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Engaging Communities of Practice: A Faciliator’s Guide to Grower Groups

By Lori Stern

ENGAGING COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE: A FACILIATOR’S GUIDE TO GROWER GROUPS

Farmers rely on other farmers for information and advice on practices. Traditionally, this has been through relationships with neighbors and nearby family. With organic agriculture, a beginning farmer or farmer looking to transition to organic might not know any other organic growers in their own neighborhood or personal networks. Understanding the regulations and best organic practices to follow on their farm can be overwhelming for farmers, especially those without access to a community of other organic farmers. Today’s successful organic farmers were able to reach that sucess by collaborating and helping each other improve their operations.

With the rise in popularity of online communities, the potential for connection and collective action broadens beyond just physical proximity. Funding from the NCR SARE program “Building Resilient Organic Farms through Communities of Practice” was initially earmarked to enable farmer groups to meet in person, build community around organic and sustainable agriculture, and sustain themselves beyond the grant based on shared interest and agricultural goals.

However, the pandemic caused a shift in the program. Rather than assuming geography to be the shared identity as we all experienced ‘lock down,’ farmers expressed interest in cross cutting topics like mental health and wellness, anti-racism work, and adding value-added products to extend seasons and diversify income. Planned in-person communities of practice became a variety of distanced, virtual connections. Wanting this initiative to be truly farmer-led, farmers would contact Marbleseed with an express interest in starting a group. We would then use organizational networks and communication to share the news of a group’s formation. Once farmers convened, they determined how the group would stay in contact and be defined going forward.

One group decided on a Facebook group, another opted for a Listserv, and a couple included Zoom video meetings with presenters and discussion. It was exciting to see people self-organizing and defining their purpose, creating structures that met their group’s specific learning and support needs. However, what became obvious very quickly is that these cross-cutting groups may have had more connections than the issue or concern that brought them together. “Growing Wellness”—formed to address farmer mental health—also included farmers with production concerns as well as rural community resource challenges. But, with the groups all structured so differently, there would never be a time when shared challenges would meet shared resources or ideas across the groups.

As the Grower Groups were meeting in all their iterations, Marbleseed was fine-tuning our five- year strategic plan. The board and staff had deep commitment to democratized, farmer-led education and programming. We envisioned the Grower Groups as a way to capture farmer learning and self-organizing, but we needed a way for these groups to also find each other as the next step to strengthen and even galvanize growers utilizing organic and regenerative production. A social networking platform seemed as though it would provide the opportunity for both networking as well as network building. We began interviewing and vetting various social networking platforms and eventually chose one to put forward to the community.

In the Fall of 2021, Marbleseed reached out to allied farming organizations in the upper Midwest to gauge interest of creating an online platform. Beyond social networking, the vision for this network was to engage farmers via the “Grower Group” communities of practice to not only share resources but to activate farmers around the topics that were most relevant. We knew that several organizations were interested, but the cost to purchase the platform and app while having the staff capacity to build out a site was daunting. Marbleseed had received funding for technology from a private foundation and we saw a social networking platform as critical for the Midwest agricultural community. Regionally we have great examples of very active Listservs through OGRAIN and the FairShare CSA Coalition, focused on grain and vegetable production respectively. After a brief presentation on the merits of the platform, the Artisan Grain Collaborative, FairShare, Organic Farmers Association, and OGRAIN offered to assist in the building of the site via feedback on structure and data we would gather. After virtual meetings, email surveys, feedback, and a bit of beta testing, in February 2022, the platform named the “Ag Solidarity Network (ASN)” was ready for soft launch. By the spring of 2022 there was an app available for both iOS and Android phones.

The challenge we now face is ensuring that this platform remains relevant and engaging. Moving some of the Grower Groups and active farmer Listserv onto the ASN is ongoing work. Because this is an online community, collectively operated and farmer-led, Marbleseed utilized NCR-SARE funding to create a quick-start guide for Grower Group moderators on the ASN but the guide could also be used for other platforms that convene communities of practice. Although the focus of the Grower Groups shifted to more remote gathering and learning, this guide could also be utilized for groups that decide to create communication and education engagement that is in-person, online, or a hybrid of both.

Communities of practice started in education, as teachers would gather to network and share lessons, and then eventually challenges they were all trying to solve. Group members would go back to their classrooms, try an innovation created by the community of practice, and then report back to the group. This process can also be adapted to the farming community. Organic farmers in particular are willing to share what they have learned on their farms. Every farmer is an expert on the land they steward, the businesses they are growing, and the challenges they face-production based or otherwise. There is power in solving problems and concerns as experts of their own experiences.

The facilitator’s guide “Engaging Communities of Practice: A Facilitator’s Guide to Grower Groups” takes groups through a foundational process for convening that includes identifying the group’s purpose and shared values. As the main author of the guide, I utilized my 30 years of experience in adult learning and coalition building to inform the workbook format. Ultimately, I wanted to boil it down to what is essential, what things need to be discussed up-front to avoid challenges in group building down the road.

The guide also has tips for farmer-moderators to keep the group engaged. Marbleseed wanted to be responsive to the virtual convening of groups that tend to be less formal and not based on meetings at a certain time with set agendas. Grower Groups have become ongoing threads of conversation and back and forth that can be engaged in as time and interest allows. Some members will actively post, while others may participate by following topics that are relevant. The moderator is critical in ensuring the group is vibrant and relevant.

Marbleseed and other organizational partners in the ASN that provide farmer education see supporting farmers as leaders as critical for organic farming, particularly as there is suddenly more attention being given to small to medium organic operations. There is great opportunity for organized groups of farmers to share their experiences and advocate for their needs as stewards of the land, air, water and the health of plants, animals and humans.

The long-term goals of Grower Groups are to build resilient organic communities throughout the Midwest and possibly beyond. Farmers own and lead the groups, and the groups organize with minimal support from Marbleseed or outside staff. We hope that this Grower Group Guide: Growing Farmer Communities for Continuous Improvement and Change will enable farmers to engage in groups that meet their needs and are sustainable beyond the founding membership.

If you have questions about this guide or you are interested in forming a Grower Group, you can reach out to info@marbleseed.org.

This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under agreement number 2019-38640-29879 through the North Central Region SARE program under project number ONC20-067 USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.