Each year the National Association of County Agricultural Agents and SARE select four members—one from each region—as SARE Fellows. Over two years, the Fellows travel to each of the SARE regions to learn about sustainable agriculture and enhance their work with farmers.
The Fellows recently came to New Hampshire, where they joined four University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension educators, four regional subject-area specialists, and two host farm families for a professional development program called Reading the Farm.
Reading the Farm looks at farms as whole systems; participants learn to assess how economic, environmental, and social factors interconnect and influence farmer decision making. Reading the Farm also helps participants see how management changes in one area might affect the whole farm; the program also encourages a team approach and drawing on team expertise.
Or as Maud Powell of Oregon State Extension put it, “The opportunity to take an in-depth look at two farms, with the guidance of extension specialists, was the best model of professional development I have partaken in. Holistic farm assessment is incredibly valuable for extension educators.”
Two Plainfield, New Hampshire farms—Edgewater Farm and McNamara Farm—opened their barns, fields, and value-added operations so participants could spend a half-day at each farm, including sharing meals with the families.
There was plenty to talk about: The McNamaras milk 200 cows, processing most of it at the family-owned glass bottling plant; they also sell butter, eggs, beef, and maple syrup to food coops, groceries, and at their farm store. Three generations of this family are working to improve efficiency and build a sustainable future for the family.
Edgewater Farm, owned by Pooh and Anne Sprague, began in 1975 with a half-acre of pick-your-own (PYO) strawberries. Over time the farm has expanded to 172 tillable acres, 40 different fruits and vegetables, a seasonal greenhouse and retail center, a farm stand, and a commercial kitchen. Crops are sold wholesale, through a 120-member CSA, and via PYO. The farm’s diversity, and making the transition to the next generation, made reading this farm a rich experience.
Both farmers and Fellows benefited from Reading the Farm; farmer Liz McNamara said, “It was a pleasure hosting a group of agricultural people, and their feedback left us with many things to think about. We would gladly host them again.” And Pooh Sprague of Edgewater Farm seconded that, saying, “We were impressed at how much they were able to absorb of our operation for only having three hours of exposure to it.”
Laura Warner of North Carolina State Extension said, "Reading the Farm showcased the value of interdisciplinary collaboration—we could explore sustainability while benefitting from each participant's expertise."
Patrick Torres of New Mexico added, “Reading the Farm made me realize that it wasn’t only about looking at the farm’s bottom line, but also about assessing strengths and weaknesses in each operation.”
Seth Wilner, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension field specialist and Northeast SARE state coordinator, organized the Reading the Farm program for the Fellows. The value of Seth’s legwork was summed up by Nathan Winter from Minnesota, who said, “The training I received is going to make me a better educator—I will look at the whole-farm systems and change the way I develop educational events and programs.”
--Seth Wilner and Janet McAllister