Grazing isn’t a big thing in Maryland. Management is more conventional, with confined dairy farms, and not too many farmers look out at their fields as something they could manage for feed. But thanks to the Maryland Grazers’ Network, that’s changing. In fact, thanks to this farmer-to-farmer network, cropland has been converted to pasture, conservations plans have been created by farms, marketing plans are being developed for grass-fed products, and dairy farm profits are going up.
The change comes thanks to a partnership of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and University of Maryland Extension, along with a whole bunch of farmers. They all believed that more farmers would adopt grazing if they could learn about it from people they know and trust: other farmers. Their plan was to partner experienced graziers with farmers considering making the shift to grazing, and then support all participating farmers with technical resources, marketing assistance and financial analyses.
The project team recruited farmers initially, but eventually farmers started reaching out to the network to participate. When the team picked farmers to become mentors they looked for folks with good grazing skills, good people skills, and a desire to help. Then they chose farmers for the mentors based on their philosophical similarities.
But as you might imagine, mentoring partnerships take time to grow. To make sure the connection worked, a member of the project team worked as a liaison. The team member set up the first meeting, making sure that the farmers had contact information for each other. The liaisons also got in touch a few times over the course of the year, checking how things were going, offering up suggestions of available resource experts that could be used. This helped, too, because some mentors were concerned about being too pushy if they called or reached out too often.
Another thing that moved the relationships along were the stipends paid to each mentor. The $1,000 paid wasn’t a huge amount and it turned out to be more important to the person getting mentored than to the person getting paid. Knowing that the mentor was getting paid made it easier for the farmer on the learning end to reach out and not feel like he/she was imposing. Group events, like workshops and annual conferences, were also helpful in building relationships. Farmers liked coming together in larger settings to learn about things like cash flow and business planning to address the differences between grazing operations and confinement feeding.
With more than 31 mentoring pairs, the first three years of the network was been the movement behind more than 650 acres of cropland converting into pasture. Now in its seventh year, the Maryland Grazers’ Network recently connected with groups in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Steps to a Successful Network
If this sounds like something you’d like to have in your community, here are recommendations from the Maryland Grazers Network about how to build a successful network. Then stay tuned for our upcoming articles sharing what participants have to say about the program, and a final article on lessons learned.
- Build a project team and a coordinator. Biweekly conference calls (every two weeks) and quarterly meetings were helpful.
- Create a work plan and timeline with farmers on board in the planning process.
- Funding helps. Multi-year funding is even more helpful.
- Use a broad reach to bring farmers in, and have a member of the project team interview mentors and partner farmers to make matches.
- Recruit your mentors. Ask for their advice on how to develop relationships, how often to meet, etc. Follow it.
- Develop support materials, like inventory resource sheets, monthly checklists, meeting reminders, etc.
- Identify experts in the field that farmers can use as resources on topics like soil, forages, genetics, marketing, and more. List these resources in the mentor packets.
- Recruit farmer partners and match them with mentors. Make sure they understand this is a chance to learn, not a criticism of what they have been doing.
- Assign liaisons to farmer pairs.
- Work for policies that support the network. The MD Grazers’ Network helped create a cost-share program for participating farmers, as well as more awareness of nutrient pollution reductions from grazing.
- Support relationships with events and communications, like newsletters (or the calendar).
- Seek and incorporate feedback from farmers.
One Last Thing
The Maryland Grazer’s Network is one of On Pasture’s newest sponsors, because they think On Pasture is a good investment in the future of their members. Sponsors help make On Pasture possible every week, so if you’re a member of a grazing organization, suggest they sponsor On Pasture too. Or drop Rachel a note and let her know who she should contact in your organization. Thanks!