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. A leadership team and an advisory team were both formed in 2015, and have continued on in their capacity through 2016.
Since our 2015 annual report, we have completed most of the steps in our statewide assessment and gaps analysis. In January 2016, the BFN/Mass coordinator completed the beginning farmer resources matrix by gathering information from various service providers around the state. A new coordinator was hired in late February, and then in March of 2016 the new coordinator worked with members of the BFN/Mass Advisory Committee to develop an online survey. This was distributed throughout the state via partners, social media, and various statewide list serves through April, May, and June 2016. Over 150 beginning farmers responded to the survey, with 63 completing the full survey. Additionally, the coordinator conducted 13 beginning farmer interviews between June and August 2016 to gather qualitative data about the resource needs of beginning farmers.
Results from both the survey and farmer interviews were analyzed and presented to the BFN/Mass Advisory and Leadership Teams in late July 2016, and then gathered in a key findings report, which is now in the final stages of completion. A draft of this key findings report was presented at the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative meeting in Grafton, MA in November 2016; in attendance were several key stakeholders in food systems and agriculture throughout the state. In January 2017, the coordinator will complete the key findings report, distribute it widely via websites, list serves, and partners, and meet with the Leadership and Advisory Teams to determine what impact the findings from our research project will have on the future direction of BFN/Mass.
Additionally, 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, and to receive advice on conducting a participatory research project. To this end, we recruited four farmers and services providers to join our Leadership Team in late Summer 2015, and 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.
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 you will see in detail in the “Accomplishments and Milestones” section of this report, we were largely able to stick to the project outline during the implementation phase this year, with a few alterations to the research methods and timeline. Our overall goal of understanding what resources and information for beginning farmers exist adequately across the state and identifying the major gaps has been achieved. In the final months of the extended project timeline, we will distribute the key findings from our gaps analysis and decide how to proceed with filling the gaps that exist and how these findings will impact the direction BFN/Mass.
Structure and Finance: We have moved from monthly Advisory and Leadership meetings this year to hosting them on an as needed basis. Declining availability of the leadership team to find times to meet and the need to devote limited capacity to actually implementing the assessment and gaps analysis was the impetus for this change. However, both teams were kept abreast of updates and developments via email and bi-annual newsletters from the BFN/Mass coordinator. In January or February 2017, we will have a joint Advisory and Leadership Team meeting and will re-assess each members’ commitment to BFN/Mass and potentially reach out for new members based on the outcomes of out meeting. We continue to seek sustainable funding sources for our network; a development in 2016 was the launch of the Mass Food and Farm Special License Plate, now available at Registry of Motor Vehicle offices. A portion of funding from the initial purchase and renewal fees for this plate will benefit BFN/Mass.
Marketing and Outreach: Our leaders and advisors and their participating organizations and affiliations continue to provide extensive outreach to stakeholders across the state. Because of limited capacity and the focus on implementing the assessment and gaps analysis, BFN/Mass was not able to participate in many outreach activities. However, BFN/Mass literature was available at all outreach events attended by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project staff, including the Urban Farming Conference and SEMAP Conference in March 2016, the Summer NOFA conference in August 2016, and several others. We hope to increase our outreach capacities following the conclusion of our assessment and gaps analysis project.
BFN/Mass Website, www.bfnmass.org: A major accomplishment in November 2016 was the transition of the hosting of the BFN/Mass website to Tufts University for greater ease in making improvements and changes. This process had previously been slowed down due to lack of capacity on the Tufts IT side of things.
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 with Tufts IT on ways to make the website more user friendly and help the resources capture there be even more accessible. She is also updating the Massachusetts Farm Employment Directory for distribution in late winter/early spring 2017.
Referral Network: Right now, we have limited capacity to operate our Referral Network, but the coordinator responds to inquiries as time allows. She responded to an estimated 20 + referrals in 2016.
January 2016: Beginning farmer resources matrix completed by coordinator in partnership with local service providers, nonprofit organizations, farms, and Leadership and Advisory Teams.
February 2016: A new coordinator was hired and trained by the exiting coordinator in late February.
March 2016: The new coordinator worked with a subset of the Advisory Team to design an online survey on Qualtrics, a data collection website utilized by Tufts University. Amandine Gatien-Tournat, a visiting researcher from France, advised this process and was enormously helpful. After several drafts, the final survey was distributed.
April – June 2016: The beginning farmer resource assessment and gaps analysis survey was live and distributed via partners, list serves, and various newsletters and websites. The survey had two main sections: the first collected data on respondents (i.e. number of years farming, current number of acres farming, current farming enterprises, age, location, etc.) and the second collected data on respondents’ perceptions of the quality and availability of various farming resources (which corresponded with the DACUM profile for a sustainable farmer in Northeast U.S.).
June – August 2016: The coordinator made the decision (based on the timing in the season and a few inquiry emails) to conduct farmer interviews instead of the originally planned focus groups. As the growing season got going it was much harder to gather 6-10 farmers from each region for a focus group. Instead, 13 beginning farmers (farming for 10 years or under) were interviewed to gather additional, more in-depth qualitative data on farmers’ perceptions of resource gaps throughout the state.
July 2016: 12 members of the leadership and advisory committee met on July 25, 2016 at a Farm Credit East office in Middleborough, MA. The coordinator presented the preliminary findings from the survey and interviews to the group to gather feedback and update them on the process. Survey and interview analysis was completed by the coordinator, the Tufts University graduate student intern Mike Zastoupil, and volunteer Amandine Gatien-Tournat.
October 2016: A new Tufts University graduate student intern was hired, Michelle Lee Bravatti. She helps to maintain the BFN/Mass website and Facebook page and began work on updating the Massachusetts Farm Employment Directory for the 2017 growing season. This document will be available in print and online by late winter/early spring of 2017.
November 2016: A key findings report draft was completed by the coordinator and volunteer Amandine Gatien-Tournat. This draft was presented at the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative stakeholder meeting on November 17, 2016. Much interest was expressed by this group in seeing the final version of the report and following up on addressing expressed needs. Additionally, the BFN/Mass website was transitioned to Tufts University for hosting to make future updates and improvements easier to facilitate.
In addition to the above activities, daily updating of the BFN/Mass website was completed, including posting jobs, internships, and maintaining an active and up-to-date events calendar. The coordinator also responds to as many BFN/Mass referral network inquiries as possible, and keeps a BFN/Mass Facebook page up to date. A meeting of the leadership and advisory committees will be planned for late January/early February 2017 to discuss the impact of the key findings report on the vision and direction for BFN/Mass moving forward.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
We will report fully on the impacts and outcomes of this project in our final report after we have met with the BFN/Mass Advisory and Leadership Teams and received feedback from the wide distribution of the key findings report.
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