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.
After a brief hiatus in 2014, BFN re-launched in 2015, with a new coordinator, new organizational structure and dedicated focus on building the capacity necessary to conduct a statewide assessment and gaps analysis of beginning farmer resources in Massachusetts, and strengthening partnerships with other farmer networks in the region.
The members of the new Leadership Team (consisting of four young farmers and service providers), recruited over the summer, have met in person four times this fall to establish their vision and goals for the network, agree on a process for working together, and to design the framework for the resource assessment/gaps analysis project and delegate roles and responsibilities, in order to establish a sense of ownership over the project.
In December, we held our first meeting of the new Advisory Team (consisting of 14 farmers and service providers) to solicit direct feedback on our design and implementation timeline for the resource assessment/gaps analysis project using community-based participatory research methodologies. We will be incorporating their input into the surveys and focus groups we roll out in early 2016.
On December 12, 2015, BFN/Mass co-hosted a 1st Annual Northeast New Farmer Winter Gathering – which attracted 150+ beginning farmers and service providers and focused on the theme of community organizing and anti-oppression work within farming and the food system.
This event was a collaborative effort between BFN/Mass and five other farmer networks. The event was a great success, and furthered our goal of strengthening relationships with other farmer networks and building capacity across the region by examining systemic challenges within this sector.
We continue to maintain and improve www.bfnmass.org as a home base where new farmers can find relevant resources, jobs/internship, blog posts, profiles, etc. We are working on making the site more user friendly and even more valuable as resource and one stop shop for farmers looking for resources on the web.
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.
In order to execute an effective and well-thought out statewide resource assessment and gaps analysis of resources for beginning farmers in Massachusetts, it was first necessary to re-build the leadership structure of BFN and recruit farmers and service providers who were willing to explicitly help spearhead and get behind this project.
To this end, we recruited four farmers and services providers to join our Leadership Team in late Summer 2015, with the understanding that they would be doing a lot of the on-the ground work to get this project off the ground and underway.
We also recruited a new team of 14 service providers and farmers to join our Advisory Team – with the understanding that they would be there to guide the network as a whole and also to provide direct feedback on the resource assessment project.
Because the leadership team members are carrying a lot of the weight for this project, it was important to have their buy-in and develop their ownership in the project, and not to present them with a completed plan and then expect them to do the work for it on a volunteer basis.
Instead, we have chosen to follow community-based participatory research principles and methodologies, where the stakeholders are involved in the design of the process as well as the content of the research project.
To that end, the coordinator and members of the Leadership team first conducted a survey of other similar beginning farmer resource assessments that have been done in other states to learn about best practices and methodologies that we could borrow and learn from. We discovered excellent models from Maryland and Virginia and learned a lot from looking at what had been done in other parts of the country.
We then developed a basic stakeholder analysis, to get on the same page about which individuals, organizations, and stakeholders would be most impacted by this project, and have the most interest in it. Going through this process together helped all BFN leaders develop a better understanding of how many different groups are engaged in accessing or delivering resources and services to beginning farmers.
We then invited Professor Tim Griffin from Tufts University, who is an expert on this kind of action research, to provide guidance on our basic skeleton project outline, and he has offered to continue to provide guidance throughout the rest of the year and project implementation. He suggested we rearrange certain steps in our research, and we followed his advice.
The coordinator and leadership team then developed a draft outline of the project and timeline for implementation. We delegated major responsibilities amongst the members of the leadership team, and decided who would be in charge of developing and refining the survey instruments, which of us would be responsible for creating the resource matrix to map existing resources and services for beginning farmers (integrating research conducted and inventories created through the MA Food System Planning Process), and which of us would convene the focus groups of farmers and service providers.
As a team, we decided it would be prudent to solicit input from the Advisory Team on our project outline and timeline before going any further with our plan, because the Advisory Team is expected to participate fully.
We met with the Advisory Team in early December, and were further able to refine the scope and scale of the research project with their input and suggestions after we presented our initial plan. We also recruited 4 members of the Advisory Team to help develop the survey we will put out to beginning farmers and service providers. Instead of convening an additional focus group of service providers, we will largely rely on members of the Advisory Team, who are predominantly service providers from all around the state, to serve as the focus group and give qualitative feedback on resources and gaps in programming.
We are currently in the midst of clarifying our goals and desired outcomes for the assessment, refining our survey instrument, recruiting farmers and service providers to join qualitative focus groups, and developing the resource matrix.
While this iterative process is taking a bit longer than expected, we have succeeded in designing a resource assessment project that is collaborative and participatory, and we feel that because we have involved both leaders and advisors (18+ people) throughout the design process, they will be supportive of helping to carry it out in early 2016. It is also a way for service providers to come together to work on a common goal and target. We plan to continue to seek their input at key points of engagement throughout the spring, when we delve further into how we are going to interpret, synthesize, and disseminate our findings.
Overall, the general outline of the resource assessment project has not changed much and the key components remain the same, except that we have realized we need to place more limits on the scale and scope of the project based on our internal capacity. We have decided to leave out policy and focus on programs and services for beginning farmers. We feel that other groups and the MA Food Plan are tackling policy sufficiently.
Another major goal of BFN/Mass is to host in-person networking and learning events, and strengthen partnerships with allies (regional resources, service providers, and farmers) in the region.
In early 2015, the BFN/Mass coordinator started laying the groundwork for a new regional farmer gathering that would be co-hosted with other regional farmer networks. This came out of multiple attempts to reach out and collaborate with allies across state borders, and the realization that many other network coordinators were also interested in working more closely together.
After many months of planning, on Dec 12, BFN co-hosted the 1st Annual Northeast New Farmer Gathering in Greenfield, MA. This was a joint effort by BFN, Young Farmer Network, New England Farmers Union, Harvard Food Literacy Project, New Connecticut Farmers Alliance, and the Hudson Valley Young Farmers Coalition. We succeeded in attracting 150+ farmers and services providers for a day of panel workshops, advocacy trainings, anti-oppression workshops, discussion groups, and social mixing and networking. This event replaced our annual Fall Forum this year, and built a lot of energy about what we can accomplish regionally with other networks. We are planning follow up collaborations directly resulting from this event. This event seems to fill a natural niche by surfacing some more systemic issues that farmers are facing and allowing room to delve into these in a supported and constructive way.
Additional BFN/Mass activities to strengthen the network that have taken place over the program year include:
Structure and Finance:
We continue to organize monthly leadership team meetings and quarterly advisory team meetings, and to send out updates to all members monthly. The outcome of structural activities is resulting in a dedicated leadership who provides direction, inspiration, long-term sustainable financial resources, and coordination to a diverse network of farmer/service provider leaders over the long term.
Marketing and Outreach:
Our leaders and advisors and their participating organizations and affiliations continue to provide extensive outreach to stakeholders across the state.
We have participated in regional events such as the SEMAP annual meeting to give updates on BFN and to link with local work. We have been tabling and conducting outreach at key conferences such as the NE Vegetable and Fruit Conference, and plan to participate in NOFA-MA and SEMAP conferences this winter. During the growing season, we attended various events hosted by other farmer networks (Emass Craft and YFN) to spread the word about BFN’s work. We are co-hosting a financial literacy workshop with the Carrot Project in January, and have plans to do more collaborating and resource sharing in SE Mass in the new year.
BFN/Mass website, www.bfnmass.org: We are in the process of transitioning the hosting service for the BFN/Mass to the Tufts University servers for ongoing sustainability. This process has been slowed down due to lack of capacity on the Tufts IT side of things. Their new estimate for when we can transition the website hosting services is Spring 2016.
We continuously promote and update our website as a “one stop shop/clearinghouse” website, which is continually populated with current events, resources, farmer/service provider profiles, timely blog discussions, and other interactive features that keep farmers engaged and utilizing the website to find available resources.
Our Tufts work-study intern is responsible for working on ways to make the website more user friendly and help the resources capture there be even more accessible. We have seen a spike in the number of farmers and service providers using the website to post job and internship listings and resource on their own. We plan to reorganize the resource section of the webpage in early 2016.
Referral Network: Right now, we have limited capacity to operate our Referral Network, but the coordinator responds to inquiries as time allows. She has responded to 20+ referral requests this year.
April 2015 –The BFN/Mass Coordinator successfully reached out to all former Steering Committee to reinvigorate or redefine leadership teams and priorities and major purpose/value of the network. The main take aways were that the network needs a success, and priority focus project. We continued to participate in MAPC Statewide Food Policy Plan development.
The BFN intern continued to maintain the website, add events to calendar, post several new blog posts and profiles.
June – August 2015:
It took more time than anticipated to synthesize the feedback from former Steering Committee members and to develop a new organizational structure for the network. The coordinator had to develop a new application and recruitment process, and then do outreach to beginning farmers and services providers to join the Leadership and Advisory Teams, and recruit former steering committee members to join. The Coordinator attended many local farmer and network events to recruit new members, and did significant digital outreach. After the year long hiatus of BFN, it was necessary to rebrand it and re-launch the network in a way that would attract new energy and participation, and this took several months from start to finish.
The coordinator continued to strengthen connections to farmer groups such as CRAFT and Young Farmer Network, and regional allies such as New Connecticut Farmers’ Alliance and the National Young Farmer Coalition.
Instead of co-sponsoring multiple events throughout the summer, the BFN coordinator focused attention on planning a bigger regional event that would attract farmers and service providers from all over the state and beyond.
We did not host regular service provider gatherings to advise on plans for new program development because we have not yet conducted the research assessment project.
Ongoing Monthly Activities (above) continued.
Sept – Nov 2015:
As mentioned above, the fall was when we put a lot of energy into building out the leadership team and developing the design for the resource assessment projects in a collaborative way.
We laid the groundwork for the farmer survey to ground-truth programming gaps, the resource matrix, and the focus groups, and delegated these roles to members of the leadership team and advisory team.
Ongoing Monthly Activities (above) continued.
December 2015 – current
We hosted our first Advisory Team meeting (14 people in attendance) to meet each other and solicit direct feedback on the resource assessment project plan. This was a very useful meeting, and helped us put some needed parameters around the project and recruit advisors to be more involved in the execution.
We are in the midst of refining our project design and implementation plan and key pieces of the resource assessment, which will be rolled out in early 2016.
We successfully co-hosted the regional farmer gathering in collaboration with five other regional farmer networks. This involved securing donations; inviting service providers and farmers; establishing discussion tracks through pre-registration farmer selections; developing facilitators for topic areas. At this event, we gave an update on the resource gaps project and invited participants to be involved moving forward in working groups. We learned that lots of farmers want to learn more anti-oppression and anti-racist organizing skills and build community around this effort.
We are in the process of doing follow-up from this event.
BFN attends outreach events: SEMAP Annual Meeting, Young Farmers Conference, NE Vegetable and Fruit conference.
Ongoing Monthly Activities (above) continued.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
None to report yet; will be collecting impact / outcome data in 2016.
Long Life Farm
205 Winter Street
Hopkinton, MA 01748
Office Phone: 5084973676
Renegade Garden, LLC
17 Barry Drive
Ashland, MA 01721
Office Phone: 9783089365
New Heritage Farm
Wrentham, MA 02070
Office Phone: 6032440983