Over 200 certified-organic dairy farmers in Vermont are required to meet a minimum amount of pasture feeding for cattle over six months of age during each grazing season. Non-lactating animals such as heifers and dry cows may be deferred to marginal, low quality pastures and/or managed in a continuous grazing system, which typically yields lower-weight animals and poorly producing pastures. According to Vermont Organic Farmers certification staff, close to 50% of Vermont’s certified organic dairy farms use a continuous grazing management system for their heifers.
In order to assist dairy farmers in focusing on their highest-value activities while still meeting the National Organic Program pasture rule, this pilot project is aimed at strengthening and improving relationships between organic dairy farmers and custom grazing operators. The project team has initialized activities to expand and strengthen a custom grazing network statewide through a series of focus groups, development of guidelines and resources, matchmaking activities, new relationship establishments, and post-grazing evaluation. During the period of this project, we anticipate sharing resources with more than 300 dairy farmers and potential custom graziers, developing a target of five seasonal custom grazing agreements, and establishing a repository of information for new partnerships.
The project team originally scheduled four focus groups (two for dairy farmers, two for custom graziers) in early January, 2017. A draft set of questions were developed. One presentation sharing interview results took place in January 2017 at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference. Additional interviews and informal conversations continued through 2017 and extended through 2018.
- Facilitation of two focus groups.
Original plan: One group will include 4-5 experienced custom graziers who have entered into past contracts (written or verbal) for at least two years. The other group will include 4-5 certified organic dairy producers who have contracted out animals in the past. The focus groups will take place at a central location over a 1-2 hour period. Guiding questions will be shaped using the existing resource materials collected from national and Northeast partners, as well as the experience within the groups.
Adjusted plan: We have adjusted the focus groups to take place in two different locations for each audience. The day is now planned to start with dairy farmers in the morning overlapping lunch, and work with the custom graziers in the afternoon (also overlapping). This approach is intended to reduce location bias by increasing areas represented, and to also provide a social interaction opportunity (lunch) for both parties while talking with them separately to allow for more honest feedback.
2018 Update: The dual-audience plan worked well, but was only able to be scheduled at one location due to farmer conflicts. Additional interviews took place at one custom grazier’s farm in Vermont and one in New Hampshire. The draft guide will be reviewed by an additional dairy farmer before being finalized, as well as a custom grazier from New York.
- Development of guidelines. A draft “best practices” set of guideline will be assembled from focus groups and resource materials. This draft will be shared through electronic means through listservs, email newsletters, technical requests, and certification outreach, as well as through in-person conference and meetings.
Update: Draft recommendations have been developed and the team will begin seeking feedback in February 2018 for further testing through the 2018 grazing season.
2018 Update: The draft document has been shared with approximately fifteen attendees at the 2018 NOFA-VT Winter Conference, as well as by request to additional farmers (mainly custom graziers) and Cornell Cooperative Extension educators interested in supporting the work and building greater connections in their area.
- [Optional] Matchmaking events. Depending upon the feedback shared through focus groups about optimal methods to share this information and create relationship opportunities, the project team is prepared to coordinate mini matchmaking events at partnering winter conferences, such as the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference, the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, or the Organic Dairy Conference.
Update: As the team has communicated with farmers, the feedback has been that a formal matchmaking event is unlikely to yield much attendance. The team is orienting toward a word-of-mouth development format and using electronic methods (like listservs) to generate potential interest outside of direct communication.
- Develop five test contract relationships. Using the resources developed and multiple outreach methods, the project team will seek partners to assemble five grazing contracts between organic dairy farmers and customer graziers, for one grazing season. Each relationship will be monitored by a project team member and facilitated or supported as needed and appropriate.
2017 Update: This activity is planned for the 2018 grazing season.
2018 Update: As there was only one, informal, relationship established through the project, it did not seem appropriate to host a workshop based on the topic. We hope to provide on-farm events and speaking opportunities with experienced farmers and graziers in the future, but it is unclear whether they will be appropriate in the remaining grant timeline, or more appropriate after the grant period, during the grazing season.
- On-farm workshop. At the end of the grazing season, an on-farm workshop will combine a presentation of contract grazing best practice guidelines, as well as sharing feedback from the farmers and offering a pasture walk.
Update: This activity is planned for the 2018 grazing season (location TBD).
- Final evaluation and resources. To close out the project, the team will use a common evaluation survey across the five relationships in order to update and improve the guidelines, as well as prepare a final report. The finalized materials will be distributed through common outreach methods (electronic, paper, video) as well as being posted at the central resource site.
2017 Update: No specific update, however the project team is thinking about the evaluation survey as we finalize focus group questions and talk with the target audience, about what will be most important to capture.
2018 Update: As there are few direct relationships to evaluate, we will use an “exit interview” structure to collect feedback, as well as sharing the draft recommendations document with a wide variety of farmers through listservs, direct email to farmers who have used it, and farmers experienced in the custom grazing relationship from neighboring states.
Quarter 1 (7/1/16-9/30/16)
- Identify and finalize farmers to participate in focus groups
- Plan two focus groups (location, details)
- Develop questions and format based on existing resources and knowledge gaps
Update: Quarter 1 milestones were largely pushed into Quarter 2 due to a change in staff and the need to bring new partners up to speed.
Quarter 2 (10/1/16-12/31/16)
- Facilitate two focus groups
- Prepare list/guidelines for best practices
- Assemble and post resource materials
Update: Focus group structure and questions were drafted. Focus group timing was unworkable for enough of the farmers that it was decided to reschedule the events for early January. The initial data presentation is scheduled for January 21, 2017. As the other Quarter 2 milestones depend on the focus groups, those milestones will be pushed to Quarter 3. It is expected that the project will be back on track in Quarter 3.
Quarter 3 (1/1/17-3/31/17)
- Initiate matches through existing relationships
- [Optional] Formal matchmaking events at VT Grazing & Livestock Conference, NOFA-VT Winter Conference and/or VT Organic Dairy Conference
Update: Informal matches may be initiated through a presentation at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference. The workshop session is a shared time slot with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (national) program, and is aimed at connecting older dairy farmers and younger farmers looking to gain experience. If session marketing is successful, this combined audience might be the perfect group to be informally matched.
Quarter 4 (4/1/17-6/30/17)
- Follow up to formalize grazing relationships
- Initiate custom grazing
- Documentation/partner check in
Update: Due to additional changes in project staff, the work focused on additional outside interviews and informal networking and sharing of data collected to date during this quarter. As the draft recommendations document was not ready to be tested, no formal grazing relationships were formed and/or followed.
Quarter 5 (7/1/17-9/30/17)
- Documentation/partner check in
- Expand resources as needed
- One on-farm workshop
Update: During this period, there was regular communication between project partners, but no formal grazing relationships to be testing. It was clear that additional conversation (and interest generation in new potential partner groups) would benefit the project and allow Winter 2018 to be a more effective partner recruitment period, with Summer 2018 as the new field test period.
Quarter 6 (10/1/17-12/31/17)
- Complete grazing
- Evaluate experience and recommend improvements
- Update resource materials
- Submit final report
2017 Update: It was determined by project partners that shifting the test and completion periods into 2018 would yield more effective monitoring time. Project staffing has stabilized and conversations around custom grazing as an opportunity have increased. Project partners have been approached for custom grazing materials and resources by farmers and landowners (not the target audience, but still notable) in VT, NY, NH, and MA. The team will be seeking to extend the project period to 12/31/2018 in order to use the 2018 grazing season as the test period.
2018 Update: Due to continued challenges in staffing, as well as a depressed organic milk price for the second year in a row, the ability to make and follow formal matches was less productive than planned. At least one grazing partnerships was established in 2018, and potential partners will be contacted to determine whether additional partnerships were, as well.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Outreach has included a range of individual conversations, formal presentations, and event tabling. Highlights from the interviews have also been shared in poster form at the Northeast Pasture Consortium annual meeting in March 2017.
The recommendations document is in draft form and will be presented via Powerpoint at the upcoming NOFA-VT Winter Conference in February, as well as being shared in the printed format at the Vermont Organic Dairy Conference in March. Distribution of the draft document is the perfect vehicle to generate additional feedback from experienced custom graziers and dairy farmers, as well as testing new relationships in 2018.
While it is too soon to describe this occurrence as a direct impact, the timing of this project lines up with an exciting opportunity recently introduced to the Northeast. The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program is a national, structured apprenticeship program designed to connect experienced dairy farmers with less experienced farmers seeking to round out their grazing education and work experience. Initiated in Wisconsin, the program has only recently been introduced in this region and now has two Northeast education coordinators; one in Maine and one in New York. While not a program strictly for certified organic producers, the grazing component is an absolute requirement (as described in our previous materials, and the project summary), and thus a natural fit with this SARE project. We expect that the outreach will easily overlap, and look forward to new opportunities arising from this partnership.