Assisting Farmers in Crisis to Adopt Sustainable Marketing Alternatives
Seven enterprises, agritourism, agroforestry, aquaculture, free-range poultry, grass-based livestock, organic herbs and vegetables, and viticulture, were identified as having potential for small farmers in Illinois. A binder with information on alternative enterprises was developed and workshops conducted throughout Illinois. The audiences ranged from 5 to 60 people and included farmers, Extension, community college students and instructors. A partnership was developed with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs to bring NXLeveL training to Illinois. Six agricultural instructors were trained and the first NXLeveL session held.
Our project aims to educate farmers in crisis – small scale farmers and those wanting to begin farming – to develop niche marketing opportunities that overcome poor grain and animal prices. Our specific objectives are to:
(1) Provide producers with information on sustainable farming and marketing alternatives;
(2) Develop an intensive workshop and mentoring program to assist farmers in crisis to adopt sustainable farming and marketing opportunities; and
(3) Evaluate the impact of these programs on farmers who participated in the project.
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Provide producers with information on sustainable farming and strategic marketing alternatives. After an open search we hired Ms. Juli Brussell in December 2000 to coordinate the project. Brainstorming sessions were conducted with the Illinois Small Farm Task Force and small scale farmers to identify enterprises that are considered to have potential for small scale and beginning farmers. We developed a binder with production and marketing materials for seven potential alternative farming enterprises that have the capacity to increase small farm profitability. These materials came from AATRA and Illinois sources. We also included materials on small farm-based marketing strategies. (This binder The Small Farm Enterprise and Marketing Workshop Series has been sent under separate cover and is available in quantities from John Masiunas.) We were able to obtain a $21,000 grant from the USDA Risk Management Agency to cover a portion of the cost of the binder and the workshops. The seven enterprises we chose were:
Organic Herbs and Vegetables
Develop an intensive workshop and mentoring program that assists farmers in crisis to adopt sustainable farming and marketing opportunities. The binder of materials was distributed to attendees at seven seminars and workshops conducted at different sites in Illinois during summer 2001. (See attached flyers.) Attendance at these events ranged from approximately 5 to 15 farmers, as well as 4 to 8 Cooperative Extension agents and community 2 to 30 college agricultural students and instructors. We chose workshop sites that corresponded to areas with a relatively high percentage of small farms, as identified by University of Illinois Extension or community college agricultural instructors.
Two seminars, Oglesby in north central IL, and Mt. Vernon, in south central IL, featured SARE recipient Herm Beck-Chenoweth and specifically dealt with marketing. In the five enterprise workshops, we featured three topics geographically appropriate for that region. We did not try to cover all seven enterprises in each workshop but did provide every attendee with the binder containing information on all seven enterprises.
One workshop, given at Shawnee Community College in Ulin, south of Carbondale, was not listed on the brochure promoting the events. This workshop resulted from a call made by Darryl Dillow, agricultural instructor at Shawnee Community College, who asked if we would hold a Saturday workshop specifically for farmers in his area. We responded by scheduling another workshop back-to-back with the one held in Carbondale and had approximately 12 farmers attend.
Speakers for the workshops agreed to “be on call” and act as mentors or give appropriate assistance to workshop attendees if they needed help in the future in developing that enterprise. We had at least one farmer-presenter in each workshop as well as University and Extension educators. One farmer-presenter, Joanna Gioja, who spoke about grass-based livestock production and marketing for small farms, was particularly well received. At seventeen, she has been producing and marketing grass-based poultry, lamb, and goat milk for more than four years. She made the point that, if she could run her operation profitably, any one else could develop a similar business.
Through this project, we are cooperating with Extension and grassroots organizations to sponsor additional sustainable farming and enterprise development workshops and seminars for Winter/Spring 2002. One already scheduled is an Advanced Organic Vegetable Workshop, to be conducted by Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in the Davenport, Iowa/East Moline, Il area January 10-12, 2002. Two additional Saturday workshops for later in the spring are being planned. (Based on relatively low attendance at workshops and seminars scheduled during the week, we determined that small farmers are more likely to have off-farm employment and can attend weekend events more easily. We intend to test this by holding two more workshops on a Saturday in the spring.) For University of Illinois Extension conducting Saturday or evening educational programs is not the norm and through our SAR project we are seeing a change in that mind-set among Extension Educators.
Another educational opportunity for Illinois small and family farmers resulting from this project has been the first NXLeveL agricultural course, Tilling the Soil of Opportunity, held in Illinois. We partnered with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Development to bring NXLeveL to Illinois. We provided the agricultural expertise. Through this project, we first sponsored six individuals in the NXLeveL Entrepreneurship Trainers’ course in Illinois. This will give us a pool of instructors for conducting NXLeveL agricultural courses in Illinois.
The purpose of Tilling the Soil of Opportunity is to teach farmers to research and develop their own business plans for their alternative, farm-based business. This in turn increases the likelihood that these businesses will succeed and the farmers will increase their profitability. This first pilot course has enrolled nine farmers, most of whom attended one of our workshops. Expected completion date of these first NXLeveL business plans is January 2002. Through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA), our Illinois NXLeveL state contact, we are working with the local Small Business Development Centers to expand the availability of this course and will conduct additional NXLeveL courses this winter.
Evaluate the impact of these programs on farmers who participate in the project. This activity is scheduled for summer/fall of 2002, following completion of the workshops.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
One of the most significant and long-term benefits of this project to Illinois family farmers in crisis has been developing a partnership with IL DCCA. This partnership will result in two things: 1) the establishment of a cadre of trained NXLeveL agricultural instructors in the state who can work with Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) to provide Tilling the Soil of Opportunity to small and family-sized farmers. This course (adapted for agriculture with NC Region SARE funding) offers farmers throughout Illinois a chance to develop more profitable, farm-based enterprises. Most of these enterprises are based on good environmental stewardship or land uses that are more environmentally sound than conventional row-crop production. One example is grass-based livestock or poultry production; another is agritourism.
The second result will be increasing assistance available to these farmers for business help within local communities. One difficulty encountered by small or family-sized farmers, especially in Illinois, has been the lack of familiarity with alternative enterprises on the part of the business assistance community, such as lenders and the SBDCs. Through the partnership being developed by this project, we can overcome this hurdle and help farmers get the business planning assistance that will help them succeed. Developing sound business plans may also increase the potential of qualifying for operating loans for these businesses, when appropriate. Lack of access to capital is a fundamental flaw that often cripples some of these alternative ag-based businesses. Under-standing when loans are necessary and how to obtain them will also benefit farmers engaged in these alternative enterprises.
Farmers that attended the workshops and seminars, as well as the NXLeveL course, have a much better chance of developing a sound and profitable alternative business. They in turn will serve as role models within their local communities and within the state for other family farmers looking for more environmentally sound and profitable alternatives to conventional row-crop or confinement-based livestock production. One of the farmers attending the pilot NXLeveL course, who also attended one of the workshops, is developing and expanding his pasture-based poultry and hog business where he direct-markets to restaurants and customers. He started his first year of selling organic vegetables at a local farmers market this last summer and is now trying a winter-based Community-Supported Agriculture enterprise with some of his farmers’ market customers. He will be an excellent mentor for other farmers interested in developing community-based food businesses. Previously, this farmer operated a conventional row-crop and hog farm and experienced significant financial stress.
We desperately need these role models in Illinois, where far too much of our agricultural mentality has been focused on conventional row-crop or confinement livestock production, marketed strictly through conventional channels. This project is providing these models as well as examples of how sustainable agriculture and alternative enterprises can successfully assist small and family-sized farmers in alleviating the financial stress inherent in an industrial agricultural system.
Another significant impact of our project is that it has triggered interest within University of Illinois Extension in organic and alternative production systems. This has lead to the establishment of an Organic Task Force within Extension and plans for listening sessions with organic stakeholders throughout the state.
Director, Marketing Program
Illinois Stewardship Alliance
572 County Rd. 2100 E
Casey, IL 62420
Office Phone: 2179235190
Research/Extension Specialist in Agriculture
University of Illinois
204 Burnsides Lab
1208 West Pennsylvania Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801
Office Phone: 2173331588