Expanding the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts
Formed in 2011, the Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts (BFN/Mass) is a collaborative network of farmers and service providers dedicated to beginning farmer success. In 2012, BFN/Mass created a website and resource finder (www.bfnmass.org) to help beginning farmers find needed information and services. Our objective of this NESARE Partnership Project is to expand the BFN/Mass Network by strengthening partnerships among farmers, agricultural service providers, and community organizations to identify gaps, develop new programming, and expand utilization of services for new farmers. We worked to research and map existing services in partnership with the statewide Massachusetts Food Policy Planning process, to identify gaps as compared to expressed farmer needs, and we are working to create new programs and services. We have formed several working groups among farmers and service providers including topics of women in agriculture, urban agriculture, financial literacy training, and farmland access. Our ongoing project goals are to continue to expand farmer access to and use of programs and services to improve productivity, their economic bottom line, and quality of life; develop systematic strategies for beginning farmers to address education, training and technical assistance needs, coordinated through multiple provider organizations; strengthen relationships among service providers to foster new collaborations and partnerships; and engage with regional and national networks to affect policy and address resource gaps.
Our overall objective of this SARE Partnership Project is to expand the BFN/Mass Network by strengthening partnerships among service providers and farmers to identify gaps in programs and resources for new farmers, prioritize new programming, and improve effectiveness and utilization of existing programs and resources. To accomplish this, we are concentrating our efforts on working regionally across Massachusetts on different “topic area” themes and teams to move our efforts forward. To date, we have focused on the key topic areas of: women in agriculture, urban agriculture, financial literacy training, and farmland access.
As our first effort, to identify gaps in programming and resources for new farmers, we have been working closely with the Massachusetts Food Policy Planning Process, led by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to bring together statewide stakeholders to develop a comprehensive Food Plan for Massachusetts, which will include program and policy recommendations for new farmers. New Entry’s Project Director serves on the Advisory Committee to the effort and is participation in the “Production” working group which has two subgroups: urban agriculture and production agriculture to represent the interests of next generation/beginning farmers. New Entry’s Farmland Coordinator is also participating in the statewide farmland working group with an eye toward new farmers and next generation land access issues. Our original (2012) BFN/Mass resource map of programs and services in the Massachusetts landscape has been shared with the steering committee and is currently being updated with a list of existing programs and resources. Further analysis of this document will take place throughout the planning process which is scheduled to continue through Spring 2015. While this initial group is not as inclusive of new farmers as key stakeholders as we originally planned in our proposal, our goal is to use the research being collated by the MAPC project to distribute and seek input from new farmers participating in other aspects of BFN/Mass and turn the findings into a survey we can distribute and seek additional feedback around gaps and other resources needed. Therefore, our original goal to do our own gaps analysis and research has been partnered with an existing effort that will ultimately result in a more comprehensive look at statewide programs and resources, including being mapped in a more visual way (thanks to MAPC GIS resources) than we have the capacity do to ourselves. In the end, though the timeline may be longer than we proposed, the end result will be more comprehensive and lay the foundation for a better planning process to address resource gaps moving forward.
Additional work that we have been coordinating as part of this effort is a focus on Women in Agriculture. In spring 2014, we hosted a working group of Women in Agriculture that was a direct outshoot of the 2013 Fall Forum round table discussion. In order to set priorities of the working group, the group decided that a survey of other women farmers needs and issues was important to set the agenda for the group. New Entry conducted an online survey to collect data on women involved in agriculture in Southeastern New England. New Entry staff and interns sent the survey to several farming and food-related listservs, professional networks, and students in Tufts University’s Agriculture, Food, and Environment program. A total of 87 people responded. To summarize the results in brief: the majority of respondents (40%) have been involved in agriculture for 2-6 years, 25% have been involved for 6-10 years, and 20% for over 10 years. Only 15% of respondents have been involved for less than two years or are not yet involved. Of the 72 people who characterized their relationship to farming, 42% said they are farm workers, 35% are farm owners/farm managers, and 20% are farm service providers. The survey asked participants to list separately barriers and issues facing farmers in general and barriers facing women farmers in particular. Repeated themes arose in the responses to these separate questions, such as difficulty in accessing land due to low availability and high cost, access to finance (whether grant funds or loans), low income, hard work, difficulty achieving work/life balance, and weather variability. However, new themes emerged in the barriers facing women farmers. For farmers in general, the top three issues cited were access to land (38 responses), access to finance (24), and low wages (16). Among issues facing women, the top three issues were raising children and access to childcare (18), sexism and bias against women farmers (17), and difficulty using farm machinery and equipment (12). When asked what types of programs, resources, and services women farmers need, the top four responses were networks for resource sharing and collaboration (24), financial assistance (13), training on using and repairing machinery (11), and mentorship (11). The survey question related to what policies would help women farmers generated a low response rate, with only 54 respondents writing in. Of those, 15 respondents were either not sure or did not have policies to recommend. Of those respondents who wanted to see policies enacted, the top four policy goals were assistance to small and medium sized farms (6), subsidized childcare (5), paid maternity and paternity leave for farmers (4), and increased financing opportunities (4). Other policy suggestions included loan forgiveness, support for farmland preservation and reclamation, tax deductions and exemptions for local food production, establishing new farmers markets or similar marketing outlets, and reduced regulation on small-scale animal slaughter and processing. The top three training topics respondents would find helpful include mechanical (18), business planning (16), and finance (12). Respondents are also seeking technical assistance in management, marketing, land access, and legal issues (including labor guidelines, environmental requirements, and food safety standards). Respondents requested specific technical topics including carpentry, soil fertility, conservation practices, pasture management, irrigation, planting techniques, animal husbandry, perennial agro-forestry, and animal slaughter and processing. These training needs and overall survey results will be incorporated into the ongoing work of BFN/Mass and the Mass Food Policy Planning Process.
Growing interest in Urban Agriculture became another prominent theme in statewide conversations around supporting new producers in highly urbanized communities in Boston and other cities in Massachusetts. Much of this was generated by funding opportunities through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the need to clarify goals for Urban Agriculture in the 2015 Environmental Bond Bill passed by the state legislature. Additional issues that are distinct among urban producers than their more rural counterparts became an issue in the MA State Food Policy planning process which resulted in a separate work group under the “Production” working group. New Entry/BFN/Mass was asked to participate in multiple Urban Agriculture working groups to inform statewide resource development in this area, so this became another key topic area for BFN/Mass activities in 2014.
Financial Literacy is another key topic area of focus for BFN/Mass efforts and was integrated into this partnership project in 2014. A number of conversations were converging at various statewide gatherings among service providers who offer capital to new and beginning farmers. Lenders such as the Carrot Project, Farm Service Agency, Farm Credit East, MDAR’s MEGA program, and others were commenting that many of the beginning farmers seeking capital from their programs were unprepared as new borrowers, meaning either they lacked the records, financial capacity, or comprehensive business plan needed to be qualified for the level of financing they were seeking. Several conversations were scheduled to discuss ways that service providers to convene to share common issues, identify weak links in the skills of new farmers seeking financing, and plan collaborative programming to address gaps. As a result of these conversations, two funding proposals were developed to secure additional resources to create a “Farm Financing Video” series and training curriculum to strengthen new farmer support around access to credit/capital. Funding decisions are pending.
Farmland Access is an ongoing area of interest for new and beginning farmers. As noted above, much of this conversation is happening around the MA Food Policy Plan and there is a working group around land access that is convening in January 2015 and in which BFN/Mass will play a role in convening new farmer input to policy conversations moving forward. Additionally, New Entry and other land trusts are beginning to form a partnership in MA to share the New Entry farmland matching service database. New Entry and the Mount Grace Land Trust will be piloting the collaborative database sharing process in 2015 and revising the intake and application process for landowners seeking to make their land available for farming.
Additional BFN/Mass activities to strengthen the network that have taken place over the program year include:
Structure and Finance: Our goal was to continue to address the organizational structure, relationships, sustainable funding, and leadership capacity by organizing steering committee conference calls, an annual retreat, and creating a listserv to facilitate communication. Unfortunately, we had a staffing transition mid-season during the project period, and our first call for applicants did not result in a suitable pool of candidates to fill the position, so we have not had the leadership to maintain the steering committee structure as defined. We reposted the position this fall and have gone through several candidates who made it to the final stages of the hiring process and did not accept the position. As of this report (December 2014), we do have a candidate who will be filling the position and once the new BFN/Mass Coordinator is hired (January 2015), we will resume our commitment to rebuilding a vibrant steering committee and a dedicated leadership team who provide direction, inspiration, long-term sustainable financial resources, and coordination to a diverse network of farmer/service provider leaders over the long term. However, despite the lack of staff capacity, two of the original steering committee leaders have moved forward to address the sustainable funding strategy and a new Massachusetts Choose Fresh and Local License plate initiative will be dedicating 10% of the annual funds raised from the proceeds of the plate revenues to support BFN/Mass moving forward.
Marketing and Outreach: We continued to provide outreach to stakeholders across the state about BFN/Mass resources. Many of our BFN/Mass partners have links to BFN/Mass on their website. We are hoping to further enhance marketing and outreach efforts, including development of promotional materials and resume a more robust outreach schedule to strengthen social media presence and activity (quarterly e-newsletters, weekly Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.); workshops about BFN/Mass resources and tabling at state and regional conferences, farmer gatherings, workshops and events; and promoting BFN/Mass at career fairs and high schools once our new coordinator is on board (January 2015).
BFN/Mass website, www.bfnmass.org: An up-to-date, user-friendly, “one stop shop/clearinghouse” website is frequently populated with current events and resources postings. A student intern from Tufts keeps event postings current and most service providers have a login/account so they can post their own events and resources. We will resume active development of farmer/service provider profiles, timely blog discussions, and other interactive features to keep farmers engaged and utilizing the website to find available resources moving forward. The website will be continually updated to meet these goals. Service providers will add offerings to the “Resource Map” which can be sorted and filtered; and a “Resource Finder.” Currently over 100 active service provider groups are posting resources, events, and services on the site. Our goal is to have over 400 by the end of 2015.
Referral Network: When farmers cannot find information or resources through the website, we offer personalized TA through a reliable Referral Network that is connected to resource networks regionally and nationally. At least 20 farmers/month have been receiving targeted referrals via phone or email, we aim to continue to increase this level of support in 2015.
Create Educational Materials: Guest bloggers (expert farmers and service providers) can post articles with useful advice and resources for beginning farmers. Our goal is to develop at least 30 new farmer and service provider profiles and 40 blog posts and increase readership by 50% by 2015, though we are not quite there yet.
Centralized Event Calendar: By continuing to promote a statewide agricultural event calendar, we can track views and service providers can use the BFN/Mass calendar to plan events that do not conflict topically or geographically. Our goal is to post all events pertaining to beginning farmers in MA and we have kept up to date with this throughout the 2014 season.
Host In-person Networking Events: BFN/Mass has been unable to co-sponsor farmer-to-farmer events with other organizations due to staff transition/capacity issues, but we will resume planning for these events in 2015. The BFN/Mass will host a Winter Forum where 100+ beginning farmers and service providers can meet and work together in either February or March 2015; our fall forum was postponed until we have the new coordinator on board.
Include regional resources, service providers, and farmers: Additional service providers from CT, RI, NH, VT, ME, and NY have been added to the online resource finder and are posting resources, programs, and events that occur near the MA borders.
April – May 2014 –BFN/Mass Steering Committee meets to review SARE workplan and to discuss additional funding resources secured for future of BFN/Mass (2 local foundation grants received and new proposed license plate revenues). Ongoing Monthly Activities (coordinated by coordinator) were implemented: Events added to calendar, blogs posted, profiles added, referrals tracked, newsletter created / distributed, working groups/steering committee meetings. At the end of April, BFN/Mass coordinator resigns and position is posted. Only 5 applications for the position were received and 1 applicant was qualified and an interviewed. Unfortunately, the candidate resides in NH, and was not interested in relocating to MA for the position immediately and was not hired. Additional funding applications to support a broader scope for BFN/Mass were submitted to expand the position from part-time to full-time to attract better candidates. Position was reposted in October 2014 pending outcome of (unfortunately, unsuccessful) funding proposals.
New Entry circulated Women in Agriculture survey and analyzed results. New Entry began participation on Steering Committee for MA Food Policy Planning Process representing beginning farmer perspective. The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Farming in Massachusetts (107 page resource guide featuring 35 unique fact sheets) was completed and posted to the BFN/Mass and New Entry websites. A total of 196 unique downloads of the entire resource guide have been recorded since the document was posted. Individual fact sheet downloads vary in number of downloads/views.
May – September 2014 – No Round table meetings were held as originally planned, due to lack of staff capacity, but ongoing Monthly Activities continued by our student intern (event postings, website updates). New Entry attended bi-monthly meetings of MA Food Policy Planning Process, the New England Food Vision Conference in RI, and the MA Urban Agriculture Working Groups. New Entry also attended a regional Southeastern Massachusetts Service Provider working group organized by the Island Foundation to bring together groups working with producers in SE Mass and to discuss how to bring beginning farmer resources to the region in the wake of SEMAP’s reduced capacity in the region. The outcome of the meeting was to engage New Entry and BFN/Mass more in providing ongoing farmland matching support and possible farm business planning programming to the region. A new meat processing working group is also forming the region and will be connected to the BFN/Mass resources on the topic.
BFN/Mass did not actively seek to conduct monthly co-sponsored new farmer events in each region of Massachusetts due to lack of staff capacity, but efforts to partner with regional buy-local groups to host BFN-Co-Sponsored on-farm event that features a targeted service provider and new farmer group will resume in 2015.
Groundwork was laid to host a service provider-farmer round table on farm financing / financial literacy gaps to facilitate collaboration and develop new programming. Two new funding proposals with collaboration from Farm Service Agency, Farm Credit East, the Carrot Project, NH Community Loan Fund, were submitted to appropriate funding sources.
October – November 2014 – Steering Committee Retreat to review ongoing structural and programming operations of the network was postponed and the BFN/Mass Coordinator position was posted again. 13 applications were received and 6 candidates were interviewed. Plans for the Annual Fall Forum were postponed until February/March 2015 when the new coordinator is hired. Project Director attended the MA Food Policy Steering Committee Meeting and two Urban Agriculture working group meetings. Ongoing Monthly Activities (above) continued.
December 2014 – January 2015 – New BFN/Mass Coordinator position recommendation to hire and hiring process complete for early January start date. New Coordinator will plan to attend winter outreach conferences and upcoming events to promote BFN/Mass. BFN/Mass asked to participate in another Steering Committee on Urban Agriculture hosted by the City of Boston, meetings will be held monthly January – October 2015. The first meeting of the statewide Farmland Access working group will be meeting in January 2015, attended by the New Entry Farmland Coordinator who will keep the BFN/Mass staff person up to date on ongoing activities for the network. Ongoing Monthly Activities continued.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
None to report yet; will be collecting impact / outcome data in 2015.
Long Life Farm
205 Winter Street
Hopkinton, MA 01748
Office Phone: 5084973676
Renegade Garden, LLC
17 Barry Drive
Ashland, MA 01721
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New Heritage Farm
Wrentham, MA 02070
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