Making it happen: Profitability and success
Many early-stage farmers do not successfully use financial management tools or decision-making strategies critical to their long-term economic success. Though there are many resources that describe what these tools and strategies are, there is little training on how to implement them in daily life. Making It Happen: Profitability and Success is a set of resources, case studies, workshops, and webinars designed to fill this need by helping farmers understand and strategically implement a variety of financial management tools in order to increase the financial strength of their operations.
Making It Happen: Profitability and Success is the result of the gathering and analysis of data from “Measuring Profitability and Success (Northeast SARE LNE11-310),” a three-year research project that collected financial data and pre- and post-project survey information from 23 farms, as well as feedback from the technical service providers who worked with these farmers for the duration of the project. After carefully crafting a learning development process and analyzing the dataset, key learning objectives were identified to serve as the basis of a curriculum to use in the Making It Happen seminar series. Curriculum materials include case studies; scenario-based questions to help evaluate understanding of key concepts; activities designed to facilitate the use of financial management tools; two work aids, including a financial management toolbox and calendar; and evaluation surveys.
There are five seminars scheduled, as part of the Making It Happen SARE grant, to occur in January and February 2016 in Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. These seminars will occur in collaboration with the following organizations, who have offered to host the seminars at their respective locations: Glynwood, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the Intervale Center, Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). The goal is 15–20 participants at each seminar in order to reach our impact goal of 50–75 farms. The majority of the analysis and construction of curriculum materials is complete, with the remaining pieces of our timeline on track to be completed in the proposed time frame in 2016. Those tasks include reviewing and finalizing curriculum materials, conducting outreach and publicizing the seminar series, producing a webinar, and analyzing the impacts and outcomes of the seminar series throughout next year.
In the Methods section of the proposal, the project included two steps to achieve the proposed goals: (1) conduct an in-depth analysis of an existing data set, which was gathered over three years from 30 farms and four technical assistance providers, as well as from additional surveying of service providers, and (2) develop and implement a seminar, and evaluate changes in participants’ understanding and use of financial management practices and decision making.
The first objective is almost complete. The data set from “Measuring Profitability and Success” (MPS), described above, is analyzed in the aggregate and is described in detail in the Final Report (Northeast SARE LNE11-310). Although 30 farms was the original target number for the research project, only 23 farms had sufficient information to include for the analysis. In September 2015, the MPS team met to synthesize and reflect on the data from the three-year study, resulting in an understanding of which factors and conditions substantially contributed to changes on those farms. Notwithstanding these significant insights, we are currently cross-referencing all individual farm information with findings from the aggregate data to determine whether we can understand more fully what contributed to the results on specific farms, and what can be learned from comparing and contrasting different groups of information.
During this ongoing analysis, the Making It Happen Training Team met with a Work Learning expert, Will Thalheimer of Work Learning Research, to develop a learning development process to complete the second objective: design and implement a seminar series. This learning development process (Attachment A) outlined the steps necessary to integrate, successfully and succinctly, the data and experiences from MPS into a curriculum. The first step required gathering a list of common mistakes from experts and target audiences. The experts chosen were the program coordinators, or technical assistance providers, who had worked with the MPS participants for the past three years. The Making It Happen Training Team sent all program coordinators a “Profitability and Success Chart” (Attachment B) that asked them to list common mistakes, common success strategies, specific actions farmers should engage in to be successful, situations in which farmers would take these actions, and the habits that will enable farmers to be consistently successful in these situations.
The Training Team combined these responses from the program coordinators with the analysis of the MPS aggregate data to develop the Making It Happen “Learning Matrix” (Attachment C). This document organizes the common mistakes and related data provided by the program coordinators into learning groups in an effort to relate like points. There are three groups: Planning, Due Diligence, and Proactive Management. Due Diligence supports effective Planning, and Proactive Management uses planning efforts and enables action toward goals. Within these learning groups are learning objectives and learning points, which provide further detail on the specific financial management tools and strategies that are critical to a farmer’s financial viability. The learning objectives, learning groups, and learning points all connect and reinforce each other, providing a clear guide as to which financial management tools and strategies should be taught in the seminar series, and what behavioral changes will (it is hoped) occur after a seminar participant learns these tools and strategies.
Once the learning objectives and learning points were identified, the materials that would communicate this information in the seminar could be identified and developed. Individual farm data analyses from MPS illustrated that participating farms provided real world examples of various learning points, and therefore, some were chosen to be integrated into case studies (Attachment D and Attachment E). The Training Team developed scenario-based questions, or hypothetical scenarios, that farmers could use to understand the various situations in which using financial management tools and strategies would be helpful. Because these scenario questions are administered at the beginning and end of every seminar, they also serve as an evaluation tool for how much knowledge a participant gained during class. Activities, a financial management calendar, and a financial “toolbox” that all correspond to the learning objectives and learning points were also developed as ways to engage participants and provide them with practice in the use of these tools and strategies. The Training Team is also creating a training guide that will succinctly describe each of these curriculum materials, and how each relates to the aforementioned learning objectives and learning points. Lastly, evaluation surveys have been carefully crafted to measure the behavioral changes that may occur within a year after farmers participate in this seminar.
Next steps include implementing the seminar series in January and February 2016; following up with participants by providing short tidbits, stories, or other prompts to reinforce learning; producing a webinar with the material; and collecting and analyzing evaluation surveys to determine the effectiveness of the seminar by identifying behavioral changes after the seminar.
- Two Farmers Farm Case Study
- Learning Development Process
- Learning Matrix
- Profitability and Success Chart
- Bella Farm Case Study
- Start In-depth Analysis of Aggregate Financial Data: Completed
- Review aggregate data and determine best ways to present it to convey most-meaningful results: Completed
- Start analysis of aggregate survey information, determine best way to present pre- and post-MPS farmer survey information, and create draft to convey most-meaningful results: In Process
The analysis of the financial data and aggregate survey information from Measuring Profitability and Success was completed in October 2015 and has not yet been incorporated into the Making It Happen seminars. Progress became slowed and preparation of this information was delayed because of the difficulty in collecting final data from as many MPS farm participants as possible. In addition, determining what information was most meaningful/helpful was more difficult than originally anticipated. When the final part of the analysis is complete, any useful information will be incorporated into MIH.
- Develop seminar outline, goals, and objectives: Completed
- Identify (using MPS information) of five farms, facing representative situations, to develop into case studies: Completed
- Outline resources necessary to support learnings for each case study: Completed
- Training Team receives instruction on seminar design: Completed
- Gather reflections from MPS service providers on what worked, when, and why: Completed
- Design and implement a survey to elicit feedback from service providers, not on what happened (already recorded), but on what factors led to specific results: Completed
- Draft memo describing results, for later incorporation into overall analysis: Completed
- Document learnings, insights, and highlights in Initial Report from the different activities, described above, in March–April: Completed
All of these steps are described in detail in the objectives section. They were all completed by September 2015 and were the basis for the learning matrix, which was used to build the curriculum.
- Integrate information from MPS and In-Depth Aggregate Analysis: Completed
- Plan for integration into seminar, based on seminar outline, by Training Team: Completed
- Review and modify materials, as needed: In Process
After a first pilot seminar, the Making It Happen materials are being reviewed and modified to reflect feedback. Subsequent feedback will likewise be collected and used to improve the seminar series.
- Develop five case studies to address key questions: Completed two of five
- Identify five farms for development into case studies: Completed
- Create rubric for case studies and gather input from Training Team: Completed
- Complete in-depth analysis of five farms: Completed
- Draft case studies: In Process
Two case studies have been completed for Making It Happen as of December 2015. The remaining three case studies are in their final draft stages and will be completed in January and February 2016. The farms’ financial data and survey information have all been collected and the final steps include writing, reviewing, and formatting.
- Develop resources to support case studies: Completed
- With collaborators, decide which financial management tool(s) to focus on (e.g., “Why Do Enterprise Planning”): Completed
- Develop relevant training modules: Completed
- Conduct review by Farm Advisors and Training Team: In Process (see below)
- Review resources to support case studies: In Process
- Finalize case studies by making language and layout more reader-friendly: In Process
- Finalize resources to support case studies: In Process
As mentioned above, two case studies have been finalized, while the other three are still in the development process. The remaining materials for the curriculum to support case studies include the financial management calendar and toolbox, scenario-based questions, activities, instructor training guide, and evaluation surveys. These have all been developed by the Training Team as of December 2015, are all in their final review stages, and will be finished as of January 2016.
- Develop detailed seminar agenda and learning aids such as slides, instructor guidelines, etc.: Completed
- Publicize Making It Happen with collaborating organizations: In Process
Three seminars, in addition to the five already scheduled for Making It Happen, have been scheduled throughout Massachusetts as a collaboration with New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. These seminars will be hosted by Young Farmer Network, Central Mass Grown, and Berkshire Grown. The seminar hosted by Young Farmer Network, which occurred on December 7th, 2015, served as a pilot seminar used to receive feedback. Based on feedback from this workshop, all curriculum materials are currently being revised as needed. A training guide for the seminar is still in the process of being written. All seminars are also starting to be publicized by each of the collaborating and host organizations through website postings, newsletters, listservs, and other outreach methods.
- Publicize and continue registration
- Deliver five seminars, including pre- and post-evaluations
Based on the recommendation of Work Learning Research, learning tips and reminders will be sent out to all participants in the months following the seminar. These reminders will be short tidbits, stories, or other prompts and evaluation tools aimed at reinforcing the learning that occurred during the course and increasing knowledge retention. They will be developed in February 2016 and sent out between March and July 2016, and possibly in Fall 2016.
- Produce webinar in collaboration with New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
- Solicit final evaluations on use of financial management tools and changes in financial decision making
A final evaluation survey will still be sent out in December 2016, after the growing season, to determine any behavioral changes in the participants’ work.
- The Project Director, in coordination with the Training Team and Farm Advisors, will draft the final report
These remaining pieces of the timeline are still on track to be completed by their proposed dates. The Making It Happen seminars will be held throughout January and February 2016. At each seminar, evaluations will be completed by participants. The webinar is still set to be recorded in the summer 2016. Evaluation and survey materials will be reviewed from July 2016–January 2017, and used to draft a final report.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The proposal stated that Making It Happen will: (1) determine what financial management tools are most effective under what circumstances and at which stage(s) of business development; (2) pinpoint when and how such tools are most readily integrated into a farm’s operation; and (3) develop a seminar — within the context of ongoing education, required prerequisites, and follow-up support — to contribute to improved financial management and decision making on 50–75 farms.
Regarding the first two points, the most effective financial management tools, as well as the situations in which these tools should be used, have been identified and incorporated into the Making It Happen curriculum. We have no impacts or outcomes regarding the Making It Happen seminar series, as the seminars have not yet occurred. These impacts or outcomes will be determined by comparing the evaluations that participants complete before the seminar to the surveys conducted after the first season. This comparison will illustrate the extent to which these learned tools and business strategies have manifested in behavioral changes in how participants operate their farm or food businesses.
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