March - December 2015
Half of all new farms fail within their first five years of business in the US. The average age of the US farmer is 58 years old, and getting older [USDA]. There are many reasons for both of these statistics, and many organizations working to address the the gaps in knowledge, experience and talent represented by the stark numbers. While working for the FEED Collaborative at Stanford University, I lead a team that partnered with one of these organizations, Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA), to capture the experience and knowledge of some of Central California's most respected sustainable farmers and create tools and resources to learn from and share that knowledge with aspiring sustainable farmers.
KTA's mission is to provide farmers with access to the tools, knowledge and resources they need on their path to become resilient and viable businesses through business and financial advising. They work mostly with 3 - 10 year old farms, but wanted to learn if there were patterns, decisions making factors or inflection points in the career paths of successful sustainable farmers and ranchers that could serve as guides and examples for their clients to understand potential business trajectories, make long term plans, and increase opportunities for success.
I lead a team of three, including two Stanford graduate students Maria Deloso & Sarah McCurdy, through a human-centered design process driven project to identify and interview key farmers across Central California. We then developed a way to capture the rich qualitative data embedded in their stories and farms in a meaningful and compelling way to drive KTA's understanding, systems knowledge and advising practice. Below is one of the Journey Maps we created for KTA from Pinnacle Organic (the rest are available by request directly, as per farmer wishes).
Behind the Journey Maps: In the Field
We spent countless hours on farms asking farmers about what made them successful. Though only one admitted to feeling a sense of success, they all shared decades of wisdom on how to persevere through all the knuckle-grinding hard work of preparing a business for "luck" - the opportunities born from a potent combination of drive, grit, and optimism for the next day, the next crop, the next generation.
To understand the complex system of food producers we spoke a broad mix of producers from goat ranchers to strawberry farmers, mixed produce growers large and small, even a few conventional growers to contrast their experience with that of our sustainable cohort. We visited distributors, seed growers and other key players in a farmer's ecosystem, whose work all contribute to farm success (or, often, failure).
Behind the Journey Maps: In the Studio
My role on this project was lead designer, project manager and teacher all rolled into one. Starting in a quarter long class at Stanford in the spring, we talked to a dozen non-profits and farmer-focused organizations to zero in on a rich topic and well positioned partner while I taught tools and skills needed in the human centered process, and technical skills like audio and visual recording, editing, and the Adobe creative suite.
After creating a relationship with KTA, and scoping the project, we dove into field work - learning how to navigate interviews on the move through fields with terse and busy farmers and asking delicate business related questions. We brought all the notes, photos, audio recordings and video back to our studio and combined it with traditional research and academic literature review to figure out what was important to highlight, what disparate stories meant and how to make it valuable for our partner and aspiring farmers.
We tried a lot of things, and each version went to our studio fellows, partners and many other testers for review, feedback and improvement. Eventually we landed on the powerful visual tool of a journey map, modified to show four types of information at once and their relationship over time.