Farmer-Led Learning Groups to Mentor Beginning Farmers
Beginning farmers as well as farmers transitioning to more sustainable systems such as grazing can greatly benefit from the guidance of more accomplished farmers. In 2000, the Regional Farm & Food Project inaugurated an acclaimed Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program with support from Northeast SARE.
Since then, it has become clear that a more structured, group-oriented approach would better serve beginning farmers and be more cost-effective. Thus, we devised “Farmer-Led Learning Groups to Mentor Beginning Farmers.” For a 12-month period, we will pilot this program with four mentors each working with four to eight farmers in structured groups that meet for several hours monthly on farms. The groups will combine hands-on activities with conceptual learning. Each group will have a particular pasture-based animal agriculture focus, such as small ruminants for direct marketed meat and fiber, and a geographic focus. A number of likely candidates for these learning/mentoring groups can be identified from attendees at recent RFFP educational programs.
A skills and experience checklist developed by each mentor/group leader will structure the group’s curriculum. The checklist will serve as a program evaluation tool and will help individual farmers track their progress.
To expose participants to additional farmer expertise, RFFP will organize three relevant one-day seminars. After one year, learning groups may decide to reconfigure as farmer networks.
For one year, four farmer mentors will develop structured learning groups for 4 to 8 beginning farmers to deepen their skills in grass-based livestock or dairy farming.
Three one-day workshops will provide additional training to farmers in the project and others.
In April 2004, we held an orientation with the five farmers who had committed to serving as mentors/group leaders with this project. We brainstormed about and discussed aspects of the project, including participant recruitment, role of the mentors, content and structure of the group meetings, and the pre-group checklist. A follow-up mailing included a contract, guidance from the orientation, and sample checklists.
Following the orientation, the mentors/group leaders began recruiting farmer participants. Three of the leaders quickly assembled enthusiastic groups of approximately four or five to ten interested farmers/farm couples. Overwhelmingly these individuals were beginning farmers, while a few were individuals interested in deepening their knowledge of grazing or shifting to more commercial agriculture. Each of these groups began meeting during the late spring and two of them continued to meet on an almost monthly basis.
A fourth farmer leader stepped back from the project, without recruiting group participants, due to his personal time constraints. In addition, the only dairy farmer among the five farmer leaders did not succeed in convening a group; neither he nor the project coordinator could identify enough current or aspiring dairy farmers in a reasonable geographic radius who desired to take transition to grazing and join a beginning grazing group.
Finally, following her first well-attended group meeting, one of the three farmer leaders precipitously resigned from the project, citing a multitude of pressures and responsibilities for her aging mother. The project coordinator communicated with each of the participants in this group, held one meeting after the leader quit, and found a replacement leader. Unfortunately, his farm’s location about 50 minutes north of the first leader created a distance problem for some of the participants, as did his complicated schedule which made it impossible to find mutually convenient meeting times. Though he held several meetings, too many of the participants withdrew from the group, disappointed by the first leader’s resignation. The group subsequently dissolved.
The learning groups have each unique. One group has focused on pasture management, and has held sessions on topics such as fencing and watering systems and assessing pasture diversity and quality. Another group has chosen to respond to the actual circumstances on each farm and also selects issues that arise from the changing seasons. The sheep and goat group has dealt more with traditional animal husbandry topics, such as hoof health and breeding.
The Regional Farm & Food Project also held three educational seminars for participants in these learning groups and other farmers. On November 12 and 13, the Humane Society of the U.S. presented two Low-Stress Animal Handling workshops led by Dr. Jennifer Lanier and Robert Hadad. Approximately 30 farmers attended. These workshops, held on farms in Washington and Ulster County, involved presentations and much discussion, small group activities, and hands-on exercises among the participants and with cattle.
Direct Marketing Your Meats, on December 11, attracted about 50 farmers. This program was presented by two sustainable livestock farmers Judy Pangman and Denise Warren, who have each developed impressive income-generating businesses by effectively marketing their farms’ meats, along with John Wing, a Vermont farmer who built and operates a state-of-the-art USDA inspected, certified organic slaughter house and retail meat shop.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Twenty six farmers from approximately 20 farms have been participants in the learning groups. About 70 farmers participated in the three seminars offered last fall.
We have not yet assessed the impacts of the learning groups. Our evaluation will be undertaken toward the end of the project, this fall. However, participants have subjectively expressed their appreciation with the guidance, modeling, and feedback which they have received as part of these groups. Both the peer contacts and the mentoring farmer seem important to the process.
Sometimes a single insight gleaned from speaking with a more experienced farmer has a remarkable impact. For example, one of the farmer leaders reported that one beginning farmer was using expensive permanent fence to divide his paddocks, where a single strand of temporary wire would do. Coming to the first meeting saved him countless dollars and time building unnecessary and costly fence.
Four Winds Farm
158 Marabac Rd.
Gardiner, NY 12525
Office Phone: 8452553088
2714 Houghtaling Hollow Rd.
East Meredith, NY 13757
Office Phone: 6074369095
Breese Hollow Farm
454 Breese Hollow Rd.
Hoosick Falls, NY 12090
Office Phone: 5186864044
654 Beadle Hill Rd.
Valley Falls, NY 12195
Office Phone: 5187537838
Bishopp Family Farm
2809 Route 12-B
Deansboro, NY 13328
Office Phone: 3158413336