Building a sustainable agriculture Extension network in Minnesota

Progress report for ENC20-197

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $90,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Minnesota Extension
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Betsy Wieland
University of Minnesota Extension
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Project Information


Modeled loosely after the SARE Fellows program, this project will create a network of educators from University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR) with a common understanding and framework to help Minnesota farmers address sustainability issues. 

Educators new to AFNR will be the target audience to participate in four sessions about how sustainability issues apply to agricultural sectors in Minnesota, thus equipping themselves to better create programming for their specific audiences.  An integrated approach will be used to look at the three legs of sustainability (people, environment, economics).  Three sessions will involve planned learning laboratories using selected farms as the classroom that will demonstrate and discuss how those sustainability issues apply across Minnesota agriculture.  The on-farm sessions will be preceded by a webinar to learn more about the sustainability concepts, as well as the farms and issues that they’ll see during the tour. This “flipped classroom” approach will help them take advantage of the in-person time and experience a methodology that’s been successful in other adult education issue areas.  The fourth session will both provide time to reflect on what they learned, and identify current programs and future potential work to support programming on sustainability concepts for their audiences.

Project Objectives:
  1. Three one-day on-farm learning laboratory sessions, each preceded by an introductory webinar to better take advantage of in-person time. 
  2. One final reflection and planning session.
  3. 25 educators participate in all four sessions.
  4. Summary report of reflections on sustainability issues in Minnesota and Extension’s role in addressing them.
  5. Map of current programs to address sustainability issues and gaps of programs that could be developed.
  6. Asset map of skills and interests of participants related to key sustainability issues (people, environment, and economics).


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Robin Trott
  • Dave Nicolai
  • Troy Salzer
  • Wayne Martin
  • Ron Branch
  • Troy and Tracy Heald
  • Russ Peterson
  • Brian Ryberg
  • Duane and Sheila Munsterteiger
  • Mark Watrin


Educational approach:

Extension educators, like farmers and many people, learn well together and in hands on experiences.  This project uses a cohort learning model, where a fairly small group of people go through an experience together.  This allows them to learn in a setting where they feel supported to ask questions without feeling embarrassed.  They can learn from each other's knowledge and the questions others ask.  Cohort models also build a network of peers to help each other learn beyond the formal time of the cohort. So this cohort will help disseminate information further beyond those in the cohort as well.   This project combines the cohort model with hands on learning model, going to farms to visit with farmers on their own farms.  Thus they can experience the farms, and ask the farmers questions as they come up, based on what they observe. Which, helps solidify the learning. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Common understanding of sustainable agriculture issues in MN

Provide UMN Extension educators with fundamental knowledge of how sustainable concepts apply to Minnesota’s most common types of agriculture horticultural crops, row crops, and livestock.


The first online meeting covered the overall concepts of the three legs of sustainability in agriculture. After that there was an online meeting and an on-farm meeting for each of the 3 areas of agriculture; horticultural crops, row crops, and livestock.  For each of the on farm meetings, two types of operations were visited to understand the variety and different circumstances of different types of operations.  Participants received detailed backgrounds on the farms ahead of the visits, and discussed their sustainability issues with the farmers.  SWOT analysis information was gather for each farm after the visits. 

Outcomes and impacts:

A survey was given to participants after each session. Every on farm session held showed learning gains in sustainable agriculture issues, with the largest gains in challenges related to:

  • Horticulture farm business models
  • Horticulture farms labor needs
  • Row crop selection options
  • Row crop equipment needs
  • Livestock operations balancing the 3 legs of sustainability
  • Livestock labor management and roles


Peer Networking

Strengthen the network of educators across the state supporting the farmers in sustainability issues


With the high number of new educators and COVID-19, networking with peers has been especially challenging. So invitations were sent broadly through Extension, to get participation for any Educator interested.  Each session had time to learn about each other. Both formally and informally. 

Outcomes and impacts:

Survey results indicate they are growing their networks of colleagues.

The highest learning gains in any category of the post event surveys was in the area of Extension peer network to collaborate with.  With the Horticulture and Livestock sessions indicating 100% of participants gaining 'much' or 'very much' knowledge of peers to collaborate with.   

Anecdotal evidence in the conversations indicates that participants are collaborating with each outside of the cohort, and encouraging connect more broadly with other peers outside the cohort. 

Skills and tools

Equip participants with skills and tools to help farmers make decisions about sustainability issues


Helping farmers can come in the form of both one on one assistance as well as in creation of educational programming. 

Participants were given lists of common issues found with in the 3 legs of sustainability for future reference and for each of the three farm areas (horticulture crops, row crops, and livestock) the online meeting with a knowledgeable NCR SARE state coordinator facilitated a discussion regarding the issues in Minnesota and the North Central Region, and how farmers are addressing them or the barriers present.  

For the one on one assistance portion, for each farm, they were provided farm background information and the participants ask the farmers questions related to sustainability issues, and how they are addressing the issues.  Thus practicing in a safe space.

For the educational programming, the reflection and planning meeting facilitating thinking through education programming opportunities.


Outcomes and impacts:

Participants were able to identify strengths, challenges, opportunities and threats for every farm. Giving them the opportunity to think critically about a farm's situation. 

In the reflection and planning session, the participants identified Extension programming related to sustainable agriculture that is currently existing, coming soon, or is needed.  Thus they will have the understanding to create that programming.

Also, with funds remaining in the budget, participants were asked to submit proposals for additional work to do with the cohort regarding these three initiatives. Three projects were developed and funded. Each contains a component of teaching each other more, and providing resources for the group and beyond. Indicating that the group is willing to offer their skills and knowledge to the group and beyond. 

This work will be conducted in 2022. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Online trainings
3 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: One in person meeting to reflect on previous sessions and plan for future work.

Participation Summary:

27 Extension
3 Agency
9 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

12 New working collaborations
12 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
9 Farmers reached through participant's programs
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.