Enhancing on-farm decision making and building community among Adirondack farmers
Without a structured approach to planning and decision making, farm management can become hasty, haphazard and arbitrary. Indeed, in many cases of farm closure, farmers blame the multifarious and interrelated complexities of farming, rather than single dilemmas with clear solutions, for their challenges. Our team of farmers (our host farmer is Marco Turco of Manzini Farms) from Essex and Clinton Counties in northern New York, and professors and students (two outstanding students are working on this project: Amelia Flanery and Lucas Haight) from SUNY Plattsburgh, is collaborating to host three decision support workshops and provide personal decision support training for at least 20 sustainable farmers in the Adirondack region of New York. Our trainings will provide participants the opportunity to LEARN, PRACTICE, APPLY and INSTITUTIONALIZE Structured Decision Making (SDM), a planning approach that offers a standardized and effective method for making complex choices regarding farm management.
To accomplish our objectives we planned to conduct at least two interviews with each participating farmer, and use the knowledge gained from these interviews to shape the SDM workshops. The first interview focuses on general farm management and the identification of specific on-farm challenges and decisions that farmers face. The second interview focuses on the details of each farmer’s decision making processes as they manage the challenges identified in the previous interview. Over the course of May-September 2014 our team of faculty and students conducted fifteen first round interviews and two second round interviews. From September-November we have focused on analyzing those interviews using NVIVO qualitative data analysis software. During this time Amelia and Lucas were trained in the software and have spent approximately four hours each week analyzing interviews.
In November we turned our attention to planning the first of our SDM workshops, which we intended to host on December 6. Unfortunately, as December 6 approached we received notice from several participating farmers that they would be unable to attend on that date. Subsequently, we have postponed the workshop to early February, 2015. Over the course of December and January we plan to continue planning the workshop and work with the farmers to find a date in February, 2015 when we will have better attendance.
The two-phased interviews and workshops I, II and III are the centerpieces of our plan.
We conducted 15 first round interviews and two second round interviews from May-September 2014. Our interviews addressed the following questions: 1) What was the first major decision you made as you launched your farm? 2) What is the most challenging decision you have made while operating your farm? 3) What is a current decision with which you are wrestling? We will then ask follow-up questions to fully understand farmers’ decision making processes and outcomes. Through our ongoing data analysis we are on our way to constructing a theory of on-farm decision making, developing a typology of choice types, identifying tools and tactics that farmers use to make decisions and understanding the effectiveness of these strategies. We are using this knowledge to inform the development of our upcoming workshops.
Originally we planned to host our workshops in January and October 2014, and January 2015. We held our first workshop in February, 2014 and received positive feedback from the eight farmers that attended. Workshops two and three have been delayed for several reasons, including: A) conducting interviews, and collecting and analyzing data, has taken longer than expected. The farmers we’re working with have limited availability and personal travel schedules, and our team of faculty and students had travel, work and summer class schedules that sometimes made scheduling difficult. B) The summer 2014 growing season lasted later into October than expected, and thus farmers were reluctant to take time away from their farms during the time we hoped to host the first workshop. C) Amelia, Lucas and I were all busier than expected once the fall, 2014 semester started and therefore did not have as much time to dedicate to the project and workshop planning. D) We planned and publicized the first workshop for December 6, 2014. Once we notified participating farmers however, a number of participants informed us that they would be unable to attend on December 6. Therefore we have postponed that workshop to February, 2015 and are working with farmers to make sure we hold the event when they can attend. As a result of delaying this workshop we will also need to push the final workshop but we have not identified a date for that yet.
We identified the following metrics in our proposal and provide an update on each:
Metric 1: Workshop Attendance. Target: 20 Farmers from Essex and Clinton Counties attend workshops. We hosted the first workshop in February, 2014 and had eight participating farmers.
Metric 2: Ongoing support through summer, 2014. Target: Two visits per farm (40 visits). We have conducted fifteen round one visits and two second round interviews.
Metric 3: Participant satisfaction with workshops and support. Target: 90% satisfaction rate on evaluations at workshops. The first workshop was well received, with a 100% satisfaction rate.
Metric 4: Case Study Dissemination. Target: Distribute at least 200 case study packets and give 10 oral presentations to agricultural organizations by summer, 2015. We will begin working in this area once we are further along in data analysis.
Metric 5: Media Outreach. Target: At least three media stories (radio, newspaper, magazine or television) by summer, 2015. We have not yet addressed this metric.
Metric 6: Publication of journal article and conference presentation. Target: One article in relevant journal and one conference presentation by fall, 2015. We are in the process of submitting two conference proposals: 1) Family Enterprise Research Conference, June 4-7, 2015 at University of Vermont; 2) Association of Environmental Studies and Science, June 24-27, 2015, University of San Diego. Furthermore, Amelia and Lucas are currently working on the foundation of a research paper, beginning with drafts of introductions and methods sections.
October 2013-January 2014*: Plan Workshop I (reserve space for workshop; develop training materials; outreach/invitations to Clinton and Essex County farmers). Contact media. Accomplished as expected.
January 2014*: Workshop I- introduce and provide training in SDM. Participants identify personal on-farm management challenge and apply SDM to this issue. Workshop includes peer-to-peer support, trainer presentations, panel discussion and other activities. Train farmers in specific decision making tools and techniques. Workshop evaluation. Workshop was held in February, 2014.
February 2014: Workshop I debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing). Accomplished as expected.
February-September 2014: Ongoing individual SDM support and training; visit each participant at least twice; all participants invited to site visits. Research interviews in conjunction with site visits or via telephone. We conducted fifteen first round interviews and two second round interviews. Scheduling made progress slow. We expect to conduct more interviews in January, 2015 and over the summer of 2015.
August-October 2014: Workshop II planning (reserve space for workshop; develop training materials; outreach/invitations to participants). Analyze/integrate research data. Contact media. We delayed development and hosting of this workshop to accommodate farmers’ schedules. We are currently in this phase of the project and plan to host this workshop in February, 2015.
October 2014: Workshop II- reflect on SDM process and application to on-farm management problems; Identify strengths and weaknesses of SDM and specific decision making techniques; list lessons learned and modification of approach to farming context; identify success stories for use in case studies; ongoing individual SDM support and training. Workshop evaluation. We will host this workshop in February, 2015.
November 2014: Workshop II debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing). We will accomplish this in February, 2015.
November 2014-January 2015: Workshop III planning (reserve space for workshop; develop training materials; outreach/invitations to participants). Ongoing individual SDM support and training. Contact media. This phase has been delayed in conjunction with slow progress on prior steps. We plan to move to this phase in spring and summer, 2015.
January 2015: Workshop III- Apply SDM to 2015 season planning. Participants aim to apply SDM to all major management decisions regarding 2015 season. Workshop evaluation. The final workshop will be held in fall, 2015. This will give us the opportunity continue interviews throughout the 2015 growing season and explore implementation and outcomes of SDM workshops over that season.
December 2014-January 2015: Case study development and distribution; Workshop III debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing). We will begin this phase of the project in spring and summer, 2015.
January-September 2015: Write and publish research paper. Continue case study distribution and provide oral presentations to regional agricultural organizations and community. Attend conference. We have begun work on one research paper. We are also in the process of submitting proposals to attend two conferences: 1) Family Enterprise Research Conference, June 4-7, 2015 at University of Vermont; 2) Association of Environmental Studies and Science, June 24-27, 2015, University of San Diego.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
While our project is moving slower than expected, we are developing preliminary results. As we analyze the data from our interviews, we recognize that participating farmers use a wide range of decision making strategies. For example, some farmers are utilizing highly analytical and financial techniques to weigh benefits and costs of specific decisions at fine levels of detail. Others make decisions on “gut feelings” and assumptions. Still others seek out advice from a wide range of mentors and experts, and apply the knowledge of these trusted advisors. Furthermore, participating farmers outlined a diverse set of decisions as particularly challenging. Among the most vexing topics are decisions related to finding and keeping high performing employees; finding and keeping consistent consumers and markets; learning to grow and produce new products; and successfully and consistently reducing expenses.
Our current thinking regarding our research papers and conference presentations are that we will develop case studies, or vignettes, of specific farms and decisions that represent broader themes. We believe this approach will be engaging, as it will “take the reader” to the farms and provide them with rich details about how the farms operate and make decisions. Additionally, this approach will feed development of the case studies we plan to write later in 2015.
Participating farmers continue to be supportive an engaged in this project. We receive periodic requests for specific and individual decision support from the farmers.
We have also attached a letter from Amelia Flanery, one of the student leaders of this project, outlining her exprience and learning throughout this process.
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