Agroforestry – Forest Management: Sustaining Small Farms – Creating Learning Communities in the Northeast
In its first year, the Northeast Agroforestry Learning Communities has facilitated a network of ten leadership team members, 45 natural resource educators and some 120 small farm operators, forest owners, and educational organizations in ten states who are cooperating to develop and learn about forest farming systems of agroforestry practice. Our forest farming practices include cultivating high value crops in the forest understory such as American ginseng, goldenseal and a variety of mushrooms; establishing plantations of improved sugar maple (sweet trees); and crop tree management for timber stand improvement and other forest values.
The project has 1) conducted two three-day agroforestry training workshops for natural resource educators from various public agencies, private voluntary organizations, and landowners; 2) engaged landowners to cooperate with educators in establishing forest farming trials on their properties; 3) created a list serve for use by trainers/facilitators, educators, and some landowners to exchange questions, information, and ideas stemming from the forest farming trials; 4) established a systematic monitoring system as a basis for evaluating the trials; 5) conducted site visits by trainers/facilitators to about a third of the educators and their cooperators to assess progress, provide additional technical assistance, interview participants about satisfaction and future directions for the project, and develop information for the project web site; 6) developed a web site that characterizes forest farming and depicts learning community members and activities; 7) conducted and planned numerous follow-on agroforestry training activities by educators and cooperating landowners for other educators and landowners; 8) secured in-kind support from several organizations for various of our activities to supplement the SARE contribution. See www.dnr.cornell.edu/ext/agroforestry/sare/index.htm for more details.
In the coming year, additional farm and forest based trials will be established, monitoring data will be analyzed, site-based interview data will be analyzed, local demonstration tours and workshops will be conducted, our listserv will continue to operate, and our web site will be updated to reflect new information and activity. A final report will be prepared to share our findings to date about the technical feasibility, economic viability, and social acceptability of forest farming land use practices for small farm operators and private forest owners, and about our learning community approach to integrating research and extension functions to support this type of practice.
Forty extension and other personnel will participate in a workshop where they will develop an understanding of specific agroforestry and forestry practices. For each practice, participants will learn how to implement, evaluate for sustainability, evaluate for economic feasibility, assess markets, and market the product.
Forty farmers, in cooperation with the workshop participants, will implement 80 trials on their farms, contribute to our knowledge of the productivity, economic feasibility, marketing, and sustainability of the practices through collecting data on field trials. Farmers will also learn to participate in electronically mediated research communities.
Four hundred farmers, extension agents, and other USDA personnel will participate in local demonstration tours and workshops and will access project materials that enhance their understanding of agroforestry production, economic feasibility, and marketing.
Eighty growers will implement the agroforestry practices that prove most sustainable through the field trials.
Workshops. We conducted not one workshop as planned, but two. Given the breadth of topics and information that needed to be included in the Learning Community curriculum, as well as the benefits of co-sponsorship, we sought better efficiency and linkage with related organizations by partitioning our workshop activity into two units.
The first workshop, held in September 2000, was co-sponsored with the Greene County Cooperative Extension Association and other organizations including the USDA National Agroforestry Center. It focused principally on American ginseng and included sessions on goldenseal and mushroom production. Our support allowed 22 Extension and other USDA personnel to attend the workshop and the associated field tour as a cohort of trainees with common objectives for post-workshop activity. Some 100 landowners attended, most from New York state, as well as some 100 additional agency, private voluntary, and academic personnel.
At this workshop Learning Community participants learned how to assess agroecological site suitability, implement understory practices on farms, and monitor measures of productivity and economic viability. To qualify for support to attend the workshop, the 22 natural resources educators were required to identify at least two landowners who were willing to work with them to establish trial practices. Several obtained commitments from more than two. Following the workshop each of the 22 was provided with sufficient germplasm to establish the trials.
The second agroforestry workshop was conducted in April, 2001 at Cornell University’s Arnot Forest. It focused principally on improved maple plantings and crop tree management. Understory cropping was covered to a lesser extent. Thirty-two extension, USDA, and private voluntary personnel attended, eight of whom had attended the initial workshop. At this workshop participants learned how to site, plant and monitor improved maple plantations; plan and implement various crop tree release procedures; and assess the economic potential for timber stand improvement at various intensities. In addition, general coverage of the topics treated in the initial workshop was provided. Participants were able to choose which of the practices covered at the workshop to pursue with cooperators. Most sought to outplant improved sugar maple trees and were provided with saplings of various cultivars as well as protective devices for the saplings. Those who chose to conduct understory cropping trials were provided with germplasm in the fall, the best season for planting ginseng and goldenseal.
On-farm Trials. Following from the workshops, 40 small farm operators, 37 private forest owners, ten educational organizations and another ten landowners (presently unspecified) have established some 150 or more trials. The trials are in 55 counties across ten states. While this performance exceeds our initial objectives (40 farmers, 80 trials), we anticipate that a certain amount of attrition will occur. Data on the trials are being collected by the landowner, together with the cooperating educator, and reported to the information manager for the project. The educators are, or are becoming, proficient at participating in an electronically mediated research community. To date, few farmers and forest owners have begun to do so. We shall gauge the potential for expanding this activity during the coming year.
Local Demonstration Tours and Workshops. Several local forest farming demonstration tours and workshops that have been conducted by educators and landowners in our learning community. Members of the leadership team have been invited to help plan and conduct various such events during the coming spring and summer. We have begun the process of quantifying the number of farmers, forest owners, extension agents, and other USDA personnel who have attended these so far, though reporting on the list serve, and will maintain such records as new activity emerges in the coming year.
Implementing proven practices. It will not be possible during the lifetime of the project to prove the sustainability of the trail practices. We are virtually certain to have more than 80 growers implementing those that appear promising by the end of the project, unless a large number of those already in the community decide to abandon their trials.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Workshop learning. We did not attempt to assess participants’ learning during the initial workshop because the workshop was integrated into a larger conference. This made assessment methodologically and organizationally difficult to accomplish. Workshop participants contributed to the overall evaluation of the conference, which is published in the proceedings. The second workshop was devoted entirely to Learning Community members and activity. We conducted an ongoing evaluation to assess the extent to which participants felt learning was adequate during each session, and to provoke comment about additional learning needs. Some needs were addressed immediately during the workshop. Others are the subject of on-going discussion on the list serve. These data will be further analyzed in the coming months, taking into consideration the contribution and adequacy of subsequent learning activities.
Farm trial learning. We are using several methods to evaluate farm trials and learning that results from these trials. Data are being collected by collaborating educators and landowners using forms that the project leadership team developed for each practice.
Most participants are now able to submit these electronically, though this has been more of a challenge to achieve than anticipated. Interviews conducted during site visits have generated data that will provide more in-depth information on farmer experience in achieving the project objectives; these will be analyzed in the coming months. In addition, analysis of contributions to the list serve and web site will help us to evaluate participation in electronically mediated research communities.
We had underestimated the level of effort that is required of the data and information management role in the project, which requires considerable diplomacy, time, dedication, and skill. We have worked to secure supplementary financial resources from the Cornell Agroforestry Working Group to enable the critical function of information management to keep abreast of the social energy and ambition that the project has generated.
Local and electronic learning activities. In the coming months we will develop a method for assessing the effectiveness of local demonstration tours and workshops. We will also seek to assess the use and effectiveness of the website.
Documenting expansion of practices. We will develop a “scanning” strategy and reporting form for learning community members to use in locating and documenting the implementation of new practices resulting from this project, beyond the collaborative trials.