Sustaining Agriculture and Community: Moving the Farm Improvement Club Program Beyond the Farm Gate
Improve the support for sustainable agriculture by helping create a collaborative network of all public and private sustainable agriculture programs in Montana.
Increase farm and community economic viability by helping farm improvement clubs identify and develop commercial potential for their products.
Increase opportunities for reciprocity between farm improvement clubs and their communities in an effort to build social capital.
Inform those administering farm improvement club-type programs and the interested public of what works, what doesn’t, and what we would change in our own program and why.
AERO’s farm improvement clubs have clearly moved beyond the farm gate and out into the surrounding communities. They are increasing farm and community economic health by encouraging new enterprises and by advancing into commercial development of their products. Fourteen clubs focused on new enterprise and business development. These clubs are making new connections in their communities with such diverse groups as local Chambers of Commerce, Lions Clubs, and new small landowners. As a result, producers are finding new markets for their products, ranchers are helping their new neighbors learn stewardship practices, and schools are using local resources to build curricula. Five clubs directed their efforts towards building the relationships necessary to develop processing, marketing and transportation infrastructures.
An evaluation of the farm club program in 1996 showed that the knowledge and experience gained by the program participants is concrete and practical: 60 percent of producers in the program have made real changes in their operations as a result of their participation, and a majority have gained some financial benefit. That such a large percentage of club members have been affected is a telling indicator that the farm club model continues to be a successful vehicle for farmers adopting new practices.
As Rod Daniel, a partner in Montana Arnica, a successful herb-growing enterprise, puts it, If it weren’t for the farm clubs, I wouldn’t be farming now. He became active in one of the original farm improvement clubs and said, I started attending the annual farm club gatherings and I’d meet farmers from all over the state and they really inspired me. Rod has continued to participate in farm club activities and in 1999, is a club leader for the Medicinal Herb Growers Club.
Another measure of the program’s success is that 12 states and provinces have organized farm improvement club-type programs based on AERO’s. These programs have recently linked into an informal network to share lessons learned. AERO itself has used the farm club model to start up a network of seven community food systems study-action groups, four Smart Growth and Transportation Chapters and twelve SARE PDP youth educator teams within the last three years.
Many of the farm clubs have used the small grants they received to leverage additional state and federal funds. The Mission Mountain Marketing Cooperative has received over $200,000 in market and business development funds in state and federal grants; this includes a USDA marketing grant for $190,000 in 1999 for a 12,000 square foot multipurpose processing center and business incubator in the Mission Valley. The Montana Natural Lamb Cooperative received a $5,200 grant from the Montana Department of Agriculture to perform a marketing study and conduct taste tests on their market lambs. The Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB) Weed Team in the Bitterroot Valley received additional funding from the state Noxious Weed Trust Fund. One of the producers in the Stanford Black Medic Project received two SARE farmer/rancher research grants, about $4,600 each, to continue studying black medic for use as forage and a soil builder in a crop-grazing rotation.
The farm club program has been a catalyst for MASNet, a coalition of private, nonprofit organizations and public agencies, formed to better serve Montana agriculture as an informational and educational network. As a result of this coalition, member organizations took on new leadership roles in the sustainable agriculture community and formed new relationships with each other.
Dissemination of Findings
The farm clubs’ annual meeting is designed to be a place where each club has the opportunity to report on their project and learn from each other. By bringing club members together from the wide variety of growing regions of Montana, we facilitate the discovery of commonalties and interests among producers from very different enterprise types. For example, at the 1998 meeting, urban gardeners, organic farmers, ranchers and small acreage owners discovered they all shared the problem of weed control. A university researcher made a presentation on a long-term weed research project he was conducting which led into a lively discussion by all the clubs present about how they have successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with weeds.
Based on a 1997 evaluation by club members of the annual meeting, we decided to allow each club to invite two additional interested members of their community to the annual meeting. Also based on suggestions from that evaluation that food grown by the farm clubs be served at the meals, one of the lunches at the 1998 meeting featured locally grown food, with the salad greens provided by the Chico Geothermal Greenhouse Club.
Field days and tours have been effective ways for local people to view the clubs’ results. Field days provide a way for individuals who might be curious, for example, about why their neighbor planted peas instead of summer fallowing a particular field to show up on the neighbor’s farm and find out. Some of the tours and field days have evolved into annual events, even after the clubs are no longer active.
This project has encouraged broader awareness of viability of alternatives in the arenas of crops, pest and weed management, fertility and grazing systems. Twenty-four clubs developed projects in these areas. Based on the successes of the farm clubs, increasing numbers of producers are incorporating legumes into their crop rotations. Fourteen clubs emphasized new marketing and enterprise development. Five clubs are developing new relationships necessary to the success of processing, marketing, and transportation infrastructure. The Mission Mountain Marketing Cooperative’s 12,000 square foot multipurpose processing center and business incubator in northwestern Montana is an excellent example of how producers are expanding into the areas of processing and marketing.
Reactions from Farmers and Ranchers
Farmer comment: “The knowledge and experience gained by the program participants is concrete and practical: 60 percent of producers in the [AERO Farm and Ranch Improvement Club] program have made real changes in their operations as a result of their participation, and a majority have gained some financial benefit.”
The farm improvement club program has assisted producers in developing on-farm research projects with small grants and then helped them to develop their projects to the point where they were able to apply for larger grants from other sources.
This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 2000 reporting cycle.