- Education and Training: demonstration, display, workshop
Over the past three years, Community Combining Resources, Opportunities and People for Sustainability (CROPS) has implemented a Immigrant Sustainable Farming Pilot Project to help immigrant and refugee families begin sustainable farm businesses. The project met many of its goals, helped many people learn more about farming, and learned many lessons about how to work with diverse populations.
This report covers the time period from June 2007 to February 2010, the funded dates of the SARE project. This includes three growing seasons (2007, 2008, and 2009), and two formal training series in 2008 and 2009. The report details how Community CROPS met its objectives for the project and is well on its way to achieving long-term objectives.
Over the course of the project, 73 beginning farmers participated in workshops and/or grew produce at Sunset Community Farm to learned about sustainable farming. Many of the farmers stayed with the program for multiple years. The target population was immigrant and refugee families, although CROPS has now expanded to allow limited-resource families of any background to participate. SARE funding covered workshops on organic soil management, weed and pest management, harvesting and post-harvest handling. In addition, hundreds of hours were spent one-on-one helping each farmer learn skills specific to them, whether that was how to deal with frosts or how to set up an attractive market stand. Much of the one-on-one training was provided while working in the field or at the farmers' market stands.
Additional trainings held during the summer included a visit to Shadowbrook Farm, a local organic vegetable farm, attended by CROPS farmers and other area vegetable growers, where Kevin Loth gave a presentation on harvesting and post-harvest handling.
Field walks were also held with individual farmers to provide them with feedback on their production, harvest and marketing. This was an opportunity for them to practice field management under the direction of CROPS staff, and plan activities for the coming two weeks. This was also a time for the Farm Manager to work directly with the farmers in their field to demonstrate techniques such as pest identification or cultivating with different kinds of hoes.
The farmers have been working intensively with the Farm Manager on cost/benefit analysis, seed starting and much more. This takes a lot of time, but means that we have farmers well-prepared for the growing season.
Our first “Explore Farming” class was held during December 2009, with 38 participants attending to learn about whether a small farm was right for them. Several of these attendees signed up for the full training series in 2010. This class was a success so we hope to hold 2-3 sessions in fall 2010 to help people think through the pros and cons of owning and operating a small farm business.
During both the 2008 and 2009 workshops, basic business skills were taught. In 2008, the Microenterprise Administrator from another local non-profit led a workshop on why business plans are important and how to write one. Four farmers wrote basic business plans at this workshop. In 2009, the same individual taught two workshops, one on writing a business plan and one on financial planning. Fourteen beginning farmers attended the first, and 16 attended the second. Five farmers wrote basic business plans with one-on-one follow up from the Farm Manager. Six farmers used invoices to track produce sales.
A total of 22 farmers who attended trainings marketed their products. Twelve of these individuals farmed at Sunset, where they received marketing support throughout the entire summer, and the other 10 grew on their own farm (none of these were immigrants or refugees). Farmers sold their products through farmers' markets, grocery stores, restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), an online buying cooperative, and to friends and relatives.
We have found that effective resource providers for immigrant and low-income beginning farmers are those who are able to educate through pictures and hands-on demonstrations. Language barriers make classroom lecture settings challenging places to learn. Farmer peers have been most able to provide effective hands-on demonstrations, and relationships have been established with several existing farmers in the area. It has been a challenge to locate Extension educators in our area who have this practical, hands-on knowledge, but we will continue to seek collaboration from this group.
Participants met farmer peers and other resource providers through the workshops. Established farmers, Extension educators, a small business expert, a mechanic, chefs and produce managers all participated in presenting workshops to the farmers. Farm tours were also held at several successful organic farms in the area. Feedback was excellent when these individuals were brought in to teach the workshops.
During the course of the project, fifteen farmers began farm businesses. Ten of these farmers were immigrants or refugees. Three of the participants began their business on land they already owned/rented and the remaining twelve began their business at Sunset Community Farm, CROPS' training farm site. Based on the skills they learned in CROPS trainings, and the technical assistance they received, the farmers sold vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers, poultry and eggs, all sustainably raised, to the local community.
In addition to those who began a farm business, 7 others attended workshops who had already begun a farm business, and maintained their business on their own farm after attending.
At first, participants were reluctant to take loans for anything for their farm business. Even though they were interest-free loans, and could be repaid through sales, training others, or passing on similar tools or animals, most farmers wanted to be free of any such obligations. In 2008, two participants used three 'passing on the gift' loans for 2 flocks of laying hens and a planting of gourmet garlic. An equivalent amount of garlic was passed on to a first year participant in 2009. There has not yet been a suitable recipient for the poultry pass-on.
Instead of using the word loan, we are now offering the farmers the opportunity to buy supplies at the beginning of the growing season, and payment isn't due until they begin making sales later in the year. Although this is still a loan and requires a written contract, it has been much more acceptable for participants. They have purchased market stand supplies, seeds and hand tools in this way as they prepare for the 2010 growing season.
In addition, farmers saved money from their 2009 sales with CROPS, and then used the money to purchase seeds in 2010. They liked having the money set aside so they didn't spend it, and then not having to worry about coming up with the cash for seeds before they had sales in the growing season. Ideally, we would like the participants to open business bank accounts to keep funds separate and improve their tracking of business expenditures. Many are reluctant to do this. Some participants rely on government assistance and worry that this will be jeopardized if they have additional accounts with funds in them. Additional research needs to be done to determine whether this is the case for all participants, or if some do not open accounts because they do not know how or need to increased understanding of the benefits of doing so.
Over the course of this project, CROPS farmers sold their produce to a large number of markets. Initially, participants relied on CROPS staff to sell their products. They sold to the CROPS CSA, used the CROPS farmers' market booth, or asked staff to contact a grocery store to sell their produce to. Over time, they began seeking out their own markets and selling on their own. For example, most participants sold through the CROPS CSA and the on-line Nebraska Food Cooperative, both in partnership with Community CROPS. We helped them estimate their available produce and showed them how to package products, but CROPS staff took care of the logistics. We also helped them start selling to the local natural foods cooperative, first by going with them to make deliveries, then negotiating orders, and then finally turning the whole process over to the farmers. The farmers also sold at multiple farmers' markets, and to ethnic grocery stores, as well as high-end restaurants and friends. It was exciting to watch each family take control of their own selling and gain confidence in promoting their products.
Our experience over the past 3 summers has been that a beginning immigrant or refugee farmer should not begin their farm business by selling to grocery stores or restaurants. The CROPS CSA and farmers' markets are a better outlet for beginners. Our observation has been that farmers' market and CSA sales require lower production and business skills. If a farmer grows poor-quality product, the farmers' market format allows customers to select what they want and pass over what they don't want. When a restaurant is counting on a delivery, but doesn't see the product beforehand, they can end up receiving poor-quality product, but have no choice but to take it. Likewise, the CSA sales format allows CROPS staff to provide immediate feedback to participants if product quality is low. It is key for the CSA to be supplied by staff as well, since it is an upfront commitment to consumers. This makes it possible to reject product from participants if it does not meet quality standards, and use it as an opportunity for training in quality control. It also allows a cushion if a beginning grower doesn't have the quantity of product they had committed to.
Formal networks of farmers were not established during the project, but farmers began working together on various projects and helping each other informally. Participants in our program have been from many different countries, and speak many different languages. This may be a barrier to forming networks. Overall, participants' vision has been toward greater independence and family-based farming, so networks with other farms and farmers has not fit within their goals. Further work needs to be done to find successful examples of farmer networks across the country to present to our program participants to begin fostering greater vision of potential network opportunities.