How do we build our networks and help grow the potential for success in the future food economy? By bringing together farmers and service providers to meet each other, ask questions, listen and discuss.
On February 19th, the New CT Farmer Alliance (NCTFA) did just this, in collaboration with several organizations and agencies: UConn Extension, Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Community Farm of Simsbury (our state’s only incubator farm). Funded by USDA’s Risk Management Agency, the day brought together two very distinct communities – farmers and service providers.
We are fortunate that Connecticut is a small state and therefore it is relatively easy to assemble a critical mass and a “who’s who” from the provider community. The day began with a brief visit and comments by Steve Reviczky, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Agriculture, who has been and continues to be a supporter of NCTFA. A fun agricultural bingo ice breaker got folks out of their seats to mix and mingle while they tried to complete their bingo card. It was a great way to meet people when you had to find someone who “makes their own jam”, “dresses down for work”, or “visits a farmers market weekly.” Donated prizes went to the first three bingo winners.
We were very fortunate to have Wes Hannah join us for a presentation on the goals of NYFC, the challenges facing young farmers, and how our new Farm Bill impacts this generation of farmers. The service providers really benefited from hearing directly from NYFC. Now they are now armed with more knowledge that they can bring back to their offices as they discuss the services that they provide to the young and beginning farmer community.
Several small-group breakout sessions completed the morning and were designed specifically to be discussion-based, so that participants could both ask questions and learn from other farmers as well as providers. Providers were identified as to the type of service they provide and grouped accordingly into one of five groups: Finances (FSA, Farm Credit, UConn Extension), Conservation and Technical Assistance (NRCS, UConn Extension, CT Agriculture Experiment Station, CT NOFA), Marketing and Sales (Buy CT Grown), Legal Aspects (CT Farm Bureau Assoc. and FSA), and Land Access (Land for Good, AFT, CT Dept. of Ag, NRCS). Farmers had the opportunity to move around to three different breakout groups of their choosing, thus providing a more intimate setting to have meaningful discussion.
The provider community was extraordinarily generous in also providing time to meet individually with farmers one-on-one later that afternoon or at a mutually agreed upon date/time. We know that we all benefit the most from direct personal contact and it was our goal to make this a focus of this event.
Everyone person left the event with a greater sense of community, more information, new contacts and a bigger network, which we hope can help to grow and sustain a vibrant agricultural community. More information about the event can still be found on NCTFA’s website.
NCTFA Steering Committee Member
During November 13-16th the USDA Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program supported by the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) held its 4th Annual Director Meeting. Hosted by the University of Texas-Pan American in McAllen, Texas, this year’s theme was: Cruzando Fronteras: Supporting Diversity in Agriculture. Attendees experienced first-hand agricultural issues and opportunities both in the borderland setting of the lower Rio Grande Valley as well as from presentations from most of the continental US as well as Hawaii and the Virgin Islands.
Each year recipients of USDA Beginning Farmer & Rancher grants meet to learn about other projects across the country, hear about successes & challenges, and share ideas about emerging future topics. Jiff Martin of UConn and I went to share 1st year experiences about our Scaling Up Program for Connecticut’s community of beginning farmers. Challenges we experience with our farmer-clients, such as access to affordable good farm land and securing sufficient loans to support farm infrastructure development were common concerns beginning farmers faced in other regions of the country. As a farmer-mentor I sought out coordinators of incubator and farmer-apprentice programs. I wanted to learn how they addressed subjects such as crop rotations, sustainable nutrient management practices, tillage implements, farm loan programs, and insecurity concerns from short-term farmland leases for cash-strapped new farmers. A theme common to many at the meeting was the value of one-to-one interaction between mentors &/or service providers to individual farmers.
My highlight for the McAllen event was a field trip organized by George Bennack, Executive Director for Business and Rural Development at the University of Texas-Pan American. Possessing a wealth of historical, sociological & botanical knowledge he was the perfect tour guide as we rode into the semi arid borderlands of the lower Rio Grande Valley to visit a start-up incubator farm and a two year old university research facility.
Driving across a flat expanse of bare stubble fields we passed new wind farms, Texas-scale rows of sugar cane, and groves of citrus before we arrived at the UPTA Specialty-Crop Research & Demonstration Site. Its focus is the development & production of specialty crops for Hispanic-influenced areas. We were treated to a generous snack of mesquite-grilled huitlacoche, on hand-made corn tortillas with fresh cilantro, limes, and homemade salsa, all washed down with lemonade sweetened with sugar cane syrup as well as fresh papayas. All of the ingredients came from the research farm, even the mesquite logs.
Huitlacoche, I learned is a Nahuatl-Spanish word meaning hibernating/sleeping excrement or possibly raven’s excrement. It’s marketed to Anglos as well as Hispanics at more than $20/lb as Mexican caviar. Actually it’s the pathogenic fungus, Ustilago maydis, a black gall-like growth that grows erratically on corn silk. The Research Farm is trialing corn varieties and inoculation techniques to commercially produce what is more commonly known as corn smut. Take my word, it was delicious!
UConn Scaling Up Program