Multi-Agency On-Farm Sustainable Agriculture Training

Final Report for ENC97-026

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1997: $15,335.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Federal Funds: $3,184.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $1,509.00
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Richard Thompson
Practical Farmers of Iowa
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Project Information


[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 [email protected].]

Through this grant Practical Farmers of Iowa, in cooperation with Iowa State University Extension, organized and carried out three sustainable agriculture-oriented in-service training sessions on working farms in the summer of 1998. The objective was to acquaint participants, especially staff of agencies working in agriculture, with farm-based perspectives on issues ranging from water quality to direct marketing.

The three training sessions were formulated with input from a number of agencies, both federal and state, and drew on local resource people to address local priority issues. Presenters included farmers, small businesspeople, rural development agents, university scientists, and agency personnel. The most effective sessions were those utilizing farmers and teams of farmers with other professionals. The training was well-rated by participants, but organizers learned much that will improve future agency and inter-agency events like these. The sessions also expanded the list of agency contacts on topics related to sustainable agriculture.

Project Objectives:

The following is the project objective as expressed in the proposal:

Objective: to train NRCS and Extension staff and farmers in innovative practices and systems approaches that show promise for use in EQIP, whole-farm planning, and on-going agency functions.


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  • Rick Exner

Education & Outreach Initiatives



Te following methodology was set out in the proposal:

Approach: Three one-day, on-farm training sessions will be held, one in eastern Iowa, one in western Iowa, and one in the central part of the state. Sessions will be hosted and taught by farm families with exemplary operations in terms of the practices and systems of most interest to NRCS and Extension staff. Additionally, three other producers with experience in the practices and systems to be explored will contribute on specific topics at each site. Events will include both hands-on, in-field sessions and classroom-style workshops. Team presentations will utilize both farmer expertise and specialists from NRCS and the Extension Service.

Program formulation

The project methodology reflected the desire to take agency staff beyond the valuable-but-limited sustainable agriculture in-services that have taken place in conference centers and universities and introduce these staff to producers in their own environment. We felt this approach would better convey the complexity and immediacy of current sustainable farming issues.

In order to spur the active involvement of participating agencies, we met with administrators in February, 1998 to formulate a syllabus for the three in-service events that would both satisfy the priorities of agency administrators and utilize the farmer skills that could be brought to bear. In the interest of reaching additional agency personnel, invitations were extended not only to the Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) but also to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDALS).

The consultations with agency administrators proved both stimulating and frustrating. In many cases these representatives made excellent suggestions regarding resource people. One agency representative, however, did not seem to appreciate the difference between this kind of training and that focused on the needs of industrial swine production.

With agency concurrence, it was decided that the three in-service events would take place on farms in central, northeast, and western Iowa and would focus on:
• Issues around Integrated Farming (manure management, sustainable swine production, cropping systems);
• Quality Water, Quality of Life (water quality, intensive rotational grazing, and planning/decision making tools);
• Building Markets, Building Communities (local marketing of hoophouse swine and other products, organic marketing and production, community strategies for agricultural development) respectively.

We recruited farmers, agency personnel, and private sector individuals as appropriate for the themes chosen. Host farms were selected for geography, skills and practices, and the presence of a covered structure that could serve as a meeting site in case of foul weather. The farms selected were:
• Central Iowa -- Richard and Sharon Thompson farm, Boone;
• Northeast Iowa -- Matt and Diane Stewart farm, Oelwein; and
• Western Iowa -- Victor and Cindy Madsen farm, Audubon, and Ron and Maria Rosmann farm, Harlan

The western Iowa in-service event was divided into a morning and an afternoon session at two different farms in two communities. Each farm and each community has unique strengths that we wanted to capture.

In order to emphasize the opportunities for farmer-staff collaboration, we featured, where possible, presentations that involved both farmers and the professionals with whom they work. It has also been our experience that this sort of presentation has the greatest credibility.


The attached flier was made available to our agency contacts to publicize the events within their organizations. In addition, press releases (sample attached) were placed with one-to-two dozen local media in the localities where the events were to take place. The in-services were also publicized through the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual guide to field days (attached). It was our desire to have a mix of agency and non-agency attendees, and this is why we made the effort to acquaint the public with these events. Additionally, local publicity was intended to catch the attention of local agency employees who may not have had previous opportunities for sustainable agriculture training.

Outreach and Publications

Participants were provided with a 194-page resource notebook, 108 pages of which were contributed by participating agencies and were focused on topics covered in one or more of the training sessions. Tabs within this section were: Nutrient and Manure Management, Deep-bedded Systems, Monitoring and Planning, and Community Strategies. The remaining 86 pages were general references on SARE, Iowa organizations involved in sustainable agriculture, and information resources; these materials were assembled for an earlier SARE PDP in-service in Iowa. A copy of the notebook is included with this report.

The notebook was sufficiently useful that copies were also used in two subsequent on-farm in-services that were conducted by the Iowa PDP coordinator under the auspices of Cooperative Development Services, Madison, WI.

The resource notebook contained no previously unpublished bulletins. Outreach included press releases, a flier, and the Practical Farmers of Iowa field day guide, as described earlier.

Linkages to SARE Projects

Each of the three in-services included on the program a farmer who has in the past received at least one SARE producer grant. As mentioned above, resources from an earlier SARE in-service notebook were included in the notebook for these events.

Integral to the planning and execution of these in-services was Diane Mayerfeld, Extension Program Specialist in Sustainable Agriculture and assistant to Dr. Jerald DeWitt, Iowa PDP Coordinator. DeWitt's office offered every assistance to this project.

Outcomes and impacts:

Attendance at the in-service events is shown in the table below. In all, 114 people participated in the in-services. Whereas Extension and NRCS were to be the primary agencies taking part, the table shows that actually more personnel from the Farm Services Agency attended. When registration from Extension and NRCS was coming in slowly, organizers decided to increase the number of scholarships available to FSA and IDALS personnel and the farmers they invited. And although the organizers of these events both work for the Extension Service, actual Extension attendance was nominal.

There are at least three lessons here:
1) Promote events far ahead of time so that busy agency personnel can get them on their calendars. Promote them in ways that distinguish them from other training that staff may have had. In-house publicity within Extension, for example, did not sufficiently emphasize the uniqueness of the 'on-farm' aspect.

2) Take advantage of agency 'chain of command' to publicize and recruit for such events. First notice went to Extension personnel via email from a little-known hourly employee. Other agencies put out the word from the top of the administrative structure and more-or-less assigned personnel to attend. The unfortunate side of this is that some attendees were there simply because they were new or low in the pecking order. But the organizations at least made the necessary concessions and arrangements for their employees to attend.

3) SARE events potentially compete with each other. The week following the first two in-services, the North Central Regional SARE workshop took place in Ames, Iowa and was attended by a number of agency personnel who would have been logical candidates for the on-farm workshops. Even if competition for attendance were not a problem, the energies of organizers were in contention.

On the positive side, the process of putting together these in-services allowed Practical Farmers of Iowa to establish working relationships with NRCS, IDALS, DNR, and FSA. The relationship between PFI and Extension was further strengthened as Diane Mayerfeld, assistant to State PDP Coordinator Jerald DeWitt, worked very closely with PFI/Extension Farming Systems Coordinator Derrick Exner throughout the planning and execution phases. Both administrators and local staff of the agencies now have a better understanding of PFI, its resources and areas of interest. We in turn have been able to identify those agency staff who have a high level of interest/expertise in the topics of concern to farmers in sustainable agriculture. We now have a much better basis on which to proceed in the next phases of collaborative activity. For example, attendees will receive a special invitation to two Holistic Management training sessions that PFI and Extension will offer in March, 1999.

Human resources identified through this project have already been utilized in other training. Larry Gates, of the Minnesota DNR, and Ralph Lentz, a farmer with whom he works, were invited to conduct a workshop on grazing and water quality at the NCR SARE summer in-service after they were identified in connection with this project. Two presenters on the ag strategies of communities who spoke at the western Iowa in-service were invited by Dr. Cornelia Flora, moderator for that session, to take part in further activities.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
Educational Transfer

We think that a number of 'seeds' have been planted that will support follow-up educational activities. While previous SARE PDP in-services have featured presentations by producers, these on-farm workshops further impressed on participants the complexity and importance of issues relating to environmental and economic sustainability. Many of the attending agency personnel had never seen first-hand such practices as intensive rotational grazing, agricultural utilization of municipal biosolids, hoophouse swine production, direct marketing, or organic farming. Now they have both an experience to which to refer and the names and phone numbers of farmers pursuing these systems.

These same participants will be targeted for future sustainable agriculture in-services. For example, the previously-mentioned holistic management (HM) training is being planned for late winter. That three-day course will be a logical extension of this training for the participants of these three one-day workshops.

The participants themselves were asked whether they planned to follow up on the training. Overall, 61 percent of respondents said they did plant to do so. The highest affirmative response rate was from attendees at the northeastern Iowa training (83 percent) and from NRCS staff (100 percent). Participants also were asked specifically how they planned to follow up on the training. Those raw responses are below:

SARE PDP Agency In-Service Evaluations
If you plan to follow up on the training, how?

• not sure
• I would like to get more information on either Holistic Agriculture or Strategic Management through Extension.
• John put me on the mailing list for the N'East IA Demo Project
• Will continue to work with graziers and refinement of nutrient management with the use of manure as an important component.
• follow up on the written materials
• I will study the materials handed out and consider any ideas on alternative agriculture more openly.
• Personal contacts with most of the farmers who talked.
• at this point
• personal contacts
• Would like to see more going on in our area with interactions among farmers.
• personal contact
• Incorporate aspects into public presentations and in an urban/rural WS project (Clear Creek WS-Johnson County)
• Continuing education thru ISU and research.
• written materials, personal contacts, Internet
• Will share with others as feasible.
• My area is swine nutrition. I want to be aware of the practical farmers activities, but not deeply.
• Trying to read and see as much as possible.
• Probably through written materials. Maybe attend other PFI meetings in home county.


Potential Contributions


Quantitative and qualitative responses to the workshops are attached. Overall, 46 percent of respondents rated the workshop they attended as good, 50 percent rated it as excellent, and 4 percent rated it superior. Because the number of evaluations recovered was not large (n=28), comparisons among responding groups must be made with caution. It may be noted that the 'superior' responses came from the western Iowa field day at Madsens' and Rosmanns', and that all those responses were from attendees other than agency staff.

The attached evaluation responses are selections from the full set, but they are representative of the themes and sentiments expressed. In general, people said that they appreciated both the technical information and the opportunity to learn from farmers on farms. Only one respondent was consistently negative in his comments.

As organizers, we learned a great deal about designing and implementing training of this nature. Lessons learned about intra-agency publicity have been presented above. In one-day in-services, the challenge for organizers is getting participants participating. This is apparently especially a challenge when people come together from different agencies, an arrangement that is not customary for them. With some notable exceptions, agency personnel were more 'passive' than the producers who attended these sessions. Below are organizers' notes regarding how to handle this tendency:

a. Interaction is the challenge. Inter-agency may be even worse than agency in-services for people unwilling to step out of their comfort zones.
i. Use farmer presenters or farmer-scientist co-presenters, especially early, to set the tone for the program. Do not use scientists alone or other 'talking head' sessions. Farmers are better at breaking the audience out of their accustomed mindsets. Capitalize on your strengths rather than try to emulate the university.
ii. Use exercises to get people communicating. Maybe small group, team-building exercises. Continue this activity over lunch so that people don't revert to their old cohort groups.
iii. Instead of relying on spontaneous discussion, be ready with a 'lesson plan' for each session consisting of questions to put to the audience. Even for sessions with an invited moderator, this may be necessary to place the session in the context of the day's themes.

b. Co-moderating takes pressure off any single individual. However, if co-moderators divide up the day's sessions among them, give each a few minutes at the beginning of the day so that each is identified as a leader.

c. Reserve an 'active' session such as field tour for after lunch, when people get drowsy.

d. Determine the focus 'problems' ahead of time with the host farmer, then give people time in mixed small groups to formulate solutions. This will also allow participants to show that they can be useful.

The three sessions probably varied in quality with our ability to overcome these hurdles to participation. Success was a function of our increasing experience, program design, and the presence of key agency participants whose excitement and active involvement communicated to the rest of their peers. In one-day sessions it is always difficult to get people 'out of the box' without devoting the entire day to 'process.' Strategic use of farmer presenters, agency 'spark plugs,' and an explicitly formulated lesson plan may all help ensure that the material is covered and participation is maximized. Quick, problem-oriented, team-building exercises could also be integrated into the program to advance both the technical agenda and the level of interaction.

Future Recommendations

It is a challenge to hold inter-agency in-services that are participatory. Nevertheless, issues around sustainable agriculture are often of a complexity that demands 'active participation' of both the head and the emotions. To be useful in this arena, agency personnel must be able to set aside their customary programmatic modes and their professional-client distance and interact with farmers and other ag professionals. This project represented one effort to make this sort of experience available in Iowa. More are needed. They may benefit to some degree from the relationships cultivated through this project and the lessons learned by the organizers.

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.