The New Agriculture Network: an organic farming forum for education and research

Final Report for ENC06-088

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2006: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Dale Mutch
Michigan State University Extension
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Project Information

Abstract:

The New Ag Network (NAN) was established in 2004 when three universities—Michigan State University, Purdue University and the University of Illinois—joined resources to bring together farmers, researchers and educators to address sustainable and organic agriculture issues. Representatives from each of the three collaborating universities provide the Network’s leadership. The Network provides a website, bi-monthly conference calls, newsletters and articles distributed throughout the communities. Using the NAN to produce fact sheets and training for educators was an effective tool.

In late 2007, Network administrators contracted with outside evaluators to design, implement and report findings from an evaluation of the New Ag Network. Evaluators interviewed Network leadership to discuss overall purpose and objectives for the evaluation. Administrators were interested to understand past, present and future impact of the Network. The Network reaches organic and/or sustainable farmers, University researchers (from each of the above named universities) and Extension educators located throughout all geographic areas of each state (Michigan, Indiana and Illinois). Of special interest was the impact for each of these representative groups of stakeholders throughout the Network, and within each state. The evaluation provided us with detailed information about Extension educators’ needs in organic farming.

Key Issues
  • The following items reflect key issues described by farmers who were interviewed:

    University Extension representatives seem to lack knowledge about organics/sustainable practices; they seem primarily committed to conventional farming methods.
    The Network has the potential to effectively educate Extension educators, but that is not happening now.
    A farmer/Extension educator “didn’t think colleagues were very aware of the Network.”
    The Network works very well for farmers, but Extension educators are unfamiliar with the Network and don’t seem to want to “bother” with it.
    Extension educators are not using the Network to promote sustainable/organic practices to farmers.
    Extension educators sometime cooperate with farmers, but seldom “initiate” such efforts.
    Extension educators seldom make efforts to contact farmers, but will use farmer’s sites for tours.

Project Objectives:
  1. Increase Extension educators’ knowledge of organic farming.
    Increase educators’ knowledge of the New Ag Network (NAN).
    Develop organic farming educational material that Extension educators can use.
    Design an intensive training program for educators on organic farming systems.
Introduction:

The New Ag Network (NAN) was established in 2004 when three universities—Michigan State University, Purdue University and the University of Illinois—joined resources to bring together farmers, researchers and educators to address sustainable and organic agriculture issues. Representatives from each of the three collaborating universities provide the Network’s leadership. The Network provides a website, bi-monthly conference calls, newsletters and articles distributed throughout the communities. Using the NAN to produce fact sheets and training for educators was an effective tool.

In late 2007, Network administrators contracted with outside evaluators to design, implement and report findings from an evaluation of the New Ag Network. Evaluators interviewed Network leadership to discuss overall purpose and objectives for the evaluation. Administrators were interested to understand past, present and future impact of the Network. The Network reaches organic and/or sustainable farmers, University researchers (from each of the above named universities) and Extension educators located throughout all geographic areas of each state (Michigan, Indiana and Illinois). Of special interest was the impact for each of these representative groups of stakeholders throughout the Network, and within each state. The evaluation provided us with detailed information about Extension educators’ needs in organic farming. The following items reflect key issues described by farmers who were interviewed:

  • University Extension representatives seem to lack knowledge about organics/sustainable practices; they seem primarily committed to conventional farming methods.
    The Network has the potential to effectively educate Extension educators, but that is not happening now.
    A farmer/Extension educator “didn’t think colleagues were very aware of the Network.”
    The Network works very well for farmers, but Extension educators are unfamiliar with the Network and don’t seem to want to “bother” with it.
    Extension educators are not using the Network to promote sustainable/organic practices to farmers.
    Extension educators sometime cooperate with farmers, but seldom “initiate” such efforts.
    Extension educators seldom make efforts to contact farmers, but will use farmer’s sites for tours.
EXTENSION EDUCATORS

It is important to note that the number of Extension educators was very limited. Extension educators’ response rates to e-mail requests for interviews were much lower than that of research specialists and farmers. This was reflected throughout each of the three states.

The following are major themes that emerged in talking with Extension educators: Extension disconnect; marketing and visibility of the Network; culture issues; and recommendations for future involvement.

Extension Disconnect
  • Extension educators reported very little involvement in most aspects of the Network, and organic/sustainable practices, in general.
    Extension educators have not promoted the Network with farmers and tend to be unaware of who uses the Network.
    Some report that they would like to be more involved in the Network and that they believe the land grant institutions should help both types of farmers (sustainable, organic and conventional).
    Extension educators report that they sometime discuss sustainable/organic practices with the Network administrators, but seldom discuss with Extension colleagues.
    Extension educators feel that farmers are very pleased with the Network – “finally getting help that they haven’t gotten from Extension.”
    An Extension educator who is also a farmer uses the Network as a personal resource for his own farm, but also feels there is a long history of disconnect between Extension educators, farmers and researchers regarding organic and sustainable practices.
Marketing and Visibility of the Network
  • Extension educators are not aware of who is involved in the Network.
    Extension educators need to be kept continuously informed about the Network’s initiatives and the value of these initiatives to Extension educators.
    The Network should keep Extension educators informed about participating farmers and their locations.
Culture Issues
  • Extension educators sometimes feel that they are being told that conventional farming practices are less desirable than organic/sustainable.
    Extension educators feel they should be able to discuss organic/sustainable practices without the value-laden assumptions.
    Extension educators want to see the Network promote both sustainable and organic practices.
Recommendations for Future Involvement
  • There is a need for more university resources to be dedicated to organic/sustainable issues.
    Extension educators believe that state directors should be more aware of sustainable/organic research and provide increased resources to support the research findings.
    Students and interns should be supported more extensively with university resources to support their work with Extension on organic/sustainable agriculture research endeavors.

    (Twohig, Catherine and J. M. Brown. University of Minnesota, New Ag Network Final Evaluation Report. 2008.)

These data indicated a gap in Extension educator knowledge in organic farming systems. Therefore, through NAN, the Midwest Organic Team—which consisted of researchers, Extension educators and organic farmers—developed nine fact sheets for educators to learn more about organic farming. These fact sheets could also be used for stakeholders who want more information about organic farming.

Fact Sheets
  1. What is organic farming?
    Marketing certified organic field crops
    A guide to marketing organic produce
    Organic certification
    Fertility within the organic/biological system
    Organic pest management
    Organic weed control
    Additional information sources for organic certification
    Frequently asked questions

These fact sheets can be viewed on the NAN website: www.new-ag.msu.edu.

The last phase of our grant was directed toward training educators on organic farming. Two programs were conducted. An introductory program for NRCS district conservationists (DCs) was held in two locations in Michigan. This was a one-day training program that introduced DCs to organic farming. These trainings were initiated because the new Farm Bill included organics. We trained 64 DCs from these programs and 93 percent requested advanced training in the future. The second training was a two-day program that was more intensively designed for Extension educators. Thirty-one educators were trained and mentored. One hundred percent of the participants said they would use the information gained from this workshop in newsletters, websites and one-on-one consultations.

Seventy-eight percent of the educators said they would influence between 11-50 farmers as a result of the meeting.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Using the New Ag Network, we identified key farmers and Extension educators across the three states as a core team. We also used the previously conducted evaluation/survey to identify the needs for this programming professional development project. As a team we decided to develop a two-phase program. The first phase involved creating the nine fact sheets and the second phase was intensive educator training.

Phase One

Three farmers and three Extension educators connected on bi-monthly on conference calls to develop the process for educational materials to be developed. Through these calls it was decided that fact sheets (two-sided) would be an effective tool for educators. Topics were discussed and we had a meeting on Purdue’s campus in 2008 to gather input from additional Extension educators from each state. The educators liked this idea of fact sheets and recommended nine topics to be written. The core team then identified authors to write on the organic subjects.

Fact sheets were written and distributed via e-mail and edits were made through conference calls and e-mail. Following internal edits, outside reviewers were selected from each university for final edits.

In September of 2009 nine fact sheets were printed and distributed through our three state area. We also put the fact sheets on the NAN website (www.new-ag.msu.edu) and distributed them to all county offices in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois (see Summary for topics).

Phase Two

Two training programs were designed—one an introductory and the second an intensive program.

The first program was designed to train NRCS DCs about organic farming. In 2009, through the new Farm Bill, EQUIP money was provided for organic farming. A basic introductory course was designed to introduce the DCs to organic. A group of organic researchers designed a one-day program for the DCs. A farmer panel was part of this program.

The second program was designed for Extension educators. Each state invited educators to attend an organic meeting in Kalamazoo, Mich. We started the program with a tour of a four-acre organic greenhouse. The rest of the program was centered around organic farmers from the three states presenting PowerPoint presentations about their farming operations.

We evaluated the first program with a paper evaluation and the second program with TurningPoint™.

Outreach and Publications

Fact sheets

Outcomes and impacts:
Outputs, Outcomes and Impacts

An extensive evaluation was conducted by Drs. Catherine C. Twohig and James M. Brown of the University of Minnesota. It was a qualitative case study method to understand the dynamics of the New Ag Network. In particular, the evaluation interviewed Extension educators and their responses toward organic farming (see Summary for highlights).

Fact Sheets
  • Nine organic farming fact sheets were published (see Summary).
    Fact sheets were put on NAN website and distributed to all Extension offices in the three states.
    Educators are using the fact sheets (see Comments).
    Fact sheets were used in educational packets for the two training programs for nearly 100 participants.
Training Program for Educators
  • Sixty-four NRCS DCs were trained through an introductory course on organic farming in December 2009. The new course was held for NRCS district conservationists in two Michigan locations – 47 were trained in East Lansing and 17 in Ithaca. During the training, a panel of organic farmers answered questions from the participants. At the end of the day, participants left with a packet of popular publications developed by various groups within USDA: MSU Extension’s popular books on weed management and ecologically based farming systems (E-3065, E-2931, E-2983); the Sustainable Agriculture Network’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably; and nine organic farming system fact sheets developed by the New Agriculture Network with funding from NCR-SARE. Evaluations from the training indicate each participant’s knowledge about organic farming was increased. Thirty-five stated they would share the information with up to five people and 14 said they would share the information with six to 10 individuals. Twenty-five district conservationists want to participate in advanced organic training programs. Weed management (chosen by 14 people) and insect and disease management (13 people) were ranked highest for future advanced training programs. Twenty-two participants rated the program as excellent and 29 rated it as good. No one rated the program below good. The team intends to work with the NRCS state program to develop an advanced organic pest and crop management training program for the future.
    Thirty-one educators across three states participated in an intensive training program in Kalamazoo on organic farming. Ninety-six percent indicated that they were very likely or likely to use the information from the program. One hundred percent said that multi-state programs were valuable. Eighty percent of the educators said they were very likely or likely to network with other states as a result of the program. Seventy-eight percent of the educators said that the information they learned would influence between 11 and 50+ farmers, where of that 78 percent, 26 percent said they would impact 50+ farmers. One hundred percent of the educators said that they would use the information in newsletters, websites, workshops, one-on-one consultations and in research projects. One hundred percent said they were very likely or likely to use the information provided in the organic farming information kits. One hundred percent of the educators said they plan to share the information learned from this meeting with other Extension educators. Sixty percent said they had used NAN in the past. One hundred percent said they were very likely or likely to use NAN in the future.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Comments/Feedback

From Julie Doll, Education & Outreach Coordinator, Long-term Ecological Research Project, KBS: “Just a note to say thanks for the great training workshop this week. I learned a lot and today at the Robertson staff meeting shared some of the themes that came out of the farmer panel sessions. Thanks for helping all of us learn! It was so relaxing to be a participant in a well-organized event!”

From Bill Carpenter, Extension Educator/Director, MSUE Iosco County: “Educators were afforded a chance to question organic producers and learn about the difficulties they encounter in organic production and the perseverance and ingenuity required to overcome them. I’m thankful that NCRSARE, KBS, ATTRA and others have put some science into understanding the organic production methods and benefits. But, regardless of the science, I was impressed with the passion these producers have for their craft, for the health of their eco-systems and for human health.”

From Kable Thurlow, MSU Extension Educator, Clare and Gladwin counties: “Thanks for the great organic program!”

From Ruth Shaffer, Soil Conservationist, Michigan NRCS:
“The responses that I heard informally from workshop participants were overwhelmingly positive. Thanks for providing us valuable and timely training on this important topic.”

From Doug Akers, Purdue Extension Educator, CED, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Boone County: “Aaron, at the Lebanon Farmers Market you asked me about organic growing and reference info. See the attached and also the website www.new-ag.msu.edu listed below. You might also confer with Roy Ballard (rballard@purdue.edu), Purdue Extension Educator, Hancock Co. He may have more organic info that would be helpful to you.”

From Dave Campbell, organic farmer, Maple Park, Illinois:
“The NAN project was a very rewarding project for me. Very seldom do we see a project with Extension that is taught by the growers (farmers and vegetable growers). Writing and editing of the “Fact Sheets” was a very time consuming task, although we thought it was imperative that we publish factual information about organics that would represent a high degree of credibility that Extension is known for, hence the numerous edits that took place in the process. I was pleasantly surprised to see the number of Extension educators who attended the training in Kalamazoo. This event was truly a farmer “Train-the-trainer” (Extension personnel) program that accomplished the objectives of the SARE Professional Development Program (PDP). It was evident that those educators attending the training wanted to be there to learn from experienced organic growers.”

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.