We are writing this post to share in our personal journey with the Small Farm Acceleration Program, one we took with caution- which left us in better standing than some other small farms.
We understand the importance of working together to find solutions to problems and that putting people on “blast” isn’t the answer, but I fear for other small farms much less feisty than us. I also fear that the failure of this program will reflect poorly on hard working small farmers rather than the institutions that run these programs.
I have hope that things can move forward in a more positive and more productive way for all but only if we get REAL about the nature of our problems.
In February of 2019, we and 4 other farms embarked in a course graciously hosted by the Wolfville Farmers Market with the goal of creating and completing a thorough business plan to be submitted with our Small Farms Acceleration Program Application. This was a 40 hour course that took place over 10 weeks, so as you can imagine we got to dive deep. Over these weeks we had the opportunity of meeting and talking with many people in the agriculture department about various topics including this program.
During this time we were all very engaged and trying to get the most out of our resources as well as our own businesses. This in no way was a free pass - we worked hard at this! As the weeks went by we all started noticing that some of the information was kind of confusing and conflicting in regards to the program. Anytime this specific issue cropped up it was classified as a “growing pain” since the department of agriculture had just started this program for the first time and there were some kinks that needed to be worked out. So we kept our faith and continued on working hard.
Our first really-red flag was when a couple of guys from the department of agriculture came in to talk to all of us about the Frost Loss Program as while as Agri Insurance/Agri Invest (You had to have one to get the other ;) ) Anytime I see these little clauses I am always skeptical but I thought I would ask some questions and give way for opportunities to rise. I was again met with confusing and conflicting information ...hmm I am starting to see a pattern ...so I went home and found all the information I could on this program and shared my findings with my fellow small farmers. I found 7 reasons why this program would not work for ANY of us. The main one being that you had to have a net income of at least $25,000 aka the money you make after all your farm expenses are paid. That alone should have clued them into the fact that this program would not work for us. Now I can’t speak to what their true intentions were with this meeting and I am not going to assume, but being mindful of a farmer's time would be a good starting point.
We all continued on with the program letting this little side step be, just because our main goal was to submit a super stellar business plan and application. During this time we got to meet with the head of this program several times but our final meeting was a one on one with him where he got to see our business plan in full ( most of them being 20+ pages) as well as our small farm acceleration applications. In these applications we had to identify what we are investing in, how much we were investing, how much more revenue they would create for our farm and when these projects would be done over the next 5 years. All very relevant information that paired really well with a thorough business plan for a crystal clear view of our intentional and methodically thought out business growth. We were all “praised” for the hard work we put in and were told what we submitted would certainly be approved. I honestly thought to myself “damn right I will be approved, I worked my butt off and I am glad I did.'' Haha.
All our applications went in at the end of March as we patiently waited for our “Official Approval” which came at the beginning of May - which seemed like perfect timing, until I found out that my projects now had to be approved… What? Wait?!... Didn’t I just send you a small book with everything I am doing and why? Being the person that I am and knowing the problems other farms were running into with their approval and refunds, I decided to play it safe and wait till my projects were approved, and crossed my fingers that it would be in late may/early june. I mean after all, I had put in my application that my project would be completed in June, plus made a note on my project approval application that I needed approval before July since I can’t lay down soaker hoses and landscape fabric after the plants are in the ground.
Our project approval didn’t come until the end of July...so now we had a decision to make- do we still buy all the things we said we would, even though we wouldn’t be able to use them? Therefore the extra revenue we predicted wouldn’t been seen, making us look like we dropped the ball? Didn’t seem like a good business decision to us, so we decided not to do those projects that were too late to do. I will say I was feeling a little unsure about this choice, until a couple weeks later another fellow small farmer who had taken that course with us was denied 65% of her refund after being approved for the program and the projects...I thought the whole point of approval was so you knew you were allowed to go ahead? None of the small farmers that took the course could believe this was happening, it just seemed completely unreasonable, but unfortunately not completely unexpected, since we knew other small farms that had applied the previous year running into “unreasonable” problems.
All of this left us feeling that this program was much more of a risk than a reward, especially if you are a small farm . Every dime you spend has to count, and just because someone says they “may” reimburse you 50% based on a system of logic that has yet to be well-defined - that is not something our business wants to be involved in. We rather go slow and steady like we always have - I mean after all we are only in our 30s we got another 30 years to “roll in the dough” haha.
But here we are now at the point in which you submit your final refunds and prove you were “all that you could be” in the program and continue on - with my heart set on just leaving the program, purely based on the fact it just really isn’t working for us, I hear yet another small farm in our group has been hit with another absurd reasoning why they can’t have a refund even though they were already approved for it… This now makes 4 small farms that just we know having issues with this program... and we don’t know a lot of people. This is starting to seem a little more systemic than just “growing pains”.
Why write all of this? Why air all this dirty laundry? Well, because I am tired of the idea that small farms are all “fluff”, I am tired of government programs of being actual fluff, I am tired of just keeping the status quo and I want REAL conversations with REAL solutions! Small farms are increasing number so its time to keep up and stop wasting our time, because you know what? our time is valuable too!