Integrated learning courses for organic and sustainable vegetable production

2012 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 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: 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. We received an extension in our project until June 30, 2013 to complete the fourth course, On-Farm Energy Management, the focus of this 2012 report. The first part of the course was an all-day intensive workshop held on February 10, 2012 as part of the NOFA Vermont Winter Conference, attended by 23 participants. The second part of the course was held as part of the Advanced Farmer to Farmer Tunnel Conference, December 5th and 6th, 2012, held in collaboration with UVM Extension and the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association, attended by 117 farmers and educators. The third part of the course, entitled Renewable Energy Options and Energy Efficiency Designs for Tunnels and Greenhouses, will consist of on-farm workshops highlighting tunnel and greenhouse designs demonstrating renewable energy use and energy efficiency, the use of energy audits in planning, and design for tunnels and greenhouses. These will be offered this spring, when greenhouses are in production and energy use is at its highest.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The performance targets for the first three learning courses were previously reported on, this report addresses the performance targets associated with the fourth course, On-farm Energy Management.
Learning Courses Performance Target: 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.

Status of reaching performance target: Although the proposal, as written, was designed so that the courses would meet 3 times, with 3 classes over nine weeks, we have adjusted the format to meet the needs of the participants, with the Energy Course designed to meet 3 times, at existing gatherings of farmers. The first part of the On-farm Energy Course was a 6 hour intensive held on February 10, 2012, entitled Renewable Energy Options On-Farm and Alternative Fuels for Greenhouses. The first half of the full day workshop outlined how to conduct an on-farm energy audit and various options for financing renewable projects, while the second half examined on-farm solutions to alternative energy and greenhouse heating. Several industry experts including Encore Development, All-Earth Renewables, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Efficiency Vermont and farmers shared their experiences with solar, wind, cordwood, biomass, and wood pellets. 17 people pre-registered for the workshop and with walk-ins, a total of 23 people attended the workshop. Participants from that workshop will be surveyed this winter to identify energy practices that were implemented and whether those practices resulted in energy savings.

The second part of the course was held on December 5-6, 2012. This commercial-grower focused 2 day conference consisted of 14 different workshops on topics including tunnel design and construction, winter growing systems, moveable tunnels, production and marketing, and niche crops for tunnels. The workshops addressed elements of each of the learning courses: Soil Fertility and Management, Pest and Disease Management, Marketing and On-Farm Energy. Presenters included established farmers from Vermont and New England and researchers from both the University of Vermont and University of Maine. Participants were surveyed at the end of the class, but we have not yet received the surveys from UVM Extension. Those results will be summarized in the final report.

The third part of the course will be held this spring, with on-farm demonstrations highlighting tunnel and greenhouse designs demonstrating renewable energy use and energy efficiency. The participants, and presenters, will be surveyed to record the number of participants who learned new on-farm energy management techniques.

Mentoring Performance Target: 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 Performance Target:
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.

Status of reaching the mentoring and quality of life performance targets: The objective is to facilitate 5 mentoring relationships per course, for a total of 20 mentoring relationships over 4 courses. We spent a lot of energy this year formalizing our farmer-to-farmer mentor program, including roles and expectations, contracts, and payment structure and NOFA-VT now has 75 confirmed mentors. Four of those farmers have committed to serve as on-farm energy mentors. It has been more challenging to develop mentorships in this fourth course, as on-farm energy innovations is a newer practice, than say pest and disease management or soil and fertility management. With the growing interest in energy alternatives, we anticipate that completed surveys after the mentoring component will show that participants will implement at least 2 new practices that will increase the viability of their farms and improve their quality of lives. Because the mentoring relationships take different amounts of time, based on the schedules and initiative of the mentors and mentees, we anticipate that some of the post-mentor surveying will take place after the deadline of this grant.

Enterprise Analysis Performance Target: 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.
Status of reaching the enterprise analysis performance target: In 2012, the On-farm Energy Management course participants were initiated to enterprise analysis at the February, 2012 course. Although there was general interest in the benefits of conducting an enterprise analysis, no course participants elected to work with Rose Wilson, enterprise analysis consultant, we assume because the course took place immediately prior to the growing season and farmers were not able to prioritize the time. We are offering Rose’s services again this winter, and expect interested farmers will conduct an enterprise analysis.

Online Courses (Marketing and On-Farm Energy Courses) Performance Target: 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.
Status of reaching the on-line courses performance target: An on-line course is in production by The Women’s Ag Network-UVM Extension, NOFA-VT’s collaborative partner in the marketing course, but was not completed in 2012. An on-line course featuring video highlights of the Renewable Energy Options and Energy Efficiency Designs for Tunnels and Greenhouses tour and farmer-to-farmer workshops will be produced by NOFA staff.

On-Farm Demonstrations Performance Target: 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.
Status of reaching the on-farm demonstrations performance target: The on-farm demonstrations for the Energy Course will be held in the spring of 2013, and participant counts and surveys will be conducted at the demonstrations.

Accomplishments/Milestones

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.
Progress in 2012: We met the milestone for the fourth learning course, On-Farm Energy Management. We advertised the first part of the energy course predominantly through the NOFA-VT Winter Conference brochure, reaching 3,000 people. In addition, it was posted on-line, and advertised through our e-newsletter. The Tunnel Conference held in December, 2012 was advertised through the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association e-list and the 132 certified organic vegetable producers of NOFA-VT received a post-card with a link to additional web-based information.

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.
Progress in 2012: We exceeded the milestones set for the first 3 courses. We received an extension to complete the fourth course by June, 2013. The On-Farm Energy Course is designed to meet 3 times, at existing gatherings of farmers. The first part was held in February 2012 as part of the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, attended by 23 farmers. The second part was held in December, 2012 in collaboration with the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association and was attended by a total of 117 people, although not all of the classes were strictly on-farm energy management.

Milestone 4: Of the 100 farmer participants, 70 producers will learn and implement new practices during the summer and fall of 2010 or 2011.
Progress in 2012: We surveyed the farmers who participated in the first two parts of the on-farm energy management course, and we will follow up with them this winter (2013) to evaluate if they learned or implemented new practices.

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.
Progress in 2012: 6 farmers have completed enterprise analyses in this project so far, we have not yet reached our milestone of 16 farmers. In 2012 the following enterprise analysis work took place to reach more farmers: due to continued interest from the first three marketing workshops, a fourth workshop, Business Planning for Farm Success was held at NOFA-VT’s annual Direct Marketing Conference, Jan 8, 2012 co-hosted by project consultant Rose Wilson and Joe Buley of Screamin’ Ridge Farm and attended by 25 people. The workshop focused on enterprise analysis from a market selection perspective- how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses and financial repercussions of different marketing and sales channels. Students were provided with an overview of financial and business planning tools for implementing enterprise analysis at home. Three students followed up with Rose post-conference to obtain the cash flow spreadsheet and business planning templates. There were not any enterprise analyses completed from the On-Farm Energy Course in 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.
Progress in 2012: We have already held at least 9 on-farm workshops at conferences or on-farm demonstrations from the start of this project through 2011. The last 3 will be held this spring in a series of workshops entitled: Renewable Energy Options and Energy Efficiency Designs for Tunnels and Greenhouses, hosted by farmers who participated in the On-farm Energy 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).
Progress in 2012: 4 farmer mentors were selected to work with participants in the On-Farm Energy Management Course and will work with their mentees in 2013.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

There are several shifts in commercial vegetable production that continue to influence the development of this project: 1) 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, keeping farmers busy throughout the winter. Because of this, farmers are more discerning about their time to participate in winter conferences, workshops and planning activities. 2) There are more conferences and workshops being offered to intermediate and advanced organic vegetable producers than when the proposal was written. 3) Due to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and some extreme weather events in 2012, there is a growing interest in practices that will help farmers to mitigate climate change. We are using these factors to adjust the learning course objectives to meet the expected impacts and outcomes.

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