Sobering, Inspiring Results from Agriculture Organization Strategy Session

This post is Part 1 of 2 re: “A Year of Learning.”  Also see Part 2: “CA Farmer Survey: Preliminary Results & Invitation to Participate” posted October 4, 2015.

On January 21st, FarmsReach Community, Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA), Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL), ATTRA/National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), UC Cooperative Extension, Farmer Veteran Coalition, Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), Rogue Farm Corps, Full Belly Farm, North Coast Opportunities (NCO), and Ag/Tech Mixing Bowl came together to design new, shared tools to more effectively serve small- and medium-scale California farmers and ranchers.  The original context was educational curriculum for farmers, and MESA and FarmsReach had invited the primary organizations that offer these services in California.

Shared GoalsIn the months that followed, I met individually with many of the folks above as well as other agriculture organization leaders to dig deeper into obstacles and opportunities in our shared sustainable agriculture ‘movement’, specifically regarding farm technical and business assistance.  Realizing there is no standard language to describe this farm focus, we started using the term “Farm Education & Support Services”.

A summary of the sobering results is below. Overall, there is consensus that many fundamental components for our collective success are lacking, resulting in a disconnect among farmers, organizations, and funders; duplication of effort; lack of strategic focus in fundraising and program development; insufficient organizational capacity; few explicitly shared metrics of success; and a general feeling of “dysfunction” among various organizations.

And yet, of all the groups in the convening above, all but two expressed a willingness to work together in some form of a collective impact framework to systemically improve our effectiveness and impact. (If your agriculture organizations is interested, please contact me.)

We are planning to review the results of our co-designed Farmer Survey before deciding on next steps.  So, a lot more to come.  (Please do share the Farmer Survey with your networks if you haven’t already.  Later, we’ll post the results for everyone here.)

Sustainable Agriculture Movement ~ “Farm Education & Support Services” Goals: Results of January Convening

Movement Needs

From literally hundreds of ideas to Improve Connections & Collaboration, Increase Quality & Quantity of Farmer Learning, and Improve Effectiveness & Impact, five distinct categories emerged.

Within each, I’ve summarized the group’s proposed areas for improvement.


Goals: Understand Landscape of Stakeholders AND Foster Relationships, Communication & Collaboration

  • Need for “Ecosystem Maps”: who’s doing what where?
    • Organizations, Funders, Farmers
  • Bridge to/from related movements
    • Food Justice, Regional Food Systems, International Farmer Movements, Climate Change, Water Shortage, Sustainable Seed, Community Development, Local Economies, etc.
  • Help organizations differentiate themselves & not duplicate effort
  • Build trust & real relationships
  • Foster collaboration & support between large & small organizations
  • Improve communication style/strategy between organizations
  • Share resources & referrals; co-host events
  • Meet in-person for more collaborative strategy sessions
  • Learn from own/others’ mistakes & failures
  • Fundraise together (details below)

Goal: Build Capacity for Organizations

  • Help with program development (real strategy versus chase the money)
  • Identify appropriate key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure impact
  • Alleviate burden of grant-writing: manpower, actual writing process, strategy with other organizations, introductions
  • Raise money in general
  • Afford/attract more staff to execute well
  • Help with PR; disseminate good work being done
  • Learn from own/others’ mistakes & failures
  • Fundraise together (details below)

Goal: Build Capacity for the Movement

  • Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) for the sustainable agriculture movement as a whole (and/or the “Farm Support Services” piece of it) ~ What is our overall goal?
  • Need better access to quality industry data & analytics
  • Funders lack industry knowledge; should collaborate more
  • Fundraise together:
    • Foster environment of collaboration instead of competition
    • Explore new funding avenues outside grants
    • Identify who’s received what from whom, and who is planning to apply for what
    • Identify regional fundraising “hub organizations” (i.e., larger organizations appropriate to be proposal lead, coordinator, fiscal sponsor or general support)
    • Improve how we present what we do to funders so core competencies and differentiators are clear
    • Establish systems to ensure quality effort and output from each grant partner
  • Learn from own/others’ mistakes & failures

Goal: Strategic Program Development

  • Understand farmers’ actual problem areas
  • Align research with actual farm needs
  • Understand and improve how farms access and share information
  • Reduce duplication of resources/disparate resources all over the place
  • Need more/better resources for and connections with non-English speaking farmers
  • Need more/better resources on business aspect of farming
  • Research farms’ real-world use of and openness to technology
  • Research feasible pricing schemes acceptable to farmers
  • Want a stronger face-to-face relationship with farmers
  • Learn from own/others’ mistakes & failures

Off-the-Record Elephants in the Room

elephantFinally, below is a summary of information shared with me in my one-on-one meetings with both farmers and organization directors and managers following the January convening.

  • Re: Leadership
    • Chasing money, short-sighted, juggling projects, no focus, haphazard.
  • Re: Planning & Execution
    • No systematic process for program quality/accuracy/completeness, deliberate/accidental exclusion of others, tragic redundancy, no continuity from educational events, programs designed FOR not WITH farmers, organizations isolated from farmers.
  • Re: “Farm Education & Support Services” Movement as Whole
    • Culture of opportunism/competition/criticism/disloyalty, dissipated energy/impact, no meaningful metrics of actual impact, no agreement on overall vision, no unified political voice/power.
  • Re: Funding
    • Funds go to “Fame & Friends” versus “Brains & Brawn”; funders lack industry knowledge; funders isolated from organizations AND farms; perpetuation of above.

Wow.  Working in sustainable agriculture and “Farm Education & Support Services” for just 13 years, I believe our movement has made some noteworthy progress (much of which is documented in the Michigan State Center for Rural Food Systems‘ Good Food Timeline).  However, there is much room for improvement as shown from the January convening results and sentiments of those in leadership positions to effect solutions.

We will be compiling and sharing the Farmer Survey results later this year.  That data coupled with the information above will be an invaluable guide for what’s next…

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