Creating a technical support system for Rhode Island small-scale farms

2006 Annual Report for LNE05-225

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $149,990.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Northeast
State: Rhode Island
Project Leader:
Ernest Morreira
URI Cooperative Extension
Kristen Castrataro
University of Rhode Island

Creating a technical support system for Rhode Island small-scale farms


SARE funding supports a University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension two-year project to develop and implement a system of technical support for the currently under-served and diverse group of RI farmers and growers engaged in the production of food, fiber and other non-ornamental agricultural crops and alternative enterprises. Further, we are committed to developing a collaborative, more efficient and cost effective program delivery model which can realistically be maintained beyond the SARE funding period.

Working with our strategic partners, the RI Division of Agriculture and Marketing (Div/Ag), and the RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education (RICAPE), we will develop and implement a new model of Extension that includes the development of resource partnerships in a case management approach to delivering a broad range of timely information, training, and on-the-ground consulting services and development opportunities to farmers, as well as creating electronic communications channels for client intake, information transfer and networking.

Objectives/Performance Targets

We seek to foster the adoption of new sustainable agricultural practices and/or farm viability and diversification enterprises and improve decision making and problem solving among Rhode Island farms through information gained from an Extension system of technical support and information access and referral to be developed and tested during this project.

Of the 200 farmers/producers accessing information resources and consulting services, 100 will use the information gained to address immediate production issues and improve farming practices. Of the 50 farms participating in the case management component of our project, we project that 35 will undertake new and substantive sustainable production practices, crop diversification and/or alternative enterprises/marketing or other farm viability improvements.


Search committee and representative program advisory committee has been formed composed of faculty; state and USDA agricultural service providers, farmers and farmer educators.

Project funding primarily supports a program manager position (URI Research Associate I) which was filled on February 20, 2006

Our project is off to a strong and widely publicized start and has been enthusiastically received by the RI agricultural community. The project manager is now receiving farm referrals and is speaking with farm and commodity groups on project services and has appeared at numerous in several statewide forums.

Through interviews with farmers, URI faculty, and the program advisory committee, a detailed work plan has been created. Priorities include: project launch/promotion and clientele contact, state and regional collaboration including key state and USDA agencies, electronic communication systems development, professional development opportunities, integration of our SARE project with university teaching and research, project record keeping and accountability.

At this time, we have identified 35 farmers to participate in the case management component of this project. Many of these potential partners have benefited from individual consultations and technical support by RI extension staff. There has been a substantial investment of time and effort in establishing relationships between the agricultural community and university staff. Extensive in state travel to over twenty-three farmer meetings, workshops and fairs have allowed us to inform RI farmers about this SARE program. At each of these events, growers have been educated about the launch of this project, the availability of information on sustainable agricultural practices, farm viability and diversification enterprises as well as business improvement by university extension staff and our cooperating partners that comprise the RI Small Scale Farms Technical Advisory Group.

In addition to capitalizing on the efficiency of meetings to deliver information to large groups of individuals, we have also targeted in-state farmer meetings as opportunities to speak with growers one-on-one about their agricultural production needs and concerns. In every instance, attendance and visibility at these in-state meetings have provided valuable contacts for RI extension staff. These contacts provide essential introductions and often result in follow-up farm visits that foster the development of trust-based relationships, which are necessary to complete the case management component of this SARE project.

The majority of farm visits have resulted in submissions of samples to the University of Rhode Island plant clinic and disease diagnostic laboratory. Plant clinic and university staff have worked together to identify these agricultural production pests and problems. The insight gained from this cooperative detective work has allowed RI extension staff to develop recommendations for growers that incorporate sustainable practices that are economically feasible, work well within the production philosophy of the grower involved and are environmentally sound.

While 58% of our clients were referred through our cooperating partners and 27% decided to use our services after attending a meeting, a considerably smaller percentage have accessed our services through electronic communication channels. In an effort to expand our reach and increase our efficiency in disseminating timely information, we have designed two distinct websites that will be available to growers in 2007.

The websites have two distinct functions. The first is an information-based site that will be updated no less than four times per year. This website provides information about this University of RI program including specifics about whom to contact, what services we offer and provides farmers an opportunity to request a farm visit through an interactive form. In the first quarter of 2007, we plan to expand on this website to develop listings of regional opportunities for growers of reference materials, land-grant services and other pertinent content. We will offer growers an opportunity to send us suggestions of website content that they feel would be most beneficial to them as we continue to build this primary website.

The second website is a highly customized web-blog. This site takes advantage of an open-source publishing program that allows extension staff to update the web-blog daily in very little time. The objective of this website is to let our clients know about things we are seeing in the field as soon as possible. The web-blog is a forum for RI extension staff but also for any RI farmer that chooses to participate. A function of the web-blog allows farmers to send a message to the forum for publication. Extension staff will then review the posting for appropriateness and may make some editorial changes before publishing the message on the website for all to view.

Our major achievements to date have been supported by the RI Small Scale Technical Advisory Group that assists in the development and delivery of this program. The group, which convenes every other month, provides insight and direction as we move forward with reestablishing an on-the-ground technical support system for RI farmers. The collaborative efforts of NRCS personnel, URI staff, RI Department of Environmental Management Division of Agriculture chiefs and directors, RI Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education executives and individual RI farmers has been key to our success in reaching our target milestones.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Search committee and representative program advisory committee formed composed of faculty, state and USDA agricultural service providers, farmers and farmer educators.

Program announcements have been sent to all key agricultural organizations for distribution to their lists. Direct mailing has been sent to an extensive farmer list.

A call-in information and referral system has been created and the design/formatting an interactive URI Sustainable Agriculture internet site have completed with a launch time frame of January 2007.

The project manager well established and is receiving farm referrals and is speaking with farm and commodity groups on project services.

We have instituted a clientele contact/data collection system to aggregate farm profiles and support services requested that supports project research into farmer technical support needs and program/information delivery preferences

We have documented that in 2006, 69 farmers have sought information regarding sustainable agricultural practices. Our agricultural community partners referred 58% of our clients to us in 2006, while 27% decided to use our services after listening to an extension agent speak at an in-state farmer/grower meeting. Ten percent of the individuals that used our services accessed the URI Plant Clinic call-in line, compared to 4% of clients that met us at farmer’s markets around the state and the 1% that stopped in to our offices for assistance.

Of the information they sought 44% were looking primarily for information about the program and the services we have to offer. This is only slightly higher than the 41% of our clients that sought our assistance in identifying or solving a specific pest or disease problem on their farm. Roughly 10% of RI farmers were interested in information about soil fertility and fertilizers, 3% requested information about pasture establishment for horses and 2% requested information about product quality issues.
Of the 41% of our clients that sought our assistance in working through a specific pest issue, we were able to provide farmers with information that directly benefited their decision-making process 81% of the time