by George Looby, DVM
The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) is a land based, non-profit organization located in Belchertown, MA on a 416-acre property that once served as the Belchertown State School. Founded in 1978 by a local citizens action group, to encourage more sustainable regional agriculture. This group was Women in Agriculture, Food Policy and Land Use Reform whose mission was and continues to be to promote small farm development by providing information and training for aspiring, beginning or transitional farmers.
The group maintains an extensive collection of informational material as well as producing publications of their own. They develop and offer farmer guided programs that provide down to earth information to those who may be looking for that sort of practical guidance.
Over the past few decades resources available to service the needs of the small farmer became increasingly scarce due in large part to dwindling demand for such services. Servicing this clientele simply was no longer profitable. Recognizing this problem several organizations began programs to assist new farmers in locating and purchasing farms. The advent of these programs led in turn to broader programs that offered assistance in business planning, technical assistance and referral. In the northeast three organizations that had developed assistance programs for beginning farmers collaborated to inventory and improve services to new farmers in the region.
As a result of this effort an entity entitled the Northeast New Farmer Network (NENFN) was established and funded. It’s objective was to improve resources, programs and referrals for new and prospective northeast farmers and create a network of service providers. The work done by this group led to the formation of smaller, more regional groups who were able to meet the needs of a smaller geographical area in a more focused way.
The farmstead on which the Institute is located is the home to a number of independent small farm businesses and is the site of a developing on-farm training program and business incubator. The site’s 250th year as a farm is being celebrated this year by the Institute’s heritage interpretive program. It is listed on the National Historic Register as a working agricultural landscape and further the state designated it a ”Special Place of Environmental Significance”
Growing New Farmers (GNF) was a four-year collaborative effort funded by a grant from USDA/CSREES. Acronyms abound in government agencies and this is but another example. In this instance it is the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The mission of this agency is to advance agriculture, the environment, human health and well being by supporting research, education, and extension programs at land grant universities and other organizations it partners with. It is through one of the funding sources administered by this agency that the New England Small Farm Institute was able to develop and carry out this program. The Institute acted as host, fiscal sponsor and administrator of this program together with another program that it had developed called the Northeast New Farmer Network. Many organizations and institutions partnered with GNF in managing this undertaking. Among the modest areas and topics studied were program and resource development, new research, policy education and professional development.
Grant writing is both art and science and to insure that a given grant application captures the attention of an evaluator, the goal of a submission must be carefully crafted in such a way as to be neither grossly overstated yet bold enough hold the reader’s interest. The grant application was successful and the organization was awarded a 1.7 million grant to fund the program.
The broad goal of the program is to assist start up farmers with the information and hands on experience they need to help them succeed. Broken down into its several parts one goal was to establish an ongoing Northeast service provider consortium and create a network of services, programs and activities that provide new farmers with the tools that they need for success.
In conjunction with this another segment would enhance the professional capacity of consortium members and expand participation. A further goal would be to produce science based knowledge that will advance understanding of issues critical to the success of new farmers. Another was to develop a program to educate policy makers and other stakeholders about policy issues that affect new farmers. It is this group that controls the purse strings and often their knowledge of things agricultural is rudimentary at best.
One of the key components of the program is the development of individuals or groups who have the background and willingness to act as service providers to new farmers. This would be a diverse group composed of county extension offices, state departments of agriculture and non-profit organizations dedicated to agricultural and/or environmental education and issues. Individuals might include agricultural educators working for institutions and on-farm mentors.
The organization places great emphasis on on-farm mentors and this is the direct result of feed back from participants who, if given a choice, would prefer to get their information directly from the guy or gal sitting on the tractor seat.
There are certain attributes that make for a good on farm mentors and they have been defined as skilled and experienced farmers who offer education, guidance, moral support and encouragement to trainees that they host on their farms. They teach knowledge and skills in a structured, supervised way and have a set of common qualities.
The New England Small Farm Institute is but another outstanding example of a regional organization that saw a need and developed a program to meet that need.