UConn Helps New Farmers ‘Bridge the Gap’

Freshly harvested summer vegetables sit on a wooden bench
UConn Extension offers a range of programs aimed at helping new farmers get established. (Photo by Cari Donaldson / Ghost Fawn Homestead)

Cari and Ken Donaldson had always wanted to farm. After finding a property in Willington, they established Ghost Fawn Homestead five years ago. Today, gardens and vegetable beds dot the hillside, while chickens quietly go about their day in the yard.

“We are the second owner of this farm. It’s just under 10 acres, and we currently have three acres in cultivation, with plans to expand,” says Cari Donaldson. “New farmers don’t know what they don’t know, or what resources are available. UConn Extension has been really good at bridging that gap for us.”

Farming can be a challenging profession filled with joys, discomfort, and economic risk.  The Donaldsons have tapped into a suite of UConn Extension programs to help them get established as farmers, including the Solid Ground Farmer Trainings, Vegetable Crops Integrated Pest Management, Put Local on Your Tray, as well as Taste of Mansfield.

“Cari has been a smart user of Extension resources and training,” says Jiff Martin, associate extension educator in sustainable food systems. “As much as we want to help her family’s farm business grow, her feedback also helps us grow and evolve our own programming so we can offer new farmers the types of help they really need. We’ve been especially interested in supporting Cari’s enthusiasm for selling to schools and have leveraged resources through our Put Local on Your Tray program to assist.”

Put Local on Your Tray helps school districts source, serve, and celebrate local food by incorporating Connecticut-grown ingredients into school lunch menus.  In the 2019-2020 school year, more than 80 school districts will participate in Put Local On Your Tray.

“Stephanie Richard, the Mansfield schools’ food service director, gave us an entrance into the wholesale market,” Cari says. “It’s a weight off our minds being able to grow for the schools. I can’t say enough about UConn Extension’s Put Local on Your Tray Program, and Stephanie. People are always the most excited about the fact that we grow food for the schools.”

“As a food service director, I find that Put Local on Your Tray is a great asset for promotional and marketing materials,” says Richard. “Making arrangements with farmers, meetings, figuring out how much product we can take in and work with pulls time away from the marketing part. With Put Local on Your Tray, I am able to focus more time on building relationships with farmers and coaching my staff who work with the produce.”

Working with Richard also helped Cari Donaldson develop the language she needed to attract other wholesale buyers, including other schools that will begin purchasing from the farm in the fall.

“Put Local on Your Tray has information that schools need to alleviate their concerns about purchasing from local farms,” Donaldson says.

And Put Local on Your Tray isn’t the only program offered by Extension to help new farmers in Connecticut. Solid Ground Farmer Trainings, for example, are for farmers with less than ten years of farming experience. Small group workshops are offered in-person with experts in soils, production, farm finances, pesticide safety, irrigation, agriculture mechanics, and more. Fact sheets, guides, videos, and online tutorials on the program’s website are frequently used resources by farmers throughout the state.

Charlotte Ross, project coordinator for Solid Ground Farmer Trainings, owns and operates Sweet Acre Farm in Lebanon. Before serving as project coordinator, she participated in Extension’s beginning farmer trainings. Ross says, “We’ve learned a lot about new farmers through the Solid Ground Training Program. New farmers are as time-limited as anyone and are hungry for practical knowledge. Given the amount of information you can find online already, our training provides more than how-to instructions. They offer opportunities to have your questions answered by an expert, hands-on practice, and a chance to network with other new farmers.”

“You just want to farm. You don’t want to be a salesman, but that’s half of the job,” Ken Donaldson says. “UConn Extension helps with that. The networking and assistance in finding buyers is huge, and has been the most beneficial part of our involvement with Extension. We’re getting better at farming each year, and that’s a really cool thing.”

The Solid Ground Farmer Trainings are sponsored by the USDA-NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program Award #2016-70017-25416.