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Farm-Based Research

Farmers concerned about the future of their land, businesses, and communities need a way to conceptualize what they envision by the term “sustainable” so that they can track progress and make plans to improve their performance.

With support from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, PASA recently completed The Real Deal project, resulting in the development of a set of tools called the 1Local Index. The 1Local Index is a set of survey instruments combined with informational graphics designed to help restaurants, grocers and farmers markets measure their purchases from local farms and communicate that data concisely to their customers.

1LOCAL InfographicThe 1Local Index allows participants to define the geographic area that they consider “local” and helps them summarize their support of farmers in this zone with three easy-to-understand metrics (number of farms purchased from, total local food purchases, and local food purchases as a percentage of total food purchases). These metrics enable a food business to track its support of local farms over time, set quantitative goals for future performance, and effectively communicate its achievements to both customers and competitors.

Under our strategic plan, PASA will build on this approach and develop a more comprehensive set of metrics to help our farmers measure and improve their performance in core areas of sustainability. These metrics will assess dimensions of what we are calling the “Fours Es” of sustainability: Economics, Environment, Energy, and community Engagement. Our goal will be to develop survey instruments that farmers can complete during the off-season months with information that can readily be collected over the course of the year. These surveys will be developed over the coming years with input from some of our leading farmers and a technical advisory committee of experts in each sustainability area from universities, government agencies, and agricultural industries.

Through initial dialogue with our board, staff, and farmer stakeholders, we expect that our assessment protocols will cover:

Economics: working with data commonly collected through a Schedule F tax return, we will produce a snapshot of farm financial viability, including annual sales, expenses, and profits, as well as other informative financial ratios.

Environment: we will assess soil health by measuring aspects of the four principles of soil health promoted by the Natural Resource Conservation Service. These will include estimating ground cover at different times of year, recording the frequency of soil-disrupting tillage events, tracking the times of the year when cropland is covered by living roots, and documenting the crop diversity at different times of the year. We can supplement farmer responses to these categories with hard numbers on soil organic matter and other data from inexpensive commercial soil tests.

Energy: we will track the balance between fossil fuel inputs and both caloric and nutritional outputs in crops and livestock. Fossil fuel inputs will be estimated through diesel and gasoline fuel expenses, fertilizer applications, and utility bills. Caloric and nutritional (protein, vitamin and mineral) outputs can be estimated by taking harvest records and comparing against USDA databases for energy and nutritional density of various crops.

Engagement: we will gauge the impact of a farm business on its broader community by reporting the number of employees, the number of local businesses from which the farm purchases equipment and services, and the hours each farm family invests in community and civic organizations. Information from this assessment tool could also be shared with businesses using our 1Local Index and help to foster stronger business relationships between farmers and local food businesses.

Data from these surveys will be organized into compelling reports and graphics that will help each farmer understand their performance, both relative to previous year’s data and relative to the community of farms participating in PASA’s programs.

Farms participating in these projects will not necessarily be organic or currently connected to the local food system. Instead, by adopting a broad and inclusive concept of sustainability, we will recruit a range of collaborating farmers and help them to self-assess their sustainability performance and gather ideas from their peers about how best to improve.

Perhaps equally important, our graphical tools will help farmers communicate their performance to their customers, lenders, and neighbors. We expect that Four E system will provide a powerful method for farmers to understand changes they can make to comprehensively improve their sustainability. We also expect they will be a powerful tool to grow public support for a sustainable food system in Pennsylvania and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

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