[Note to online version: The report for this project includes tables and appendices that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.]
While agricultural research and education were once the near exclusive domain of state and federal organizations and product based companies, many non profit and community based groups are now involved. Many of these new programs are directed by farmers, and much of this activity occurs on farmers fields in real world situations. In fact, the availability of federal SARE grant funds has encouraged this activity. Concurrent with the increase in on farm research and demonstrations has been a growing interest in the methodology, credibility, and impact of this approach. A national conference was designed to explore these questions and share experiences using the participatory on farm research and education model. This conference has improved awareness and understanding of how the participatory model can be used to develop new knowledge through research, and to share that knowledge with a wider community through effective education programs. The participants in the conference were extension educators, applied research scientists working with sustainable agriculture groups, the farmer leadership of sustainable agriculture organizations, crop and pest management consultants, and research and development personnel from agricultural industry.
The overall purpose of the conference was to explore a new model for agricultural research and extension education which includes farmers, consumers, public interest groups, agricultural industry, universities and other educational agencies, as partners or co learners in the development and sharing of knowledge. The specific objectives of the project were:
1. Increased awareness of the need for a working model for sustainable agricultural research and education based on partnership among co-learners.
2. Improved understanding of appropriate methodologies for conducting sustainable agricultural research and extension education programs in an on farm environment.
3. Improved understanding of the role farmers and community members play in the development of new knowledge.
A national conference was held in Champaign, IL on July 30-August 1, 1992. The meeting was sponsored by the USDA-EPA/SARE/ACE Program, the Agricultural Research Institute, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and the University of Illinois. It was held in conjunction with the North Central Regional Meeting of the American Society of Agronomy and the annual meeting of the North Central Regional Research Committee, NCR-157, Evaluating Sustainable Agriculture Production and Marketing Systems. Approximately 180 farmers, industry representatives, government agency workers, educators and researchers registered for the conference. In addition, about 150 members of the American Society of Agronomy participated during the first day of the meeting which was organized as a joint educational session.
There were 7 invited formal presentations, 3 in-depth workshops, and 36 submitted abstracts that were published in the proceedings (14 of these were accepted for oral presentation). A 249 page proceedings was published prior to the conference and was available to all registrants. In addition, the proceedings was made available in electronic form through the national Sustainable Agriculture Network Project. A video tape of several of the key sessions is being developed for distribution at a later date. Also 35 people registered for the post-conference tour which was hosted by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance On-farm Research and Demonstration Program.
It is difficult to evaluate the potential impact of a conference. There was much discussion and some heated debate about the role of farmers, educators, reseachers, government agencies, and industry representatives in developing sustainable agriculture systems. The research and extension education model in which new information on farming practices is “discovered” by university researchers, funded by industry, and delivered through extension programs, was certainly viewed with skepticism by most participants. Rather, a partnership relationship that can develop among mutually respectful and supportive individuals was prefered. However, few real world examples were provided which could clearly be designated “participatory.”
A sincere attempt was made to organize the conference in a manner which encourages participation by all in attendance. However, this attempt was not as successful as the organizers had planned. More small working group sessions were needed. The large group sessions generally became lectures, rather than a forum for sharing.
Specific topics were discussed, such as:
1) the advantages and disadvantages of the participatory model;
2) the appropriate role of each participant in the participatory research and education process;
3) the scientific validity of on farm research;
4) lessons learned from participatory research and education programs worldwide.
Other proposed topics were not adequately addressed, such as:
5) dissemination of knowledge beyond those involved in a specific project;
6) agricultural research and education as a community strengthening process; and
7) methodology for identification of researchable needs of farmers.
It is possible that the conference has resulted in improved understanding and enhanced dialogue among groups with diverse agricultural interests. Only time will tell. The conference did focus national attention on the need for a research and education paradigm that changes the current uni directional model of knowledge generation and delivery. The intent was to make educators trained in the reductionist, top down research and education paradigm more aware of an alternative means of doing business. It is difficult to know if anyone changed their mind about research and educational methodologies.
A written survey, given to the conference participants on the last day, consisted of a mix of questions using Likert-type scales and open-ended questions. The survey was created in order to gauge the cognitive and affective changes of conference participants as reported by them and to access their satisfaction with the logistical aspects of the conference. A total of 67 of the 180 conference registrants returned the survey for a response rate of 37.2%.
Likert Scale Items:
The Likert-type questions were in two sets. The first set of five questions dealt primarily with the suitability of the content of the conference. The items, the number of responses for each rating and average for each of the items are shown in Table 1.
The second set of three Likert questions were intended to measure cognitive and affective changes as reported by conference participants. The greatest change was affective in nature and came in the desire to conduct research in a participatory manner. Of the sixty-five conference participants responding to the item, forty-seven gave a rating of some or great. The mean rating of 2.8 (as compared to a mean for the scale of 2.5) indicates more respondents viewed the conference more positively than negatively. For some respondents though this may have been a moot question because they may – as one respondent noted, “…Already have a strong desire to conduct participatory research.”
The next two items in this set of Likert-type questions dealt with the cognitive conference objectives a) how to conduct participatory research and b) what participatory research is. The item assessing the “how” of participatory on-farm research received a rating of 2.6 on a scale of 1 to 4. The item evaluating the knowledge gain of the “what” of participatory on-farm research had an average rating of 2.7. A summary of the responses to these items are shown in Table 2.
The survey instrument included three open-ended questions in which a wide range of responses were possible. Two of these questions were intended to probe the respondents’ opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of the conference. The first of these questions was, “Which session(s) or presentation(s) did you find most helpful?” Many (20) of the respondents indicated they found the opening session which included the invited presentations (Three Perspectives on Participatory On-Farm Research, a reaction panel and a case study of an on-farm project) most helpful. A significant number of respondents however did mention the comments made by the farmers regarding their perspective on participatory research as being what they considered to be most helpfull. The workshop on the use of decision cases also was listed frequently as being especially helpful.
The second question, “What topic(s) did you feel were not given enough emphasis or were neglected?” elicited 43 responses from the survey reactants. Many of those responses indicated a general feeling that there was not enough consideration of farmers’ opinions and knowledge in the conference. Comments ranged from the very practical, “MORE practical on how-to,” to the more theoretical, “strategies to empower farmers in developing equal status on research teams.” The next most outstanding group of responses dealt with communication and relationships among the partners in the participatory research process. Remarks in this category included such thoughts as, the establishment of more and better networks between researchers, educators and farmers; conflict resolution between critics of agriculture, agriculture researchers and farmers; role of non-profit organizations in connecting farmers, and the interconnection between farmers and scientists.
Some of the above mentioned issues also were cited in the last item on the survey which solicited any additional comments the respondents wanted to make. One of the main concerns voiced by respondents was the difficulty of having such a large group function in a participatory mode. One comment along this line of thought: “A next step would be more intensive training in participatory techniques. A large conference is not a place where this training would occur.” Another suggestion was to have sessions by and for farmers, “There should have been sessions by and specifically for farmers. Instead producers had to fit into the academic agenda.”
The bulk of the comments mentioned – in various forms – a need to improve communications and the relationships between the partners in agricultural research. Some comments reflected a feeling that these links were already there and needed strengthening e.g., “I believe there are many persons, including myself, who are well positioned and currently conducting various forms of on-farm research. Hopefully this conference will make this work more visible and facilitate increased communication between producers, scientists, and administrators.” Others indicated a feeling there was a need for a new beginning, “The feeling that was generated on the whole was that the researchers want the total control of all projects and they are not willing to meet farmers in the middle.”
Comments however were not all negative. Several saw this conference as a good start on a road to a new age of agricultural research and one visionary took a hopeful look to the future and said,
“This is a dawning era and roles are not yet defined. With patience and understanding people will come to realize how they can fit into the whole arrangement. This was a groundbreaking event in many ways.”
Areas needing additional study
Rather than discuss additional study, this section will report recommendations for improvement of conferences organized in a participatory mode.
1. The length of some invited presentations limited the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion among the conference participants. More time must be scheduled for interaction.
2. A conference on participatory agricultural research needs a more balanced program. There were not enough farmers on the program or as participants in the conference.
3. Although it was recommended, we do not favor having separate sessions for farmers. We believe this would only serve to maintain the division between farmer and academic researchers.
4. There is a need for more participation by social scientists and community leaders.
5. More small sessions are needed to allow meaningful interaction among the participants.