Improved sustainable agriculture outreach through behavior-change focused outreach toolkit

Final report for ENC20-194

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $86,391.00
Projected End Date: 03/30/2023
Grant Recipient: National Wildlife Federation
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Adam Reimer
National Wildlife Federation
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Project Information


This project continues efforts to improve sustainable agriculture outreach through a social science approach and an understanding of behavior change. The National Wildlife Federation has developed programs, the Conservation Champions and Grow More, that provide training and support for conservation professionals to incorporate the social-psychological components of behavior change into outreach approaches.  Building off the success of these programs, this project sought to deepen the effectiveness of NWF’s in-person trainings by developing an online conservation outreach toolkit that strengthens the use of social science principles in outreach efforts. These resources were developed in consultation with outreach professionals and farmers, pilot tested through multiple in-person training sessions, and evaluated through focus groups with conservation professionals. This project increased awareness of behavior-change principles, confidence to implement new communication strategies, and increased reach to non-conservation adopting farmers by training outreach professionals.

Project Objectives:

This project sought to develop an outreach toolkit with materials designed to support NWF’s in-person outreach trainings and facilitate use of new and innovative communication strategies to reach new audiences, especially non-conservation adopting farmers. The objectives of this project were:

  • In consultation with an advisory council of conservation professionals and farmers, to develop an online toolkit of resources to assist outreach professionals in reaching new audiences;
  • Increase participant knowledge of behavior change concepts, communication principles, and messaging approaches to reach new audiences through three in-person Grow More trainings;
  • Pilot test toolkit materials through in-person trainings and focus groups with outreach professionals;
  • Increase awareness of the outreach toolkit through webinars, social media, and direct contacts with organizations in NWF’s network.

Traditional outreach efforts have been based on spreading technical information about sustainable agriculture practices with the hope of convincing farmers to adopt them in their operations. This information-deficit model ignores key social and psychological aspects of decision making, limiting the effectiveness of outreach. The National Wildlife Federation has developed programs, including the Conservation Champions and Grow More, that provide training and support for conservation professionals to incorporate the social-psychological components of behavior change into outreach approaches. These programs seek to enhance existing technical conservation expertise of outreach professionals and organizations by providing enhanced communication skills. Over 900 individuals have attended a Grow More training workshop, most of these in the North Central region. This project seeks to expand on the success of these programs by enhancing the training experience and providing ongoing support resources for outreach professionals to engage farmers, landowners, and other agricultural stakeholders in conservation programming. In consultation with outreach professionals, NWF developed a multimedia outreach toolkit with resources in a variety of areas, including social science concepts, communication guidance, planning resources, and examples of successful outreach and conservation communications. 



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  • Jessica Espenshade
  • Luke Petersen
  • Aleta Dam
  • Kennedy Mayfield-Smith


Educational approach:

This project incorporates a variety of approaches to support learning and application by target audiences. NWF provides outreach training through in-person workshops with outreach professionals through the Grow More and Conservation Champions programs. These in-person workshops use multiple learning approaches to provide educational content, reinforce key lessons, and support diverse learning styles. These include presentations by NWF outreach staff, small-group breakouts, large group discussions, and focused planning sessions. This project seeks to expand on this approach by providing ongoing learning opportunities, multimedia materials, templates for applying concepts to outreach programming, and examples of innovative conservation outreach. These multimedia resources allow for individuals with different learning styles to engage material at their own pace. This toolkit will be hosted through on online platform that will provide a comprehensive menu of resources so professionals, farmers, and conservation organizations can access resources that meet their programming needs. We plan to continue to develop toolkit resources beyond the timeline of this project, including continuing to update and add resources to meet the ongoing needs of outreach professionals across the region.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Grow More workshops

Provide outreach and communications training to conservation professionals.
Pilot test outreach support materials.


These Grow More workshops are designed to provide social science-based guidance on outreach approaches to reach new farmer audiences with conservation information. These workshops include educational content developed by National Wildlife Federation staff, breakout discussions and exercises to allow participants to practice communication principles, and planning sessions to apply concepts to their outreach objectives.

Through this project, NWF delivered three Grow More trainings in 2022, two in Michigan and one in Indiana. A total of 62 individuals participated in these workshops, representing a variety of organizations and roles, including university extension, academic researchers, conservation district, and federal agency staff. In addition to providing novel training in behavior change concepts and communication methods, these workshops provided opportunities to test outreach toolkit materials, providing valuable feedback about their design and applicability to outreach programming. 

Outcomes and impacts:

These workshops successfully increased participant knowledge of farmer behavior change and conservation communication principles, increased participant confidence in applying these concepts to outreach programming, and increase use of novel strategies to reach new audiences (including non-conservation adopting producers and traditionally underserved agricultural stakeholders). Overall, the workshops were positively evaluated by participants (figure 1), with 41% rating the workshop as ‘excellent’ and 40% as ‘good’ (5 and 4 on a 5-point rating scale, respectively). Over 50% of participants indicated (figure 2) that the workshop has had either ‘a great deal’ or ‘a lot’ of impact on how they conduct conservation outreach (5 and 4 on a 5-point rating scale, respectively).

Based on post-training surveys conducted six weeks and six months following the trainings, participant knowledge increased in a number of areas. All participants indicated their knowledge increased in at least one area, with the greatest knowledge increases in communications topics, messaging and reframing to reach new audiences (figure 3). Participants also gained valuable outreach skills, including strategies to reach non-adopting farmers, making it easier to accept new practices through messaging techniques (‘exit ramps’), and incorporating planning and evaluation tools (figure 4).

Applying these strategies in outreach programming following these workshops is intended to increase conservation adoption among farmers. While we are unable to directly assess the impacts of new outreach strategies, participants indicated positive impacts by applying new techniques. Participants indicated a number of new messaging strategies (communication frames) increased participation by non-adopters at conservation events (figure 5). The two most effective strategies were using problem solving frames, such as reducing risk or addressing soil water management through soil health practices, and connecting conservation to farm legacy.

Grow More Evaluation Results

Educational & Outreach Activities

12 Consultations
29 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

16 Extension
4 Researchers
1 Nonprofit
27 Agency
1 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

62 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
62 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Outreach toolkit resources were developed in consultation with outreach professionals and farmers, pilot tested through multiple in-person training sessions, and evaluated through focus groups with conservation professionals. At the beginning of this project, we convened an advisory committee, comprised of four outreach professionals (one of whom is also a farm landowner), and one farm owner-operator. These advisors represent multiple states in the North Central region, including Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. We met quarterly with this advisory committee throughout the project, and they provided invaluable feedback on the structure and components of this outreach toolkit. In addition to regular input from our advisory council, we solicited input on draft materials at Grow More trainings held in Hickory Corners, Michigan in April 2022, Greenfield, Indiana in September 2022, and Saginaw, Michigan in October 2022. A total of 62 outreach professionals attended these three trainings combined (more details on these participants are included in the Educational & Outreach Activities section of this report). We also held a focus group in November 2022 with six participants from these trainings to solicit feedback on updated draft materials. These pilot testing sessions were valuable opportunities to learn in what areas outreach professionals need the most support, the expected effectiveness of these materials in implementing new communication strategies, and areas for future development of the toolkit and Grow More training.

NWF launched the outreach toolkit in March 2023, hosted through the NWF sustainable agriculture website ( To increase awareness of these resources, we held a webinar as part of NWF’s Farmer Outreach Coffee Chat series (24 people were in attendance), promoted the website through NWF social media and program channels, including Facebook and Conservation Champions listservs, and individual outreach to organizations in NWF’s network.

Toolkit materials, in conjunction with NWF’s Grow More trainings, increased awareness of behavior change principles, confidence to implement new communication strategies, and increased reach to non-conservation adopting farmers. NWF has conducting regular evaluations of Grow More training workshops to gauge participant learning and changes in outreach methods used. The outcomes of the training workshops conducted as part of this project are included in the Educational Initiatives and Learning Outcomes sections of this report.

60 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
Additional Outcomes:

Building off the success of National Wildlife Federation’s outreach programs programs, this project sought to deepen the effectiveness of in-person trainings by developing a conservation outreach toolkit that strengthens the use of social science principles in outreach efforts. The toolkit, hosted online, includes multimedia tutorials of social science and behavior change concepts, video testimonials of successful outreach, planning tools that provide guidance on incorporating behavior change strategies into strategic outreach planning, communication design, event development and implementation, and ongoing program evaluation. Based on feedback throughout this project, we developed six categories of materials:

  • Behavior Change Concepts: Grow More workshops typically encompass 6-8 hours of in-person trainings. These cover a wide range of topics and so are limited in the depth of social science and communications concepts that can be offered. To offer additional learning opportunities and reinforcement of key concepts, we developed 3 short (60-90 second) multimedia tutorials explaining key behavior change principles, farmer psychology, and conservation adoption. Videos will be designed to provide information that can stand apart from the trainings, but will also reinforce and strengthen key lessons for individuals who participated in the workshops. In addition, we developed a worksheet on perceptions of practice characteristics that can help professionals identify key barriers to conservation adoption.
  • Effective outreach testimonials (In Action): To provide examples of effective application of training concepts, we developed 3 documentary-style testimonial videos (3-5 minutes in length) that feature past Conservation Champion and Grow More participants explaining their outreach approaches in their own words. These videos highlight conservation outreach strategies that leverage motivations for middle adopter farmers, such as preservation of farming legacy or stewardship values.
  • Planning tools: Outreach professionals and farmer leaders often need supporting tools and templates for developing outreach programming. We developed a series of planning tools and templates to assist with putting behavior change and communication principles into action. These include worksheets to guide professionals in developing strategic outreach plans, applying logic model planning concepts to conservation challenges, and identifying audiences and their underlying motivations.
  • Evaluation tools: As with planning, outreach professionals we work with often express the need for guidance on evaluating their outreach programming. Based on NWF’s programmatic experience, we are developing guidance for evaluating outreach impact. These resources include explanation of various evaluation methods, worksheets and tools to assist with developing program-specific evaluation materials, and templates and examples of evaluation materials.
  • Communications tools: Implementing communication with farmers, landowners, and other agricultural stakeholders is a key aspect of conservation outreach, yet an area that conservation professionals often express the need for more resources. We developed worksheets and descriptions of communication methods, including social media planning and graphic design tools.
  • Effective communication examples: A variety of communication methods and frames are needed to effectively reach broad audiences. NWF provides guidance and direction on innovative messaging through our Conservation Champion and Grow More programs. This toolkit provides more examples of these messaging approaches and how they can be implemented across a variety of communication channels, including traditional media (radio, newspapers, newsletters) and social media. This is an area in which we plan for significant expansion in future years, drawing on the Conservation Champions and Grow More networks and outreach methods they have found to be successful.
  • Other written materials, including fact sheets and whitepapers, that provide the underlying strategy and scientific grounding of the behavior change approach. We will develop at 3-5 of these supporting documents.
Success stories:

In evaluations from the Grow More workshops, we received a number of positive comments about the training and behavior change outreach approach: 

"This training was very informative. I plan to implement many of the things I learned, as soon as I have more job training under my belt. Thanks so much!!"

"This training was one of most well-organized trainings I've attended. I enjoyed having the material presented in different ways (Presentation, group discussion, etc.) so participants stayed engaged, and the handout helped me to remember the material after the training was over."

"Overall the training was very informative and I think it would be useful for others within the partnership to attend this training, especially newer employees."

Information Products

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.