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Building a Farm Family

By Nick Faircloth

When I started with the AMI Urban farm, I signed up for the role of volunteer coordinator partially because it made me uncomfortable. Until now, none of the farms I’ve worked on before this one ever worked with volunteers regularly. I had relatively little experience holding the space for organized volunteer events. I was intimidated and a little wary.

Previous employers cautioned against using volunteer help for several reasons, most of those being related to the balance between work accomplished versus time spent teaching and correcting things volunteers had done. After all, you want the work that the volunteers to be, ultimately, a net positive. And I understand the sentiment, especially as someone who was taught to be very particular about HOW certain things are done on the farm. Still, in the face of their advice, I want to advocate for the incredible, seemingly unquenchable positive force that volunteers can be on a farm IF managed in the right way. I’ve found success with volunteers, and I want to share my observations with you here.

In my experience, the most beneficial thing when bringing volunteers to your farm is creating a relationship by building ties between the project and the surrounding community. Certainly, a well-organized volunteer force can accomplish, in a single afternoon, what you might be able to accomplish in 3 days. Substantially more valuable, however, are the community connections that we as farmers foster by bringing in strangers and working alongside them, sharing knowledge, stories, and experience. Whether your volunteers show up once or become repeat customers, creating positive associations with your fellow community members will spread the word about your farm across town and you may, in time, grow your network of allies and consumer base alike. We’re in local, organic food. Without a connection to the community, to whom can we expect to sell?

When a farmer opens up his or her farm to the community, they allow neighbors to develop a relationship with their farm and the food they produce. Creating community connections results in a more broad and developed customer base, as well as a network of support that will prove to be an invaluable resource. More people will become familiar with their neighborhood farm and feel a connection with the farmer. As a result, they are more likely to support that farm and seek out their farm stand. These people now have a deeper connection with the food they eat and a personal relationship with the farmer. The farm then becomes a hub for deep, personal connection, fulfillment and enrichment. This progression characterizes the development I witnessed at the Urban Farm this growing season.

People who start out as farm volunteers often become friends and skilled allies. As we got to know our volunteers this summer, our weekly work-days became a collaborative event. The work created the space for deep, explorative discussions on food issues, philosophical perspectives and problems faced by our team on the day-to-day, conversations from the abstract to the concrete. We came to know these people in a very real way. By opening up the farm to them, we allowed them to open up to us. In this process, we developed deep friendships with these people. Because they began to know us on a deeper level, they were able to see where we needed help and were ready to provide where they could. A very helpful volunteer started weeding with us this spring and, by fall, fixed a broken Vermont cart with donated pieces; simply, because he saw it needed done. Another volunteer and his son became very fond of visiting the farm in the evening and often provide a fun, imaginative break for us at the end of a work day, a time that might be better spent wrapping oneself in row cover and pretending to be a dinosaur than pushing to get the last path hoed.

As each farm is unique, each farmer should consider how they might use volunteers according to their needs and capabilities. It’s important to realize that there isn’t a universal solution that can be applied without consideration for the specific requirements of a space. Volunteer energy can most definitely be misused to the chagrin of the volunteer coordinator. Below, I want to provide some things I’ve discovered to be important this summer as I found my way.

1. Consider Scale

When considering details for organizing a volunteer event, it is important to predict and begin to understand how many people you can realistically keep occupied. We discovered our comfort zone by trying out groups of all sizes and seeing what worked best. Events that seemed to be the most comfortable and most effective were those where we hosted just enough volunteers. This week, a group of 13 high school students completed more than twice the work that a group of 60 of their peers had completed earlier in the year. With the smaller group, members of our farm team were able to each work with a smaller group of 4-6 students and move as an effective, positive unit. We now know our sweet spot.

2. Choose activities wisely

Especially for new volunteers, we found larger scale mulching and weeding tasks were some of the best outlets for abounding volunteer energy. If you can choose to give the volunteers tasks that won’t be too technical (allowing them to feel like capable farm hands) and something that is semi-repetitive (allowing for an easily conversational work environment), you keep everyone happy and are able to fly through work that might seem endless if it was you taking it on solo.

As you develop your volunteer base and begin to learn the skills and strengths that each of these happy helpers brings, you can start to train them in more skilled tasks that match those strengths. Volunteers also become a valuable pool to choose from when looking for extra hired help during the height of the growing season.

3. Reaching volunteers

First, start with you customer base. These people already have a relationship with you and your vegetables and might be likely to come out to help if called upon. Connecting with neighbors and civic groups near you is also a helpful tactic. By bringing in volunteers, I’m ultimately trying to use my farm to create a network of friends in the community, people close by who can be relied upon. Therefore, starting locally is important.

4. Creating volunteer incentives

Give people a reason to come back. Celebrate their presence and generously give them what you are able to give. Reward repeat volunteers. This summer, our volunteers were rewarded for every 5 community workdays attended with a $10 farm-stand credit. This gift was meant to show our appreciation for their work and the value that we placed on their presence. We also tried to provide a snack for our volunteers during volunteer workdays and would occasionally host potluck meals or music, etc. Above all, say thank you! Repeatedly. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If the volunteers feel appreciated and welcome, they will continue to come back.

5. Considerations for the day of an event

Make sure there are enough tools and tasks to keep everyone busy. Over-plan when thinking about what tasks you want to get done. Always have backups and have other things ready if you finish your main task early. Under-plan the actual flow. Gauge the groups’ energy level and use that to guide the day’s work schedule. You are providing the farm to hold the space for these volunteers. Being too focused on sticking to a schedule might make you blind to the volunteers needs, making them less effective and less likely to come back. We’ve had days on the farm that seemed to be mostly filled with play and conversation, and then others that were unbelievably productive. Work-days seemed to work best when we let go of the reigns, became attentive to the needs of the volunteers, and tried to allow the day to unfold at its own pace.

At the beginning of the year, the farm was a bleak place. Covered in snow, it seemed pretty empty. As the snows melted and we started to bring people down into that space, we saw such life and growth, on a scale that I never would have predicted. For certain, our farm gained a larger presence in the community because of the relationships we were building with these volunteers. But in so many ways, the relationships fostered produced fruit far beyond any marketing value. I now feel that these people are now my friends, my family in Staunton.

I encourage you, build a family around your farm.

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