What I took away from Field School 2014
by Rowan Steele, Farm Incubator Manager
On October 3rd the farm incubator world descended on Headwaters Farm as part of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative’s (NIFTI) annual Field School. The three-day event included two days of meetings, lectures, discussions and networking, and ended with a day of farm tours and onsite presentations.
As with any conference, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of topics, interactions, ideas and the general “nerd-fest.” The 2014 NIFTI Field School was no different—a complete inundation of everything that is beginning farmer development. It has taken a few weeks just to process the experience. In fact, I think it might take a full off-season before the content can be fully synthesized in relation to the Headwaters Incubator Program (HIP).
This conference encompasses a wide variety of incubator programs and illustrates ideas and solutions used to tackle shared issues. Of the over 70 conference registrants (representing 52 farm incubator programs and half the states in the Union, plus British Colombia), individuals from major programs such as the Intervale Center and Alternative Land-Based Training Association (ALBA)—pillars in farmer incubation for over a decade—sit next to beginning programs and some that haven’t even launched yet. This unique opportunity to gather lends itself to a solid understanding of how these incubator mainstays have flourished. It also often reveals novel and practical approaches that newer programs are undertaking. Similarly, since many farm incubator programs are not well-funded, it is extremely pleasing to listen to the creative ways that organizations (and sometimes simply a single motivated program coordinator) are able to create remarkable opportunities for their farmers on the tightest of budgets.
The biggest takeaway for me was the need for a structured curriculum for HIP farmers. As our program requires previous farm experience, I have been guilty of assuming that program participants were well-grounded on some fundamental farming practices (e.g. record keeping, irrigation set-up, sourcing materials). With two years of farmer incubation under our belt, it is clear that this is not always the case, and that meeting farmer learning and training needs can be done in a way that does not detract from field time or a farmers’ ability to manage their business. More importantly, core learning elements can be presented in a timely manner and in a way that encourages deeper comprehension, such as peer-to-peer learning. With that in mind, I can see our program shifting to a model where the more established incubator farmers are teaching these core topics to newer cohorts.
Without a doubt, my personal highlight of Field School was the opportunity to bring the entire conference out to Headwaters Farm to share EMSWCD’s work around farmer development, conservation farming, and our niche role in the local beginning farmer support network. This event not only helped put HIP on the national farm incubator map, but also brought some excellent feedback and questions from over seventy other farmer development experts. The questions that came up during the tour have given us a good deal to reflect on, and a better understanding of how we can meet our farmers’ needs.
For what the farm incubator community lacks in numbers, it makes up for in cohesion, coordination, and a strong passion for addressing key issues surrounding the need for new farmers. It is such a pleasure to be connected with this group, and I greatly appreciate the rare opportunities afforded by face-to-face interaction. Hands down, that is what I value most about Field School.