Focusing on Beginning Farmers

2009 Annual Report for ENE08-107

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

Focusing on Beginning Farmers


This project is using four fishbowl-style focus groups to 1) educate agricultural professionals 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 service providers form an audience and listen. At the end of each session, all participants discuss the ideas that emerge, with an eye toward service delivery modifications that those in the room could implement in the future. Throughout, the project uses 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 the groups exceeded our expectations, with an average of 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 the 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.

Eight 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 May. Final mini-grants will be awarded this spring.

Mini-grants are working in the following areas:
  • Increasing land acquisition preparedness by educating beginning farmers about leasing options and farm purchase strategies;
    Supporting beginning farmers to participate in conference-based education;
    Conducting beginning farmer-oriented education on Vermont’s new raw milk regulations;
    Conducting stakeholder assessments in other parts of the Northeast to better understand beginning farmer needs in those areas (2);
    Upgrading webtools to connect farmers with apprentices;
    Facilitating farmer involvement in a statewide farm health task force;
    Providing soil sampling and interpretation services to beginning farmers.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.


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 (approximately) respond 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: 50 farmers participated as educators and 52 service providers participated as learners in four fishbowl style, facilitated focus groups. During the focus group, notes were taken on flip charts and the session was either recorded or detailed notes were taken (or both). Within two weeks of the focus group, service providers participated in follow-up conference calls to share reflections of their experience and discuss options for addressing beginning farmer needs. Notes and transcripts from each of the focus groups, lists of attendees and notes from the follow-up conference calls were made available to all participants to use in developing mini-grant proposals. As we reported last year, participation by out-of-state service providers was less 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: after the focus groups were completed so that the survey could be used to confirm information gleaned from the focus groups. As of March 2010, preliminary work on developing the survey instrument has begun with plans for conducting the survey later in 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: Eight mini-grants were awarded to service providers from the first three awards. These projects are in process with reports due at the end of May. 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. Progress to date: We have informally heard of successes from mini grants, but reports have not all been filed yet.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Information gained through the first three focus groups 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. The UVM Extension New Farmer Project directly responds to this challenge.

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 policy discussions at the Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council.