Integrated learning courses for organic and sustainable vegetable production

2010 Annual Report for LNE09-283

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $158,961.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Enid Wonnacott
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
Co-Leaders:
Dr. Wendy Sue Harper
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont

Integrated learning courses for organic and sustainable vegetable production

Summary

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; 25 growers attended. The second course on marketing took place in the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011; 13 growers attended. The third course on pest management took place in the winter of 2011; 44 growers attended. The fourth course on on-farm energy courses has been rescheduled for the winter of 2012. Mentor trainings were held in January of 2010 and January and March of 2011; 20 farmers and 8 agricultural professionals were trained. Mentoring pairs are being set up for the marketing and pest management course as are enterprise analyses. Mentoring evaluations have been sent to mentor and mentee participants from the soil course. An on-farm soil management demonstration was held in September; 39 farmers and 3 agriculture service providers attended. A lunch time roundtable on soil management was held at the NOFA-VT Winter conference; 53 growers and 3 agricultural service providers attended. Soil course enterprise analyses are on-going.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Learning Courses:
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 that will be sent in October, 8-10 months after the 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.

Marketing:
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).

On-Farm Energy:
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.

Mentoring:
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.

Enterprise Analysis:
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.

Online Courses: (Marketing and On-Farm Energy Courses)
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.

On-Farm Demonstrations:
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

Accomplishments/Milestones

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.

The marketing and on-farm energy courses were offered in the fall of 2010. Publicity started in the summer of 2010 notices were put in our monthly e-newsletter in August and September, which reached 353 certified organic growers along with 3500 additional farmer and gardener contacts. Brochures were mailed to 143 vegetable growers in early fall. Notices were included in the fall NOFA Notes newsletter, reaching 1400 people of which about 50% are producers and agricultural service providers. 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.

The pest management course was offered in the winter of 2011. Publicity started in the fall of 2010 notices were put in our monthly e-newsletter in November and December, which reached 353 certified organic growers along with 3500 additional farmer and gardener contacts. Brochures were mailed to 143 vegetable growers in late fall. Notices were included in the winter NOFA Notes newsletter, reaching 1400 people of which about 50% are producers and agricultural service providers. 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.

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.

Four growers registered for the on-farm energy course, which was scheduled to start on November 4th, so it was postponed until the winter of 2012. Season extension and winter growing have had a huge impact on farmers’ time; they have changed the nature of farmer education. Many farmers are too busy planting and growing winter greens, and harvesting and handling storage crops, and selling at winter farmers markets and CSA and to attend fall courses—even courses that occur in late fall. The increase in these activities has pushed other typical fall projects to even later in fall.

The marketing course was rescheduled to start on November 16th; however its attendance was lower than desired with 9 growers. So we responded to growers and expand the offering. It was changed from a three session course in fall to a course that had one session in the fall, the second session allowed growers to take the all day NOFA-VT Direct Marketing Conference on January 9th; the final session occurred on January 20th. 4 additional growers joined the course through the Direct Marketing Conference.

44 individual farmers signed up for the pest management course. 35 farmers attended session one on insects, 31 farmers attended session 2 on diseases, which had to be postpones because of inclement weather, and 37 farmers attended session 3 on weeds. The pest management course took place in January, February and March of 2011.

The on-farm energy courses will take place in winter 2012.

Milestone 4: Of the 100 farmer participants, 70 producers will learn and implement new practices during the summer and fall of 2010 or 2011.

A follow up survey has been sent to participants in the soils course to determine the new techniques that were implemented. A follow up survey will be sent to participants determine the new techniques that were implemented for the marketing and pest management courses after the 2011 growing season.

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 signed up for an enterprise analysis; two are in the process of completing it, and two decided not do it because of changes to the farm; the two enterprise analysis have been moved to other course. Five farmers have signed up for enterprise analyses in the marketing course. Farmers are currently signing up for enterprise analysis from the pest management course. The on-farm energy course will take place in winter of 2012, so enterprise analyses will be completed after the growing season of 2012.

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. ;

We requested and were approve for a change to the performance target tied to this milestone. The approved change allows both on-farm demonstrations and conference sessions to reach out to farmers.

We held one on-farm soil management demonstration in September; 39 farmers and 3 agriculture service providers attended. A lunch time roundtable on soil management was held at the NOFA-VT Winter conference; 53 growers and 3 agricultural service providers attended. Our two soils workshops reached 92 farmers.

On-farm demonstrations are being organized this summer for the marketing and pest management courses.

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).

Due to the interest in mentoring, we were able to raise additional funds to pay mentors for each mentee.

Several one-day mentor trainings have been held. In January of 2010 one was developed in collaboration with UVM Extension and held in Montpelier for potential mentors in the soils and marketing course; 6 potential farmer mentors and 3 agricultural service providers attended. Two mentor trainings were held in 2011; 14 farmers and 5 agricultural professionals were trained.

Five farmers signed up for mentoring in the soils course, but one dropped out of the program. This mentorship was moved to the pest management course. Mentoring pairs are being set up for the marketing and pest management course. Farmer mentors and mentees will work together over the 2011 growing season to develop a realistic work plan for goals and activities to improve marketing and pest management on their farms. Mentoring evaluations have been sent to mentor and mentee participants from the soil course.

Other Lessons Learned:
The soil and fertility course required farmers to attend all three sessions, because they needed to do so to complete a nutrient management plan. The pest management course had the greatest flexibility by allowing farmers to attend one, two, or all three sessions. Many farmers attended all three of the course sessions. This flexibility was really appreciated by farmers and we had the highest attendant in this course.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Learning Courses:
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.

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.

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 session must consistently be focused on the performance target goals in order to achieve them, in this case completing a nutrient management plan.

Marketing: 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.

The Women’s Ag Network-UVM Extension was NOFA-VT collaborative partner in the marketing course; they designed and conducted the course. An evaluation will be conducted in spring. A timeline for creating an online course from the curriculum is also being constructed.

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.

Individual course sessions were highly rated by the 31-37 farmers that attended. On average 88.4% of farmers who took the course “strongly intended” to make changes in their pest management strategies. Farmers enjoyed the learning sessions with other farmers best. The pest course evaluation also showed that it increased farmers’ knowledge on pest stage vulnerability, approaches to insect pest management, preventing seed rain, timing of weed management, the relationship of cover crops and weeds, management of specific diseases and resources.

Overall course evaluations have been sent the farmers. This evaluation was sent after the course was completed because farmers attended every combination of the three course sessions.

Collaborators:

Rosalie J. Wilson

rosalie.wilson@earthlink.net
Proprietor and Business Consultant
Business Consulting Services
PO Box 575
Norwich, VT 05055
Office Phone: 8027854521
Website: www.rosaliewilson.com
Beth Holtzman

wagn@uvm.edu
Outreach and Education Coordinator
Women’s Agricultural Network (WAgN)
University of Vermont Extension
617 Comstock Road, Suite 5
Berlin, VT 05602
Office Phone: 8022232389
Website: www.uvm.edu/wagn/
Lisa McCrory

lmccrory@hughes.net
Dairy Technical Assistant Advisor
Earthwise Farm and Forest
341 MacIntosh Hill Rd
Randolph, VT 05060
Office Phone: 8022345524
Website: www.earthwisefarmandforest.com
Eric Sideman, Ph.D.

mofga@mofga.org
Extension Educator
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
PO Box 170
294 Crosby Brook Road
Unity, ME 04988
Office Phone: 2075684142
Website: www.mofga.org/
Chris Callahan

chris.callahan@uvm.edu
Agricultural Engineer
UVM Extension
1 Scale Ave, Suite 55
Rutland, VT 05701
Office Phone: 8027733349