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Sustainable Agriculture

Farmers as Educators: New Program Sends Information Peer to Peer

Producers successful at improving profits and meeting stewardship goals on their farms often are asked to share their knowledge with others, because their personal experience and connections to programs like Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) turn them into hot information sources. Rarely, however, are they compensated for their time.

In 2002, Northeast Region SARE launched a sustainable farmer-educator (SFE) program to compensate three farmers for their educational efforts. Educator Steve Groff, who has virtually eliminated erosion on his Lancaster County, PA, crop and vegetable farm, thanks to innovative cover cropping and no-till strategies, is a frequent speaker at conferences and hosts a popular annual summer field day. In 2002, he made contact with some 400 interested individuals.

“I feel I've made good impact with almost every contact I've made,” said Groff. “I try to make people think about why they are using certain practices on their farms.”

Groff fields numerous questions about no-till pumpkins, which he grows on cover crop mulch to produce a cleaner fruit. When he spoke to the Northeast Society of Agronomy, he said he appreciated the opportunity to interact with researchers and extension educators “who can amplify my message to many others.”

Educator Elizabeth Henderson, an author and long-time organic vegetable producer and community-supported agriculture (CSA) operator in New York, spends much of her off-season presenting talks.

A memorable meeting in 2002 was Henderson's visit to a New Hampshire CSA board of directors struggling with limited land and financial resources. She provided a list of successful CSA farms and “helped them assess the opportunities they enjoy by living in an area that is inundated by visitors with money to spend,” she recalled. “I left them with suggestions that can help them develop a short-term plan for getting through the next season and a longer term plan to solve their need for more land.”

Educator Larry Shearer, a long-time grass-based dairy producer in Massachusetts, received many more invitations to speak when he became a SARE educator. A New York county extension agent asked him to be a source at a series of dairy farm meetings throughout the state. The meetings were packed with interested would-be graziers.

“With the low price of milk, there is more interest about managing resources to reduce expenses,” Shearer said.

Northeast SARE will expand the program to represent more farming systems and marketing strategies in future years.


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