- Education and Training: farmer to farmer, mentoring
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
The sustainable agriculture sector is growing at an astonishing rate, yet, the farming population is aging and most small farms are operating at a loss. New farmers are coming to the land, but they lack resources and expertise to develop thriving businesses. 85% of newly started farms fail within five years. The Technical Consultancy Program contracts experienced organic and sustainable farmers and related professionals from around the state to provide short-term assistance to support the success of beginning organic and sustainable farmers. Modeled from a similar program in New York, the program will be available to all New Hampshire farmers who have been farming for less than ten years. The technical consultants are experienced farmers and other related professionals who are paid to be available for short-term interactions to help answer questions and solve problems. The technical consultants will also serve the purpose of technical support for inquiries that are regularly received in the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire (NOFA-NH) office, providing a more affordable and likely higher quality service than having technical staff would. The network of beginner and experienced farmers is already in place, thanks to several other active beginner farmer mentorship and education programs at NOFA-NH. Information collected from consulting sessions will be assembled to create a free access community of practice. Many beginner and experienced farmers have already shown interest in participating in the program. The coordinator of the program in New York has agreed to advise the development of the program here.
The results of technical consulting interactions will be documented and published in a free access community of practice on the NOFA-NH website. It will include simple documentation of the consulting interactions in a searchable, online database. Users of the database will be able to provide real time feedback to the community of practice, to enhance best practices and information, and to promote learning and interaction. The target audience for the community of practice will be both beginner farmers and experienced farmers, who can glean knowledge specific to organic and sustainable agriculture in New Hampshire.
Outreach to generate traffic to the community of practice will happen through social media, organization newsletters, and organization events, including the Winter Conference. NOFA-NH will also illustrate specific stories that are recorded in the community of practice and tell them via the same outreach channels, and contest and other reward based mechanisms may be used to encourage involvement if needed. The team in New York found that hard copies of material is helpful for generating interest among some farmers, so the community of practice information will be designed for ease of printing and sharing that way as well. The overall program will also be evaluated, and the program model and evaluation information will be made available for future replication to interested organizations.
Project objectives from proposal:
New Hampshire leads the country in organic sales as a percentage of all agricultural sales (NASS 2007), has over 140 certified organic farm operations (NHDAMF), and boasts thousands of non-certified farmers and gardeners. However, 60% of farmers are over the age of 55 (Bureau of Labor Statistics) and the vast majority of NH farms gross under $100,000 (NHDAMF), creating real economic pressures for viability and food security. There is a resurgence of interest in farming, but many new farmers are challenged by a lack of mentorship and training both in business and production. The fact that 85% of newly started small farms fail within their first five years in business (USDA-ERS, 2009) shows that many farmers are unequipped to tackle certain economic constraints associated with production agriculture.
NOFA-NH already runs successful beginner farmer programming:
1.The ‘Journeyperson’ program, a highly popular intensive mentorship model. Journeyperson mentors are paid an annual stipend for their time and one-year commitment. Journeypersons are offered education and business planning stipends, and are enrolled in the program for two years. The gap between apprenticeship/farm hand and independent farmer is expansive, and the Journeyperson Program aims to provide a bridge between these two roles. The program provides the Journeyperson with a support structure during the high-stress, high-risk period of farm establishment.
2.The less formalized Mentorship Program matches skilled and experienced farmers who offer education, guidance, moral support and encouragement with farmers in the early stages of their careers.
3.The program also provides ongoing workshops and educational opportunities.
Although the above programs have been popular and have documented many successes, beginner farmers observe that they often just need someone to call for highly specific technical assistance related to production or business practices.
NOFA-NH’s staff structure does not currently include any technical experts. The lack of technical experts is a growing issue, as more and more farmers and gardeners turn to the organization for organic-specific growing and production advice. The organization receives technical assistance inquiries from members and the public approximately once per week.
The project will speak to each key area of sustainable agriculture:
•It will enhance profitability of beginner farmer businesses
•It will promote environmentally sound practices by connecting highly experienced organic and sustainable growers with beginner farmers to positively influence their methods.
•It will provide a good quality of life for experienced farmers by providing an additional source of income and by encouraging new and experience farmers to interact with each other.
•It is beneficial to the community because it will create a free access community of practice for use by everyone, well into the future.
The Technical Consultancy Program contracts experienced farmers and related professionals from around the state to provide short-term assistance to support the success of beginning farmers and the viability of their farms. This is reminiscent of the cooperative extension model that is available through land grant universities, but different in that it is designed specifically to support organic and sustainable growers, and because it provides a dynamic ‘consultant marketplace’ of active professionals instead of a more limited teaching staff.
The program is modeled after a similar, successful program at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (http://www.nofany.org/technicalconsultancy), which was developed from a SARE Sustainable Farmer Education program from 2001. The NOFA-NY program is just entering its second year, and has made several changes that NOFA-NH will incorporate in its program design:
•Initially, the NOFA-NY program limited access to the service to beginner farmers who had direct permission from NOFA-NY to use it. This created issues for the technical consultants, who had to cross-check interested participants, and confusion and service holdups ensued. The program NOFA-NY program is now available to all New York farmers who have less than 10 years of experience. NOFA-NH will do the same.
•The NOFA-NY program also was initiated with many more technical consultants than it currently has. In the second year, they have focused on less than 10 consultants who are better trained and more knowledgeable of the program.
•NOFA-NH is unique among its sibling chapters (MOFGA and the other NOFA’s around the Northeast) in that it does not employ technical staff. This program will ideally serve that purpose as well, answering the need for technical assistance without the overhead required for keeping year-round technical staff trained and paid as employees.
•The Community of Practice, and intentional documentation and sharing of the consulting interactions and outcomes, is unique to this New Hampshire program as well.
The Technical Consultancy Program will complement NOFA-NH’s popular Journeyperson and mentorship programs, which provide longer term mentoring opportunities for new farmers. And it will fill a gap that exists in the state’s agriculture service offerings by providing short term technical assistance specifically for sustainable and organic farmers who have been practicing for less than 10 years.
The approach is innovative in that it taps the collective wisdom of experienced farmers, especially those who will be retiring in coming years. It is also forward thinking in that it will result in documentation of frequent issues and challenges and best practices specific to New Hampshire sustainable agriculture.
1.Develop a matrix of needed technical assistance areas. The matrix will include experienced farmers from several agricultural focus areas (specialty crops, dairy, grass fed meats) and practices (till and no till, permaculture, IPM) as well as professionals with an understanding of business and legal issues on farms. 2.Develop and initiate an application process for interested technical consultants. Consultants will apply by providing professional history, biographical information, and a letter of intent to participate.
3.A selection committee will review applicants and select five technical consultants. NOFA-NH will host a workshop to describe the program and billing process and answer any questions. Consultants will receive an orientation packet and necessary supplies to record contact with beginning farmers.
4.Develop a catalog of technical consultants for the NOFA administrative staff and beginner farmers to utilize as needed when technical questions and issues arise. The hard-copy directory of technical consultants will feature consultant photographs, background information and areas of expertise. Personal contact information will only be published online.
5.Promote the program to beginner farmers (New Hampshire farmers with 10 years or fewer experience) in all NOFA-NH events and communications and through partner organizations (Cooperative Extension, Department of Agriculture, Small and Beginning Farmers of NH, Universities). Importantly, the technical consultants will be paid for any beginner farmer calls that they get. This ensures that the process of consulting is simple and has few barriers. There is no fee for the service for beginner farmers.
6.Carry out the beginner farmer portion of the program:
•Beginner farmers directly contact the technical consultants with the expertise needed.
•Beginner farmer and the technical consultant choose to use phone calls, e-mails, or even visits to help work through specific technical questions, with an understanding that the consultant will only be paid for up to 6 hours of their time spent on any particular topic.
•Following the consultation, the experienced farmer will be paid, and the beginner farmer will be contacted for a short follow-up evaluation and verification that they used the service.
•Technical consultants will be responsible for collecting the name and contact information for every beginner farmer they intend to bill consulting time for. They will also be responsible for noting the issue they were contacted about and how they suggested resolving it.
•NOFA-NH program coordinator will follow up with the beginner farmer to get feedback on their interaction, document whether the problem or issue was resolved, and make any notes to later be recorded for the community of practice.
•Each listed farmer and consultant goes through an application and training process, but NOFA-NH is not responsible for the information provided by these consultants.
•The program will be free for any beginning farmer in New Hampshire.
•The program supports technical consultants by compensating them for their time at an hourly rate of $50, subject to a maximum per beginning farmer.
7.NOFA-NH will also utilize the technical consultants for organizational technical assistance.
•When appropriate requests for technical assistance come in via NOFA-NH admin channels, the administrative staff will connect the inquirer with the appropriate technical consultant who could help them.
•When there is not an appropriate technical consultant to refer them to, the admin staff will do their best to refer the inquirer to other services available in the state.
•The program coordinator will also document these interaction, and the technical consultants can also bill this time at $50 per hour.
8.The technical consultants are expected to be available for a minimum of 20 hours (paid out at $50 per hour) over the course of the year, between the beginner farmer interactions and the NOFA-NH administrative staff interactions.
9.The program coordinator will compile collected documentation from the consulting interactions, and develop a free access ‘community of practice’ for the NOFA-NH website.
10. The program coordinator will evaluate the program with written and verbal assessments of all participants. Anticipated outcomes:
1.At least 30 constituents will have questions answered through the general technical assistance program
2.At least 30 Beginner Farmers will utilize the service in the first year. As part of the program, all beginner farmers are required to provide feedback for how the interaction benefited them. It is anticipated that the program will help increase sales or profits for many.
3.At least 5 experienced farmers will receive earned income through their services, a benefit since many have tight profit margins and seasonal income variability
4.A community of practice will be made available for free on the NOFA-NH website
Beyond Year 1: If successful, the program will be opened up to non-farmers (gardeners, homesteaders, etc) as a fee-based service, which will help expand use of sustainable and organic growing practices and provide valuable earned income.