Barbara James Norman: NCR-SARE Hero

April 29, 2019
Barbara Norman

Coordinated by the NCR-SARE Alumni Organization, the term "NCR-SARE Hero" recognizes the leadership, vision, contributions, and impact that certain people have made in the field of sustainable agriculture in the region.

Barbara Norman is a legacy Michigan blueberry farmer who embodies SARE’s efforts to advance sustainable innovation to all American agriculture. Early in her life, Norman, the owner and operator of Barbara's Blueberry Patch in Covert, Michigan, developed a natural interest in the family’s fifty-three-acre multigenerational high bush blueberry farm.

For many years Norman has used and promoted sustainable practices such as cover crops, composting, no till, natural/organic, and innovative marketing strategies. In addition to her commitment to sustainable growing practices, Norman has also dedicated her career to improving the quality of life for farmers and ranchers, particularly historically underserved producers. While running her blueberry operation, she has coordinated and/or participated in five NCR-SARE grant projects, including a $100,000 NCR-SARE diversity initiative grant she was awarded in 2008 to mentor farmers of color in three states. Through that project, Norman collaborated with several service providers including Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS), Iyabo Farms, and the Kansas Black Farmers Association to reach underserved communities. Her grassroots message about the importance of sustainable farming brought her in contact with Kansas State University, Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, urban farmers in Detroit, Michigan, and small-scale Illinois African American farmers in Kankakee, Hopkins Park Village, and Pembroke Township, and the historic community of African American farmers in Nicodemus, Kansas. Norman was a member and two-year cochair of the National SARE Outreach Steering Committee from 2007-2015 and has served as a spokesperson on behalf of SARE at numerous local, state, and national conferences and events.

Throughout her career, her ability to engage with farmers about their inherent potential has garnered her a seat at the table of several organizations including the SARE, MIFFS, the Farm Research Cooperative, the USDA National Beginning Farmer and Rancher Advisory Committee, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Michigan State Technical Committee, Michigan State Outreach Committee, Annual USDA Partners Meetings, and Covert School Board. She was named National Small Farmer of the Year by the USDA-NCRS in 2002. For the past 16 years, Norman has personally sponsored and hosted a highly acclaimed Friends and Family Farms Field Day on her farm. This event has touched thousands of students, families, and farmers; a testament for and an exclamation point to her farm advocacy on behalf of legacy land ownership and its inherent value for future generations.   

Leaders in sustainable agriculture offered tributes as Norman was nominated and selected to receive this recognition, including:

  • "Barbara, a 3rd generation blueberry farmer who runs the family farm in Covert, Michigan.  Over the last few decades (yes, she’s been working at this for while!), she has helped many of her neighbors to improve their farming practices, their marketing techniques and their use of service providers. Her neighborhood is big and some “neighbors” don’t even live in the state. As a result, many new farmers have been able to start farming, and many others have improved their sustainability. In addition to her service to SARE, she has represented her community on the Covert Board of Education, Michigan State Technical Committee, Southwestern Michigan Migrant Resource Council, Michigan Blueberry Advisory Council, as of member of Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack’s Small and Beginning Farmer Advisory committee and more. In 2016, Barbara was honored with the Dr. LeRoy Ray Jr. Farmer of the Year Award by the Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) organization. Named after Dr. LeRoy Ray Jr, one of the founders of MIFFS, the award recognizes leaders in the farming community. She has worked tirelessly to network with service providers and other leaders to ensure that her neighbors get the service and benefits that they are entitled to receiving.  She is recognized nationally for her passion for and knowledge of the many programs and services available to small-scale and minority farmers from USDA – which she says is 'the best kept secret in America.'" - Dean Baas, Michigan State University Extension
  • "For many years, Barbara James Norman attended and actively participated in USDA’s Annual Partners Meetings. These meetings were designed to broaden understanding of the depth and scope of USDA programs and services available to traditionally underserved farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. Armed with her passion for sustainable agriculture, she readily and easily engaged USDA officials to advocate on behalf of sustainable agriculture and its relationship with traditionally underserved farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.  She strived to show how providing information on and equitable access to USDA programs and services could facilitate sustainable agricultural enterprises’ increased productivity and profitability. Barbara became a sponge for information about USDA programs and services.  She soaked up as much information as was available from USDA officials and other meeting participants. After each meeting and equipped with more information, Barbara would return to Michigan and continue her advocacy. Barbara eagerly shared her newfound source of inspiration—new innovative ideas and an improved understanding of Farm Bill programs and services. Beaming from the cooperative and nurturing environment created by the meetings, Barbara used her annual National Friends and Family Farms Field Day to share with other farmers and ranchers. The annual event provides information and outreach services to small and limited resource family farmers, non-profits, cooperatives, and community organizers. Over the years, her small and limited resource family farmers field day attendees have grown to comprise a large diverse group (size, production, and race), including many veterans. The attendees participate in educational sessions, farm tours, and blueberry picking. Comparable to the Partners Meetings, her annual event showcases USDA programs and services. USDA representatives from USDA’s local, state, and headquarters offices attend and share valuable information regarding the Department’s programs and services. Being the visionary that she is, Barbara has added a unique population to her annual event. Hundreds of students from the Detroit Public Schools Community District and kindergarteners from the Chicago area have attended and energetically participated in the annual event, especially blueberry picking; and eating straight from the bush! Not only do the Detroit students see where their sustainable 'farm to school' blueberries are grown and harvested, they get a valuable lesson on how sustainable agriculture contributes to the farm mosaic. Consequently, her mission is to instill in the students the value of sustainable agriculture and how they might become a sustainable farmer, thereby continuing the legacy of sustainable agriculture." - Charles Smith, United States Department of Agriculture Employee
  • I first got to know Barbara when she served on the NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Review Committee. She brought a fresh perspective to discussions on sustainable agriculture and a dedication to reaching out to underserved farmers. Barbara’s practical wisdom, gained from years of farming herself and working with other farmers, inspired us to look at new ways to reach out to small farmers and diverse audiences. Barbara’s enthusiasm and practical knowledge got her appointed to the SARE Outreach Steering Committee which helps directs the outreach efforts of SARE nationwide. She served on the Steering Committee for 8 years where she was instrumental in helping us look at and improve the way SARE communicates and in increasing SARE’s diversity efforts. I was inspired by visiting Barbara’s blueberry farm in Covert, Michigan and seeing how her connection to the land influences her efforts to help other farmers. As we toured the farm, Barbara let us snack on her blueberries, which were delicious! Following the tour, Barbara introduced us to local farmers and provided an opportunity for them to ask questions about SARE. This is something Barbara does so very well. She works tirelessly to bring SARE to farmers and to bring new farmers to SARE. Thank you, Barbara!" - Joan Benjamin, Farmer Rancher Grant Program Coordinator and Associate Regional Coordinator, NCR-SARE

 The NCR-SARE Hero Recognition honors individuals who 1) have provided service to NCR-SARE or national SARE, 2) have shown leadership in sustainable agriculture locally and regionally, and 3) have made lasting impacts to sustainability in the North Central region. 

NCR-SARE is one of four regional offices that run the SARE program, a nationwide grants and education program to advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture. Since 1988, NCR-SARE has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.

Related Locations: Michigan, North Central