Focusing on Beginning Farmers

2010 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 fishbowl-style focus groups and a related confirming survey 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.

Four focus groups were held in 2009 and early 2010, and the confirming survey will be released in early 2011. 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 discussed the ideas that emerged, 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. Participation the groups exceeded our expectations. 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. All service providers were eligible to apply for mini-grants of up to $1000 to develop new approaches or adapt service delivery to beginning farmers. Thirteen mini grants have been awarded to service provider participants, in two rounds. Some mini-grant projects have been completed, but most are still in process with reports due between March and May 2011.

Mini Grant Titles
  • Apprentice Website Project
    Beginning Farmers Knowledge of the Health Care Reform Act
    Checklist for Rental Land Seekers
    Collaborative Marketing Workshops
    Learning from Others’ Successes in Collaborative Marketing
    Farm Focus: Labor and Workforce Housing
    Focusing on Farmers' Business and Technical Needs
    Getting Started: Acquiring Land to Farm
    NOFA Summer Conference Beginning Farmer Scholarships
    Raw Milk Marketing Education
    Soil Sampling and Interpretation Assistance for Improved Nutrient Management Planning (2 mini grants)
    Vermont Land Access Database (VT-LAD)

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. The survey will be released in January 2011.

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. The survey has been developed and is ready to release in January 2011.

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: Thirteen mini-grants were awarded to service providers. Six projects are completed, and seven are still in process with final reports due between March and May 2011.

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: Of the six completed mini-grants, five reported positive impacts on farmers and/or the agricultural professionals who work with beginning farmers. These projects that have reported conducting beginning farmer education, technical assistance or stakeholder assessments with 329 individuals, and reported positive impacts/behavior change with 96 individuals.

Mini Grant Activities & Outcomes

Apprentice and Willing Worker Website Upgrade

NOFA Vermont used mini-grant support upgrade its apprentice and willing workers website to be more useful, user friendly and year-round for both host farmers, and apprentice and willing workers. Farmer hosts and apprentice and willing workers are now able to update their information any time during the season as their situations change. The site is friendlier for changing educational opportunities available for apprentice and willing workers and beginning farmers. It is also active year-round for farms to list available opportunities. In its first year, 34 farms and 144 apprentices and willing workers used the website. NOFA-VT will evaluate impact at the end of the growing season when it does its yearly evaluation and share the results with the Focusing on Beginning Farmers project. Initial feedback from farmers and apprentices using the site is that it is much improved and assisting with appropriate placement of apprentices and workers. Beginning in December 2010, NOFA-VT began sharing its web-based apprenticeship-farmer matchmaking tool with the five other NOFA chapters and the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (MOFGA) through a 2010 USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program grant (see for more information.)

Soil Sampling and Interpretation Assistance for Improved Nutrient Management Planning
Sylvia Harris of the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts helped 10 beginning farmers pull soil samples from fields in Southern Vermont. These samples were analyzed at the U. of Maine Ag Testing Lab and results were sent directly to the farmers via the UVM Ag Testing Lab, and to crop consultant, Mike Ghia, who contacted all farmers and helped them understand the lab results and determine the fertilizer needs for their fields. Additionally, a packet of soil related information and field maps were prepared by Sylvia Harris and sent to each farmer. Farmers also received links to specific websites and Extension publications that informed the farmers further on fertilizer options, cover crops, and soil and plant tissue sampling approaches that were relevant to the individual farm situation. Impacts: All farmers were given an understanding of the soil fertility needs of their soils to grow better crops. They learned about the value of soil testing to aid them in making economically and ecologically based fertilizing and crop management decisions. They were taught some about how the recommendations are determined so that the farmers could better understand why the specific recommendations were made relative to their specific circumstances. They were given recommendations for specific fertilizers and compost amounts that could be applied to supply the needed nutrients, including those allowed under organic certification. For greenhouse growers they were also given information on the saturated media test and leaf sampling for tomatoes. Growers of perennial fruits were also given information on leaf sampling. Vegetable growers were also given literature on the Pre-sidedress Nitrate test in vegetables. The farmers were also given information on cover cropping and pasture frost seeding information towards helping the farms increase the level of legumes in their fields and therefore, the farm generated nitrogen fertilizer. The farmers were encouraged to ask as many questions as the wished, and the discussions and resources were customized to the needs of each farm.

Focusing on Farmers' Business & Technical Needs
The Hannah Grimes Center offered one of two Farm Focus Groups in Keene, NH in January 2010. The group helped us identify farmers’ business/technical needs and the barriers that keep them from succeeding. From the insights gathered, we are designing resources and programming that specifically addresses the needs of Monadnock Region Farmers and will share our findings and offerings through our e-newsletter and with other service providers.
Impacts: As a result of what the team learned, it is producing a Entrepreneur Roadmap for Farmers Brochure that will highlight the service providers in our region, what they offer to farm businesses and how to contact them. This brochure will be shared with our 200 contacts for our Farm Focus E-Newsletter and be available at each service provider's place of work.

Getting Started: Acquiring Land to Farm
In this project, Land for Good interviewed 18 landowners, 24 farmers, 6 farm seekers, 8 non-farming landowners, and 14 service providers to assess the current status of farmland availability in Sullivan and Cheshire Counties in New Hampshire. The team also conducted a 3-hour workshop at which over 40 participants participated in a community conversation about the present & the future of farming in the Monadnock Region. The workshop addressed individual objectives, leasing options and issues as well as farm acquisition strategies. Land For Good facilitated initial and follow up contacts with farm seekers from MA, NY, and NH. Land for Good developed and utilized pre and post evaluation surveys—for beginning farmers and prospective lessors--to identify which resources are most needed, which barriers most prohibit success and which interventions promise best results.

Impacts and outcomes includes the following:
-Increased awareness among farmers, seekers, landowners, service providers of acquisition strategies, resource base in project area (100 percent of the 76 people who attended an event said they better understand land acquisition options; 62 percent would be willing to consider leasing and 65 said they now know where to look for further information).
-Facilitated several lease relationships
-Strengthened network in region.
-Identified disparity between land availability (greater) and farm seekers (fewer) in region

Farm Focus- Labor and Workforce Housing
The Cheshire County Conservation District offered a Farm Focus Group to identify farmers' labor needs in the region. The focus group was a fact finding exploration facilitated by a non-biased professional with a goal of better understanding what the labor needs currently are and how the Conservation District and other local service providers can address them. We evaluated our project by conducting an online post focus group survey. Almost all participants took the time to fill out the survey where they were questioned on what else they have questions or comments about regarding success, needs, resources, goals, obstacles, and next steps for our region. The Conservation District also conducted a follow up meeting for service providers. 100% of the service providers who attended said that they learned something through their participation in the meeting.

An exciting outcome of this project is that it is leading into a larger project with partners identified during the focus group. We will be working with many of the service providers and farmers that we connected with during the focus group project on a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Sustainable Community Grant. This grant will focus on labor and infrastructure needs of beginning and established farmers in the region. We will hold a second focus group on infrastructure needs and be interviewing approximately 30 local farmers.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Information gained through the focus groups was used 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 by providing a central access point to organizations, services, and educational opportunities for Vermont’s farm entrepreneurs. The project launched and maintains a website ( that serves as a “virtual toolshed” that beginning and aspiring farmers can use to build their information base, knowledge and skills to succeed. The website connects users with an array of online and on-the-ground resources, from fact sheets and guidebooks to courses, workshops and webinars all geared to assist in farm development. Since the project’s websites launch in early 2010, it has had more than 5,000 visit from 1938 visitors, with Google Analytics data showing that many visitors return frequently to the portal. Of the total visitors, 173 have signed up for more regular communication and or specific assistance/support. Approximately 45 percent were start-ups (1-3 years in business, 30% are explorers and aspiring farmers and 21% are re-strategizers and establishing farmers (4-7 & 8-10 years in business). Additionally, about 30 agricultural service providers from around the nation have subscribed to our newsletters and bulletins.