A beginner farmer program adapts to the pandemic

A training program for beginner farmers led by GrowNYC and hosted by the Farm Hub shifts with changing times.

A beginner farmer program adapts to the pandemic

By Amy Wu and Sara Katz
Sara Katz is the Agricultural Education and Training Program Manager

 

Grandpa Farm’s stand is a new addition to New York’s Union Square Greenmarket. Photo
courtesy of Grandpa Farm

In the abundant Black Dirt soils of Orange County, New York, a few new farms took root this year, amidst a pandemic and a recession.  This welcome development in a challenging period was a testament to the fortitude and commitment of these regional farmers.  It also speaks to the importance of non-profit initiatives like La Nueva Siembra, a six-week business planning course for beginning farmers.

The course is part of GrowNYC’s Beginner Farmer Program which has been in existence for over twenty years and serves farmers with business technical assistance and training, all part of their venerable Food Access and Agriculture program which operates over 50 greenmarkets, 15 farmstands, and eight Fresh Food Box sites in New York City.

Gabriela Pereyra, the Beginning Farmer Program Manager and facilitator of La Nueva Siembra, says the program assists beginning farmer-entrepreneurs with a focus on immigrants and farmers of color. A key goal is to develop the business planning and financial management skills they need to start farms as well as sustain their businesses in the long term.

GrowNYC previously offered farm business training for a Spanish-speaking farmer audience, but since 2011 the courses were primarily held in English to serve a broader BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of color] audience of beginning farmers.

“Two years ago we had the idea again to hold the business training in Spanish. We saw the need from the community — there are certain concepts and ideas they feel more comfortable talking about in Spanish or learning in Spanish,” says Pereyra, referring to the feedback she received from farmers.

A new partnership

Through La Nueva Siembra, GrowNYC offers farm business programming to new farmers in the Hudson Valley. In addition to the course, participants receive up to two years of technical assistance in marketing and financial management, and may also work with mentors to further their agricultural production skills.

Starting in 2020, the Farm Hub’s education program began hosting La Nueva Siembra.

In addition to hosting the course at the farm, the Farm Hub’s Language Justice team offered interpretation and translation services to adapt content into Spanish, while the Farm Hub education team, along with GrowNYC, worked to adapt the course and workshops to best serve the participants. This year, hands-on tractor training was designed for participants looking to increase mechanization on their farms.

“Agriculture in the United States is largely performed by immigrant farmworkers who hold a wealth of production expertise and business savvy, yet are systematically denied opportunities to start their own farms. Programs like La Nueva Siembra offer language-appropriate assistance to help them get started, create equity, and exercise their independence” says Chris Wayne, the Director of GrowNYC Farmer Assistance.

In 2020, a unique land access opportunity was afforded to several experienced farmer participants through the non-profit Chester Agricultural Center (CAC). Situated on 180 acres of uniquely rich soils (up to 40% organic matter), the land was ancestral lake bottom back when glaciers covered the region. CAC’s focus is on the preservation of the farmland and also the provision of affordable, long-term leases to beginning-level farmers. CAC also provides access to infrastructures such as wash and pack, cold storage, and greenhouses.

La Nueva Siembra’s farm business planning course kicked off with a class held at the Farm Hub in March 2020. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Pereyra, GrowNYC.

The timing was fortuitous. Four participants out of the 16 from the 2020 cohort were already planning to launch their farms. For three of them, GrowNYC’s business development assistance coupled with an opportunity to lease farmland at CAC would help them to realize their plans during an unprecedented time.

After one in-person session to kick off the program back in March, the pandemic forced GrowNYC to make quick changes to the program as originally outlined.   

With greenhouses full of leafy transplants and plans to sell to farmer’s markets in New York City and regionally, the farmers still planned to launch their businesses this year.

GrowNYC adapted the program, largely by providing one-to-one technical assistance on topics such as marketing – helping growers to apply to sell at area farmer’s markets, to develop key elements of their business plans, and to routinize essential financial record-keeping.

In many cases, Pereyra worked with the farmers individually. “That relationship-building has been key to serving the farmers as well as keep them engaged in the program,” says Sara Katz, Education Program Manager at the Farm Hub.

At CAC, Grandpa Farm, led by two sisters in their 20s along with their grandfather, launched the business after several years of working on other farms in Chester since they migrated here from their native Puebla, Mexico. They are already selling at five farmer’s markets and to two wholesale accounts.

Huerta Farms is also a family-led operation in the start-up phase of growth. Huerta means “vegetable garden” in English, and is indicative of the small, diversified business model the Huerta family plans to create. The operation started in 2019 and is planning to be in full production in 2021 by adding arable acres in production, farmers markets, and wholesale accounts.

Acevedo Family Farm grows diversified vegetables and Mexican specialty products in the black dirt for sale through farmer’s markets. After their father passed away earlier this year, two Acevedo siblings in their 20’s made the decision to keep the business going. With limited experience, the learning curve has been steep, but in 2020, through a global pandemic, they have been successful in carrying on their father’s farming legacy.

They found they had to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, making alterations to their crop plans as demand changed from restaurant and wholesale clients or farmer’s markets. New opportunities arose, as Chester Agricultural Center worked to support their farmers to sell in a new online sales platform, the CAC Farm Store. Pereyra supported them in real-time, addressing issues as they arose, for instance, working with the farmers to minimize production expenses or develop their branding.

A flyer for one of the virtual workshops on integrated pest management. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Pereyra, GrowNYC.

Tractor training and more

This fall, the program offered a series of workshops on several agricultural production topics, chosen based on participant interest. The three-part series included virtual workshops on Zoom on “Cultivo en invernaderos durante el invierno” (greenhouse production during the winter), led by local farmer Ashley Loehr of Sparrowbush Farm, and another on pest management based on organic principles, led by Ethan Grundberg of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program.

In November, the Farm Hub added an in-person “Capacitación del Tractor” (tractor training) covering safety and operation. The sessions were held in Spanish and offered hands-on driving practice, with some of the Farm Hub’s most experienced staff operators on hand to assist.

The business planning course will resume this winter after the farmers have gained valuable experience surviving what is their first growing season as independent producers.

To learn more about GrowNYC’s Beginner Farmer Program click here.

Lead Photo: The Chester Agricultural Center is located in the black dirt region in Orange County, NY, known for some of the most fertile soil in the country. Photo courtesy of Chester Agricultural Center.