by guest blogger Mitra Sticklen
My 2011 SAC conference was off to a great start with all the wonderful pre-conference activities on November 11, 2011. My day began with a workshop on “Assisting Beginning and Aspiring Sustainable Small Farmers: Workshop for Service Providers”. The workshop was created in collaboration with NIFA-USDA http://www.csrees.usda.gov/ , the National Center for Appropriate Technology www.NCAT.org , the Center for Environmental Farming Systems www.CEFS.NCSU.org, and our conference hosts Carolina Farm Stewardship Association www.CarolinaFarmStewards.org.
As we all introduced ourselves and shared our main challenges, I quickly realized the audience was mostly representatives from NC and SC Cooperative Extension as well as other organizations that provide beginning farmer training. As a beginning farmer and educator myself, I was representing the non-profit Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s farm projects www.FoodShuttle.org including the Young Farmer Training Program and new Regional Outreach Training Center www.growingpower.org/training_centers.htm . I was happy to see Chapel Hill’s Trudy Matheny representing the innovative NC Women of the Land Agricultural Network www.ncwolan.org and much-needed Farm School for Women, a residential 8-month program for beginning women farmers.
As we all know, demand for local produce has grown exponentially, yet the resources and opportunities for learning how to farm have evolved at a slower pace. As a group, we need to develop a comprehensive “How-to-Farm” kit! Because farming is becoming more glamorous and hip, many new farmers are unrealistic about the challenges, especially the business side of farming. This workshop was a great way for us service providers to brainstorm and share the following:
1. Who are new farmers and why are they interested in farming?
2. What do beginning farmers need and what are their technical/financial/marketing challenges?
3. What resources are available for beginning farmers?
The first half of the workshop was a panel discussion with three local farm educators and service providers.
The first panelist was Kelly Owensby, a beginning farmer and manager of the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Project of Carrboro, from Orange Partnership for Young Children. Check out their blog with beautiful photos, stories of the Karen Burmese farmers, and revelations on their journey together http://ocpyc.wordpress.com/ . She discussed the 3-year grant that includes weekly workshops, translated resources, cooking classes, and training videos for over 90 participants. Each new farmer is given 1/10 acre, and in 2012 they will be required to complete 8 weekly courses for marketing and business planning. The specific challenges Owensby sited for refugee farmers include their non-science background, language barrier, lack of internet skills and access, and especially marketing challenges. However, these Karen Burmese farmers value farming as part of their culture, have great attendance at all workshops, and their refugee farming population is large and growing quickly. Kelly also mentioned L’il Farm http://lilfarmnc.com/, which she co-manages, and the $30,000 RAFI grant awarded for their innovative 6-farm tool cooperativehttp://vimeo.com/21811545?iframe=true&width=80%&height=80% .
The second panelist was Karen McSwain. Her path brought her from managing the garden at Warren Wilson College http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~garden/garden.php to her current position as Organic Initiatives Coordinator for CFSA. She discussed the lack of land, capital, and infrastructure needed to support beginning farmers, and especially the need for a farm school focused on budgeting, marketing and business skills! She works primarily with two groups: new and beginning farmers (generally around ages 20-30) and retirees or career changers, including those who shift from conventional to organic producers.
Richard Boylan was our third panelist, the only extension agent in the panel. Richardhttp://watauga.ces.ncsu.edu/index.php?page=staff was named the 2010 CFSA NC Agriculture Extension Agent of the Year, and has worked tirelessly to serve the needs of farmers in his community and beyond. He highlighted the value of extension agents and this incredible system our government has provided for us in every county in every state. He urged all the extension agents in the room to connect and share with one another! The true value of cooperative extension, explained Boylan, “is that we can connect PERSONALLY,” and that we must develop those close relationships between farmers and agents. He mentioned that small farm tours that are just-for-farmers are vital and necessary, and a great format for new farmers to learn deeply.
For the rest of the workshop, we worked in small groups to discuss the various resources that a beginning farmer can use in their ‘toolkit’, and to identify the ‘gaps’ in the path to becoming a farmer. The groups were: Land Options, Business Plan, and Credit. Although the lists of challenges and resources is too long for this blog, this is an important question that we can only answer as a collaborative network: What beginning farmer resources are available, and what is missing?
Before the workshop concluded, I shared information about a 10-minute survey (open until November 27) www.surveymonkey.com/s/CRAFT-UP created in collaboration with IFFS, CEFS, Earthwise Company http://www.earthwiselife.com/ , and Central Carolina Community Collegehttp://www.cccc.edu/curriculum/majors/sustainableagriculture/ . The survey will help identify current opportunities & gaps in farmer training, and targets all farms/organizations/institutions in Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham or Alamance Counties that offer farming internships, apprenticeships, mentoring, field days, technical assistance, workshops, degrees, certificates, conferences, social gatherings, strategic business planning courses, farm incubators, etc. The survey results will be used as we create a regional resource, Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training – United Piedmont (CRAFT-UP), similar to other CRAFT groups across the nation http://www.craftfarmers.org/ . CRAFT-UP is funded in part by a grant from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program http://www.nifa.usda.gov/funding/rfas/bfrdp.html. If you offer farmer training at any level please contact Mitra@FoodShuttle.org for more information.
I learned so much and made great connections during this workshop, thanks so much to everyone who hosted and attended!