Food Alliance reached approximately 337 extension educators with information about eco-labeling, sustainable agriculture, and the Food Alliance certification program. These educators were contacted through 16 seminar and/or field day events that included Food Alliance certification as one of the topics. In addition, written and electronic communication materials were developed to supplement the educator contacts. As a result, more than 50 Extension Educators directly receive written materials and electronic bulletins. The Food Alliance website continues to inform educators and potential clients regarding the role of sustainability and the market benefits that can follow.
The objectives of this grant were to raise awareness among extension educators of the ability of producers / food businesses to participate in eco-labeling programs that support sustainable agriculture. This awareness and knowledge will help educators integrate certification and eco-labeling into their programming, and help educators become a resource for market-driven sustainable agriculture.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Over the two year period March 22, 2005 to March 21, 2007, Food Alliance reached approximately 337 extension educators with information about eco-labeling, sustainable agriculture, and the Food Alliance certification program. This grant anticipated reaching educators primarily through workshops at already-scheduled extension educator meetings. This strategy proved challenging. In-person meetings of extension educators are rare. Extension resources are very limited in the Upper Midwest and educators are relying more and more on electronic meetings and resources. Additionally, educators work in “tracks” or “teams” arranged by subject matter. These teams are often geographically dispersed.
To meet these challenges, Food Alliance adapted its outreach strategies. We raised awareness by attending regional conferences and presenting certification and the Food Alliance program to educators and producers, e.g., Minnesota Fruit & Vegetable Conference, Iowa Organic Conference. Educators budget time and resources to attend conferences; they often present or facilitate workshops. Thus, we were able engage educators at these events.
We also reached educators at field days. For example, certification and eco-labeling were integrated into field days in Iowa for the Conservation Security Program (CSP). Educators interested in CSP, and interested in getting their local producers paid for conservation efforts, learned about a second way to get paid for conservation, i.e., through certification and market support for sustainably produced foods.
Food Alliance Midwest staff participated in on-going working groups and targeted conferences. For example, raised awareness of eco-labeling and certification among the participants of the Pork Niche Market Working Group (PNMWG) in Iowa. We engaged Minnesota educators at an annual meeting of county agents.
We raised awareness through articles in newsletters and statewide publications. We leveraged additional Food Alliance grant funding to expand outreach through written and electronic materials.
Creating a Resource Network
In addition to raising awareness, Food Alliance provided educators with resources that they can integrate into their regional programming. Food Alliance presented case studies of producers using certification to support sustainable agricultural practices. These case studies showed a wide range of farm products – beef, wheat, fruits, and vegetables – being differentiated through certification in the market place.
Food Alliance provided brochures to educators at conferences and workshops. These brochures described certification, eco-labeling, and the Food Alliance program. Educators have contact information for Food Alliance staff should they need additional brochures for their outreach.
We have also provided (and continue to provide) resources through our website. The Food Alliance website includes information on certification, eco-labeling, and market-driven sustainable agriculture. We’re currently adding a new evaluation tool for producers interested in certification. This tool will help producers find out more about “what it takes” to get paid for sustainable agriculture through certification. This tool can be used by educators in conjunction will regional producers.
Finally, we have created a network of information sharing through regular written and electronic communications. Educators have signed up for Food Alliance Midwest newsletters. These newsletters are published periodically with information on Food Alliance certification and markets for certified sustainable foods. Educators also receive a monthly electronic bulletin. This bulletin includes pertinent articles on sustainable agriculture and certification, as well as case studies of producers using certification to good advantage.
Because of our adaptation of outreach strategies, the evaluation of the outcomes of our grant has been limited. That is, unlike workshops at already-scheduled extension meetings, conferences, field days, and articles are more difficult to evaluate. In such situations, feedback typically flows to the controlling or sponsoring organization (e.g. Practical Farmers of Iowa). Thus, we had less control over evaluation than we had planned.
With respect to process, our grant work has been successful. We reached approximately 337 educators; our goal was 400. By adapting our strategies we have been able to engage educators “where they are.”
One outcome of our grant was to raise awareness. As noted above, we do not have survey data for this outcome, but we do have supporting data. At conferences, many educators expressed interest in certification programs for sustainable agriculture. Many were unaware that a specific sustainability certification (Food Alliance) was available.
As both educators and producers attended conferences and fields days where we presented, producer response to Food Alliance’s presentations is indicative of the their effectiveness. Of the farms that applied for Food Alliance certification in 2006, 100% indicated that they had learned about Food Alliance through a presentation at a conference or field day. Thus, if producers’ awareness was raised to the point of applying for certification, educators’ awareness must also have been raised.
An additional short-term outcome of our grant was to help educators become a community resource with respect to certification and market support for sustainable agriculture. We have had success in achieving this outcome. We distributed over 350 brochures to educators and we have provided contact information for ordering more (at no cost). Over 50 educators now receive a monthly electronic bulletin, and 20 educators receive Food Alliance Midwest newsletters. These bulletins and newsletter provide timely information on certification and market-driven sustainable agriculture. This information helps educators become a community resource, part of network of that supports sustainable agriculture.
Medium and long-term, our grant was designed to foster the integration of certification into educator programming. That is, where applicable, educators could knowledgeably discuss the connection between certification and sustainable agriculture, and help farms adopt certified sustainable practices. None of the farms that applied for Food Alliance certification in 2006 indicated that they had heard about certification from an extension educator. Perhaps this is not surprising. If educators are learning now, it will take some time before what they learn, mixed with the resources they receive, leads to integration into their programming. Thus, it will likely be 2007 or 2008 before Food Alliance hears from applicants that have interacted with educators and have listed them as a resource.
There are several lessons to be learned from our work under this grant. First, flexibility in reaching extension educators with information and resources is key. Outreach to educators needs to occur at a variety of events that help educators best stretch their limited resources, e.g. conferences, field days, and workshops. Second, as travel and meetings are limited, electronic resources are valuable and effective. We were able to follow up on our awareness raising with a website and electronic bulletin that help keep educators knowledgeable and provide them with resources for programming. We recommend that electronic resources be a larger part of future professional development for educators, e.g. DVDs., downloadable case studies and videos.
Finally, it’s clear that we were able to raise the awareness of educators and producers alike at conferences and field days. However, translating this awareness into a knowledge base and a resource network for producers and communities will take time. Many of the conferences and field days we attended are still broaching the subject of “sustainable agriculture.” If they do address the subject more fully, it’s usually in the context of certified organic agriculture. Many educators and producers are surprised to learn that there are complementary certification programs for sustainably produced foods. Thus, on-going communications with educators are necessary to build and sustain a resource network for sustainable agriculture.