Integrated learning courses for organic and sustainable vegetable production
The goal of this project is to increase the viability of organic and sustainable vegetable farms in the Northeast by providing new production and marketing skills which will allow farmers to better manage their operations. In this project we created a series of four learning courses to support vegetable producers who wish to improve their skills. Each course includes opportunities for mentoring by experienced farmers, enterprise analysis and on-farm demonstrations. The first course on Soils and Fertility Management took place in January and February 2010. The Marketing and On-Farm Energy courses are planned for Fall-Winter 2010. The Pest Management course will be in the winter of 2011.
Twenty-five farmers attended: “Digging Deep: An Advanced Soils Course for Vegetable Growers.” The soils course provided the opportunity for farmers to interact with university and extension personnel, and other farmers in the region. Our evaluation in the soils course showed that the 17 farmers that completed the evaluation learned at least 2 new techniques. One farmer has completed their soil fertility management plan, with 2 other farmers close to completion. The rest of the participants need more time or some data such as the nutrient value of compost to complete their plans.
The course was highly rated by the 17 farmers. 16 farmers “strongly agreed” that the course will help improve their soil health and fertility system and 1 “agreed”. 14 strongly agreed that they were inspired to learn more and 3 agreed. Farmers enjoyed the learning sessions with other farmers best. The soils course evaluation also showed that it increased farmers’ knowledge on soil health, soil fertility, and nutrient management and soil fertility planning. 14 farmers said by quite a bit, 3 said some, and no farmers said little or none.
A mentor training was held, with 9 farmers and 4 agricultural professionals attending. Five mentoring pairs were set up by the end of April 2010 for the soils course. Four of those farmers are working with their mentor to conduct enterprise analyses on their farms.
Course evaluation will be based on post-course assessments and a survey emailed to growers in the season after the courses were taken. We are assuming that of the 25 growers in a course, 15 will respond to a survey sent in October, 8-10 months after their course is completed.
Soil and Fertility Management:
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new soil management techniques (chemical, physical or biological) and 17 completed a soil fertility management plan based on soil, plant tissues, or media tests that improved management of the soil for fertility, biodiversity and tilth.
In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a new management technique and 10 participants positively changed their fertility management based on their soil fertility plan.
Pest and Disease Management:
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned the life-cycle and management for two pests, insects or weeds, or diseases on their farms and 17 developed 2 new management strategies.
In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a technique that improved pest and disease management; and 10 growers increased their marketable yield of a crop by 10% due to their management changes.
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new marketing techniques and 17 developed a draft marketing plan.
In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 participants implemented a technique and/or developed a new customer relationship/market during the previous growing season; and 10 growers met or exceeded a goal of their marketing plan (such as increasing or maintaining sales volume, implementing new pricing structures, or increasing gross sales).
An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new on-farm energy management techniques and 17 completed an energy audit, outlining strategies to increase their energy efficiency and/or reduction in energy use.
In the growing season after the course has been completed, surveys will show that 15 producer participants will have implemented two energy saving techniques and practices. These changes will result in a $500 reduction in costs from the previous growing season.
At the end of the growing season in which the 20 producers have participated in the mentoring component, completed surveys will show that 18 participants implemented two new practices that increase the viability of their farms due to management changes, new marketing strategies or production efficiencies.
Quality of Life:
After the growing season in which the producer has participated in the mentoring component, completed surveys will show that of the 20 growers mentored, 16 growers had a positive increase or change in one of the following seven quality of life indicators: 1) Growers were able to take a family vacation; 2) Growers were able to have more time off; 3) Growers increased salaries, savings, or had profit to reinvest back into the farm business; 4) Acquired health insurance; 5) Contributed money to a retirement plan; 6) Growers had a more positive outlook on the farm business; 6) Had a more positive attitude about life and less overall stress; and/or 7) Growers were able to work fulltime on the farm.
After the growing season in which the producer implemented changes as a result of participation in the courses or mentoring program, 13 participants of the 16 conducting an enterprise analysis increased their net profits by at least $1,000.
Six months after online courses are on the web, data collected will show that each course had 1,000 hits with web visits averaging 5 minutes or more. A producer’s questionnaire will show that 100 farmers have decided to make a positive change as a result of viewing online course materials.
An average of 20 producers will attend on-farm demonstrations. After the demonstration, participant surveys will show that 10 producers will plan to implement one new practice.
Milestone 1 and 2: 2000 farmers throughout the Northeast will receive information about the courses through articles or direct mailings in the summer of 2009. 300 farmers will seek additional information through the fall of 2009.
NOFA Vermont was notified of its funding in April of 2009.
The soils course was offered in January and February of 2010. Publicity started in the summer of 2009 with notices in the NOFA Notes newsletter in summer and fall, reaching 1400 people of which about 50% are producers and agricultural service providers. Notices were put in our monthly e-newsletter starting in November and December, which reached 353 certified organic growers along with 3500 additional farmer and gardener contacts.
256 vegetable growers received a direct mailing: this was a combined list of NOFA Vermont and the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Associations mailing list for farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.
Additionally, electronic information on the course was sent to 180 agricultural service providers and organizations in the Northeast. This list included extension, farm bureaus, industry vegetable groups, and organic farming organizations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
30 farmers called about additional information for the soils course; 20 farmers called about additional information about the marketing course. We realized that so many vegetable producers in the Northeast are web savvy that we need to institute a tracking system on brochures placed on our website to accurately track interest in these courses. Web tracking will occur for the rest of the courses.
The marketing course was postponed until fall of 2010 due to low enrollment. We learned that in this economy it is very important to have course scholarships available for farmers. We were able to develop 5 scholarships for the soils course based on requests. The economic downturn and impact of weather conditions resulting in a poor strawberry crop and major problems from late blight in tomatoes gave farmers far less income to spend on education. We received many inquires about scholarships, with one farmer saying he could “either take a course or buy seeds.” NOFA Vermont used organizational funds to help 5 farmers take the soils course at a reduced rate of 50%. We plan to develop scholarships for each course in the future.
Milestone 3: 100 farmers will attend the four learning courses, approximately 25 farmers per course. The first two courses will take place between December 2009 and March 2010. The second two courses will take place between December 2010 and March 2011.
25 farmers signed up for the soils course, although not all farmers attended all three of the course sessions. 18 farmers attended session one, 22 farmers attended session 2, and 19 farmers attended session 3. The soils course took place in January and February of 2010. The marketing and on-farm energy courses are planned for fall 2010. The pest management course will take place in winter 2011.
Milestone 4: Of the 100 farmer participants, 70 producers will learn and implement new practices during the summer and fall of 2010 or 2011.
All growers returning surveys in the soils course learned from 2 to more than 5 new techniques. Our follow up survey after the growing season will allow us to determine the new techniques that were implemented.
Milestone 5: Of the 70 producers that learn and implement new practices, 16 farmers (4 per course) will complete an enterprise analysis to measure changes in profitability based on the new practices adopted. Eight enterprise analyses will be completed during the fall of 2010, and eight during 2011.
Four farmers in the soils course have signed up for an enterprise analysis. The marketing course will take place in fall so enterprise analyses will be completed after the growing season of 2011.
Milestone 6: Of the 70 producers that learn and implement new practices, 12 will hold on-farm workshops which will reach an additional 200 farmers. Six on-farm workshops will be held during the field season of 2010, and six during 2011.
Soils on-farm demonstrations will take place in the fall of 2010; marketing, on-farm energy management, and pest management on-farm demonstrations will take place in the fall of 2011.
Milestone 7: 3 farmer mentors will be selected for each course (12 in total) and will work with up to 20 farmers to establish a realistic work-plan with goals and activities for improving the sustainability and profitability of their farms. The farmer-to-farmer mentors will work together for a year following the completion of the courses. Six mentor pairs will work together in year 2 (April 2010-March 2011) and six mentor pairs will work together in year 3 (April 2011-March 2012).
A one-day mentor training was developed in collaboration with UVM Extension and held in Montpelier in January of 2010 for potential mentors in the soils and marketing course; 6 potential farmer mentors attended.
Due to the interest in mentoring, we were able to raise additional funds to support a total of five mentoring pairs from the soils course. They will work together over the course of the 2010 growing season to develop a realistic work plan for goals and activities to improve soil and soil fertility management on their farms. The marketing course mentor pairs will be assigned after the course in fall.
Other Lessons Learned from Conducting the Soils Course:
Instead of notebooks of paper, it was decided by all 4 course team leaders to give farmers all information in electronic format on a course flashdrive. Farmers in the soils course were told that we would make them a paper copy if the flashdrive was not suitable for them. Two farmers in the soil course indicated that they would try the flashdrives, but might need a notebook. In the end they decided they could work with the electronic format and indeed they used the course to ramp up their computer knowledge. This change allowed us to give every farmer all course Powerpoint presentations, reading assignments including links to written web materials, links to extension websites for video educational materials, and spread sheet tools that farmers can use to better manage soil fertility on their farms.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Soil and Fertility Management: An evaluation survey conducted at the end of the course will show that 25 participants learned two new soil management techniques (chemical, physical or biological) and 17 completed a soil fertility management plan based on soil, plant tissues, or media tests that improved management of the soil for fertility, biodiversity and tilth.
17 of the 25 farmers in the course completed the post-course evaluation. Of the 17 farmers responding, all of them learned at least 2 new techniques. Data showed that 7 learned over 5 new techniques, 7 learned 3 to 5 new techniques, 2 learned 2-3 new techniques, and no farmers learned 0-1 new techniques. One farmer did not answer the question.
One farmer completed their soil fertility management plan; 2 farmers mostly completed it. The rest need more time or some additional data to complete their plans.
We learned from the soils course that each course must consistently be focused on the performance target goals in each session, in this case completing a nutrient management plan, throughout the course in order to achieve them.
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