Integrated learning courses for sustainable livestock production

2006 Annual Report for LNE03-184

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $123,216.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $19,312.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Lisa McCrory
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont

Integrated learning courses for sustainable livestock production


The goal of this grant is to increase the viability of livestock operations in the Northeast by providing new tools and information offered in a way that measures improvements in management and overall success of a farm operation. Recognizing that there are different styles of learning, we will develop the most effective delivery mechanism for farmers; using practical hands-on learning and written resources.

In this project, we will create a series of learning courses supporting livestock producers who wish to add or improve certain management skills to their operation. A series of 4 course topics will be offered over a 1 - year period. Each course will last 2 months, meeting every 3 weeks for practical/hands-on learning. Attendees will go back to their farms to apply these new skills, and journal their experiences and observations. Farmer mentors will work with participating farmers to establish goals and farm management plans. Pre and post assessments will be conducted to evaluate the project and identify changes in management based on participation in the course. On-farm technical workshops will take place during the second year of the grant. Three farmer participants from each of the 4 courses will host an on-farm technical workshop demonstrating the practices that they have learned.

These courses will attract a wide audience of producers, including new farmers, who have a desire to improve and develop skills in managing their land, tending to livestock health and nutrition and growing product for market. Technical workshops and farmer mentoring are important components of the project offering multiple mediums for the delivery and application of information.

Objectives/Performance Targets

1. Of the 60 farmer participants in the learning courses, 40 will develop a work plan with a mentor and will adopt 3 new practices realizing an overall improvement in the sustainability of their farm.

2. Of the 40 that develop a plan and adopt new practices, 12 will hold on-farm technical workshops for at least 240 attendees demonstrating the practices they have learned.


The updated timeline that we are using has the planning and implementation as follows:

1) Planning Teams for each course get together by phone and/or in person 3-4 months prior to the start of the respective course.

2) Courses take place March 2004 – March 2005.

3) On-Farm Technical Workshops take place August 2004 – March 2006.

4) The evaluation and post-assessment by the planning teams will happen within 6 months from the completion date of each course and again after all the on-farm demonstrations have taken place.

5) Evaluations from course participants are done at the end of each class meeting and at the conclusion of the course as a whole. Post assessments will take place March 2006 – October 2006.

We will know that we have reached out performance targets based on:

1. Work plans and new practices will be developed and monitored through the mentor relationship.

2. Technical workshops will be held by farmers who participated in the courses and adopted the practices.

3. The completion of pre and post assessments: each participating farmer will be surveyed before the course including a farm visit by the coordinator and a mentor. Goals for the course will be developed, and an evaluation of whether those goals have been met will take place upon completion of the course, 6 months and 12 months later.

4. Of the 320 farmers and agricultural professionals participating in this project, 80 will attend the learning courses and 240 will attend on-farm technical workshops.

Narrative for Milestones:

In March, 2006, an evaluation from was sent to all the farmer mentors and the farmer mentees asking them for feedback on their experience. Questions on the evaluation form included:

1) How much time did you spend with your mentor/mentee and how often did you meet?
2) How did you communicate with your mentor/mentee (phone, in person, email)
3) What time of year were you most available to meet with your mentor/mentee?
4) Did you make changes as a result of the mentor relationship and if so what was it?
5) Indicate which areas these changes will increase the farms sustainability: (economics, animal health, forage quality, soil quality, pasture productivity
6) Did you journal to document the mentoring process?
7) What did you like best about the mentoring program?
8) What would you change?

Overall, the experience was very positive for the mentors and the mentees. Time spent within each committed pair ranged from 2 hours to 50 hours. Though mentor time was limited to 25 hours per mentor/mentee pair, some farmers were granted extra time with their mentor(s) if substantial work was getting accomplished.

The mentors enjoyed the opportunity to leave their farm operation and meeting and working with nice people. Some of the mentors felt like a little more structure would have helped some of the relationships to develop, others liked the program and did not want anything to change. Below are some quotes taken from some of the Mentor evaluations:

What did you like best about the mentoring process?

- ‘Getting out (off our farm) and discussing problems and concerns that all of us farmers have.”
- ‘Meeting and working with very nice people’
- ‘Farm visits included the farmers local extension agent to help with follow through. It would have been nice to do another visit’
- ‘Seeing Progress being made’
- ‘Sharing my experience in farming’

What would you change about the mentoring process?

- ‘I think it should be made clear to mentees that they are equally, if not primarily responsible for taking the initiative to schedule time with their mentor and to set and facilitate the agenda.’
- ‘Stretch the time over two seasons to see progress.’
- ‘I think it is a great way for farmers to help others.’
- ‘Perhaps being more formal about calling them.’
- ‘Keep process as casual as possible. Minimize documentation needed.’
- ‘Nothing’

Other comments

- ‘The mentor/mentee structure took on a more neighbor helping neighbor relationship.’

The mentees had positive things to say about their experience. Below are some quotes taken from the mentee evaluations:

What did you like best about the mentoring process?

- ‘I met and made a new friend who I have a lot in common with. Also, it put me in the right circle of people’
- ‘That I wasn’t wasting his time – that he was getting paid.’
- ‘Meeting creative folks of like mind.’

What would you change about the mentoring process?

- ‘It turned out great for me. Good match-ups are very important for a good relationship.’
- ‘Regular schedule of meetings.’
- ‘We should have scheduled a home visit and made it happen.’

In August, 2006, the last of the 12 technical workshops (On-Farm Demos) took place on a farm that had participated in the ‘Marketing Your Livestock Products’ course (January – March, 2005). There were 10 people at this workshop. The hosts shared what they were doing on their farm, shared the accomplishments they had made as a result of the course and through working with their farmer mentor, and shared what they hope to accomplish in the near future.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The courses and on-farm technical workshops have all taken place as they were laid out in the grant proposal. Only 30 mentor/mentee matches were made (10 less than we had hoped for). Because of that, there were some unused mentor funds which have been used instead to give a few mentees some additional time with their mentors, to organize a two day Sustainable Livestock Conference in March, 2006, to put together presentations on how our mentoring program worked and to continue to develop a mentor/mentee program with some partnering organizations in Vermont for 2007.

Our total participant numbers were much higher than we anticipated; we found that there was a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the courses offered, so decided not to turn people away if we exceeded our registration goals. Instead of 80 total registrants for the four courses (of which 60 would be farmers), we had a total of 186 registrants (of which160 were farmers). The remaining item that will be done in 2007 is to send out an evaluation to all the course participants to see what practices they have adopted as a result of the livestock course(s) they took and how these practices have impacted the overall sustainability of their farm operation.

On March 2&3, 2006, NOFA-VT, with permission from NESARE, used some of the remaining Mentor funds to organize a ‘Northeast Sustainable Livestock Conference’. This conference offered subjects relevant to all 4 livestock courses and invited many of the course presenters back to take their topics to the next level. The conference was a two-day event, which included exhibitor space and drew in over 100 registrants on each day. Many of the farmers and resource individuals who had participated in one or more of the livestock courses were in attendance. The conference also drew in a lot of new faces. The conference was co-coordinated with UVM Extension with sponsorship monies from Risk Management Agency, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and many local and regional businesses.

In August, 2006, Lisa McCrory (Project Coordinator) attended the National SARE conference in Oconomowoc, WI and presented the layout, design and overall results of the NESARE granted project ‘Integrated Learning Courses for Sustainable Livestock Production’ highlighting the mentoring portion of the grant. The Presentation was titled: Livestock Mentoring and was part of a series of group presentations called ‘Innovative Livestock Systems’. A lot of connections were made with other educators and farmers. Course information was shared with a resource person located in North Carolina.

As a result of the August presentation, Lisa has been asked to speak at the Ecological Farming Conference on ‘Mentoring New Organic Farmers: Direct Action for the Transition to Organic’. This conference will take place January 24 – 27, 2007 in Pacific Grove, CA.