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, is addressing this challenge by identifying best practices in agricultural decision making and developing a workshop that will help farmers adopt these techniques. The trainings we are creating are intended to 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. With our NeSARE grant funding we are hosting three decision support workshops and providing personal decision support training for at least 20 sustainable farmers in the Adirondack region of New York. In addition to workshops, our team plans 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 are conducting introductory and follow-up interviews with regional farmers throughout 2014-2017 (we received an extension for this project in early 2016). We are using the knowledge gained from these interviews to shape the SDM workshops, case studies, conference presentations and research paper described in our proposal. Introductory interviews with farmers focus on general farm management as well as 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. 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. The challenge, we now recognize, is that our region lacks an umbrella organization to assist in logistics and distribution of invitations to interested farmers. However, 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. CISA is well known in their region, has an extensive membership list and legacy of successful workshops and a tried-and-true infrastructure for hosting these events. We provided our first workshop to CISA on February 16, 2016. Rich, Marco and I travelled to Massachusetts to lead this session. Reflecting on our slow progress in the Adirondacks, we now recognize that without a central organizing group such as CISA our team is unable to reach out to a critical mass of farmers and host successful events. As a result we have struck a relationship with the Essex Farm Institute (EFI), a CISA-like organization operating in New York’s North Country. As a result we have rescheduled our final workshop for January 18, 2017 and have every reason to believe the session will be a success. EFI is managing the invitations, public relations and logistics for the event, as CISA did in Massachusetts.
In May, 2016 our team presented some of the results from our research at the Family Enterprise Research Conference in Burlington, Vermont. In September, 2016 we traveled to the International Food Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia. Also in 2016 we submitted research papers to two separate journals, but they were not accepted for publication. We are currently revising our papers, returning to the field for more data collection, and reanalyzing our data for submission to new journals in the fall of 2017.
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. The second workshop was hosted by CISA in Springfield, Massachusetts. Approximately 22 farmers, representing 12 different farms, attended. Our final workshop is now scheduled for January 18, 2017 and will be hosted by the Essex Farm Institute.
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. Our second workshop took place in Massachusetts and had 22 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 we write our research papers and case studies. This visit will explore if, and how, participating farmers are applying the techniques discussed at the workshop and the effectiveness of these practices. We are also providing individual support to farms.
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 did not receive evaluations from CISA.
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.
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 submitted two articles to scholarly publications. Unfortunately both were rejected for publication. We plan to return to the field for further data collection and rewriting these papers for submission to alternative journals.
Please note that some elements of our project have experienced slow progress. We received an extension for this work from NeSARE to complete the project by December, 2017.
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. Partnered with CISA to complete this activity over winter, 2015-2016.
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. Completed this activity in February, 2016 in collaboration with CISA.
November 2014: Workshop II debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing). Accomplished in March, 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. Ongoing partnership with the Essex Farm Institute. Workshop scheduled for January 18, 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 January 18, 2017.
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, 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 two papers for peer review in summer, 2016. These papers were rejected. We plan to submit to alternative journals in summer-fall, 2017.
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 traveled 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 began this work, which focuses on water quality, in summer, 2016.
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