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 practices designed to help farmers improve their farm management skills, and thereby, the sustainability of their operations. To achieve this goal we created a series of four learning courses targeting three farm areas: soil and fertility management, pest management, marketing, and on-farm energy. Each of the courses provides opportunities for mentoring by experienced farmers, enterprise analysis, and on-farm demonstrations. The soil and fertility management, pest management, and marketing courses were completed in 2010 and 2011. The fourth course, Renewable Energy Options On-Farm and Alternative Fuels for Greenhouses, is scheduled as an all-day intensive workshop on February 10, 2012 as part of the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference. Mentorships are arranged for each of the learning course segments and mentoring continues past the end of the learning course. Three mentor trainings were held in January 2010, January 2011, and March 2011, providing training to a total of 20 farmers and 8 agricultural professionals. When mentorships are completed, mentors and the people who received mentoring fill out an evaluation form. Evaluations for all the learning course mentorships in 2010 and 2011 are still being collected and the data collated. A marketing course mentorship was completed in November 2011 and both parties have expressed an interest in continuing the mentorship for another year. Mentors for on-farm energy will be recruited from among participants in the intensive workshop at the NOFA Winter Conference, as well as, from the larger pool of Vermont farmers who are beginning to employ alternative energy practices on their farms. Enterprise analysis was offered to all learning course participants in 2010 and 2011. One enterprise analysis was completed in December 2011 and two are in the final stages.
A new principle investigator for this project was approved in December, 2011. Lynda Prim replaced Wendy Sue Harper, the original PI, in the position of Vegetable and Fruit Technical Assistance Advisor for NOFA Vermont. An extension was granted for the 2011 annual report from December 31 to January 31.
The original performance targets are detailed below. The accomplishments and dates of reaching the milestones for 2011 are detailed below.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 four learning courses through articles or direct mailings in summer 2009. 300 farmers will seek additional information through fall 2009.
Course 1: Soil and Fertility Management Course – Reported on in previous annual report.
Course 2: Pest Management – The course took place in January, February, and March 2011. 44 farmers signed up for the pest management course. 35 farmers attended session one on insects, 31 farmers signed up for session two on diseases (postponed due to inclement weather), and 37 farmers attended the third session on weeds.
Course 3: Marketing – The course was scheduled to start on November 16th 2010. Only 9 farmers signed up and this was much lower than our objective. When prospective participants were surveyed the majority said that they preferred that we combined the marketing course with other learning opportunities they could attend at the same time. Based on this feedback, we changed the course from a three-session course in the fall to a course with one session held in fall, one session held as a three workshop “marketing track” at the 2011 NOFA Direct Marketing Conference, and the third session held in January 2011. 13 farmers participated in the entire three session course.
Course 4: On-farm Energy – The course was scheduled to start on November 4th 2011. Although there was good farmer interest in this topic, many of them told us that they could not commit to a three-session fall course because they are engaged in winter growing and markets, a practice that was not taking place when this proposal was written. Four growers registered for the on-farm energy course.
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 in the pest management and marketing courses this winter. Participants in the on-farm energy course at the NOFA Winter Conference will be surveyed at the end of the day of the intensive workshop (February 10, 2012).
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 to work on an enterprise analysis; two are in the process of completing it and two dropped out due changes in their farm enterprise. The two farmers who signed up to work on an enterprise analysis in the soils course have moved to the marketing course. Five farmers signed up for enterprise analyses in the marketing course with one completed in December 2011 and two still in process. The on-farm energy course will take place on February 10th 2012, so any farmers who sign up to work on an enterprise analyses will complete it in the winter of 2012.
Milestone 6: Of the 70 producers that learn and implement new practices, 12 will hold on-farm workshops that 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 approved for a change to the performance target tied to this milestone. The approved change allowed us to reach farmers by two venues where we already have a track record: on-farm demonstrations and conference sessions.
We held one on-farm soil management demonstration in September 2010 that was attended by 39 farmers and 3 agriculture service providers. This event was complemented by a lunch time roundtable on soil management held at the 2011 NOFA-VT Winter conference in which 53 growers and 3 agricultural service providers participated. Together, these two events reached 92 farmers.
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 an additional $5,000 from a private donor to support the mentors.
Two, one-day mentor trainings were held. The first, in January 2010 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, allowing us to offer an additional mentorship to the pest management course. Five farmer mentors and mentees worked together over the 2011 growing season to develop a realistic work plan for goals and activities to improve marketing, soil management, and pest management on their farms. Mentoring evaluations have been sent to mentor and mentee participants who are still working on filling them out and getting them back to us.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The original timeline of this proposal has been extended for several reasons: 1) there are more vegetable farmers engaged in fall and winter production and who are scaling-up for wholesale markets, so it’s more difficult to find farmers who can commit to attend all three sessions of a course; 2) there are more conferences and workshops being offered to intermediate and advanced organic vegetable producers than when the proposal was written; 3) the project coordinator, Wendy Sue Harper, left NOFA-VT in May 2011 and a new PI was not in place until November 2011. Based on these realities, we felt we needed to adapt the timeline and adjust our approach to meet the objectives of this proposal.
The on-farm energy course is a good example. It was originally scheduled for November of 2011, but only four growers registered. The objective was to reach more farmers, so in order to reach that objective we postponed the course until February 2012. Our analysis of the low registration for the course in November revealed a change in farmer availability due to new developments in production and marketing. Season extension for winter production has experienced huge growth in the past few years keeping farmers busy well into November and December. The expansion of winter farmers markets, winter CSA’s, and farms scaling-up their production of storage crops together with better storage/handling capabilities for wholesale markets have taken priority for farmers’ time. The increase in late season farming activities requires rethinking the timing and duration of course activities. Another consideration is that in January there are many conferences and association meetings that farmers have to choose from, so having the course in conjunction with the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference is a better opportunity to draw more participants. For these reasons, it made sense to schedule the on-farm energy course for February 10, 2012 as a one- day intensive workshop prior to the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference. It also made sense to expand the course to include more emphasis on greenhouse heating. The first half of the day will outline how to conduct an on-farm energy audit and various options for financing renewable projects, while the second half will look at real on-farm solutions to alternative energy and greenhouse heating.
Marketing: A workshop on Business Planning for CSA was offered at the Vermont Direct Marketing Conference in January 2011. The Women’s Ag Network-UVM Extension was NOFA-VT collaborative partner in the marketing course; they designed and conducted the course.
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