Focusing on Beginning Farmers

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2008: $71,640.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Beth Holtzman
UVM Extension - New Farmer Project & Women's Agricultural Network

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, focus group, mentoring, networking, participatory research, study circle
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: holistic management, organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: social capital, social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    Why focus on the needs of beginning farmers? An estimated 70 percent of US farms will transfer the next 15 years, and many older farmers will retire without an heir to take over the farm. The education and technical assistance the next generation of Northeast farmers will need for success is likely be quite different than their counterparts in the past. A continuing challenge for service providers is identifying and delivering services relevant to this pivotal audience. This project is using fishbowl-style focus groups to 1) educate agricultural service providers about the challenges that beginning farmers face; 2) stimulate changes in service delivery to make it more responsive to beginning farmers’ needs; and 3) develop a corps of service providers better skilled at assessing stakeholder needs and using that information to develop programs. In each focus group, farmers served as educators as they discussed the kinds of services they have found helpful while the primary role of service providers was to listen to these discussions. At the end of each session, all participants discussed the ideas that emerged, with an eye toward service delivery modifications that those in the room could implement in the future. Throughout, we used a whole farm approach, exploring the interconnected challenges that beginning farmers face in terms of access to land, capital and credit, and building production, marketing, business planning, and financial management knowledge and skills. As of this reporting, we have held all four of the focus groups (March 27, April 2, and April 9, 2009 and March 30, 2010). Participation in the groups exceeded our expectations, with about 12 service providers and 12 farmers signing up for each of the sessions (we had anticipated 6-10 farmers and 8-12 service providers at each focus group). Following the focus groups, service provider participants participated in debriefing conference calls approximately two weeks after each focus group. These calls provided an opportunity to share reflections on what was discussed at the focus group, and for the service providers to begin considering ways to better serve beginning farmers.

    Performance targets from proposal:

    Milestone 1: Using data collected in pilot focus groups conducted in 2007, the project advisory group develops the framework and questions for the focus groups and a web-based survey. Progress to date: In the fall of 2008, the project advisory group developed the framework and questions for the focus groups. At that time the project team decided to conduct the survey after the focus groups were completed so that the survey could be used to confirm information gleaned from the focus groups.

    Milestone 2: 60 farmers and 80 service providers respond to outreach conducted the web-based survey and focus groups. Progress to date: 60 farmers and 60 service providers have responded to outreach conducted regarding the focus groups.

    Milestone 3: 32 farmers participate as educators in four fishbowl style, facilitated focus groups with 40 service providers participating as observers/learners. Progress to date: 53 farmers participated as educators and 52 service providers participated as learners in four fishbowl style, facilitated focus groups. Within two weeks of each focus group, service providers participated in follow-up conference calls to share reflections of their experience and discuss options for addressing beginning farmer needs. As we reported last year, fewer out-of-state service providers participated than we had originally anticipated.

    Milestone 4: 150 farmers and 60 service providers participate in a web-based survey. Project team members summarize and analyze data from the focus groups and share recommendations with all project participants. Progress to date: The project team made the decision to administer the survey after the focus groups were completed so that it could be used to confirm information gleaned from the focus groups. Preliminary work on developing the survey instrument has begun with plans for conducting the survey during the summer of 2010.

    Milestone 5: Teams of project participants develop projects to adapt service delivery to beginning farmers. The project team funds 10 projects, six within Vermont and four in other Northeast Region states. Progress to date: Nine mini-grants were awarded to service providers from the first three focus groups. These projects are in process with reports due at the end of April. Final mini-grants will be awarded this spring. With SARE approval, we are rebudgeting savings from travel (less than anticipated) and using it fund additional mini-grants.

    Milestone 6: Spring 2010: Eight of the mini-grant teams successfully complete their project and report on results, which focus on impact on beginning farmers.
    Mini grant projects are working to:
    • Increase land acquisition preparedness by educating beginning farmers about leasing options and issues, as well as farm purchase strategies;
    • Expand new farmers’ access to learning opportunities through scholarships ;
    • Offer webinars on Vermont’s new raw milk legislation that are specifically geared to farmers who are not currently served by bulk dairy resources;
    • Conduct similar fishbowl style focus groups in other states;
    • Upgrade a website geared to connect farms with apprentices and workers so that the site is more useful and user for both host farmers and apprentice and willing workers.
    • Introduce new farmers’ perspectives to the work of a statewide health task force and policy discussions;
    • Provide soil sampling/interpretation services to beginning farmers.

    Performance Target: 20 of the 40 agricultural service providers who participate in the project will make at least one change to their programs and/or the way they work with beginning farmers to address the specific stakeholder needs and priorities documented by the focus groups. Additionally, six service providers will collaborate with farmers to develop new programs that address needs identified by the focus groups. A follow-up survey of farmers who participate in these adapted and new programs will be used to evaluate improvement in their access to land, capital, or community support, or determine if they gained new production, marketing or business skills as a result of participating in the program.

    Progress toward the performance target: In addition to the mini-grant work, we know that nformation gained through the first three focus groups is being used to help design and develop new beginning farmer initiatives in the Northeast.

    Focus group information was used by University of Vermont Extension personnel to design and launch (December 2009) a New Farmer project. One of the main themes that emerged from the three focus groups held in 2009 was that it is often difficult for beginning farmers to identify and access the appropriate resources for their particular stage of farm business development. Both information overload and information gaps present challenges for Vermont's beginning farmer population. The UVM Extension New Farmer Project a direct responds to this challenge, engaging three faculty members and three staff members in new farmer programs and services.

    Additionally, focus group information has provided a foundation for a statewide, multi-organizational proposal to the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

    We heard from one of our mini-grant recipients that their organization that the work they did through the mini-grant helped them to successfully apply for a Northeast SARE grant.

    We have also received anecdotal evidence that service providers’ participation in these forums has helped to inform the shape of beginning farmer programming at Cornell Cooperative Extension and is having a role in state-wide policy discussions currently underway in Vermont and at the Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council.

    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.