list of beginning farmers resources currently established on the NOFA-NH website. http://nofanh.org/farming/farmer-resources/

A copy of the contents of this page is found below in a Word document.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Four farmers were able to derive supplementary income from their consulting work with NOFA-NH.

Farmer Adoption

The program was underutilized by NH beginning farmers.

What could we have done differently? Had we had the resources, NOFA-NH staff could have done more hand-holding in the establishment phase of the program. Program adoption is tricky, and in talking with NOFA-NY and through expierence launching other programs in NH, it is clear that to get folks to adopt a new method of information gathering takes time and pressure. They also have to have a valuable first experience. Of those who utilized the program, all were satisfied with the outcome. The issue was in making the first call. Also, new programs often take a few years to establish, and trying to make program adoption and utilization happen in one farming season (with a start date smack in the middle of spring) was probably not the best way to approach the pilot project.

If I had it to do over again, I would establish the program in the fall, hiring consultants, developing the consultant booklet, and marketing via internet and snail mail. I would launch the program in December, and be present at agricultural events throughout the state with program information and consultants. I would drive the programs’ utilization by making phone calls to beginning farmers in my network, and by having consultants call those who express genuine need of such support. Establishing first contact would be the driving force of the winter, while planning is happening and the work load is less intense.

In terms of evaluation, I sent survey monkey forms right after contact, and had low response rates. I sent a second follow-up survey to all participants while closing out the project, and it was spring once again, so response rate was low. If I did it again, I would send evaluations and follow up with phone calls. 

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.