Final report for ONE18-323
Beginning in 2018, we set out to better connect schools and maple sugar makers to ensure that more Vermont maple would be available in available in more Vermont schools, and that more Vermont students would have the opportunity to be engaged in experiential learning about maple production and to meet a maple sugar maker in their community. We began by collecting baseline data to determine the level of maple purchasing already happening in Vermont schools. We also asked maple sugar makers what resources they needed in order to sell to schools, and to support the educational goals of the project.
Together with our partners at the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association (VMSMA), Shelburne Farms and regional Farm to School partners from Green Mountain Farm to School, the Center for an Agricultural Economy, and Drift Farmstead, we developed educational materials and activities, including "how-to" example videos featuring well-known maple sugar makers. We also developed a template schools may use in soliciting bids from maple producers, and provided technical assistance to maple producers interested in responding to the bid solicitations.
We worked to disseminate the resources and information through several presentations to the VMSMA Board, to VMSMA county-level meetings, and by publishing all the resources to both the Vermont FEED and VMSMA websites. While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our planned educational activities and procurement technical assistance in 2020, we are confident that the relationships we supported and the resources we developed will be helpful and available to schools and maple sugar makers for many years to come.
Objective 1 : Expand the maple syrup market and increase sales for Vermont producers in schools in Lamoille, Bennington, and Orleans counties. We will do this by connecting sugar makers with their local school nutrition personnel and helping them to establish relationships with their local schools. This will ultimately expand the economic market for maple producers in Vermont. Due to the grant timeline we are limiting initial outreach to three counties.
Objective 2: Develop a purchasing process which makes it easier for Vermont sugar makers to sell their products to school nutrition personnel. We will provide technical assistance to sugar makers and to school nutrition staff to assist in the procurement process. If the procurement process is easier for school nutrition staff to navigate, sugar makers will benefit by having a new market for their syrup.
Objective 3: Determine a baseline of maple syrup sales to schools around the state of Vermont. This will allow us to know how much maple syrup is currently being sold to schools and also to understand the extent to which the maple market exists in schools. We will achieve this baseline by surveying sugar makers and school nutrition professionals.
Although Vermont is famous for its maple syrup production, Vermont syrup is served in a minority of our schools. In this project, we propose to work with VMSMA and the maple sugar industry to develop purchasing relationships with schools. Forging these connections will offer a direct market previously untapped by sugar makers as well as an investment in future consumers. This will build a new market for the maple sugar industry in Vermont. As Matt Gordon wrote in his letter of support for this project: “With the farm-gate price for syrup slumping and production expanding, producers are seeking new markets. Providing local procurement opportunities within their community, such as to schools, has the potential to create a positive impact on small farm businesses.”
This is a new project which builds on the lessons learned in NOFA-VT’s previous Specialty Crop Block Grant Project to establish a market for Vermont fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. NOFA-VT developed tools and provided technical assistance to school nutrition personnel to enable them to better navigate the food procurement system and purchase Vermont products. We can now use these existing tools and adjust them to facilitate maple procurement.
Shelburne Farms, NOFA-VT’s Farm to School partner in VT Food Education Every Day (VT FEED), also worked on this previous Specialty Crop Block Grant project, creating resources for farmers to host school and community groups. They will work with us to expand maple syrup activities to maple producers, as well as conduct trainings for sugar makers to illustrate successful activities that can be conducted on a sugar bush or in a sugar house. Shelburne Farms is well known and well respected in the Vermont community for their work with both farmers and sugar makers.
This project also builds on a rudimentary survey we conducted in 2017, which allowed us to understand the extent to which sugar makers wish to engage with school markets. Through the survey, VT-FEED also learned that school nutrition staff have a commitment to providing Vermont maple syrup, though may not understand how to procure local products or know who to engage.
- To gather baseline data, we sent a Google Forms survey to all VMSMA sugar makers and received over 50% return (67 responses). We asked about wholesale pricing range, whether sugar makers were already selling directly to schools and whether they needed training or technical assistance in the informal procurement bidding process schools must comply with. We also asked several questions about whether sugar makers are currently conducting or are interested in conducting educational activities such as classroom visits or field trips and what training or technical assistance they would like.
- Similarly, we sent an online survey to all school nutrition directors in Lamoille, Orleans, Washington, and Bennington Counties. We received under 50% return (23 responses). We inquired about whether schools were already purchasing maple syrup, and if so, how much, and at what price. We also asked about what the barriers were to beginning or increasing maple purchasing (price, limited options for use on the menu, etc.), and whether they were interested in inviting a local sugar maker to support educational activities such as classroom visits, field trips, or taste tests.
- We paired regional Farm to School partners to work with VMSMA county representatives in Lamoille, Orleans and Washington Counties. The regional Farm to School partners served as match-makers and coaches, helping to connect schools to sugar makers who were willing to sell to them and also to engage with educational activities such as classroom visits, field trips, and taste tests.
- We worked with Shelburne Farms educators to developing educational activities and materials for sugar makers to use either during classroom visits or when hosting students on their sugarbush. We demonstrated these activities for sugar makers at three maple conferences held in January 2019. The materials include activity directions, as well an example video demonstrating how the activity was conducted in real-life. The videos feature some well known sugar makers. The educational materials were all posted to the VT FEED Maple in Every School website, and it is linked on the VMSMA website.
- VMSMA supported us in conducting outreach to sugar makers. Through their website, email listserv, and announcements at meetings and conferences, they promoted our surveys, connected us to sugar makers who were interested in engaging more with their local schools, hosted our presentations at conferences, and promoted our educational materials within the sugar maker community.
- With additional grant funds from the State of VT, we are able to add support to Chittenden and Addison County sugar makers who want to make connections to schools.
- Due to the resignation of the VMSMA executive director in the late Spring 2019, we were unable to do a follow up sugar maker survey to determine the results of our supports and training we did.
- In January 2020, we presented at 3 county sugar maker meetings. We shared the educational materials and lesson plans for sugar makers to use with students either on the sugar bush or in a classroom visit. We also presented the sample bid solicitation template schools may use to request pricing and other relevant info to support purchasing decisions. Our intended next step was to schedule and support field trips and classroom visits during the spring of 2020, though the school closures that began in March 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from doing so.
See the survey results
Our training and technical assistance in 2019 was delivered in three forms:
- We conducted both school procurement and education activities workshops at the three different maple sugar makers annual conferences. In the school procurement workshops, we provided sugar makers with materials about the basics of school nutrition programs and how to respond to school solicitations. In the educational workshops, we modeled a variety of the activities we developed for sugar makers to conduct with students either in the classroom or on site in the sugarbush.
- Three regional farm to school partners provided one-on-one support to help sugar makers conduct school tastes or classroom visits. 20 schools reported having sugar makers conduct taste tests at their school or hosted students at their sugarbush. This individual support from our regional Farm to School partners helped to develop new relationships, and strengthen existing ones between schools and sugar makers in their communities.
- We filmed several of the activity demonstrations at the regional conferences to serve as "how-to" examples for sugar makers who are interested in working with students in the future. The videos and accompanying printed materials were then edited and finalized for future sharing.
Our training and technical assistance continued into 2020, though was interrupted significantly in March by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruption caused by the pandemic persisted through the end of the grant period. Despite the challenges, the following progress was achieved:
- We published the finalized educational materials and activity demonstration videos on the VT FEED Maple in Every School webpage. An overview of the project, and links to all the resources were also published on the VMSMA Maple in Every School webpage.
- Three regional Farm to School partners presented at county wide sugar maker meetings in Lamoille, Caledonia, Orleans, and Washington counties in January. They reviewed the educational materials and activities, as well as the procurement templates used for selling maple to schools, and the Vermont Harvest of the Month materials featuring maple for the month of March.
Over the course of our project, from 2018-2020, we developed a strong relationship with the VT Maple Sugar Makers Association Board and many members. They welcomed our support and wanted us to expand our outreach to an additional 2 counties. There was a pause in activities due to the absence of the VMSMA Executive Director beginning in summer 2019 and extending through December, so we were delayed in further developing materials. We presented our educational materials and activities, including the example "how-to" videos at 4 county meetings in January 2020: Lamoille, Caledonia, Orleans, and Washington. All of the educational and procurement resources have been published to the VT FEED and VMSMA websites, and will be available to schools and sugar makers to use in the future.
We have successfully created training and materials to help sugar makers understand the school food procurement processes they will be asked to use to sell syrup to schools. In fact, the Orleans County sugar makers have created a collective model to offer a consistent wholesale price to schools and provide a monthly purchasing service to the schools in their county. Sales have increased in the 2 of the counties we initially identified: Orleans and Washington. Bennington County schools we found purchase VT maple syrup through a distributor, so do not need the support on purchasing, but do need support around how to build relationships with their local schools for educational purposes.
As a result of this NESARE funding, we were able to leverage 2 other small grants to expand our support to Lamoille County schools and sugar makers.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
3 presentations to the VMSMA board in 2018 and 2019. 2 county presentations of the project, purchasing, and educational activities in 2019, and 4 additional county presentations in 2020.
Incorporated maple activities in 2019 Harvest of the Month materials and in the VMSMA newsletter in time for the March Maple Open House weekend.
Published educational materials and activities, including example "how-to" videos on the VT FEED and VMSMA websites:
Maple Procurement Templates
Safety Tips for Teaching in the Sugar Bush
Maple in Every School: Sugaring Role-Play Game (video and printed directions)
Maple in Every School: Meet a Tree Game (video and printed directions)
Maple in Every School: The K.I.M. Game Using the Tools of Sugarmaking (video and printed directions)
The VMSMA Board members, as well as the county-level VMSMA Presidents and members who attended the January 2020 county meetings in Lamoille, Caledonia, Orleans, and Washington counties were all informed about the educational and procurement resources available to them to help them engage with their local schools. These resources will continue to be available to maple sugar makers statewide beyond the end of the grant period.
Additionally, several of the county-level VMSMA leaders and members were introduced to their local Farm to School partners - many for the first time - enabling them to begin to build relationships that will endure beyond the end of the grant period. In particular, the maple producers we worked most closely with to organize county-based activities learned more about the school nutrition programs they want to sell to and the procurement policies they must adhere to.
Conversely, the three Farm to School regional partners and NOFA-VT Farm to School Program staff learned more about the maple sugaring market and VT maple production.
Perhaps the most notable changes during the grant period were the relationships that producers made with school nutrition personnel and with students they hosted or did taste tests with. As an example, a Orleans sugar maker commented, “… the maple tasting at Barton and Orleans went great! The school food service were awesome. They did great communicating with me beforehand and did an awesome job with the kids during the tastings with me.” It takes a lot of time and direct contact to develop these relationships, but students, school nutrition personnel and the sugar makers who participated got a lot out of the experiences and want to continue.
Sugar makers in the 4 counties we provided the most services and support to feel they have benefited. After providing taste testing in 2 schools and a classroom activity a Washington County sugar maker stated, “I really appreciate the work in connecting school’s to sugar makers. It is really important for kids to learn about where their food comes from. I really appreciate the sales to schools.”
Overall, this project was successful in beginning to forge meaningful educational and purchasing relationships between schools and maple sugar makers. However, there is still a lot more room to grow. Unfortunately, the interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prevented further educational engagement, and slowed purchasing between schools and maple sugar makers in 2020 before the end of the grant period. However, the educational and procurement resources that were developed during the project will be available to schools and sugar makers far beyond the current disruptions and the end of the grant period.
In particular, the example "how-to" videos featuring well-known sugar makers as the 'star actors' will be very helpful in appealing to other sugar makers. Being able to see one of their own engaging with students by sharing what they know and love will hopefully empower more sugar makers to feel comfortable in presenting to students in a classroom or welcoming them onto their sugar bushes.