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How the USDA has invested in TLC's picture

Back in September at the National Direct Ag Marketing summit, I got the chance to present a poster on TLC's work combining grants to bolster our farmers market and food access programming (more about that trip in a past blog entry). In a nutshell, our poster outlined how the Champaign Farmers Market has been able to bring together funding from the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, and the Specialty Crop Block Grant (ISC--for Illinois Specialty Crop) in order to boost sales at the farmers market and strengthen our food access work in the community. These three USDA grant programs have done more than just make us learn an impressive number of acronyms--they've allowed us to support a wide range of programs by building the programs strategically so that they all bolster each other. 

Those of us who work regularly with grants know that it's quite the roller coaster ride. The initial excitement as we build the project, the mounting stress as the deadline arrives far faster than we'd like, the panic for days after we've hit submit as our brains frantically come up with possible fatal flaws in the proposal... And then there are all the emotions surrounding the announcement (not to mention the sometimes months of back and forth before an award is finally, truly, officially secured). With all that time, energy, and emotion poured into these proposals, of course rejections can feel like a crushing blow, to the point where they can overshadow the wins.

So today we're not letting the noes overshadow the yesses. Since we've just celebrated Thanksgiving, let's extend feeling to reflect on all the ways the USDA has invested in our organization's work over the past year or two. The Direct Ag Marketing Summit is where it really hit me how many different USDA programs have invested in our work. With the ups and downs of grant decisions trickling in throughout the year, it's sometimes hard to see the big picture.

Because the Champaign Farmers Market is my focus area, I've been more familiar with the grants we've received to support our young market. Not even two full seasons in, we received the exciting news that our application for a multi-year FMPP grant had been approved. The grant was geared towards helping us reach more potential customers, improving our sampling operation in order to boost sales once those customers were actually at the market, and to train farmers around the state. Our Mastering the Farmers Market series covered ways market farmers can market their own operations and market the farmers market (we're all in this market together!). The grant dramatically increased our advertising budget. We were able to expand that budget even further as local advertising outlets such as the News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, Smile Politely, and Illinois Public Media all offered matches based on our purchases. Once we could buy a little, the community stepped up and doubled our reach with more ads. Most of our advertising sought to promote our food access work: our SNAP matching program, which has grown dramatically over the past few years. In 2017 our funding came primarily via a grant from the Link Up Illinois program; funds which originated as a FINI grant from the USDA. We used those funds to establish our Triple Link Tuesday program, where we offered double SNAP benefits every week, but then an additional match on the second Tuesday of the month, which tripled the purchasing power of our SNAP customers. In 2018, we received our own FINI pilot program grant to run Triple Link Tuesday and add a component that would incentivize our customers to continue purchasing local produce year round: our Winter Bonus program. SNAP shoppers who signed up and used their benefits at the Champaign Farmers Market at least five times received $200 to spend at Common Ground Food Co-op on fresh fruits and veggies from November through April. 

But we didn't stop at just handing out funds to incentivize healthy produce purchasing; we also used funds from the ISC grant to produce our Illinois Specialty Crop card series, designed to help shoppers become more familiar with local ingredients and how to best use and store them. Building on lessons learned from past recipe card series, we decided to produce cards that focused more on general information about nutritional value of the featured crops, as well as a few key ways to prepare them, and the best ways to store them. The goal was removing fear of trying new items because the customer either doesn't know what to even do with them, or is worried that the item might go bad before they've had a chance to cook them. We know that fear of produce spoiling before use can be a barrier to shoppers on a restricted budget, so we wanted to provide information that would help them maintain freshness as long as possible. 

So that's what our poster highlighted--how all of these different projects have built on each other to support our work at the farmers market. And more than one attendee--even USDA Agricultural Marketing Service employees--seemed kind of blown away by how many of these grants our young market had secured (we just turned four!). But I found myself saying, oh, that's nothing, on the farmer training side we also have a SARE Research & Education grant, plus ERME, OREI, and RMEPP (crossing my fingers as I spoke that I actually had my acronyms right). And it really struck me how much the USDA has invested in our work, which we are truly thankful for. I'm going to outline those other programs in a moment, but lest I lose you in the sea of acronyms, let me tie it all together first. It's the end of the year, which means you'll probably be hearing from us soon about our annual appeal or #GivingTuesday (November 27--donate here!). And you may be thinking, oh, well if TLC has received all these grants, they don't really need my support. But the thing is, we really do. Most of these grants are very project focused, which means the bulk of the funds go towards providing matching funds to SNAP shoppers, purchasing advertising and sampling supplies, paying speakers to bring their expertise to our workshops, or printing materials for our local farmers to help them improve their own professional development. Successfully executing all these programs requires additional support, however. We need trustworthy, reliable accounting, someone to oversee reporting (so that we can share our successes and lessons learned with future grantees), and support to keep our lights on and our computers running.

So what other USDA programs are investing in TLC?

ERME (Extension Risk Management Education): This year we've expanded our previous work on risk management in organic grain transition (the fruit of which is still going strong in the form of our Organic Grain Conference). With Comprehensive Farm Risk Management for Healthier Bodies, Books, and Businesses, we're working to help Illinois specialty crop farmers through a series of trainings and resources in production, financial, legal, and human risks that can be barriers to a viable farm business. Through four workshops and two webinars our participants will improve the economic viability of their operation by discovering efficient, scalable weed control strategies, writing food safety and workplace safety plans, learning techniques to improve the productivity and reliability of farm labor, and improving their financial record keeping methods. One of these workshops, the Midwest Mechanical Weed Control Field Day, brought together over 150 farmers from around the Midwest to learn about cultivation methods that preserve soil health and connect with industry experts about a wide range of tools and techniques.

OREI (Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative): In order to make environmentally and economically conscious decisions that benefit their land and their production, farmers (organic, transitioning, and considering) must have access to and be aware of current research and new developments in organic agriculture. By expanding our Organic Grain Conference to include a stronger research focus on current and emerging research on organic grain production and a space for interaction, researchers will be exposed to a larger pool of individual farmers who can help them to understand if the work being performed is useful and can be practically implemented on working farms. The upcoming expanded conference will focus on the integration of research, education, an extension training for an exciting and intensive program of speakers, panels, research presentations, and practical discussions on critical organic agricultural issues, priorities, and problems. 

RMEPP (Risk Management Education Partnership Program): With this project, we will be addressing obstacles that can make specialty crop farms so unprofitable, developing resources to help farmers deeply analyze their financial practices and risk management strategies in order to improve their financial outcomes. TLC will work with a team of experts to create a reference text, self-directed online course, and online risk management resource platform to deliver the necessary risk management training that specialty crop farmers need for years to come. We'll also be translating the reference text and online course into Spanish, providing accessible financial risk education options for Hispanic farmers in the Midwest.

SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education)Increasing the use of regenerative practices in commercial grain farming (eg, diverse crop rotations, cover cropping, and reduced tillage) is critical to sustaining and improving the environmental quality of our natural resources. Research is clear that regenerative practices both reduce and remediate the damaging environmental effects of commercial-scale agriculture, while enhancing economic, agronomic, and human health outcomes for farmers. Through this project, we aim to gain a better understanding of why commercial grain farmers may resist adopting regenerative practices, looking at identity-based barriers. This research will assist stakeholders in addressing these barriers in their educational and outreach programs so that with time more farmers will become more open to practices that improve soil health.

All of this investment in our program work has been wonderful. It's allowed us to expand our offerings and really work with area farmers to find out what they need to improve their farm businesses. They've also allowed us to strengthen the organic grains community in and around Illinois and bring together farmers, researchers, and industry experts at the rapidly growing Organic Grain Conference. Overall, these grants are all helping us build up and strengthen the local food scene from a number of different angles. But as I wrote above, they're not enough to sustain our organization and coordinate all of our work. Grants cover a big portion of project work, but they don't cover all our organizational costs, especially when we see valuable opportunities to keep the work going once a grant for a specific project has ended.

This is why we rely on our donors to help keep this momentum going. The USDA is investing heavily in The Land Connection's work, how about you?

If you'd like to support TLC's farmer training, farmers market, and food access work, please donate

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