Supporting Small Farms and New and Future Farmers through Agricultural Technology, Regenerative Practices, Permaculture and Best Practices

2022 Western SARE Research and Education Pre-Proposal
ID: 757517
Grant Type: Research and Education (pre-proposal)
Region: Western
Application Year: 2022
Status: Not accepted
Amount Requested: $299,500
Principal Investigator:
David Blume
Whiskey Hill Farm/Blume Distillation
371 Calabasas Road
Watsonville, CA 95076
Office/Day phone: 831-722-4455
Applicant: Ronnie Lipschutz
Description for search results if funded: This project provides small producers of fruits and vegetables and high school students studying agriculture in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Counties in California, with applied training and experiential education at a small farm deploying advanced technologies and methods for growing organic crops

Project Basic Information

Primary Subject Matter


Other Subject Matter

training, research, education in small-scale agricultural technologies


  1. Collaborate with local farmers and organizations to: disseminate successful new food production technologies and practices, train Watsonville High School (CA) agriculture program students in skills and knowledge required to successfully create, manage and succeed in running an urban/peri-urban farm, and promote and develop urban farms & gardens, facilitate creation of regional FoodHub;
  2. Conduct longitudinal research on and demonstration of small-scale techniques and technologies designed to conserve natural resources, protect soils and biodiversity, increase farm productivity, and facilitate information exchange via a FoodHub portal;
  3. Prepare materials and provide professional training in small-scale technologies to collaborating urban farmers; develop demonstrations & presentations for urban farmers and city residents;
  4. Educate the community about urban agriculture and small-scale farms through open houses, demonstrations, workshops and curriculum, and websites, social media, journal and news reports and scientific articles;
  5. Provide healthy, low-cost greens and leafy vegetables to local consumers and businesses through supply contracts, farmers’ markets, and direct provision to city neighborhoods; and
  6. Increase local food security, justice and resilience by working with low-income and minority communities to develop new and existing farms and gardens that produce food for neighborhoods and local markets.

Proposed Start Date

April 1, 2022

Proposed End Date

March 31, 2025

Primary State



  • None
    • Does not apply to specific commodities


  • Sustainable Communities
    • local and regional food systems

Partner Institutions

  • Whiskey Hill Farms (Commercial (farm/ranch/business))

Budget Amount to be Requested


Is the proposed project a long-term project?




How did you learn about this Call for Pre-Proposal?

  • Google/Internet search
  • Word of mouth

Project Summary


One of the greatest challenges facing sustainable agriculture in the United States is the decline in small farms (49 acres or less; USDA, 2017 Agricultural Census). Small urban and periurban farms offer more localized and nature-friendly sources of nutritious food than the large monoculture operations that dominate the country’s agricultural and food sector.  These small farms produce more and healthier food per acre, use resources and labor more efficiently, build local economies more evenly, provide access to new and minority farmer and educate community members more effectively.


There is a pressing need to support and expand the number of successful small farms serving local foodsheds, provide them with new local talent, expertise, and operational support and training, and increase their economic viability through greater productivity, new markets and higher sales and revenues. 


The research component of the project builds on a SARE-funded study (FW21-379) of small-scale agricultural technologies, farming techniques and culturally-specific crops for increasing the productivity and incomes of small farms.  New, scalable, affordable agricultural technologies, techniques and practices have the potential to achieve these objectives, and even small increases in the range and diversity of higher value products would have significant impacts in the economic well-being and social sustainability of farmers, their families, and their communities. 


The educational component is focused on teaching and training current and new small farm operators and aspiring farmers in high schools in the techniques, practices and technologies of sustainable permaculture. as applied and taught at Whiskey Hill Farms, a 14-acre organic farm near Watsonville, California.


Project results will be disseminated though publications and curated, maintained online data and research repositories, and a online foodhub and data sharing platform under development, and via workshops, online curricula and training materials, and open houses and tours at the primary research site.


Relevance to Sustainable Agriculture, Project Value and Benefits (15% of review criteria)

Small farmers are facing a growing number of difficult sustainability-related challenges, including drought, soil degradation, pest control and a decline in biodiversity (pollinators and natural enemies). Small operations ( 49 acres or less) are better able than large farms to support food and environmental justice, increase local resilience in an increasingly unstable world, reduce the dependence of urban areas on potentially unreliable supply chains that rely on complex and resource-intensive food production and transportation integration.  They are also better-placed to take advantage of new, climate friendly technologies, techniques and practices.  Often, however, small farmers lack the resources, expertise and financial and logistical capacity to manage operations efficiently and take advantage of the latest advances in agricultural sciences and technology.  Bringing such basic skills and advances to small operations may offer the best opportunity to improve their productivity, revenues and profits.


Benefits to sustainable agriculture of this project include:

Improvements to environmental quality & protection of the resource base: Small scale farm operators are attentive to the sustainability of their agricultural practices, since they have small margins for waste.  They are in closer contact with the land, use water and other inputs more carefully and precisely, and monitor the conditions of soil and crops daily. Small farmers can restore soil and plant ecosystems through sustainable, regenerative agriculture, utilize land and water more efficiently and effectively, improve local climate conditions, air quality, and biodiversity by leaving marginal spaces intact, while providing net carbon sinks through composting and soil regeneration. Small-scale farmers are guardians of the soil, avoiding expensive large-scale industrial techniques of land management, pursuing soil regeneration rather than relying on chemical fertilizers to restore their land and relying more on biological methods and beneficial insects to control pests.

Increased productivity of small urban and peri-urban farms. More efficient use of space and denser planting with polyculture, hydroponics and ethnic-desired crops can increase their productivity, profitability and sustainability. Communication with other farmers about crop planning weekly production, collaborative brokering and distribution networks, and direct deals with retail and business outlets for their products can increase sales and incomes while reducing crop duplication and food surpluses. New agricultural technologies can help small farms use resources more efficiently, recycle waste products and lower the cost of inputs, and train employees for professional advancement.


Enhanced quality of life for farmers, communities, and society. In addition to these ecological and economic benefits, small urban and peri-urban farms are more accessible to customers, the public and students, can bring nutritious food to low-income neighborhoods through CSAs and other distribution channels, provide work to local residents, and increase neighborhood social capital and cohesion. Local opportunities to learn about small scale agriculture and underlying support technologies can also introduce potential career paths to urban and peri-urban residents and offer low-income and minority individuals the opportunity to become farmers.

Stakeholder Involvement and Support: (10% of review criteria)

This project seeks engagement with existing, new, aspiring and minority-owned and operated farms in the Monterey Bay Region of California, for whom access to land and capital pose formidable barriers to entry.  It brings technological opportunities and farm management training to those who may have little experience in operating a small farm, opens project workshops to aspiring farmers at Watsonville High School and other educational institutions through a number of curricular innovations and provides opportunities for on-farm research and fieldwork.

We have spoken with the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association, Salinas, California; the Community Alliance with Family Farmers; Davis California; the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County; the Center for Food Systems and Agroecology at UC Santa Cruz; and LifeLab, Santa Cruz, as well as teaching staff in the Watsonville High School agricultural program.

We have identified these needs from a literature review and discussions with small farmers:

  1. Experiential models in terms of operational financing, local supply chain structures, emerging opportunities, storage and marketing options, farm branding to add market value and revenue resilience, and new market opportunities in a robust regional-scale food distribution chain;
  2. Development and expansion of urban market opportunities via wholesale, retail and direct access to business and consumers;
  3. Better documentation of trade-offs among labor, technology, land, and infrastructure in terms of cost management, crop selection, farming methods, storage and processing, local distribution, and customer demand;
  4. Resilience in response to changes in land availability, product demand, new opportunities, and disruptive challenges, such as water rationing.

Project Team

show everyone's info
David Blume
Ronnie Lipschutz
Kevin Bell
Tom Harvey
Katie Monsen
Ramiro Cenobio
Celsa Ortega
Raul Murillo

Roles of the Project Team Members: (10% of review criteria)

PI: David Blume is a producer, educator, instructor and technical advisor.  He will contribute to workshop and curriculum development, class and field instruction, technology development and installation, outreach to farmers, agricultural professionals and the public, and supervisor of the overall project team.


Co-PI: Ronnie Lipschutz is an educator, researcher and project designer.  He will contribute to workshop and curriculum development, and class and fieldwork organization.  He will be in charge of documentation and public communication activities. He will supervise student interns engaged in data collection and project documentation.


Co-PI: Kevin Bell is an educator, researcher and technical advisor.  He  will be in charge of input data collection, output data analysis and preparation of research results. He is technical designer of the overall project and will supervise student platform designers and data analysts.


Agricultural professional/extension: Katie Monsen is a lecturer in environmental studies on agroecology and related topics.  She will provide instruction in agroecology and sustainable agriculture, provide technical advice on garden plots, and present in the workshops and at public events.


Project manager: Tom Harvey will be project and business manager, in charge of administration, accounts, public events, farm tours, educational session organizations.  He will also participate in workshop and curriculum development.


The producer team members will be involved in full proposal preparation, training, deployment and operation of technical systems and participate in activities.

Research Plan (30% of review criteria)

Research Goals: To extend and expand our current 2021-22 SARE-funded Farmer/Rancher project (FW21-379) which entails development of a series of pilot workshops and field projects for new and minority farmers.  The project proposed here further develops extends research and education components and expands participation and outreach.  This research program will be conducted as a collaboration between Whiskey Hill Farms, the Sustainable Systems Research Foundation, producers and project participants, who will develop garden plots in which technologies and techniques will be installed, collect data on inputs, outputs, performance and marketing, and document activities.  The specific time frames for research can be found in the GANTT chart, below.


The primary research site is Whiskey Hill Farms (WHF;, a 14-acre organic farm on California’s Central Coast, near Watsonville, a pioneer in developing a systems approach to agricultural technology by recycling and reusing various inputs and outputs in farming and demonstrating the technology and best practices of a circular food economy (see figure 1 under citations). The following technologies are being tested at WHF in the greenhouses and research plots (see below): Water & soil moisture sensors, small-scale hydroponics, drone surveillance & GIS, online applications for small farms and small-scale solar PV + storage, and conversion of organic farm wastes to alcohol and by products.


The farm employs sustainable agriculture techniques in six greenhouses to mimic the natural world of multi-layered polyculture.  The farm grows turmeric and gingers underground; melons, heirloom peppers and basil varieties at ground level; vining fruits such as tomatoes, passion fruit and lemon cucumbers at mid-level and fruit trees such as mango and papayas as canopy.  Cultivation techniques are steeped in regenerative agricultural practices, with a particular focus on repairing damaged soil through composting.


Objective 1. Technology monitoring, assessment, expansion, experimentation.

  1. Monitor installed ag technologies at WHF, add new ones, install & monitor at selected participant producer farms.
  2. Assess technology performance at Whiskey Hill Farms, continue or discontinue selected ones based on outcomes, report on progress and results.
  3. Deploy selected techniques, technologies and practices demonstrated at Whiskey Hill Farms at participating farms and collect and evaluate data from those operations.


Objective 2. Data wrangling & online platform operation

  1. Continue data collection & analysis to acquire a more robust database for assessing the impacts of agricultural technologies on crop productivity and farm revenues. Record the following data to quantify a number of comparative inputs and outputs in order to measure changes in resource use and productivity: (1) seeds, plants, nutrients, fertilizer & other inputs; (2) resource inputs in the form of water, precipitation, temperature, power (for pumps and fans), weather conditions, and other relevant parameters; (3) labor inputs in the form of hours worked on preparation, growing and harvesting; (4) outputs in the form of pounds of food produced; (5) sales in pounds and dollars of income. This will be repeated for multiple growing cycles, with attention to any changes and differences in environmental conditions during each year.
  2. Continue development of FoodHub platform.
  3. Collect and evaluate farmer use of internet platforms and apps, especially FoodHub Beta version.
  4. Conduct market research on crop planning, planting, harvesting, brokering, marketing, business and retail customers; develop an information pool to inform farmers of production plans; create a collaborative brokering arrangement to maximize farm revenues.

Objective 3. Develop Practice Gardens to experiment with technologies & techniques management.

  1. Create research plots in a Whiskey Hill greenhouse and to allow workshop, summer school participants and high school students to design, plant grow and harvest on polyculture basis, experiment with installation and operation of the small-scale technologies and farming, apply farm management methods (planning, planting, accounting, marketing).
  2. Build and experiment with small hoop houses (high tunnels) as an alternative to greenhouses.
  3. Plant, experiment with and market culturally-desired foods (e.g., for Mexican, Chinese, Indian and other groups).
  4.  Collect data on operation & production of technologies on small plots & evaluate results.
  5. Document and create reports and videos on their activities.

Education Plan (30% of review criteria)

Educational Goals: To teach and train current, new and aspiring farmers in the theory, operation and maintenance of small farms, technologies and techniques to increase productivity, develop a more extensive instructional curriculum, document visually operation, maintenance and outcomes, prepare and present project and results to other farmers (especially Latinx farmers), educational institutions and the public, with a particular goal of expanding the skill set of small farmers and creating interest in small-scale farming.

Target audiences: Operators & employees of small farms and gardens (for profit and non-profit), new and aspiring farmers, high school and college students in agricultural programs, agricultural professionals and the general public.

The primary education site is Whiskey Hill Farms (which has appropriate instructional spaces). Educational activities will take place through training and workshops, fieldwork and experiential learning, open house days, documentation and dissemination of activities and results in printed and visual media and outreach to minority farmers in the region through Spanish-language activities.  Spanish language translation will be provided at all educational activities.


Objective 1. Outreach to farmer and student participants.

  1. Reach out to more small farms in the region (especially to Latinx farmers and their employees, and farmworkers, if possible) especially those who are relatively new to farming and have limited experience in farm management and operation.
  2. Work with the Watsonville High School Agriculture Program to identify students to participate in our workshops, summer short courses and on-farm classes, and contact programs at other regional high schools to solicit participation.
  3. Create a regional advisory board of agricultural professionals and agriculture groups (e.g., ALBA, CAFF, California FarmLink) who can network with farms and farmers across the region.


Objective 2. Workshop series & curriculum development

  1. Continue conducting workshop series on agricultural technologies and techniques. Expand audience and participation and conduct summer classes that permit more in-depth learning and application.
  2. Evaluate & revise the training curriculum produced during 2021-22, based on workshop outcomes.
  3. Design & conduct a series of focused summer short courses (1 week) that will provide an intensive introduction to WHF, agricultural technologies and farm operation and management.
  4. Develop an on-farm curriculum with the Agriculture Department at Watsonville High School that allows up to 60 students in the program per year to engage with regenerative agriculture, polyculture, advanced agricultural monitoring and control technology integration, and farm management and operation skills, through hands-on application and field experience.


Objective 3. Farm management and operation practicum

  1. Instruct participants in the knowledge and skills required to operate a small farm successfully, including farm design, crop planning, staging and planting, resource management and conservation, equipment use, how to use the body, input and output documentation, accounting, brokering, marketing and customer service.
  2. Develop garden plots (see above) to learn application of these skills and evaluate results.
  3. Plant and market culturally-desired crops (see above) as a strategy to increase revenues and profits.
  4. Collaborate with other participants to exchange information about crop plans and staging.
  5. Pair participants with mentors who can help them develop professional contacts and networks.


Objective 4: Project documentation, communications & outreach.

  1. Continue project documentation for dissemination to other farmers, schools and the public via video recordings of instruction, fieldwork and seminars. Documentation will be edited to accompany the training curriculum and used at subsequent training events for instructional purposes and uploaded to the project website.
  2. Continue dissemination activities via on-line platforms, email, social media, news articles, an electronic newsletter and communications to inform students, educators, farmers and agricultural professionals around the Monterey Bay region about events, outcomes and achievements, and provide regular updates, photos and videos of our program and activities.
  3. Reach out tofarmers,studentsandthepublic through specialized workshops, public presentations, open houses, visual and print publications. Public presentations, live and online, will be given to interested audiences scheduled throughout the project at appropriate venue.developanetworkofcontactsamongurbanfarmsacrossCaliforniaandbeyond,reachoutto educational institutions to give presentations and simple trainings to students, organize talks, presentations and events for the public, and disseminateinformationatlocalfarmers'markets.
  4. Offer regular open houses, tours and seminars at WHF and partner farms, and use these and other channels to inform food-insecure communities about availability of healthy, low-cost greens and leafy vegetables; increase local food security, justice and resilience by working with low-income and minority communities to develop new and existing farms and gardens.
  5. Prepare gray literature and media for distribution to agriculture educators, programs and organizations around the United States; prepare submission to academic and educational journals in the fields of agricultural and sustainability education and experiential learning; conduct annual assessment and evaluation activities for the project and publish results.


Timeline (5% of review criteria)

Supporting Documents

Letters of Producer Collaborations