Growing Farms Online: Online Education for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers

Author: Garry Stephenson, Small Farms Program, Oregon State University

Publish Date: Fall 12

Growing Farms Online converts and expands OSU’s highly successful beginning farmer workshop series, Growing Farms: Successful Whole Farm Management, into an online course. Like the workshops, the online course fosters holistic planning by integrating the physical, biological, family and business components of farms and ranches. The online course will be ready for full use late 2013 and will be offered in combined online and face-to-face, as well as other methods.

In Oregon, geography, distance and driving time can be an obstacle for farmers to attend educational programs. For instance, the Oregon State University Small Farms Program has offered its eight week face-to-face beginning farmer and rancher workshop series since 2007. Although the workshops are highly effective, they are limited to several sites per year where OSU Small Farm Program faculty are located. Also, in the face of shrinking resources, distance education is vital to accessibility of extension educational programs.

The process of converting what we teach face-to-face into a form for delivery online is challenging and time consuming. The OSU Small Farms Program has been working closely with an online curriculum specialist and Oregon State University’s Professional and Non- Credit Education division to develop the content and appearance of the course. Content areas for Growing Farms have been refined in workshops since 2007. The framework and titles are:

  • Dream It: Strategic Planning.
  • Do It: Farm Operations.
  • Grow It: Production.
  • Manage It: Farm Finances
  • Sell It: Marketing Strategies
  • Keep It: Managing Risk and Entrepreneurship

Developments in online learning technology now make it possible to create and deliver a very high quality educational product, one that is graphically rich and engaging. A key part of the online course is six “case study” farms and ranches. Through in depth videos, these growers offer their first-hand experience and advice. The case studies represent a variety of production systems and scales. One example, Slow Hand Farm, is a model urban farm featured on the cover of this issue and on this page.

Our preferred method for offering the course will be a blended or hybrid online and face-to-face approach. Participants will use the online course for basic learning while face-to-face meetings will be used for discussions, hands-on learning and farm tours. Another option will be a standard, fully online method supported and facilitated by instructors.

The project is supported by a USDA/NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grant and is a powerful partnership between non-profits EcotrustMercy Corps Northwest and Oregon State University’s Small Farms Program and Austin Family Business Program. The project is also part of the innovative partnership between Oregon Tilth, Inc. and the OSU Small Farms Program.