New Entry Sustainable Farming Project transitioning farmer program
The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP) was started in 1998 to assist recent immigrants with farming experience to develop successful farming enterprises in Massachusetts. These immigrants reside primarily in Lowell, Fitchburg, and Worcester. They produce “ethnic” and mainstream vegetables and herbs that they sell at farmers’ markets, to local ethnic groceries, and restaurants. With some exceptions, they farm on land that NESFP or the farmers themselves lease from established farms or land trusts. NESFP staff and multiple partners (government agencies, Extension, academia, community groups, non-profits, and farmers) provide education, access to small loans, equipment, and marketing links. NESFP training and technical assistance (T&TA) focuses on sustainable vegetable production, financial management and marketing, and employs multiple communication strategies to reach farmers with diverse backgrounds, education, and literacy. Our new 2007 Farm Business course is offered in two cycles and meets for 6 weeks starting in October and again in January. The Farm Business course is followed by a Field Training series of 11 workshops and weekly on-farm technical assistance throughout the growing season.
Most of the new-entry farmers learn how to adapt their knowledge to grow crops successfully in this region, develop farming skills in the Northeast, and develop connections to local markets. But this is a transitional learning and skills development stage; our more fundamental goal is for them to establish sustainable, independent farming operations over time. During the initial three years of the beginning farmer phase, participants are expected to plan and begin to implement this transition. Once on their own, farmers should no longer require in-depth project assistance. This allows us to work with the next group of newly enrolled farmers. Some NESFP farmers have made this transition to independence, but many more have not. They continue to seek assistance to help achieve this independence. As part of the NESFP 2003-2007 Strategic Plan, the project developed and implemented the strategies, procedures and conditions for helping farmers successfully transition to independence. As we continue to evaluate and refine our strategies, we also realize there is still much to learn. Each farmer has their own goals and vision for their farm dreams, and the timeline and pace can vary as to how quickly they are able to achieve the goals they set for themselves. Assisting growers toward their goals at their own pace can present challenges to a defined program timeline.
Of 40 immigrant farmers who graduate our initial training courses between 2004-2006, 20-25 will participate in a 3-year Transitioning Farmer Program to develop sustainable farming enterprises. Of these, 8-10 will achieve independent farm operations, and another 8-10 will make significant progress towards achieving viable farm operations.
From 2005-2006, 20-25 participating farmers will prepare individual Transitioning Farmer Enterprise Plans that will establish their personal objectives and indicators for establishing an independent farm enterprise within 2-3 years. These transitional enterprise plans will be reviewed with NESFP staff and partners 3 times yearly, and updated annually through 2008.
NESFP was unable to begin utilizing the money awarded by this grant until the beginning of 2006 due to lack of staff capacity. A Technical Assistance Coordinator was hired in February 2006 to begin SARE funded job responsibilities. The NESFP timeline for SARE related project goals is one full year behind in the usage of funds and in project implementation. Please take this into consideration when reading through this and the other 2007 milestones and outcomes.
NESFP staff has continued meeting with 6 (of the 8) farmers from last year’s report. The 6 NESFP transitioned farmers have independent farm operations and rely peripherally on NESFP technical and marketing services. One grower of the 6 has a transitioning farmer plan, but the other 5 do not due in large part to language and literacy restrictions. They were able to address the multiple issues and steps needed to transition to independence through multiple individual and group meetings to work through their progress indicators.
In 2007, the NESFP engaged 5 new farming families in beginning the process of establishing goals and objectives for their transitioning farm enterprise plans. Typically, farm plans are created, visited and revisited three times per year, depending on the goals and interests of the farmers. Farm plans are created in the winter, updated in the spring, revisited and revised in the fall after the growing season has come to a close. It has been difficult for new farmers (first and second year growers) to envision a plan for the future due to their overall lack of experience with farming and farm systems in the US. The NESFP has recognized this as a fundamental problem and is working towards providing the farmers with comprehensive and appropriate training and TA so that they can eventually envision a transitioning plan. NESFP has realized that the creation of a meaningful transitioning farmer plan may not be a reasonable expectation within 2-3 years of entry into the NESFP for many of the participants. Initial business plans have been established with all NESFP growers, and these plans serve as templates for their transitioning farmer plans.
NESFP made changes in its core farmer training program this year in order to place emphasis on the importance of creating an initial business plan that can be used as an initial transitioning plan template. In the past, the NESFP has only offered one entry point into our programs. Participants signed up for the training class in the fall and were offered no alternative to this date if they wanted to take advantage of NESFP programs. In response to the needs of individuals learning about and wishing to join the NESFP at different times during the year, and also to cater to small business development as a foundation to creating transitional plans, the NESFP staff shortened the training class to 6 core farm production and business planning modules. The new Farm Business course, which is replacing the Farmer Training course, takes place for two complete cycles; one starting in October, held at night, and one starting in January, which will be held during for the day in order to cater to the participants who work second or third shifts. The Farm Business class is followed by an intense 11-12 week Field Training Series of on-farm, hands-on practical skills workshops. When the season concludes, NESFP will run a 3-module class for continuing farmers that ties business plans and production to the next phase of business development. The 3-module class will address taxation, business law and access to additional financing.
NESFP acknowledges that many farmers are not ready to create transitioning plans until they have a better grasp on the technical aspects of production and access to farming resources. This year, NESFP updated and improved the Technical Assistance (TA) Program that was piloted in 2006. The TA program was designed to meet farmers’ technical production needs, marketing needs, and create greater access to farming resources. NESFP observed that a farmer’s proficiency and foundation in the aforementioned areas is critical to the development of his or her transitioning plan. A good deal of staff time and project resources dedicated to administering the new TA Program in 2007 better prepared farmers for the next steps towards their transition.
The Technical Assistance Program that was piloted in 2006 was a good start in evaluating and meeting farmers’ production education needs, but it fell short in ways that the revised 2007 TA program does not. The TA program in 2006 was set up to instruct all producers on various farming topics during the growing season. For example, a technical assistance provider would meet a farmer in his or her field and proceed to direct the instruction on a specific topic that was relevant to that stage of the growing season but may not necessarily have been of significant importance to the farmer him/herself. Much information did get disseminated this way and covered a wide range of information, but the growers often felt as if they did not have the “extra” time to spend learning about topics that they did not think were important. The 2007 season Technical Assistance protocol was revised with 2006 farmer feedback in mind. This year, the Technical Assistance team went to each of the growers’ fields at the beginning of every week and wrote extensive and detailed crop reports for all of the participating farmers. In the crop reports, detailed accounts of insect presence, disease progression, fertility and water needs, general plot inspection, weed pressure and basic crop culture were noted. One copy of the crop report was left with the grower and one copy remains on file at the NESFP office. Any problems or issues that were observed in the weekly crop reports were then followed up with scheduled in-field, one-on-one technical assistance sessions with the growers. To the extent possible, growers and staff would do weekly crop monitoring and reporting together. Any additional technical assistance issues were brought to NESFP staff attention in a timely manner. The reports were used to track grower progress, to evaluate technical assistance needs, and to inform other NESFP staff of field notes and production issues so that there was an up-to-speed, direct and comprehensive approach to meeting grower technical assistance needs. Reports are reviewed at season-end and used to adjust farmer business plans for the following season.
The updated Transitioning Farmer and Technical Assistance protocol has improved the process to move farmers through their transitional stages, but more time is needed with many project farmers to increase their knowledge, skills and access to resources. The 2007 TA protocol provided farmers with more opportunities to have relevant one-on-one technical assistance, ultimately empowering them to make educated decisions about their future in farming. The 2007 season has been sobering because NESFP staff realized that the technical and business skills needs of new farmers and trainees are intense and information is not always easily transferred through even the most rigorous direct assistance and training. More of these needs were met by the new 2007 training and TA program and farmers will be in a better position to move forward with their transitioning goals and continue to evolve their enterprise plans in the future.
Beginning winter 2005, NESFP will pilot its new Transitioning Farmer Training and Technical Assistance (T&TA) program. Throughout the project period, 20-25 farmers will participate in advanced workshops, on-farm trainings, visits to other farms and marketing facilities, and attend farm conferences. Each farmer will receive up to 10 hours per month in individual and group consultations to address their transitional farming implementation.
The 2007 season was kicked off by a larger and more comprehensive NESFP Field Training series. The 2007 series consisted of 10 workshops that were run from the early spring through late summer. The workshops were designed as a wraparound for the Farm Business course, holding practical, field-based workshops where the skills are needed and can be directly applied. The workshops were designed and facilitated by NESFP staff members and were open to beginning farmers. Over 87 participants attended the seasonal field-based trainings in 2007.
The workshops consisted of:
Greenhouse propagation and transplanting Wed,3/28
10 farmers and 4 youth attended this workshop. Participants learned how to propagate and culture plants in a hoophouse. Principles such as timing, diseases, insects, sanitation and much more were covered. The workshop also taught participants how to mix their own organic potting soils.
Equipment use and maintenance Wed, 4/11
10 farmers attended this hands-on training at the NESFP training site. Attendees were taught about basic repairs and maintenance of smaller farm equipment. Participants were instructed on the safe use of small farm equipment such as walk behind tractors and their implements. Each participant was given the opportunity to trouble shoot and perform maintenance work on the machines.
Collaborative Regional Alliance of Farmer Training (CRAFT) – Tractor Safety Workshop, Wed, 4/25
25 farmers attended this workshop that focused on larger farm equipment and farm safety. Participants learned best practice principles for operating and maintaining larger farm equipment and were instructed on general farm safety (heat exhaustion, tool storage and placement, worker safety, etc.).
Laying out fields and making raised beds Wed, 5/9
6 farmers attended this practical workshop that demonstrated how top translate crop plans on paper to raised beds in the field. Participants learned how to use tiller implements to efficiently lay out their fields. Planning for soil and water conservation were emphasized throughout the workshop.
Pests, diseases and chemicals training Wed, 5/16
9 farmers participated in this workshop. Attendees learned how to scout for insects on their crops, how to evaluate the economic thresholds needed to take action, and how to safely apply the appropriate treatment. The attendees learned the importance of farm record keeping in relation to pests and pesticides.
Harvesting, Post Harvest and Storing Wed, 5/30
7 farmers attended this training. The participants were educated on how and when to harvest crops. The training taught the participants how to properly handle, wash, cool and store crops for best results and longer shelf life.
Irrigation and Water Management Wed, 6/13
4 farmers attended this workshop. The training taught farmers how to set up and manage a drip irrigation system. The workshop culminated in growers setting up and installing an in-field drip system and reinforced the importance of appropriate water use.
Weed Control Wed, 6/27
4 farmers attended this workshop on weed identification and control. Participants at this event learned to identify and address major weed complexes in their fields in a manner that is consistent with organic vegetable production.
Cover cropping Wed, 8/15
4 farmers attended the workshop and learned about cover crops in general, and their importance in soil and nutrient management. The participants learned about planning specific covers for their production needs and were familiarized with a range of different cover crops according to management need.
Nutrient management and soil testing Wed 9/5
4 farmers attended this workshop. Participants learned the purposes relevant to soil testing. Each participant was taught how to properly sample their soil and prepare it for the testing laboratory. Participants were then guided through a brief introduction to interpreting the results of a soil test, and the various management decisions that must be made according to the soil test results.
In addition to the Farm Training Series workshops, growers attended conferences and advanced workshops throughout the year:
In January, 3 farmers attended a Value-added workshop in Sturbridge, MA and 1 farmer attended a Simultaneous Translation conference in Portland, ME.
In February, A training session for 9 growers was held on how to calculate seed needs and place seed orders. 8 farmers attended a Financial Literacy workshop hosted by NESFP and the non-profit lender ACCION. 5 farmers attended the National Immigrant Farming Initiative Conference in Las Cruces, NM.
In March, 5 farmers attended Agriculture Day at the State House. 2 farmers attended an advanced Brassica workshop hosted by UMass Extension.
In June, 3 farmers attended the Cooperative Development Institute’s conference on “Cooperatives 101,” and learned about examples of other successful Northeast Cooperatives.
In general, the farmers gained a more in-depth understanding of the respective subject matter from the trainings. The trainings were approximately half-day events and were followed up on a one-to-one basis by NESFP staff throughout the 2007 growing season.
Technical assistance sessions were facilitated by NESFP staff and partners and served to increase farmers’ practical skills, record keeping capacity, farming and business-related knowledge, and access to farm resources in general. NESFP piloted an intensive T&TA program that ensured direct, individual and group assistance through the creation of a consistent in-field protocol. The application of the new TA program and protocol ensured that NESFP staff would be available and equipped to meet farmers in the field or in the office, on a weekly basis. The topics covered by NESFP staff were chosen by staff and farmers together. The 2007 TA program emphasized production, record keeping, marketing, pests and pesticides, water usage and soil moisture, post harvest handling and other areas of risk management. During the 2007 season 20+ farmers and trainees received over 500 hours of individual field-based TA. The technical assistance that was provided will serve to move the Transitioning Farmer Plans forward.
The 6 farmers who benefited from transitional planning will continue to require peripheral project assistance in order to make their plans and transitions successful. It is the hope of NESFP that the continued development and implementation of the new T&TA program will afford progress with the transitional plans for more of our farmers.
Beginning in 2005, we will assist 20+ farmers to start identifying farm sites for sale or lease. We will assist 10 farmers to assess remediation needs and to plan site improvements.
The NESFP currently has active farmland files identifying over 25 privately owned sites and over 2,000 acres of available farmland for lease or purchase. Some of these acres are listed on restricted real estate databases and some are accounted for under the jurisdiction of local Conservation Committees, land trusts, and other conservation groups. Available farmland is currently being tracked and monitored in-house at NESFP. Public listings are readily distributed to the inquiring public, but due to the nature and requests of some private landowners, NESFP is being utilized as a conduit between landowners and prospective farmers. The NESFP has records of all land contacts, including site evaluation updates, site visit data, land characteristics, acreage and narratives of past site visits. Site information is available at this point, but interested parties must go through NESFP in order to initiate contact with some landowners. The NESFP has also partnered with a local non-profit who offers buyer’s agent services at no cost to NESFP participants.
In 2006, 8 growers were assisted to assess remediation needs and to plan site improvements. Of these 8 growers, 6 were able to implement some or all of the NESFP recommended site improvements and have made significant steps towards individual site remediation. Remediation and site improvement steps included irrigation pond water testing, percolation/water feasibility studies, and soil testing. In 2007, NESFP worked directly and intensively with 5 growers in teaching them how to locate farmland. One grower was assisted peripherally. Each grower was given up to two hours per week of assistance and direct education on locating farmland. Resources used to find farmland include the NESFP farmland files (resulting from surveys to land holders through FSA outreach, state APR listings and Chapter 61A participation, and other direct mailings), direct contact with real estate agents, connections with non-profit housing advocates, conservation groups, private land links, and state and local government resources.
The NESFP farmland database can be made available to all farmers enrolled in, or who have been enrolled in, any NESFP program. Over 55 farmers have graduated the initial training course since 2004, and all 55 of those individuals have the option of accessing the NESFP farmland files if they wish. The sites vary in ownership, geography, suitability, resources, and remediation needs. NESFP has been working with conservation organizations such as The Trustees of Reservations, various town Conservation Commissions, private land owners and many real estate agents to identify land that is suitable for farming and located in eastern and central Massachusetts.
In 2005 NESFP will set up a centralized facility to improve handling, washing, storage, cooling, packaging, and transportation for use by 20-25 NESFP farmers in the Lowell / Dracut area, and assist 10-15 farmers in other areas to access similar facilities. NESFP and 12 farmers will initiate a marketing cooperative that will distribute products to both retail and wholesale outlets.
Post-Harvest Facilities: During the summer of 2005, NESFP set up a centralized facility for post-harvest washing, packaging, cooling and transportation at its Richardson’s Dairy Farm site in Dracut, MA. The washing facility is easily accessible to most participants in the NESFP program and is designed so that the farmers can wash large (or small) quantities of vegetables in a cool, shaded area. Adequate space is available to then drain and package the vegetables. The cooler unit, which abuts the washing station, is located close-by so that the farmers can immediately place their clean, packaged product in a temperature-controlled facility. The NESFP produce transport van is parked at the Richardson’s Dairy Farm site, so that when the farmers are finished with their post-harvest washing, packaging, and cooling, the transport van is readily accessible. 11 NESFP farmers directly benefited from this station in 2006 and many used it regularly.
During the summer of 2007, the post harvest washing facilities were expanded at all NESFP farms. The technical assistance staff and NESFP farmers established in-field satellite wash stations designed for rapid cooling with minimum time between harvest and submersion. The vegetables could be transported to the nearby NESFP cooler without the stress of field heat affecting quality while in transport. The satellite wash stations were used on a regular basis by 7 NESFP farmers.
Marketing Cooperative: In 2005, NESFP assisted many project farmers in starting a farmer-driven marketing co-op. The marketing co-op distributed to wholesale accounts, various farmers markets and also started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which successfully served 15 members in the 2006 season and 46 members in the 2007 season. In total, 12 NESFP farmers were involved in and contributed to the marketing co-op and took advantage of the improved centralized post harvest handling, washing, storage, cooling, and packaging facility. Over $46,000 of produce was sold in 2007 by these 12 growers, an increase in sales of over 161% from 2006.
By mid-2006, at least 15 participating farmers will have made significant progress on their transitional plans, with 2 moving onto independent sites. By mid 2007 and 2008, at least 20 and then 25 participating farmers respectively will have made significant transitional progress and 3-5 will move onto independent sites each year.
Because of the change in the timeline for implementation, NESFP is behind one full year (as noted above) in achieving its milestones as set forth by this proposal. The program has successfully assisted 6 farmers to transition to independent operations. These 6 farmers have successfully completed their first farming season on their own in 2007. Also during 2007, another 5 farmers have started the work of assessing independent sites for their eventual transition. It will be the continued work of NESFP in 2008 and beyond to help these farmers transition completely, so that they can continue to access mainstream farm resources and technical services independent of NESFP’s in-depth technical assistance.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Of 40 immigrant farmers who graduate our initial training courses between 2004-2006, 20-25 will participate in a 3-year Transitioning Farmer Program to develop sustainable farming enterprises.
55+ immigrant farmers have graduated our initial training course between 2004-2007. Of those 55 farmers, 11 have been actively participating in the next steps towards developing their sustainable farming enterprises. These farmers have been working diligently and regularly with NESFP staff to build practical farming foundations that will enable them to envision a legitimate and individualized transitioning plan. The 11 farmers have each met with TA staff on a weekly to bi-weekly basis during the winter of 2006/2007 and on a weekly basis during the 2007 growing season.
8-10 farmers will achieve independent farm operations.
In the years 2006 and 2007, 6 NESFP farmers achieved independent farm operations. These six farmers worked closely with TA staff to find and secure farmland, assess and address remediation needs, make site improvements, develop lease agreements and physically transition their production to independent farm sites.
The NESFP farmers who have officially moved to independent farm sites will still require some technical and business assistance from NESFP over the course of the next growing season, perhaps beyond. These farmers are considered to be physically transitioned and are in a better position to be independent of NESFP and other technical resources. The farmers will require continued assistance with business and market planning and some marginal production guidance. NESFP will continue to work with the farmers on independent sites to help ensure their full transition and continued long-term success.
In 2007, NESFP made considerable progress with parts of the development and implementation of the Transitioning Farmer Program and also the Training and Technical Assistance aspect of the program. NESFP has produced a farmer field manual, staffed, piloted and updated a T& TA program, created a marketing co-op with farmers, assembled a farmland data bank, and made significant progress on creating and emphasizing a revised and more focused business planning curriculum.
NESFP programs have continued to evolve and were strengthened this year to better assist farmers in building a foundation that allows them to achieve long term and sustainable transitioning farmer enterprise plans.
New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
9 Central St., Room 402