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Colleen Donlan ’18 researches access to local food; careers in farming

By Upstate Institute on July 28, 2017

Colleen Donlan, ’18, at the Hamilton office of the Partnership for Community Development.

This summer, I am working at the Partnership for Community Development (PCD) as an Upstate Institute Fellow. PCD is an economic development nonprofit which serves the Hamilton area. They work closely with the Village of Hamilton, the Town of Hamilton, and Colgate University to ensure sustainable community-oriented change, success for our small businesses, and economic vitality. PCD brings Hamilton together through community-based projects in many different ways.


Food access is a concern in Madison County, as it is in many rural areas. Some residents participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). However, these participants cannot use their benefits everywhere. Residents cannot redeem them at the Hamilton Farmer’s Market or at almost any farms in the county, even though there is a process to make this happen. So while we are surrounded by farms, which sell meat, vegetables, dairy, and other produce, community members still struggle to access local food. On the producer side of this issue, trying to accept SNAP is not easy. That is why, among other barriers, it is difficult for farmers to go through the process of accepting SNAP.


For my project, I am looking at these barriers for farmers and other local producers to sell to low-income consumers, specifically through accepting SNAP. PCD wants to make this easier for farmers so that producers can increase sales by reaching a new market and community members can gain access to local produce through their benefits and other incentives. We would like the simplify the process for farmers and make it as simple as possible for them to start accepting SNAP at their farm or store. Throughout my research, I have determined that while there is interest from farmers in offering SNAP as an option, there are strong barriers that are discouraging. A major barrier is time. The process of accepting SNAP is very bureaucratic, and the paperwork does stop once the farmer’s application is accepted. Another barrier is cost. While many costs are refunded, initially purchasing equipment can be difficult for farmers. Additionally, marketing to let the community know about this program will take both time and money. Hopefully, we can streamline the process and help both farmers and consumers in our community.


I am also researching how to get young and beginners into farming. Because sustaining a farm is difficult, it discourages other people, especially young people from continuing their family’s farming practice or starting a new farm. There are several agricultural organizations that have opportunities for grants, which we are exploring. Ideally, we would like to welcome more young, innovative farmers into our community, to create agricultural economic vitality and offer more food access points for our consumers.


Throughout this work, I have learned the most from speaking with farmers and community partners proving the reason why community based research is so important. Communities that have successfully implemented a SNAP program, farmers who have tried but not been successful, and producers who have interest but are presented with too many barriers, have all been essential to determining the complexity of these issues and mapping out our solution.

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