Growing Farmers, Growing Communities: LSU AgCenter Extension Programs Support Local Food Systems

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Maria Bampasidou, Carl Motsenbocker, Marcus Coleman, Kathryn Fontenot and Sydney Melhado

Local food systems, which are primarily defined by food that is locally produced, marketed and consumed, is a not a new concept in the broader U.S. food system. Because of its growing popularity among consumers, local food is a growing share of the U.S. food system; however, its overall market share is small, as it constitutes less than 4% of total U.S. farm sales. Local food, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is food that has traveled fewer than 400 miles from its origin or within the state in which it is produced. Popular markets for local food include restaurants; grocery stores; institutions such as schools and hospitals; wholesalers; food hubs; and direct sales to consumers, which include farmers markets, on-farm stores, farm stands and community supported agriculture programs.

Resilient and sustainable local food systems can play an instrumental role in fostering community economic and social development by improving the well-being of producers, consumers and those in between. Benefits of a community-based approach to local foods include increased economic activity through local procurement, better health and nutrition outcomes for consumers, and awareness of agricultural production and enriched social capital — the ability of people to work together with a common purpose. Farm to School programs and farmers markets are prime examples of synergies between communities, producers and government programs to ensure access to healthy food.

The National Farm to School Network, based on 2019 data, reports increased consumption of fruits and vegetables from 0.99 to 1.3 servings per day. The network also found an increased willingness to try new and healthy food and a minimized risk of childhood obesity. In addition, farm to school programs have been found to reduce health and educational inequities especially among low-income communities.

In Louisiana, a growing interest in local foods has been observed over several years with producers seeking more information and training related to food production, accessing local markets, and managing the various risks associated with producing and marketing food locally and sustainably. LSU AgCenter researchers and extension faculty have collaborated with community-based nonprofit organizations in southeastern Louisiana to provide training programs for new and beginning horticulture farmers. In this context, new and beginning farmers refers to individuals with fewer than 10 years of farming experience. These training initiatives, Grow Louisiana and Growing Farmers, have increased the ability of the LSU AgCenter to connect with and train new and beginning farmers. These programs are designed to support small-to-medium-scale farm enterprises through technical production and basic farm business education and farmer-to-farmer networking. These programs are designed to provide farm business entrepreneurs training and resources to assist in increasing farm business revenue.

Grow Louisiana, which started in 2019, was funded through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The program offered educational and hands-on training to fruit and vegetable farmers with an interest in sustainable production practices. The program was designed as an academic-community collaboration with three community-based organizations: SPROUT NOLA and Market Umbrella, which are based in New Orleans, and the Acadiana Food Alliance in Lafayette. Such collaborations have been instrumental to the success of the program, said Chris Adams of the Acadiana Food Alliance, a key partner in Grow Louisiana. “Our local farmers of vegetables, fruits, livestock and other small-scale food producers are a relatively small and underserved community,” he said. Adams added that “bringing community and extension together offers benefits to all local food system players and ultimately results in a stronger local food system.” From 2019 to 2021, Grow Louisiana trained three cohorts of new and beginning farmers with cohorts based in New Orleans in 2019, Lafayette in 2020 and Baton Rouge in 2021. In its year-long curriculum, participants were able to attend a regional sustainable agriculture conference and participate in 16 classroom-based training classes that took place in the spring and fall. The program also included practical farm experiences, such as hands-on activities and field days at local farms, which were designed to reinforce the classroom-based sessions. The program also included various farmer-to-farmer networking opportunities organized through the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), which was led by program partners and mentor farmers. Evaluations of program participants over the three years indicated that the program was successful in increasing the participants’ overall farm business knowledge and their knowledge of horticulture, which includes the study of fruits, vegetables and soil.

Growing Farmers, funded by the Southern Risk Management Education Center, emphasizes financial and marketing risk management. The program offers webinars and in-person workshops throughout the year and concludes its activities in summer 2022. The program is a collaboration with First South Farm Credit, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, LSU AgCenter Annie’s Project, Compostella Farm and Fullness Farm. Trainings include grant writing, financial record keeping, taxes, online platforms, and direct marketing and were complemented with presentations from LSU AgCenter faculty on food safety, financial literacy, and MarketReady, which is a better business training series. So far close to 200 people have attended the webinars and workshops.

Maria Bampasidou is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. Carl Motsenbocker is a professor in the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences and is the team leader for Grow Louisiana: Beginning Farmer Training Program. Marcus Coleman is a visiting assistant professor in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University. He previously served as program director for the AgCenter Grow Louisiana Beginning Farmer Training Program. Kathryn Fontenot is an associate professor and extension specialist, and Sydney Melhado is an extension associate in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.

This article appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.

Read more about the experiences of two Grow Louisiana participants here:

Monica Hernandez: 'It Opened My Eyes'

Tara Sanchez: Fighting Hurricanes and Pests, New Farmers Find Help in AgCenter Program

Program participants listen to a speaker.

The Grow Louisiana training cohort attends a field day hosted by Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans. Photo provided by Marcus Coleman

Grow Louisiana participants pose for a photo.

The 2019 Grow Louisiana training cohort based in New Orleans poses after a food safety class session. Photo provided by Marcus Coleman

9/16/2022 3:24:44 PM
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