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 from Essex and Clinton Counties in northern New York, and professors and students from SUNY Plattsburgh, intends to address these obstacles by identifying best practices in decision making and developing a workshop for farmers that would help them adopt these techniques. It is our intention to create trainings that 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. We aim 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. In addition to workshops, our team intends to write 20 case studies of decisions made by participating farmers that could be distributed throughout the agricultural community in New York; give two conference presentations to international audiences; and submit one peer-reviewed research paper to a scholarly journal. Some portions of our work have proceeded as planned, while others have taken longer than expected. As a result, we asked and received an extension on our project through fall, 2017.
Our team is comprised of two faculty members from SUNY Plattsburgh, Curt Gervich in the Center for Earth and Environmental Science and Rich Gottschall in the School for Business and Economics; Marco Turco, a leader in the local agricultural community and owner of Manzini Farms; and SUNY Plattsburgh students Amelia Flanery and Lucas Haight.
To accomplish our objectives we conducted two interviews each with fifteen regional farmers throughout 2014-2015. We are now using the knowledge gained from these interviews to shape the SDM workshops, case studies, conference presentations and research paper described in our proposal. The first interview focused on general farm management and the identification of specific on-farm challenges and decisions that farmers face. The second interview focused on the details of each farmer’s decision making processes as they managed the challenges identified in the previous interview. We are analyzing the interviews using NVIVO qualitative data analysis software.
We have had great success meeting some of our goals, and have made less progress on others. We held our first workshop in February, 2014. In November, 2014 we began planning the second 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 postponed the workshop to early February, 2015. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons we were forced to postpone the workshop again. This was discouraging, and we have not rescheduled this workshop. The challenge, we believe, is that our region lacks an umbrella organization to assist in logistics and distribution of invitations to interested farmers.
We deduce this because, in the fall of 2014, we were contacted by Kelly Coleman, the Program Director at Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), a nonprofit organization in Deerfield, Massachusetts and invited to provide our workshops to their member-farmers. We are scheduled to provide our first workshop to CISA on February 16, 2016. CISA provides a series of workshops over the winter months. CISA is well known in their region, have an extensive membership list and legacy of successful workshops and a tried-and-true infrastructure for hosting these events. Without a central organizing group such as CISA in the Adirondacks our team is unable to reach out to a critical mass of farmers and therefore our workshops are destined to be sparsely attended.
In May, 2015 our team presented some of the results from our research at the Family Enterprise Research Conference in Burlington, Vermont. In September, 2015 we traveled to the International Food Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia and presented our results to that audience. We also have one research paper in review at Organization and Environment, a scholarly journal in the process of publishing a special issue on family business and sustainability.
The two-phased interviews and workshops I, II and III are the centerpieces of our plan.
We conducted two interviews each with fifteen farmers throughout 2014-2015.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 then asked follow-up questions to fully understand farmers’ decision making processes and outcomes. Through our ongoing data analysis we are constructing a theory of on-farm decision making, a typology of choice types, and successful tools and tactics that farmers use to make decisions. We are using this knowledge to inform the development of our workshops and research products.
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. Most significantly, our region lacks a well-known organization among farmers with established infrastructure for reaching out and hosting workshops such as this. Our cooperative extension office frequently holds technical, production-oriented workshops but seems unininterested in business planning and management-oriented programming. Additionally, we have had difficulty coordinating student, faculty, and farmer schedules and generating sufficient interest in attending workshops.
Once we are able to host these sessions, we will be able to continue our research with participating farmers. We anticipate conducting evaluations at each workshop so that we understand the effectiveness of our trainings, and also return interviews with each farm several months after the workshops inquiring about whether farmers were able to apply the lessons from the workshops on their farms.
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 two formal interviews with fifteen farms and had dozens of additional informal interactions at farmers markets, local food expositions and other events. We anticipate a third visit to each farm as follow-up to the final workshop. This visit will explore if, and how, participating farmers are applying the techniques discussed at the workshop and the effectiveness of these practices.
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. We have not yet held workshops 2-3.
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 on this task 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. We anticipate inviting media coverage of the two upcoming workshops.
Metric 6: Publication of journal article and conference presentation. Target: One article in relevant journal and one conference presentation by fall, 2015. We provided two conference presentations in 2015: 1) Family Enterprise Research Conference, June 4-7, 2015 at University of Vermont; 2) International Food Studies Conference, Blacksburg Virginia, September 17-20, 2015. We have a research paper under peer review at Organization and Environment. We hope that our paper is published in an upcoming special issue of this journal, which focuses on sustainability efforts in family-owned businesses.
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. Accomplished.
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 working to schedule our workshops for winter 2016.
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 winter, 2016.
November 2014: Workshop II debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing). We will accomplish this in winter, 2016.
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, 2016-2017.
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, 2016.
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, 2016-2017.
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 provided two workshop presentations in fall, 2015 and submitted one paper for peer review in fall, 2015.
Future work plan:
We will focus on smaller group workshops with the original 8 farmers who attended Workshop I and follow them over a year to measure any lessons learned and outcomes.
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.
We have extended the reach of our work through conference presentations and publication. We have presented elements of this project at two national conferences and have one paper in peer-review at the international journal, Organization and Environment.
Furthermore, the two students working on this project have leveraged their research and outreach experience into exciting opportunities. Lucas graduated in 2014 and is traveling to New Zealand and Australia to labor on large sheep farms for the next two years. Amelia used her NESARE experience to build her application for a prestigious internship and scholarship from the Environmental Protection Agency. She will begin this work, which focuses on water quality, in summer, 2016.
We will recruit new students to the team for the 2016-2017 project years.
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