Farm Incubation and Regenerative Agriculture Education in Rural Southern Colorado

Rio Grande Farm Park (RGFP) is a program of the nonprofit San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition (LFC), whose mission is to foster an equitable local food system that restores the health of the people, community, economy, and ecosystem. In 2020, RGFP received a three-year grant from USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement for our project: Farm Incubation and Regenerative Agriculture Education and Outreach in Rural Southern Colorado. This project focuses on three areas to support small-scale farmers in the San Luis Valley: expanding outreach & equitable programming, promoting regenerative agriculture & business education, and accessing new markets.

Photo of Rio Grande Farm Park commercial farmer plots by Brennan Cira

Activities that occurred during this period:

  • Evaluated 2020 farming season and planned/adjusted for 2021 season: The project leadership team interviewed all farmer participants in Fall 2020 to learn how the 2020 season went and understand their needs for the 2021 season. Survey results from this effort are attached. Organizationally, LFC assessed successes and challenges of 2020 and published an annual report. RGFP staff have met weekly to plan the 2021 season and create a shared 2021 Project Management spreadsheet to stay on top of the many projects they are tackling.
  • Planned additional recruitment and outreach activities: Project leadership have taken steps to understand which outreach methods work best for the community. The team has met with local partners and existing farmers to learn what works best and build connections. Word of mouth has been the most successful method for recruitment thus far, with existing farmers and staff spreading the word to their networks. RGFP Farm Manager, Jesus, and Community Liaison, Francisco, have close ties with desired community groups that we hope to recruit to participate in programming. In addition to word of mouth, RGFP has shared recruitment materials with the SLV Immigrant Resource Center, and utilized social media marketing and a biweekly email newsletter to advertise openings in the Farmer Incubator and Family Plot programs. RGFP uses the MailChimp platform for newsletters and external email communication, and created a new “farmer” tag for training follow-ups and information sharing. The LFC hosts a monthly radio show on the local public radio station, KRZA, on a variety of topics, several episodes include promotion for RGFP and other farmer resources. In March, two RGFP staff members promoted the Farm Park on the GO Cast podcast from SLV Great Outdoors.
  • New farmers recruited to participate in workshops or programming each year: For 2021, three new Farmer Incubator farmers were recruited, and six new Family Plot farmers were recruited. Additionally, RGFP is partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of the San Luis Valley and the SLV Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to establish a Junior Farmer Incubator program to connect eight youth participants to farming career pathways. RGFP farmers will mentor the junior farmers while they tend their own small farm plots.
Advertisement for 2021 farmer recruitment
  • Created a technology/hotspot library for farmer participants: RGFP purchased ten IPAD tablets for the tablet library in December 2020. Each IPAD has mobile internet data capabilities and was pre-loaded with helpful apps and resources. LFC’s Outreach & Engagement Coordinator, Ally, has provided training to learn how to use the tablets. So far, fourteen farmers have utilized the tablets to participate in virtual meetings, trainings, and RGFP-offered English as a Second Language classes.
  • Trained staff on new software and prepared to purchase/train on live streaming equipment: RGFP upgraded to a Business Zoom account to offer live Spanish/English interpretation at all trainings and meetings. Staff were trained on how to use the advanced Zoom capabilities in November 2020 by The Civic Canopy. Live stream equipment was researched during this grant period and options were vetted by a local audio-visual expert. The equipment will be purchased in the next quarter and a training for staff will be held.
  • Communicated with Leadership Team/Partners; Met with partners to plan year-1 training opportunities and peer learning workshops: RGFP staff has been in continuous communication with the main project partners Sharing Our Roots (formerly known as Main Street Project), Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU), Valley Roots Food Hub, and Soil Health Services for program mentorship and to plan grant activities. The project leadership team meets weekly to move projects forward. RGFP’s Land Use Action Group (LUAG) has met at least monthly to plan land projects and advise on farm issues. RGFP staff have facilitated monthly meetings with farmer participants and have held regular meetings with the RGFP farmers and community farmers who are interested in the poultry-centered regenerative agriculture project.
  • Met with other local/regional/statewide organizations or coalitions to promote work and increase outreach and engagement: RGFP staff have communicated with several organizations and coalitions during this grant period, including NRCS, City of Alamosa, Colorado State Forest Service, Alamosa County Land Use Department, Colorado Department of Agriculture Inspection & Consumer Services Division, Colorado Office of Economic Security, FarmTek, Midwest Lab Reports, and more. The specific purpose of these communications vary from requesting information or advice, to obtaining permits and resources. However, by starting to build these relationships in small ways we are starting the foundation of resource sharing and engagement to benefit our program participants. In addition to informal outreach, RGFP Farm Manager, Jesus, presented on a Colorado Farm and Food Response team panel; Program Director Addelina has led communication with The Acequia Institution of San Luis for potential land link opportunities; and the LFC Executive Director has participated in several statewide coalitions including the Rocky Mountain High Plains Food Chain Collaborative and SLV Chapter of RMFU. Though not specifically related to this project, LFC’s Local Food Local Places program has begun a partnership with Mountain Roots of Gunnison to build food-chain node connections that will benefit farmers across the region. Two RGFP farmers, Francisco Lucas and Francisco Sebastian shared their experiences with farming and immigration on an episode of the Toasted Sister podcast in December 2020.
  • Hosted Peer Learning Workshops: RGFP Program Director, Addelina, conducted a peer-led training on seeds on February 25th with RGFP Farmers via Zoom that had seven participants. An additional workshop is planned for April 27th with Emigdio Ballon on regenerative farming and another will be planned for this summer. RGFP also created a Facebook messenger group to encourage ongoing communication between RGFP farmers. In February, RGFP Farm Manager, Jesus, created an informational YouTube video on soil health and cover crops.
From informational videos starring Farm Park Manager Jesus Flores
  • Develop bilingual resource manual action group team: RGFP is hiring a summer intern from Adams State University’s Food Studies program to take on the resource manual as a special project during her internship. A previous LFC employee started collecting resources in 2019, and this intern will pick up where he left off. She will be mentored by RGFP Program Director, Addie Lucero, and assisted in her efforts by Abe Rosenberg from LFC’s Local Food Local Places program, and Karen Rodriquez from USDA/NRCS.
  • Expert-led training: RGFP hosted a workshop with Valley Roots Food Hub on December 11, 2020 on distribution, processing, online marketing, and developing partnerships with the Food Hub that had four participants. On February 18th, 2020, Vicky Karhu led a training on food safety, maximizing production, and value-added goods that had seven participants. Training opportunities with other partners are in the works for the summer and fall of 2021.
  • Compost/Washstation/Poultry Processing Equipment: RGFP led two volunteer workdays to create compost systems on the farm. They also planned additional starter-compost purchases for April. RGFP’s Farm Manager also shared an informational video on the compost projects on YouTube and social media. In March, 7 farmers and 41 volunteers participated in a volunteer workday that included building a hoop house for farmer starts and planning for a mobile chicken coop.

Outcomes and results achieved during this period:

  • Percent of monolingual participants that have access to agricultural and business education and market opportunities: Interpretation has been provided at 100% of farmer meetings and training/workshops. RGFP staff are also dedicated to translating all program documents, workshop materials, and outreach efforts into Spanish. As we work to improve activity evaluation and data collection, we will collect preferred language and demographic data to ensure we are reaching the intended audiences appropriately. Additionally, some participants are more comfortable with oral surveys versus written ones, so we will work to offer alternatives.
RGFP staff members with SLV Language Justice interpreter, Diego
  • Small-scale farmers demonstrating increased knowledge of regenerative agriculture, to include soil health, poultry- centered production, and manual processing: During the grant period, seven poultry project meetings were held to plan RGFP’s farmer-led poultry centered production. Twenty-two people, not including facilitators and RGFP staff, have participated in these planning and learning conversations (7 RGFP incubator farmers, 5 family farmers, 7 non-RGFP farmers from the area, and 3 other community members). Currently there are 4 RGFP incubator farmer participants, one RGFP family farmer, and three community members interested in participating in the poultry pilot in the summer of 2021.
  • Farmers incorporating topics covered during educational offerings: All seven RGFP Farmer Incubator participants incorporated regenerative practices between the 2020 and 2021 seasons, shown by the purchase of organic seeds and application of compost.
  • Farmers demonstrating increased knowledge of marketing and distribution through the farm stand, VRFH, and other new markets: 4 farmers participated in a training with Valley Roots Food Hub in December 2020, increasing their knowledge of how food distribution and processing works, using online marketing tools, and formalizing their partnership with the Food Hub to sell their products.
Photo by Brennan Cira: End of 2020 Season at RGFP

Additional Activities:

In addition to the OPPE-specific activities described above, the LFC Executive Director has been an important connector between local farmers and businesses to USDA program assistance. During this grant period, she connected three people to a Colorado State University Extension representative that provides USDA grant writing guidance and assistance: a local lamb farmer and wool fiber producer of Cactus Hill Farms, a local hemp farmer, and the proprieter of the Saguache Hotel/ScSEED (Saguache County Sustainable Environment and Economic Development) who is interested in creating a commercial kitchen for the community.

Performance Measures: RGFP is working with an evaluation consultant, Vicky Karhu, to improve data collection tools and evaluation systems to better capture outputs, outcomes, and other results. So far, RGFP staff have begun collecting ethnicity/race data from RGFP participating farmers and others who join workshops to better classify who fits the USDA definition of “socially disadvantaged farmers” (the focus of the OPPE grant program). Improved surveys and observation techniques are in development. More detailed evaluation results will be shared in future reports.

Of our intended impact and overall goals, we are in the foundational stages of finding success. Specifically, we have achieved the following:

  • Provide equitable and inclusive programming and increase access to resources for disadvantaged farmers: Our staff have prioritized equitable technology access, language justice, and shared decision making. We are building trust among program participants and using word-of-mouth advertising to reach the vulnerable communities in the San Luis Valley. This is exemplified in three new incubator farmers who have joined the project and six family farmers who have joined as a result of increased trust in the immigrant community and word of mouth outreach.
  • Establish a culture of learning and networking among farmers in the region: COVID continued to prevent large outreach efforts throughout this grant period. We are hoping with increased marketing, vaccinations, and nicer weather we can open up our training opportunities to more non-RGFP farmers. Internally, our monthly farmer meetings are allowing for better communication and networking between farmers and RGFP staff. Farmers are taking a lead in deciding which topics are important for them to learn about and relationships are being strengthened.
  • Ensure that farmers understand and implement regenerative practices and innovative business practices in order to enhance their farming businesses/Ensure that disadvantaged farmers have the knowledge and skills to launch successful food-related enterprises: In 2020, RGFP hired two passionate, experienced regenerative farmers to lead the farm park and programming. Both Jesus and Addelina are dedicated to ensuring regenerative practices are understood and used on the farm. Addelina is a traditional farmer from the Taos Pueblo and is also a successful businesswoman and has brought that knowledge with her to help farmers with their marketing, sales, and other business practices. Participating farmers join RGFP to primarily grow food and businesses, but they also agree to learn and incorporate regenerative practices with some like Antonio Garcia leading the way.
  • Increase disadvantaged farmer income and consumer access to fresh local produce by connecting to new markets: RGFP’s sister-program, the Valley Roots Food Hub, has committed to strengthening its partnership with RGFP farmers. In 2021, this will look like improved communication, upfront pricing and demand information, and more training and technical assistance opportunities. The RGFP team is also planning the 2nd year of its on-site farm stand and hired a staff person to help support this market.

Deliverables:

  • 3 RGFP Incubator Farmer Meetings (with RGFP staff and farmer incubator participants)
  • 2-day Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agriculture Training with Sharing Our Roots (formerly known as Main Street Project) that included 19 participants (this was funded by a completed USDA BFRDP grant but created the foundation for the continued poultry project through OPPE 2501)
LFC’s MoKi mobile kitchen serving a meal during the training
  • Poultry Processing Training with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union with 12 participants (funded by a completed USDA BFRDP grant) Photos from Rocky Mountain Farmers Union training
  • 2 RGFP Family Farmer meetings (with RGFP staff and family farm participants)
  • 5 greenhouse tours/informational sessions with several San Luis Valley greenhouse operators to determine which model is best suited for RGFP vegetable production and farmer starts
Greenhouse Tour

Decisions Made:

  • New program policies were established by RGFP staff and program participants for 2021 for both the Farmer Incubator and Family Farmer programs.
  • RGFP decided to partner with Adams State University’s Food Studies program to host an intern in 2021 to support the Resource Manual work with the RGFP Program Director.
  • The poultry action group has made several decisions on how to move forward with the poultry-centered agriculture project. They decided to build two mobile coops, where and how to source feed and chicks, and how the actual project will work. Chicks will brood at each participants’ homes, and then move to RGFP once they reach a certain size. Of the 19 participants (staff aside) that participated in three initial poultry-centered regenerative agriculture trainings and meetings during this project year, 6 farmers will take what they have learned and participate in the pilot poultry project during the summer of 2021. After consulting with Sharing our Roots (formerly Main Street Project), materials for 3 mobile coops have been obtained and are being built for use in the pasture this summer. Cover crops are being planted to grow for the birds to forage under. Brooding chicks will be purchased in May or June with a potential retail sales in July of 150 birds and a potential profit of $681 in the first cycle or a 22% profit.
  • Seven farmers are returning to the Farmer Incubator program and three new farmers are joining. Additionally, the junior farmer incubator project will be piloted this year with eight youth aspiring farmers.
  • Farm Stand planning is in the works. RGFP was approved to accept SNAP and a Colorado-specific program Double Up Food Bucks in the 2021 season at the farm stand.