Training Beginning Farmers in Crop Production Skills to Build Climate Resilience

Final report for ONE18-314

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2018: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2019
Grant Recipient: New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
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Project Information

Summary:

Aspiring producers need fundamental crop production knowledge coupled with experiential hands-on farm training to pursue an agricultural career or launch a farm business. Gaining commercial crop production experience can be challenging while supporting a livelihood. In this project, New Entry Sustainable Farming Project developed a 9-week long crop production course spanning four months of the growing season. Topics covered in the course ranged from propagation and greenhouse management, to nutrient management and whole farm planning. Experiential on-farm learning was coupled with round table discussion of sustainability topics on Boston and Lowell, MA. Eighteen students completed the course which entailed 42 hours of formal instruction and 8-15 hours of on farm practicum experience. Additional curricula, workshops, and tours developed for this project served 38 farmers and incorporated 14 additional agricultural service providers. Through survey responses 22 farmers reported changed in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness of crop production as a result of their participation in this project. Two additional grants were received during this project period that will allow us to build on the crop production curriculum developed, one of which entails revising the course so that it can be offered for college credit at Tufts University. Course materials have been integrated into an online learning management system to make them more accessible for a broader audience interested in learning about sustainable agriculture.

Project Objectives:

New Entry proposes to develop a crop production course to provide farm-based experiential training in sustainable crop production practices to our incoming aspiring farmers who lack prior commercial farming experience.  The training modules, learning plans, hands-on demonstration approaches will be documented and serve as a template for other producers to adapt and modify for hands-on labor training and skill development in basic farm tasks to improve labor training and production skills efficiencies. Project objectives include:

  • Develop a detailed, experientially based replicable curriculum for 9-week Crop Production Course with farmer input;
  • Prepare at least 30 aspiring farmers per year with practical, hands-on experience through the Production Course;
  • Develop demonstration plot production plans and provide aspiring farmers with 100+ hours of practical skills and hands-on training through a demonstration plot;
  • Support at least 15 producers to develop crop production plans and demonstration plot management who will go on to apply for New Entry’s Business Course and Incubator program;
  • Share lesson plans/curricula, demonstration videos, and resources with broader producer network to facilitate on-boarding of unskilled farm workers;
  • Build a learning network and resource library of skills training modules for use by diversified vegetable farms in the region.
Introduction:

Aspiring producers need fundamental crop production knowledge coupled with experiential hands-on farm training to pursue an agricultural career or launch a farm business. Gaining commercial crop production experience can be challenging while supporting a livelihood. Fewer participants in New Entry’s programming have significant production skills. Crop production skills help beginning producers prepare crop plans, understand harvest potential, and input financial projections in a business plan. Learning conservation farming skills efficiently minimizes labor for aspiring farmers and farm operators who hire and continually train unskilled workers. This project will develop an accessible Crop Production Course and practicum experience for aspiring producers to gain fundamental sustainable crop production skills and build climate resilience. Hands-on trainings with complementary online educational resources, videos, field trips, and a demonstration plot for practicum hours will prepare 30 producers per year with practical skills and competencies in organic vegetable production from seed to sale. Particular attention to labor efficiencies and creating video tutorials on efficient production practices will be shared broadly to support regional farm labor training. Pre-, mid-, and post-season learning assessments will be evaluated and demonstrated competencies tracked in a comprehensive Passport to Farm Skills. Curricula and educational materials will be adapted by at least 10 farm employers for farm worker training programs. All project materials will be posted online and shared broadly through New Entry and partner newsletters, websites, and social media. New Entry’s pathway to agriculture will be updated to include the new Production Course and will facilitate increased enrollment in trainings.

With a growing interest in commercial farming, many new producers learn farming and obtain technical assistance through alternative educational venues. Traditional assistance providers such as Extension have limited capacity to serve small, geographically diverse producers and formal agricultural degree programs may not be affordable or desired by working adults not seeking credit-based education. In response, a majority of new producers turn to alternative programs including incubator training farms; seasonal farming internships and/or apprenticeships; onfarm employment / job training; conferences and workshops; and self-directed study. These resources are best suited to those who can start slowly on a small-scale; who need flexibility due to jobs and family; or who have limited time and resources. New England needs 10,000 new farmers to replace its aging producers (1). Preparing next generation growers with climate-resilient crop production skills is critical.
New Entry’s beginning farmer applicant pool is also shifting and more producers are applying to the program with limited commercial crop production experience. Many aspiring producers lack the hands-on experiential knowledge required to succeed in New Entry’s program pathway (Explore Farming -> Farm Business Planning Course and develop a business plan -> start to farm independently on Incubator Farm). Aspiring producers need fundamental production knowledge coupled with experiential hands-on farm experience to prepare crop plans, understand harvest potential, and input costs and sales into start-up financial projections. An intermediate learning step between Explore Farming and the Incubator Program is needed.
To seek farmer input to this SARE proposal, New Entry surveyed alumni graduates of our incubator training program to determine goals and training priorities for the project. 16 producers provided substantive input and recommendations to inform this proposal and 3 farmers agreed to participate in development of the new curriculum. Key learning topics of interest include basic specialty crop production skills, incorporating new technology and “farm hacks”, and production/conservation strategies to mitigate climate variability. Other topics included labor efficiencies and season extension strategies. Producers encouraged on-farm demonstrations and farmer-to-farmer learning methodology.
A lack of prior commercial crop production experience is not unique to New Entry’s beginning farmer audience. Many diversified vegetable producers hire unskilled workers as farm labor. Producers are constantly tasked with providing the practical production training and efficiency skills to temporary, seasonal workers and often recruit and retrain their labor force each season. As the skilled farm labor pool shrinks, producers hire unskilled workers. A practical, production-based hands-on training course would support New Entry producers with limited experience and provide a template for other regional producers to adapt for their own employee training programs, saving resources and improving efficiency. The combination of lecture and practical field-based learning topics will be developed and documented as training tools for producer adaptation. Curricula on crop production basics, skills demonstrations, labor efficiencies, and “how-to” approaches will be disseminated broadly. Additional educational content for New Entry audiences will support entrepreneurial learning, climate resilience and conservation strategies, and to prepare participants to enroll in New Entry’s Farm Business Planning Course and subsequent Incubator Farm programs.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dan Lenthall (Educator)
  • Katie Campbell-Nelson (Educator)
  • Dick Chase (Educator)
  • Alex Matthews (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

For this project on developing an experiential crop production course research began by examining existing source material and topic areas on similar courses and programs. A list of topic areas was compiled followed by a selection of resources on those topics suitable for a beginning farmer audience. 

Research results and discussion:

The number of students enrolled in the course, in addition to the number of hours of instruction were measured. Learning objectives were assessed through course assignments and self-reflections. The class delivered 42 hours of formal instruction to 18 individuals in 2018. Four of those individuals went on to participate in the Farm Business Planning Class, and two of them went on to participate on the farm incubator in 2019. The course was delivered again in 2019 with an additional 15 participants and the course was modified to include a 1/2 acre demonstration farm with several corresponding online learning modules.  Not all participants completed individual crop plans as we had anticipated, this was due to the fact that many producers were not sure whether or not they were ready to tackle development of a farm operation where a crop plan would be necessary.  Though examples were provide and abundant materials presented to develop them, we did not collect and specific completed plans from producers throughout the course.   Lessons were also learned from the expansion of the demonstration plot as part of the course.  We realized that doubling the acreage in production required significantly more staff and student intern time to manage than the smaller plot we coordinated in 2018.  The plot produced sufficient crops to donate a significant portion to local area food access organizations (homeless shelters, feeding programs, soup kitchens, food pantries, etc.) and for course participants, staff, students to take home to consume.  Upon reflection of the experience, we missed an opportunity to track good data on the demonstration plot to model inputs and outputs and enterprise planning to be incorporated into the course in the future.  Our goals for 2020 will be to plan more market-oriented outlets for the produce coming out of the course, to keep careful records and enterprise analysis of all the inputs, costs, labor needs, and potential revenue that could be generated so we have a better enterprise model to share with Farm Business Planning Course participants and future Incubator farmers around how much input and expenses they can expect to invest at this scale and what the revenue generation potential could be as a result.

Research conclusions:

The goal of this project was to create a learning pathway between "Explore Farming" and the Farm Business Planning Course that would provide participants with more limited crop production experience with the hands-on, practical skills necessary to succeed in developing a business plan and transitioning to the incubator farm program.  This project resulted in the creation of an experiential course on sustainable crop production that has become a centerpiece of New Entry's land-based training initiatives. One goal of the course was to provide practical skills that participants could apply to future programming options like the farm incubator which was indeed the case. Two individuals from the 2018 Crop Production Course joined the incubator farm in 2019, applying the crop production skills they learned in 2018 to their new farm businesses.  The addition of a new demonstration plot on the New Entry incubator in 2018 and 2019 also supported this experiential learning and allowed producers to gain experience throughout the 20-week course in biweekly field activities, such as planting, weeding, harvesting, and post-harvest handling of crops.

The Crop Production Course continues to be a core feature of the New Entry training program and was delivered a second time in 2019 based on curriculum that was developed during the course of this grant. We also expanded the demonstration plot from 1/4 acre to 1/2 acre to demonstrate more "at-scale" incubator plot management strategies for incoming producers.  An additional 15 participants took the course in 2019 that included over 30 hours of on-farm instruction and experiential education opportunities. The curriculum developed for the course is being shared with new incubator farm programs, like Springfield Community Gardens in Springfield, Missouri, and being modified so that it can be offered for college credit through Tufts University. 

Participation Summary
15 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

15 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
22 On-farm demonstrations
2 Online trainings
2 Tours
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

38 Farmers
14 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Our pilot crop production course concluded in September 2018 with 18 students completing the entire four-month program. Students represented a breadth of agricultural backgrounds, with little-to-no experience being the most common. Completion of the course represents 42 hours of formal instruction, 8-15 hours of on-farm practicum experience with New Entry Alumni Farmers, and a final reflection submitted to instructors for review and feedback. The following topics were covered in-depth and through a lens of modern sustainable best practices:
a. Propagation and the greenhouse environment
b. Soil preparation for field-based crop production
c. Drip irrigation systems and conservation best practices
d. Low-impact weed control strategies
e. Nutrient management: a sustainable approach
f. Pest prevention and control techniques
g. Harvest and post-harvest best practices
h. Using and maintaining farm tools
i. Sustainable whole-farm planning
Whole-farm instruction included guest lecturers and presentations from USDA/NRCS, USDA/FSA, High Mowing Seeds, UMass Extension, and Mass Department of Agriculture.

  1. The first of two Farm Business Planning Courses began filling in September 2018. This is most notable for two reasons: 1) With help from SARE and other grants, the course was revised to include modern and leading sustainable business practices, and 2) Several students from the previously mentioned crop production course have registered. Details of these actions are listed below.
    a. Farm Business Planning Course: After every session of our production course, we collected feedback and insight to what lessons should be included in our business-planning curriculum. These lessons were incorporated and now represent the next iteration of our flagship course. Lessons now include:
    i. Recognizing risks associated with sustainable production versus traditional production (both production based risks and competitive pricing risks). Taking the lesson further, we have modules in place to help investigate ways to mitigate risks associated with individual students’ business plans.
    ii. Recognizing costs and sourcing issues associated with sustainable production methods, and weighing those costs when considering producing sustainably during the first years of a farmer’s career.
    iii. Recognizing the benefits of differentiating a farm business by way of producing thoughtfully, responsibly, and sustainably. Taking these recognitions further, we have modules in place to help students identify marketing strengths these methods might provide.
    b. Several students who completed our production course have registered to create a business plan in preparation to start their farm businesses on our incubator farm. The following students have registered (and we will monitor their progress carefully along their way):
    i. Venkap Vedam
    ii. Sarah Schipelliti
    iii. Janlyn Driscoll
    iv. Matt Opolski
    c. We are pleased to see this new connection between sustainable crop production instruction and business planning instruction.
    3. During our production course, there were questions asked that could not be wholly answered within the time of the course. To that end we developed a series of sustainability talks with partner organizations to drill deeper into students’ interests. During this reporting period we offered two of these talks:
    a. Screening of the film, Sustainable Food (https://sustainablefoodfilm.com/ , Directors Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher at Hourglass Films) at Mill No 5 in Lowell, MA. Preceding the film we hosted a farmer panel discussion during which our student farmers shared their perspectives and experiences related to producing food responsibly. 44 people attended, three of whom registered for additional programming with New Entry.
    b. A roundtable discussion on the topic of Sustainability was held at Boston Public Market with the Trustees of Reservations. The session began with a presentation of sustainable production economies and methods, and concluded with an interactive discussion of sustainability – what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and how consumers can identify and support authentic activities.

Learning Outcomes

22 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

During this reporting period, we worked closely with 15 farmers via our case management system, providing on-farm consultations and day-to-day instruction around sustainable crop production implementation. Details listed below:
1. Tim Carroll: Tim began using caterpillar tunnels for production during his primary season and enjoyed great success. This year we helped him see the benefits of using them for unheated season extension for tomato production, thereby gaining local CSA market share. Tim enjoyed a 110% increase in CSA members this year. Tim expanded all aspects of his farm business this year, including retails sales, CSA memberships, and food hub deliveries.
2. Kosall Deth: Kosall is finishing his farming career this year and has worked with us to plan a proper covering and resting plan for his farmland. This work will conclude during the next reporting period.
3. Alfred (Lee) Gadway: This season is Lee’s first as a farmer and we worked with him to adopt primary sustainable methods from day one of his farming career, including proper crop planning, using drip irrigation, and not broadly applying nitrogen fertilizers haphazardly. Lee plans to update his business plan for next year to begin incorporating a few more cutting edge practices.
4. Margaret Gichuki: Margaret is finishing her third and final year on our incubator farm. Much time spent with her this year has been geared toward finding land so she may continue her business. We’ve worked with her to identify soil types and land orientations that best lend to sustainable practices. Margaret has applied for use of town-owned farmland in Westford, MA.
5. Mohammed Hannan: Mohammed came to us early this year without any farming experience. During this reporting period we spent most of our time with him showing him firsthand how textbook best practices work in action. Starting with the basics, we helped him lay plastic mulch, run drip irrigation lines, and seed an appropriate cover when the season ends.
6. Stephen Lowe: Stephen finished our Farm Business Planning Course in spring of this year. We helped him acquire farmland in West Glover, VT. Time spent with him during this reporting period was spent learning about his land and his vision, and then helping him design his overall farm layout, including greenhouse location and orientation, barn placement, cooler design, and field design and layout.
7. Jorge and Daniella Marzuca: Jorge and Daniella came to us this year from Mexico with dreams of continuing their farming career in relative safety. During this reporting period we helped them secure a lease on farmland in Lunenburg, MA, and to learn to diversify past monoculture that they had known so well in Mexico. They are presently finishing their first of three years on our incubator.
8. Seona Ngufor: Seona came to us years ago from Cameroon. Time with her during this reporting period was spent continuing to steer her toward more efficient crop production practices rather than the methods she was used to in her home country – hand watering field crops, hand-wrapping crop stems, etc. Seona is still finding a balance between adoption of new practices and continuing tried and true methods she has used for decades, but she is making progress toward more efficient and sustainable production.
9. Thomas Norton: Thomas continues his conservation plan with NRCS and we continue to help him navigate that relationship, including greenhouse layout and design, and microloan application via USDA/FSA.
10. Rechhat Proum: Rechhat presently sells to our food hub, providing wholesale orders on a weekly basis. We worked with him to better understand the value in converting to more sustainable production methods – higher prices for crops, more public support, proper stewardship, etc.
11. Phalla Nol: During this reporting period, Phalla learned she must leave her longtime farmland she had used for free by way of generosity from Trustees of Reservations. We helped her identify available farmland and ultimately applied for a long-term lease of town-owned land in Westford. This application included a thorough conservation plan.
12. Jade Taylor: Jade is finishing her third and final year in our incubator program. We taught her proper use of ground fabric between row crops, clover under irrigation headers, whole-farm nutrient management planning, and how to read water and soil sample test results.
13. Sorn Un: Sorn sells to our food hub on a weekly basis and we take advantage of each drop time to check in with him. We supported him wiht recognizing problems with his produce quality – problems that can be mitigated by way of better planning and more attention to soil and irrigation methods.

14. Julie Weitekamp: Julie sells to our food hub on a bi-weekly basis. We met during several drop times to advise her how to best prepare some of her land to rest while she scales down her farm business. Issues included proper technique for soil testing, most appropriate cover crops, and whether those covers can serve dual purpose: cover and harvest.

Project Outcomes

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
$357,555.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Contributing grants came from USDA's Conservation Innovation Grant program for the project, “Conservation Technology Outreach to Historically Underserved and Beginning Producers in Massachusetts through an Incubator Farm Training and Demonstration Model" and from Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop grant program with an ancillary objective related to this SARE grant.

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.