Farm Programs Cultivate Community in South County

An agricultural support network clears a path for inclusive and sustainable practices

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Local farmers – and those aspiring to carve a space for themselves in the industry – gathered in late May at Wild Harmony Farm in Exeter for a potluck dinner and meet-and-greet. Farmers Ben Coerper and Rachael Slattery gave the group a tour of their certified organic and pasture-raised livestock farm and walked them through some of the sustainable and regenerative practices in place, like silvopasture, a combination of forest and pasture that allows animals to roam and forage.

This was just the first of many educational evenings of the season hosted by the Young Farmer Network (YFN) of Southern New England, giving a local farm the chance to highlight what they’re doing that’s exciting or unique while building community.

“The opportunity to visit farms and talk with other food producers and brainstorm solutions to the broad or specific challenges we face is the backbone of the Young Farmer Network,” says coordinator Elizabeth Malloy. “At farm tours, social events, and workshops alike, we focus not only on education but also on the cultivation of a strong social fabric.”

Young Farmer Nights make up a series of inclusive, casual get-togethers at a different farm every month for anyone interested in farming, whether new or seasoned farmers or those wanting to learn about  the local food system. At the recent event Wild Harmony Farm hosted, Coerper and Slattery spoke frankly about their journey with friends and guests. “We share practices that have worked well and ones we have had to reimagine time and time again,” says Slattery. “Farming know-how used to be passed down from generation to generation, and in some cases it still is. However, for those of us utilizing different practices from generations before us or learning from scratch, the need for open and honest sharing is extraordinarily important.”

Along with these more informal gatherings, YFN’s mission is to be a resource for regional farmers of all ages, experience, and backgrounds. “We work towards a supportive landscape for farmers and prospective farmers in developing socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable farm businesses and fulfilling lives,” Malloy explains.

This includes Farmer Short Courses, a series of instruction “covering everything from tractor repair, to business planning, to agriculture-related policy work,” says Malloy. Through connections made in these programs, collaborations have also formed, with members sharing booths at farmers markets and lending equipment to each other. 

Forging a career in farming – especially for those traditionally excluded from land ownership or new to the processes – relies on these deeper relationships and networks. “YFN prompted other local beginning farmer organizations to coordinate regional events discussing topics such as race and equity as related to beginning farmers’ access to land and other resources, and the importance of unearthing the histories of land dispossession and slavery in New England to better understand the context of contemporary landscapes and labor issues,” shares Malloy.

“Building solidarity among farmers, consumers, and justice groups will help develop resilient communities as we struggle with issues like climate change and land security, structural racism and the economic viability of small farms,” she continues. Offering wide-ranging programs and services like childcare and translators at events throughout South County’s and southern New England’s agricultural landscape, YFN begins breaking down these barriers. 

“We’re grateful to the organizers and other host farms who open their gates to share the ups and downs of their farming ventures,” says Slattery. “One small tip has the potential to save hours of work a week or change a product from being a loss leader to profitable overnight. Sharing knowledge between growers and producers is of the utmost importance.”

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