Today, many beginning farmers are raising crops and livestock in communities other than those in which they grew up. Farmers however significantly benefit, if not require, community - a community of other producers, like-minded or not, as well as a community of customers and friends. Of course these relationships are not mutually exclusive. The benefits of being engaged in a community, particularly of other farmers are not difficult to guess - whether it is borrowing equipment, getting help putting up a new hoophouse, or taking some time to socialize and bounce ideas off of each other. This can be a challenge for new producers whom lack proverbial roots. Farming is a time-intensive endeavor and finding energy to actively build community, to make friends, attend workshops or events, and to network is not often near the top of the agenda. That said, recognizing the importance of participating in such a community is often critical to the success of a farm.
The purpose of this post is to suggest a few simple steps to planning your own ongoing event, working group or network. These are preliminary steps towards building a new community but may also be useful in ingratiating yourself with one that already exists. Groups and community events offer opportunities for education around production and marketing practices and can even take on activist-like agendas bringing together people from disparate walks of life with converging concerns and interests. Events can be more simple, socially-oriented and aimed at having a good time and making new connections. Regardless of the purpose behind your new group or event series, the act of planning and executing is an act of building that all important community-based network.
As with many things, social media is great place to start. Having an internet presence either on Facebook or a blog will make it easy for people interested in your event to access more information and help to spread the word beyond those with whom you have immediate contact. Use social media to organize and publicize and remember, this is more often than not the first impression you will make on behalf of your group or event, make sure it is clear, complete and engaging. Target other leaders and organizers who can bring along their followers and friends. Of course, there is still no substitute for communicating in person.
Set dates for events ahead of time. It’s nice to have a specific schedule—for example, every Tuesday evening at six—but a set time could exclude people with standing commitments, so you might consider varying the day of the week. Feel it out. Take a poll of possible attendees to determine availability. Survey Monkey and Google both offer user friendly online polling applications. As for frequency, if events take place too often, people might not feel motivated to attend, but if they don’t happen often enough, members may lack a sense of connection to the group. Find the right balance - for some groups every other week works well, but for others, monthly meetings may be sufficient.
It is also important to make the events as open and welcoming as possible. Invite people of all ages, backgrounds, interest and experience levels, and encourage them to bring friends. Consider ways to defray the costs of hosting or putting on an event to avoid charging fees. Make it fun! Educational workshops are great, but people are more likely to attend if there’s a social element too. Workshops can be augmented to include a farm tour, potluck dinner, an activity like music around a bonfire, field games, or even a movie night, all of which enhance the appeal of the event and add social incentives to the educational components you are addressing.
Don’t hold the event at the same place every time. Changing locations keeps things more interesting—and perhaps more inviting to people who are coming from different locations. If you enlist different hosts for different events, offer yourself as an organizer to help them shape the event. While new locations keep things fresh, it is also good to strike a balance and maintain a level of consistency to build a certain identity to the group or event series.
Once your events are set, publicize them online with Facebook, Twitter, email, and listserves. But, don't neglect traditional modes of advertisement. Putting up posters and flyers at the farm supply store, farmers market and other high-traffic areas will help to get the word out to those who may not otherwise learn of the event. Reach out to fellow farmers and group organizers to do the same. Community gatherings and networks often start with one person, but for the network to be sustainable, you’re going to need help. A core team of two to four people is typically best as too many organizers can prove as challenging as too few. Remember, the idea is to create community and make new friends. Be inviting and don't be afraid to ask for help organizing - the very act of asking for help itself can help to build community, the primary goal of this whole endeavor.
-Billy McKerchie abandoned his farm in the Finger Lakes of Upstate NY to pursue a MS in Agriculture, Food, & Environment from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Degree completed he is heading with wife and daughter to somewhere more rural to farm, cook and write about all things agrarian at www.sowloud.com.