In 2016, UConn Extension launched the Solid Ground Farmer Trainings, a program to assist beginning farmers. The collaborative project is now in its second three-year funding cycle supported through the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Solid Ground Farmer Trainings are designed to offer education, mentoring and technical assistance to new farmers in their first ten years of operation.
“Our long-term goal is to increase the durability of the next generation of farmers by improving their ability to withstand disruption as well as social and environmental shocks through more advanced skills, convenient learning tools and stronger peer support networks,” says Charlotte Ross, program coordinator.
“We’re designing learning opportunities that are meant to be accessible to all,” says Jiff Martin, extension educator and project director. “That’s the intent of the USDA and our intent at UConn Extension. All programming is provided at no cost, and we are even able to offer stipends for new and beginning farmers that need assistance with travel expenses or possible loss of wages in order to attend one of our trainings.”
Corey Thomas ’15 (Animal Science), ’17 MS (NEAG), education and livestock manager at Massaro Community Farm, said of the program, “Solid Ground Trainings has provided me with professional, thorough, and insightful hands-on education in areas I would otherwise have difficulty finding instruction. For example, the small engine maintenance and repair workshop added new facets to my agricultural skill set, helping contribute to my professional life as well as my own personal knowledge.”
Since its inception, the UConn program has supported 1,644 participants producing $1.3 million dollars in crop value. In addition to Ross and Martin, the UConn team includes Nancy Barrett, program co-coordinator, Rebecca Toms, communications coordinator, and Mackenzie White, extension program assistant.
Prior to her current role, Toms had attended some of the Solid Ground trainings as well. “The training I received in using chainsaws gave me the confidence I needed to get work done on my personal property and saved me a significant amount of money — something important to any farm owner,” she says. “It also provided an invaluable networking opportunity as I had known few farmers in other parts of the state.”
Ross and Barrett are both experienced farmers and bring real-life experience to the program’s delivery of trainings. Ross owns Sweet Acre Farm in Lebanon, a certified organic diversified vegetable and flower farm, and Barrett’s beef and berry operation, Scantic Valley Farm, is located in Somers.
“UConn Extension recognized a need with the growing new and beginning farmer population and reached out to a number of service providers in the state as well as the new farmers themselves to decide how to move forward,” Martin says. “Initially, we focused on a core curriculum of trainings implemented around the state. In this new funding round, we decided to zero in on some of the trainings people were especially excited about such as hands-on programs for agricultural mechanics.”
“In order to increase the access to our programming we are shifting toward more digital learning tools and content and we are following CDC COVID-19 guidelines during any in-person programming.”
Ross is leading the production of a DIY infrastructure video series to help new farmers set up equipment and facilities.
The program collaborators include Connecticut agriscience high schools where much of the hands-on programming occurs, New CT Farmer Alliance (NCTFA), the Northeast Organic Farming Association of CT (CT NOFA) and Land for Good. These program partners help shape, deliver and market the various learning opportunities through Solid Ground.
Another addition this year called Farmer Circles, led by NCTFA in partnership with CT NOFA. This activity offers a peer-to-peer learning opportunity where participants meet over the course of a year to discuss a topic, such as crop-planning or farm financials. “We have seven circles in play so far,” Martin says. “This as a tool to fuel network building across the agricultural community. The future resilience of agriculture in our state depends on the integrity and strength of these relationships.”
Some of the topics covered in the first three years included information on growing crops in tunnels, pests and disease, soils, farmland access, small fruit production, business planning, financial records, marketing, tractor safety and maintenance, pesticide safety and welding basics.
During this second three-year funding cycle, the team plans to generate additional digital resources and one-on-one technical assistance and experiential training in a variety of areas such as agricultural mechanics and agroecology. UConn Extension will also use grant funds to engage an expert to deliver trainings designed for farmers in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, and coordinate a series of matchmaking events for farm seekers and farmland owners.
“We are facilitating the creation of urban farming trainings that may provide resources to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, some of whom are farming in unique environments and require different skill sets than rural agriculture,” Martin points out.
“When we planned for this new cycle, we realized we had two cohorts of farmers, those farming for one to five years and another group farming five to ten years,” Martin explains. “Both groups have different needs to address. The more advanced-level beginning farmers are in a different phase of their learning, requiring more advanced problem solving to grow the farm business while juggling new stresses such as farming while parenting or farming without finding stable land tenure.”
“We’re serving the needs of smaller mostly food-producing farms who are driven to feed their communities,” Martin says. “Many are really drawn to the idea of being stewards of the land. If you look at the number of farms in Connecticut, there are quite a few that rely on direct-to-consumer sales, and many have a desire to change the paradigm around food consumption and make a difference in the way food is produced and accessed.”
“You learn so much from providing training,” Ross says. “As the back to the land movement increases, there are more farm entrepreneurs and more niche businesses and a wide range of needs. Our goal is to build community and create partnerships.”