A regional, farmer-driven approach to labor issues

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,930.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2018
Grant Recipient: Vital Communities
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Beth Roy
Vital Communities

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Farm Business Management: labor/employment

    Proposal abstract:

    Vital Communities’ Valley Food & Farm (VFF) program will build on 20 years of experience as facilitator and convener to work with both sides of the farm labor equation, farmers and workers, to address a perennial challenge to farm growth in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont: labor recruitment and retention. Fifty-eight percent of our region’s 400+ farmers wish to grow their businesses, and cite labor as their number one obstacle. Having recently piloted a New Farmer peer group funded by the USDA Rural Business Enterprise (RBEG) program, we will assemble a similar group of experienced farmers from small to midsized Vermont and New Hampshire diversified farms to troubleshoot and brainstorm about labor issues specific to our region. A collaboration team of 5-8 farmers will be compensated to gather additional data (e.g., pay rates, employee benefits, etc.) and review project outcomes. VFF will also interview and collect data from prospective and experienced labor about their perspective. In addition to sharing regional and Vermont-New Hampshire statewide farm labor data, VFF will work with both parties to develop/host an online Upper Valley farm jobs clearinghouse, a summary of findings/best practices, and dissemination throughout statewide agricultural networks, relevant schools and membership groups, CRAFT programs, and others. By partnering with farmers, farm labor, and service providers at the regional level, we seek to build a unified identity and momentum toward labor solutions that will contribute to the Upper Valley’s reputation as an excellent environment for farmworkers.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The questions we seek to answer include 1) What are regional barriers to and incentives for farmworker employment and retention? 2) How can farmers increase hiring and retention rates? 3) How can the region ensure that skilled workers find the Upper Valley a welcoming and preferable place of employment and opportunity? 4) What best practices should be promoted regionally for hiring, retaining, and managing a skilled workforce? Although farmers share information with their friends, our proposed Upper Valley Farm Labor Working Group will provide a more formal and unified forum to determine causes, address short- and longer-term solutions, and advise about our role in solving the problem. We’ll develop an online tool for matching farmers and workers, act as a clearinghouse for existing best practices and research conducted elsewhere, and serve as a conduit for dissemination and data collection through statewide networks. As neutral convener and facilitator, we’ll elicit feedback from prospective and current farm employees, confidentially as needed. The Working Group would convene small to midsized diversified farms (especially those with a livestock component, a constituency not covered in the UVM research) to discuss labor recruitment and retention at two meetings across the region.

    Our project will engender a regional, farmer-based conversation about practical solutions to the labor issue. Our work will build regional momentum for solutions, a shared identity, and tangible resources that will help farms enhance our region’s reputation as an excellent place to find farmwork or build a farming career.

    VFF and our team of farmer collaborators will recruit operators of small- to midsized diversified farms (including a special effort to engage farms with a livestock component) from Sullivan and Grafton counties of New Hampshire and the Vermont counties of Windsor and Orange to participate in our Farm Labor Working Group. Our goal will be to  identify barriers, exchange solutions, and suggest potential regional solutions to labor issues. Two meetings in person will take place in winter 2016-17, during the off-season. Prior to the meetings, VFF will gather best practices and regulations, and interview current, past, and prospective farm employees about their views on best practices, incentives, and barriers to finding and sustaining farm employment. Anonymous results will be presented at the Working Group meetings. Farmers will be asked to share management tips, successes, lessons learned, and challenges as well as suggestions for concrete resources and next steps toward improving Upper Valley farm labor issues. We will also seek farmers’ advice on development of our ‘classified’ listings through the searchable VFF Online Guide. Whether these need to be password protected will be determined.

    Vital Communities will archive meeting notes, share outcomes with the greater farm constituency, and research additional data that could be of use to our region’s diversified farms. A collaborator group of 5-8 farmers (some identified in advance and some solicited at the gatherings) will be compensated to gather additional data and reach out to personal circles of farm colleagues for peer-to-peer anecdotes and data on how various farms manage, pay, and attract labor. We will then compile all data and develop online resources for farmers, gradually assembling and disseminating findings and best practices in online summaries. The collaborators group will review these resources before final publication on an Upper Valley farm labor page on the Vital Communities website. It is likely that this page will include farm classifieds and extensive referrals to resources such as Mary Peabody’s project results as well as specific findings from our Farm Labor Working Group meetings. Sample topics, regionally addressed, might include average pay rates for new, experienced, and returning employees, the range of pay raises for returning workers, suggestions for housing, etc.

    A key component to the project will be the farm labor classifieds section on the Vital Communities website. There are many potential pools of employees for farms in our region but no centralized location for agricultural classified ads. At present, word of mouth is the most popular method for finding farm labor. Creating a common space online where farmers and workers can connect will be a valuable tool for both parties. To this end, we will create a beta classifieds section prior to Working Group meetings. We will then elicit feedback from attendees, refine the format accordingly, and seek final input from our collaborators team prior to launch in late winter 2017. We will publicize the new resource through small transaction advertising in our regional newspaper and through outreach to area labor pools, which include the Institute for Applied Agriculture at Vermont Technical College, Dartmouth College Organic Farm, 4-H, CRAFT programs (our own and others), New Farmer Network partners in Vermont and similar groups in New Hampshire, community college and high school vo-tech programs such as River Bend Career & Technical in Bradford, VT, and many others.

    Working Group discussions will set priorities for next steps that may involve new projects. Farmer creativity around this issue is high. Suggestions already include summer labor housing at college dormitories, military veterans as a good source of labor, linking with the VA Hospital in White River Junction to provide programming, etc. But data could reveal low-hanging fruit that would only require minor tweaks to yield results.

    Outputs for the granting period include the classified ads database on our website, Web best practices and data summaries, two Working Group meetings, a survey of prospective and existing farmworkers, evaluation in fall 2017 through a celebratory gathering and accompanying survey, and dissemination as described below.

    Longer-term impact, described above, is beyond the scope of this funding but will include improved labor recruitment and retention by the region’s diversified farms. It is our practice to survey farmers annually, including labor-related questions. We will also be able to measure the use and impact of the farm labor classifieds over the ensuing three years, through user feedback and website analytics. If the Working Group model proves successful and seems useful into the future, we will continue to meet. (This project will establish baseline data and include for anticipated improvement in the indicators listed.) 

    Summer 2016:

    • Gather existing farm labor resources and best practices (Program Coordinator)
    • Prepare questions for farm labor and interview currently employed labor as circumstances arise (e.g., during CRAFT gatherings)(PC)
    • Solicit farmer participants for Farm Labor Working Group and integrate their suggestions for structure and content (PC, farmer collaborators)
    • Mock up potential classifieds listings and Upper Valley Farm Jobs center on website (webmaster)

    Sept-Oct 2016 (Program Coordinator)

    • Confirm meeting dates and locations, continue to solicit participants
    • Prepare and send mailing to Upper Valley farmers inviting input and participation
    • Continue to survey/interview current farm labor (goal is 25 contacts)
    • Compile existing resources for presentation to Working Group meetings
    • Begin outreach to area colleges and high schools, job training centers, etc.
    • Design agenda for meeting attendees and survey to be sent to non-attendees (goal is 40-60 contacts)

    Nov 2016-Jan 2017

    • Hold two Farm Labor Working Group meetings in the Vital Communities Service area (estimated Newport, NH, Extension Office and South Royalton, VT area) (PC & Program Manager)
    • At meetings solicit up to eight farmer collaborators to receive stipend for personal follow-up to friends and peers with survey, to review staff summaries of data, and to review farm labor section of Vital Communities website, including classifieds (PC & farmer collaborators)
    • Collate notes and data from Working Group meetings and farm worker interviews (PC)
    • Finalize farm labor classifieds on Vital Communities website (Webmaster)
    • Review with farmer collaborators and others, circulate to farmers to encourage listings (PC & farmer collaborators)

    February 2017

    • Classifieds go live; Send mailing announcing service to and soliciting listings from VFF Online Guide farmers
    • Complete other components of farm labor pages in order of seasonal priority (Feb through Aug) (PC)
    • Promote new classifieds by placing transaction ads in Valley News (PC)

    March 2017-Summer 2017

    • Farm labor page structure is complete, resources are added in order of seasonal priority (Webmaster, PC)
    • Place four spring transaction ads in Valley News to encourage visits to farm labor page by prospective employees (PC)
    • Outreach to area job training, college, agricultural, and other relevant organizations to connect them to the new resource (PC)
    • Discussions with farmers as other activities allow (e.g., at farmers’ markets) (PC)

    Fall 2017

    • Fall Harvest Gathering of Farm Labor Working Group participants and others to celebrate, conduct informal reporting on project to date, and receive feedback (PC, Program Manager, farmer collaborators)
    • Survey to non-attending farmers to gauge success of the pilot year (PC)
    • Evaluation and reporting (PC, Program Manager)

    November 2017

    • Project ends

    We will disseminate results to our farmer constituents as discussed above, via a fall harvest celebration, paper mailing, our VFF Online Guide, farmer resource pages online, print and Web summaries, farmer discussion listserv, and e-newsletter. Our staff will present findings at the NOFA-VT and NOFA-NH conferences, post on Vermont and New Hampshire livestock producer and Vegetable and Berry Grower listservs, and disseminate through other venues identified during Working Group meetings.  Online material will be updated regularly.

    We’ll share information with the labor base via our Farmer Network, relevant schools and membership organizations, Vermont and New Hampshire CRAFT programs, Vermont New Farmer Network and similar organizations in New Hampshire (New Farmer Networks include our peer capacity-builders), broadcasting the Upper Valley as a place where desirable farm jobs can be found, advancement is possible, rising farmers are supported in starting their own enterprises, and customer support is strong.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.