At farmers’ request, Vital Communities facilitated a discussion last January for 15 food system stakeholders about the need for a collaborative organization and space to increase farm product sales, production infrastructure, and community engagement. Continued conversation among farmers interested in collaboration revolves around the type of collective structure best suited to establishing a physical space for sales, education, production, etc. A recent opportunity to rent space from a retiring farmer further accelerated excitement, urgency, and, most importantly, the need for a strategic approach.
One farmer offered the working title “modern grange” based on familiarity with SHED, a project with that descriptor in Healdsburg, CA (http://healdsburgshed.com/). Though owned by a single farm family, SHED combines retail, private/public events, consumer education, eateries, and a range of local produce and crafts. From this came our concept of a flexible model that could be adapted to our region’s needs.
Our 2014 assessment indicated that 27% of farmers would use a shared processing facility and 29% wanted more consumer education.
We’ll use a project structure similar to our current SARE-funded labor study, which is researching our region’s chronic lack/retention of skilled labor. We expect that many of the farmers participating in that project will be involved in the grange project as well.
We enjoy a long history of working with farmers on expanding direct sales, such as our Workplace Markets program, which connects farmers with 20+ workplaces for weekly farmers markets or CSA delivery on-site. Our Flavors of the Valley expo connects 45 producers with over 800 consumers each year, and our Valley Food & Farm Guide featuring over 160 farmers in Vermont and New Hampshire and was one of the first in the nation. We also work extensively with farmers markets to increase visitation and farm revenue through our Valley Farm Fresh marketing campaign and a variety of capacity-building and consumer education/incentive efforts.
This project differs from earlier regional projects in the degree of collaboration – our region’s farmers have never come together to operate a single site – and in its emphasis on farmer-driven consumer education and community-building through partnerships and events. The site will also be unusually flexible, combining elements of farmers market, business incubator, special event site, co-op, and hub as a forum for trying out new ideas in a community of practice. The grange will also tell the farm-to-plate story in new ways that will be fun, tasty, and relevant to consumers of all types, from individuals to institutions.
Combing through 15-20 years of SARE projects revealed no comparable projects.
Our longer term goal is to define and launch a modern grange-style farmer collaboration. The goal for this grant is to determine feasibility
based on a SWOT analysis, assessment of farmer capacity and commitment, and education about what such a project would require. Questions we will answer include
• How should grange stakeholders identify and prioritize function to ensure success at each stage of
• What skills and resources are needed to launch this project?
• What is the most viable business structure for the grange – a co-op? Nonprofit? For profit?
• What is the grange’s mission?
• How would the grange interface with existing farmers markets and farmer commitments?
• How will grange stakeholders move from planning to realization?
During the busy season of farm production, Vital Communities will lay the groundwork for collaborative discussion and workshops during the fall and winter. In summer 2017, we’ll pay 25-35 farmers a small compensation for an initial one-on-one “in-take” interview to determine interest, willingness to participate in the planning process, and a menu of preliminary ideas for trainings pertinent to establishing a collective. We’ll also reach out to community food system stakeholders to discuss opportunities for coordination and collaboration. (Vital Communities has already contacted Willing Hands, our regional gleaning organization about creating a communal space for the movement and storage of local food.) Finally, we’ll contact workshop leaders with expertise relevant to farmers’ feedback to schedule two fall training sessions. Sample topics could include a primer on the legal and tax implications of locating the grange in Vermont versus New Hampshire, development of SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals, business structures, access to capital, or assistance with creating a marketing plan.
During the fall, we will convene all interested farmers to explore and prioritize the grange’s initial functions, confirm a calendar of planning and training meetings, and connect farmers’ skills and interest with work to be performed. At this meeting, farmers will be asked to select eight members for a grange project board and a separate working group, including community partners and one board member, to develop the SWOT analysis.
In the fall, we’ll also hold the two workshops, open to all interested parties and featuring the topics determined by the group. Speakers will receive an honorarium and food will be served at each workshop to encourage networking and a sense of community.
During the fall and winter, our staff will facilitate three board meetings. Outcomes will include a mission statement, business structure determination, and work plan for next steps. Vital Communities staff will help board members develop each meeting agenda and then record meeting notes for dissemination to the wider group. We will also help the board research any issues that arise during the process.
Vital Communities will host a final gathering in spring 2018 for all farmers and community partners to share project results and determine whether the grange board or another body will continue to lead next steps from the newly completed work plan after the grant period.
Overall, Vital Communities will provide initial research, structure and facilitation for group discussion, logistical support for meetings and the trainings with expert presenters, connections with community partners, and dissemination of meeting agendas and minutes, reports, and project results.
Results from this work will be shared via the Vermont New Farmer Project blog and with farm service provider groups such as NOFA VT and New Hampshire Community Loan Fund’s Farm and Food Initiative. We’ll also share progress on our Valley Food & Farm blog, Tidbits e-newsletter, and farmer discussion list (650 participants).
Formative evaluation will be ongoing, including one-on-one interviews with interested parties and feedback solicited from board members. We’ll also ask workshop attendees to evaluate the relevancy and quality of each presentation, altering or amending workshop content as needed. Outcomes will include the grange working board, SWOT analysis, mission statement, action plan, a project timeline, and an informed group of farmers and partners who can move forward in a strategic manner.
April through August 2017:
Vital Communities notifies farmers about the proposed modern grange concept via mail, email, farmer discussion list, website, e-newsletter, and outreach through farm service partners. Farmers will be requested to let us know if they are interested in learning more about the project.
Based on the response, Vital Communities pays farmers a nominal stipend for one-on-one “in-take” conversations at their farms to confirm interest and resources they are willing to contribute to the planning process.
Vital Communities contacts other food system stakeholders to introduce the modern grange concept, gain feedback, and determine opportunities for collaboration.
Based on farmer and partner feedback, Vital Communities develops and schedules trainings for cooperative business structuring, vision work, logistics/ regulations, and feasibility. Vital Communities selects presenters and creates training materials as needed.
Vital Communities holds fall meeting with all interested farmers to share results from summer conversations, develop schedule for fall work and facilitate farmers’ selection of a grange project board and SWOT working group.
Vital Communities facilitates three board meetings with specific agendas to move development of project forward.
Vital Communities hosts workshops.
Vital Communities researches additional specific topics as directed by grange project board.
Vital Communities facilitates SWOT working group meetings (number of meetings to be determined by working group).
Board reviews SWOT analysis, facilitated by Vital Communities.Vital Communities records and shares notes from all proceedings.
Vital Communities collates results of project (mission, feasibility, business structure recommendation, and work plan checklist for next steps). Board reviews all for dissemination.
Vital Communities hosts gathering of all farmers and partners to share results, determine responsibility for continuing with next steps, and celebrate the completed work.
Vital Communities develops final report that records entire process to share with regional food system stakeholders via a mailing, email, farm discussion list, and VFF blog. The grant report will be publically available on the Vital Communities website.
March/April: Researched farmer-owned retail, co-op, hub models through online searches and by connecting with Vermont and New Hampshire service provider partners and food system allies including Farm to Institution New England, Intervale Center, New Entry Sustainable Farming, and The Co-op Food Stores. Visited Mad River Food Hub with farm partner to meet with hub owner who was in the processes of creating a retail/tasting space to go along with hub facility.
Met with Holly Fowler, Northbound Ventures, with farm partner for advice on project. Learned of creative functions and collaborations for a farmer-owned farm/food facility. Connected with Keisha Luce of Court Street Arts,
May: Met with farm partners to plan review timeline for project, get input for topics to research, and to make a plan for outreach to other farms and food system partners.
Created and disseminated survey for farmers to share the farm/food facility idea and learn about their infrastructure needs and interest in participating in a new direct sales channel. Developed language and blog post describing the farm/food facility concept for farm partners to share to their cohort. Vital Communities spread the word about the project and requested input and participation through the VC e-news (9000 subscribers), Valley Food & Farm e-news (5000 subscribers), discussion list and blog posts, and through an email to farmers in our database.
June: Signed up for consulting services from Cooperative Development Institute and had conference call with Lynda Brushett and a farm partner to learn about co-operative model as potential structure for farm/food facility. Continued outreach and asked farmers and food businesses to gauge interest and to fill out survey.
July: Continued researching other successful models and started planning community listening session. Created outreach list for listening session to include farms, food businesses, partners, allies, and local food system advocates.
August: Worked on event planning with King Arthur Flour. Outreach for farm/food facility meeting included discussion list posts, blog posts, e-news articles, postcards that were distributed via farm partners and to created outreach list, event listing on regional and state-wide farm organization calendars, emails to farmers, and 30 posters at key locations. Attended NOFA Farmer Social in White River Junction to talk with farmers about project and distribute farm/food facility information and invitation to listening session.
September: Farm/Food Facility Meeting drew more than 70 people that included many farmers, food business entrepreneurs, food purchasers, food system organizations, consumers, and more. The lively meeting included several activities to learn about the challenges that are limiting increasing sales for local farm products, and infrastructure needs/wants. The interest in this topic was intense and many participants stayed long after the meeting to continue the conversation and make connections.
The information gleaned from the meeting demonstrated the interest in a retail/educational/commercial kitchen facility and a real need for storage, aggregation, and distribution. In order to address this need, we are now looking for funding to start a separate conversation around storage/aggregation/distribution. The two topics could end up reuniting and be located in the same facility, but we want to keep this grant funding focused on the idea of creating a new direct sales opportunity for farmers. The meeting also resulted in a list of people interested in serving on a Steering Committee.
October: Disseminated meeting notes and information through emails, E-news links, Facebook, farm partners, and our website. Talked with farm partners and planned Steering Committee meeting.
November: Convened farm partners and those interested in being part of the Steering committee and working group. The goal was to narrow the functions/uses of the facility and identify the specific people to be on the Steering Committee and be part of the working group. Created draft calendar for working group and Steering Committee meeting for 2018.
December: Disseminated notes from November meeting. Identified 12 Steering Committee members with a variety of perspectives and skill sets.
The project is not complete. Outcomes have not yet been assessed.
The project is not complete. Outcomes have not yet been assessed.