new farms

Extension Program Receives USDA-NIFA Grant to Help Beginning Farmers Prosper

Yoko Takemura and Alex Copper showing off their labor
Yoko Takemura and Alex Cooper from Assawaga farm enjoy showing off the fruits of their
labor. (Photos courtesy of Assawaga farm).

Beginning farmers in Connecticut are changing the face of agriculture. With their values driven, sustainable-minded farming practices, they are filling the direct-to-consumer marketplace with high quality food grown intensively on small parcels. Since 2012, UConn Extension, part of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and its partners have responded to the growing number of beginning farmers with core training in production and business management. In recent years, it was clear that advanced-level beginning farmers (with 6-10 years of experience) were facing more complex challenges as they grappled with decisions about scale, diversification, infrastructure, and risk.

Starting this winter, UConn Extension and partners will respond to this emerging need with a new grant funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant is Solid Ground 2: Weaving Together Expert Trainings and Peer Networks for Sustained Beginner and Advanced-Beginner Farmer Success in Connecticut. It is a three-year project funded at $525,000 that builds upon the accomplishments of the existing Solid Ground Training Program to deliver increasingly relevant, high quality trainings that respond to beginning farmer skill gaps at the appropriate level.

“The new grant leverages the capacity, talent, and integrity of partner organizations to meet the needs of beginning farmers that were unmet through our Solid Ground trainings in previous years,” says Jiff Martin, the Extension Educator leading the project. “We also intend to help address the very real barrier of finding farmland for new and beginning farmers, including the unique challenges created by structural racism when farmers of color seek farmland.”

While there are many excellent opportunities in agriculture, beginning farmers and ranchers have unique needs for education, training, and technical assistance. For those within their first 10 years of operation, it’s vital they have access to capital, land, and knowledge and information to help improve their operations’ profitability and sustainability.

“Beginning farmers can be divided into two groups – early-stage and advanced-level beginning farmers,” says Charlotte Ross, one of the project co-coordinators. “Slightly more than half (52%) of beginning farmer operators have been operating a farm for six to 10 years, and the remainder (48%) have been farming for five years or less.”

Beginning farmers comprise 28% of the principal operators on Connecticut farms, and there are 2,132 beginning farmers in total. The Solid Ground program is targeting 700 farms that earn between $2,500 and $50,000 individually. The average age of Connecticut’s beginning farmers is 47.9, only slightly higher than the national average of 46.3.

“While beginning farmer owned farm businesses are generating $97 million in product sales, only 32% can farm as a primary occupation, and most (79%) depend on off farm-income at varying levels. This is the reality of small farming enterprises in Connecticut—they are often part-time, seasonal businesses that generate tremendous value to our communities in terms of land stewardship and local food markets but are typically not at a scale to support multiple employees with fair wages and benefits.” Martin states. The next three years of the Solid Ground Program will help beginning farmers build critical peer networks with each other, gain insight on entrepreneurial models, discover cost-saving DIY infrastructure projects for the farm, and improve their skills in agroecology, agriculture mechanics, urban agriculture, and soil health.

UConn Extension and its partners will work together to deliver exceptional training and networking opportunities that are practical, convenient, and accessible. UConn Extension will serve as the administrative and communications foundation on the project. Two school-based agricultural education organizations will host Agriculture Mechanic trainings for beginning farmers. Front-line community-based organizations led by people of color will plan and deliver urban farming training in the cities of Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven. Two statewide non-government organizations with a strong base of beginning farmer members will work together to implement peer networking. A regional non-government organization will coordinate matchmaking events for farmland seekers. The structure of decision-making embedded throughout this project ensures that voices of color are empowered to steer training priorities.

Project leaders will strive to deliver services in a manner that ensures equitable access to learning opportunities. The project’s overall approach recognizes the integrity and new knowledge that the beginning farmer community, and the organizations they belong to, can offer to the broader agriculture sector in our state.

UConn Extension team members include Nancy Barrett, Matt DeBacco, Kip Kolesinskas, Charlotte Ross, Rebecca Toms, and MacKenzie White. Partner organizations on the project are Connecticut Northeast Organic Farming Association, Land For Good, Love Fed Initiative, the New Connecticut Farmer Alliance, Connecticut Farmland Trust, American Farmland Trust, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, Green Village Initiative, the Keney Park Sustainability Project, Park City Harvest, the Nonnewaug High School Agri-Science program, the Rockville High School Agri-Science program, and the Connecticut Farm Bureau Young Farmers Committee.

UConn CAHNR Extension has more than 100 years’ experience strengthening communities in Connecticut and beyond. Extension programs address the full range of issues set forth in CAHNR’s strategic initiatives:

  • Ensuring a vibrant and sustainable agricultural industry and food supply
  • Enhancing health and well-being locally, nationally, and globally
  • Designing sustainable landscapes across urban-rural interfaces
  • Advancing adaptation and resilience in a changing climate.

Programs delivered by Extension reach individuals, communities, and businesses in each of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities.

Strengthening Connecticut Farms

Yoko Takemura and Alex Cooper from Assawaga farm enjoy showing off the fruits of their
labor. (Photos courtesy of Assawaga farm).

Over recent years a new cohort of farmers has cropped up in our small state. “New”, “Beginning”, “First-generation”, “Early stage”— these growers have been met by a growing number of training programs to help them get started, improve their production skills, and enhance the viability of their businesses. This is a group of avid learners who are always on the lookout for training opportunities, both online, and in a hands-on classroom setting. Most demonstrate a strong interest in sustainable production of specialty crops to sell directly to consumers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers’ markets, and farm stands.

In response to the training needs of new farmers, UConn Extension launched the Solid Ground Farmer Training Program, featuring classroom trainings, online tutorials, and state-wide events targeting growers who range in experience from 0 – 10 years of farming. Since 2012, UConn Extension has received over $1.1 million through USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program to develop new farmer trainings and resources.

The UConn Extension team hires and schedules trainers, advertises the program, provides in-person staff support at each training, and steers collaboration with the New CT Farmer Alliance and CT NOFA. Partners set training priorities, help recruit participants, and ensure that trainings are happening across the state so that growers can access this learning opportunity in small group settings. These partners include: Grow Windham, Killingly Agricultural Education Program, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Community Farm of Simsbury, Common Ground (New Haven), Green Village Initiative (Bridgeport), Knox (Hartford), and Listo Para Inciar-Urban Agriculture Program, a sister project led by German Cutz, Associate Extension Educator in Fairfield County.

Current and aspiring farmers are welcome to attend as many trainings as they like. Yoko Takemura and Alex Carpenter from Assawaga Farm (Nipmuck for ‘in between’) in Putnam typify clients in the program. Summer 2018 will be their first year of production. Their farm will feature certified organic Japanese vegetables to be sold in Boston area. After attending six Solid Ground trainings, Yoko explains: “As a new farmer, there are many things you don’t know that you don’t know. So, these programs encourage you to ask new questions you hadn’t previously thought of before and therefore to be better prepared for the season. Since many of the trainers are local, the content of the trainings is more relevant (versus online content) and it’s great that you can follow up with them after the training!”

In its first year (winter 2016-17), the Solid Ground Training Program delivered 28 trainings and events with a cumulative attendance of more than 500 participants. Over 30 trainings are currently scheduled for 2018. All trainings are free and open to growers of all backgrounds. UConn Extension provides translation services for Spanish-speaking attendees. Experienced farmers lead training classes such as Season Extension, Eco-Focused Farming, Post-Harvest Handling, Finding Your Market, and Irrigation for Small Farms. Extension educators and professional consultants deliver trainings on Farm Financial Recordkeeping, Soil Health, Cover Crops, Tractor Safety and Maintenance, Fruit Production, and Pesticide Safety.

“The 4-hour intensive Planting and Growing Cover Crop training with Eero Ruuttila was really great because even though his examples were on large scale farms, there were so many ideas that could be translated into my small-scale farm. I thought 4 hours was long, but I definitely wanted it to be longer,” says Yoko. The Solid Ground Program also provides one-on-one consultations with specialists in the areas of farm finance, soil health, and vegetable production. These consultations are intended to build on the knowledge and skills acquired through trainings in the classroom.

     This project is sponsored by the USDA-NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program Award #2016-70017-25416

Article by Jiff Martin

Advancing the Business of Farming in Connecticut

farmers market
Urban agriculture students at the Danbury Farmers Market.

UConn Extension and 8 statewide agricultural partners have received a grant from USDA-NIFA for their project, “Advancing the Business of Farming in Connecticut in Partnership with Agriculture Learning Centers.” The nearly $600,000 grant integrates the expertise and current training programs of UConn Extension with the Agricultural Learning Centers that provide targeted training, mentoring, and one-on-one technical assistance customized to meet the needs of beginning farmers in Connecticut.

The project is developed by and for beginning farmers across the state, and will strengthen beginning farmer training and foster a self-sustaining community of practice among beginning farmer training program leaders. Instead of duplicating the efforts of great organizations that are already building beginner farmer training programs, this project enriches and aligns beginning farmer training programs via consistent strategies and common metrics.

The Agricultural Learning Centers partnering on the grant are: Common Ground High School in New Haven, the Community Farm of Simsbury, the Green Village Initiative in Bridgeport, Killingly Agriculture Education Program, KNOX in Hartford, WRCC-GROW Windham, and UConn Extension’s Listo Para Inciar urban agriculture program in Danbury and Stamford. Other key partners in the project are the New CT Farmer Alliance (NCTFA) and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of CT.

NCTFA is a statewide network of over 200 beginning farmers and growers. “With this investment supported through the USDA, the alliance will further increase accessibility between agricultural support services, and Connecticut’s budding community of agricultural entrepreneurs,” said Betsy Robson, NCTFA Coordinator.

UConn Extension has a long tradition bringing research-based guidance and training to producers. Dr. German Cutz of the Fairfield County Extension Center leads the Listo Para Inciar (or Ready-to-Start) training program, which delivers a hands-on, cohort based model of beginner farming training for Hispanics.

“It is very exciting to be part of the Advancing the Business of Farming grant because it will ensure that urban residents get an opportunity to learn and practice urban agriculture,” German says. “The Ready to Start Program will train urban adult residents in urban agriculture. The Ready to Start program is a collaborative effort involving UConn Extension, local farmers, and community-based agencies and organizations, and will counter food insecurity and food desert areas in urban cities in Connecticut. Low-income families, especially, will have access to locally produced food while at the same time newly trained urban farmers will engage in food production.”

Core trainings for beginning farmers will emphasize: business planning, financial management and record keeping; farmland access; overcoming marketing uncertainties; and small scale production of vegetables and fruit. Programs will be offered in person, with online tutorials developed for many of the modules, including farm business planning, soil health, safe and effective use of pesticides, and marketing for success.

The long term goal of the collaborative team is for every beginning farmer in Connecticut who wishes to produce food for income – regardless of scale, experience, or language barriers – to have access to fundamental training, know where to find service providers and their resources, and be able to start or continue farming profitably.

UConn Extension Educator Jiff Martin is serving as principal investigator and says,”I am thrilled to embark on this new chapter of work with Connecticut’s beginning farmers. Our newest and aspiring farmers deserve a robust and coordinated investment from all of us who work as agriculture educators. I look forward to working with our partners to meet the needs of a wide variety farmers with various background and experience in agriculture, with a shared focus on the future of agriculture in our cities, suburbs, and rural communities.”