New England Extension Sustainable Agriculture Training Program

Final Report for ENE95-008

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1995: $119,613.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $18,113.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Kate Duesterberg
Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

The long-term goal of the New England training project is to increase the ability of the extension system and other federal and agencies (Natural Resources Conservation Service/NRCS, Farm Services Agency/FSA, state Departments of Agriculture) and farmers in the six New England states to develop and maintain sustainable agriculture, protect the natural environment, and strengthen rural communities. Specific objectives to meet this goal are to:

1. Establish more effective networks among farmers, extension and other agency personnel, for teaching, and planning and conducting research.

2. Increase knowledge about sustainable agriculture and about specific sustainable farming techniques and whole farm systems analysis.

3. Identify information needs of farmers in New England and develop educational materials and further training and educational programs.

4. Develop skills to address complex community issues relating to agriculture, and to increase awareness among community members about the importance of maintaining New England’s agricultural base.

This project was funded as a continuation of a New England-wide effort which began in spring 1994. A regional planning committee had been organized to conceptualize the project which included representatives from the six New England Extension Systems and from sustainable farming organizations. The committee spent over a year planning a regional conference, including a pre-conference training for study circle facilitators. The conference took place in March of 1995 and over 250 attended, among them Extension, NRCS, and other agency personnel and farmers. Follow-up activities included two sub-regional training workshops on whole farm planning and decision-making.

From the beginning, the project’s focus has been twofold: (a) increasing the level of understanding among agency personnel about sustainable production techniques; and (b) acquiring participatory learning and research skills so that agencies and farmers can work more cooperatively together. The committee believes that for extension and other agencies to meaningfully promote sustainable agriculture, there must be increased understanding of the concept of agriculture as a complex biological, economic and social system. Staff members of these publicly funded agencies need to be working with farmers as co-learners and as agents of change. Establishing participatory, co-learning partnerships with farmers who have adopted sustainable systems is one way of addressing this challenge.

Over the past year and a half (since the last report was filed), the project has organized three regional farm tours, one New England-wide training on Participatory Research & Education, and has developed several fact sheets intended for regional audiences.

Project Objectives:

The long-term goal of the New England training project is to increase the ability of the extension system and other federal and agencies (Natural Resources Conservation Service/NRCS, Farm Services Agency/FSA, state Departments of Agriculture) and farmers in the six New England states to develop and maintain sustainable agriculture, protect the natural environment, and strengthen rural communities. Specific objectives to meet this goal are to:

1. Establish more effective networks among farmers, extension and other agency personnel, for teaching, and planning and conducting research.

2. Increase knowledge about sustainable agriculture and about specific sustainable farming techniques and whole farm systems analysis.

3. Identify information needs of farmers in New England and develop educational materials and further training and educational programs.

4. Develop skills to address complex community issues relating to agriculture, and to increase awareness among community members about the importance of maintaining New England’s agricultural base.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Karen Duesterburg
  • S. Herbert
  • R. Libby

Performance Target Outcomes

Outcomes

Specific Project Results

This project was funded as a continuation of a New England-wide effort begin in spring 1994. A regional planning committee had been organized to conceptualize the project which included representatives from the six New England Extension Systems and from sustainable farming organizations. The committee spent over a year planning a regional conference, including a pre-conference training for study circle facilitators, which took place in March of 1995. Over 250 attended, among them Extension, NRCS, and other agency personnel and farmers. Follow-up activities included two sub-regional training workshops on whole farm planning and decision-making.

The members of the committee (listed in Appendix A) continued their participation in the current project and were joined by Lisa Krall, the New England NRCS sustainable agriculture program coordinator and Stephanie Gilbert from the Androskoggin Valley Conservation District in Maine.

From the beginning, the project’s focus has been twofold: (a) increasing the level of understanding among agency personnel about sustainable production techniques; and (b) acquiring participatory learning and research skills so that agencies and farmers can work more cooperatively together. The committee believes that for extension and other agencies to meaningfully promote sustainable agriculture, there must be increased understanding of the concept of agriculture as a complex biological, economic and social system. Staff members of these publicly funded agencies need to be working with farmers as co-learners and as agents of change. Establishing participatory, co-learning partnerships with farmers who have adopted sustainable systems is one way of addressing this challenge.

Over the past year and a half (since the last report was filed), the project has organized three regional farm tours, one New England-wide training on Participatory Research & Education, and has developed several fact sheets intended for regional audiences. Details on these events are as follows.

Project Outcomes

(By Objective)

1. Establish more effective networks among farmers, extension and other agency personnel, for teaching, and planning and conducting research.

The planning committee for this project continues to be an example of an effective network of agency people and farmers working together. The committee has planned farm tours focused in northern, southern, eastern, and western New England. During this past year, under a separate but related SARE-funded effort, several members of the committee, along with some new members planned a second regional sustainable agriculture conference. The focus of the conference was building partnerships among farmers and agency people. Each of the workshops featured farmers and agency personnel as speakers.

In addition, the conference and trainings have sparked collaborations at the state levels. For example:

In Rhode Island, farmers working closely with the URI Extension Center for Commercial Agriculture (RICCA), identified a need for information on marketing opportunities for herbs and other alternative crops. The group used New England project SARE funding to conduct this study.

In Vermont, NRCS, Extension, and livestock farmers have been working much more closely together, especially in the area of rotational grazing. The Center for Sustainable Agriculture is coordinating a collaborative pasture network project that also includes the Extension System, NRCS, and the Vermont Grass Farmers Association. Because of the SARE project, NRCS field staff have been attending workshops and farm tours more frequently and consequently, collaborative projects evolve.

The biggest farmer/agency network effort that has grown out of this project was the second New England Sustainable Agriculture conference that took place in November of 1997. Although the November conference was not funded through this particular project, it definitely took place because of the ongoing work this project has been doing. The planning committee for the conference was made up of some of the same committee members for this New England project as well as some additional farmers and representatives from farmer-based organizations.

2. Increase knowledge about sustainable agriculture and about specific sustainable farming techniques and whole farm systems analysis.

This project has organized four regional farm tours for Extension and agency personnel. The first tour was included in the earlier project report. The subsequent three have also been successful and well attended by Extension and NRCS personnel. During the last three tours, we had more participation from NRCS staff than during the previous year, primarily because Lisa Krall (the New England NRCS sustainable ag coordinator) had worked hard to raise awareness about the opportunities. Please see the letter in Appendix B from an NRCS field staff in Connecticut, discussing the value of the tour to his work.

The second tour, focusing in Eastern New England took place on August 6, 1996 and was attended by approximately 35 people. Tim Griffin from UMaine and Bill Zweigbaum from UNH organized the tour stops. They chose farms that provided a diverse example of the sustainable production and economic challenges farmers in eastern New England face. We visited six farms in Maine and New Hampshire. These included a berry farm, an organic CSA with a composting system, a medium-sized dairy, a high value produce market stand farm, a diversified dairy and vegetable farm, and an organic mixed vegetable, herb, and bedding plant farm. A description of the farms is included in Appendix B.

One hundred percent of the evaluations rated the tour excellent or very good. Some of the issues that came out in the evaluations reflected the planning committee’s hopes for what the tours could teach. One question asked, “do you think you will make any changes in the way you work with farmers as a result of what you learned today? If so, please give examples.” Some of the answers were as follows.

“Each and every time I go on these tours I more fully realize how important it is to understand motivations and opportunities as seen through the eyes of the practitioner/farmer.”
“I’ll stress more the economics of sustainable agriculture. I’ll try to promote the farmers to compare cost of production through conventional methods vs low-input methods.”
“[The tour provided me with] reinforcement of the concept for diversification to provide a continual supply of products to customers; learned the importance of building long-term relationships between operators and customers.”

Overall, we believed that highlighting examples of farms who had diversified or identified a market niche would help broaden the understanding of sustainable farming. As one participant said, “It changed my view of sustainable from its ecological meaning to sustainability through economic means such as marketing.”

We also organized two tours during the summer of 1997 – one in Northern New England (June) and one in Southern New England (September).

The Northern New England tour focused on livestock and organic grain production, organized by UVM Center for Sustainable Ag staff and UNH Extension. Approximately 25 people participated. One reason we chose this focus was because both Vermont and Maine have experienced rapid growth in organic dairy production. The Extension and NRCS field staff wanted to learn more so that they could respond to producer questions with more confidence. We visited 5 farms in New Hampshire and Vermont.

The second tour took place in September in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and was organized by Karen Menezes from URI with the help of Center for Sustainable Ag staff. The focus was horticulture, nurseries, and farming on the urban fringe. Approximately 20 participated. As the description in Appendix B shows, we visited a dairy farm dealing with urban encroachment, the largest nursery in Rhode Island, a vineyard, and cranberry farms in Massachusetts. The evaluation showed that respondents rated the tour excellent to good (1.25 on a scale of 1 {excellent} to 5 {poor}). In answer to the question, “As a direct result of the tour, how would you describe your level of understanding about sustainable systems?” the average rating was 3.75 (on a scale from 1 {not much change} to 5 {greatly}). One participant states, “the more farmers I meet, the more understanding I have of the complexities they are up against.”

3. Identify information needs of farmers in New England and develop educational materials and further training and educational programs.

To meet this objective, the committee decided to research and write ten regionally oriented fact sheets. We prioritized a list of topics and different committee members took responsibility for each of them. Each fact sheet so far has been developed first by the primary author and then peer reviewed by other Extension or NRCS personnel or farmers. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Publications Office has developed a logo design for the fact sheets and will print them up as they are written.

We have not finished the fact sheets as we had wanted to do by this time. This was most likely due to the amount of time it took to organize the conference, which wasn’t in the plan when we started this current phase of the New England project. However, to date, we have one completed fact sheet on Watering Systems for Livestock (enclosed as Appendix C). The primary authors are John Jemison, from UMaine and Chris Jones from NRCS/Maine. Two more fact sheets are at the printers at UMaine – one on Direct Marketing (primary author, Vern Grubinger from UVM) and one on Biological Controls of Insects in Greenhouses (primary author, Kim Stoner from Connecticut Experiment Station). Two more are currently being peer reviewed – one on Introduction to Grazing (by Bill Murphy from UVM) and one on Community Supported Agriculture (Cathy Roth – UMass and the late Robin Van En, Indian Line Farm, Great Barrington, MA).

Five additional fact sheets are being written now. The topics are Biosolids, Farm Labor, Participatory Research & Education, Farmer Discussion Groups, and Nitrogen Sources other than Fertilizer. We have requested and received an extension on the grant to complete these fact sheets. They will be included in a final report at this time next year.

4. Develop skills to address complex community issues relating to agriculture, and to increase awareness among community members about the importance of maintaining New England’s agricultural base.

Since the beginning of this project, one of the main priorities has been to raise awareness and provide training in participatory techniques on research and educational programing. The committee feels that, more and more researchers, extension, and USDA personnel must do a better job of listening to farmers, learning from farmers, and relying more on collaborative approaches to problem solving.

To address this objective, a regional training on Participatory Research & Education was held in November 1996. Cooperative Extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), researchers, and state agency folks from throughout New England gathered in Ogunquit, Maine to explore new participatory research and education techniques. The purpose of the workshop was to increase their skills and understanding about working cooperatively with farmers in addressing the challenges and concerns expressed by the agricultural community.

The two-day event–organized by center staff who worked with a regional committee to plan the curriculum–was designed to be a participatory process. Workshop attendees spent time in small groups discussing the presentations and trying to incorporate the information into practical projects. According to workshop planning committee member Stephanie Gilbert of the Androskoggin Valley Conservation District in Lewiston, Maine, “We wanted to present some technical information and talk about specific tools folks could use in designing and carrying out more participatory research and education projects. At the same time, we wanted to give ample opportunities for using those tools to develop real or potential projects.”

The workshop presenter was Dr. Lorna Michael Butler, an agricultural anthropologist at the Department of Rural Sociology, Washington State University Cooperative Extension System. Her primary areas of expertise include participatory agricultural research, community-based problem solving and coalition building, institutional constraints to sustainable agriculture, and international agricultural development and research. During the workshop, Lorna helped attendees understand the guiding principles for designing participatory projects. For example, Butler said that participatory research & education techniques:

• generate knowledge and information about the real world of people and their surroundings, a process that often involves a lot of listening and observing;
• encourage active partnerships with local people and others who have an interest in the issue, e.g., shareholders or stakeholders;
• enable shareholders to have a louder voice in decisions;
• tend to be relaxed and flexible so ag professionals can learn more easily from shareholders; and,
• empower customers or beneficiaries to assume teacher or expert roles.

These principles gave the participants some guidelines to follow when deciding the approaches to take in working with diverse groups of farmers, community members and other agencies. For some of the 65 participants from the six New England states, the workshop was a whole new approach; others who attended were able to gather new methods and tools to continue working more collaboratively with farmers or other constituents. One participant commented, “Most of us have been trained through the ‘land grant’ system to do scientific research. What we need to get better at is finding ways to combine scientific research with practical farmer knowledge about the problems and the solutions.”

Resource materials regarding participatory research and education tools and techniques were distributed at the workshop. Fact sheets on study circles, on-farm research, farmer discussion groups, community mapping, and other participatory techniques were distributed. These are enclosed as Appendix D. These fact sheets were developed by planning committee members before the training. In addition, Washington State University has published a whole series of booklets called, Community Ventures: Partnerships in Education and Research which Lorna made available to participants. The series includes titles such as “Focus Groups: a Tool for Understanding Community Perceptions and Experiences;” “Developing Community Participation and Consensus: the Delphi Technique;” and, “The Community Survey: a Tool for Participation and Fact-finding.”

The response to this workshop was generally good. About nine-five percent of the participants said their understanding of participatory methods of education and research improved “to some extent” or “a great deal.” However, as we evaluated the responses, the committee concluded that PR&E is a rather difficult concept to approach in a two-day training. We felt that some of the participants were still unsure of how to implement the concepts. The planning committee tried to leave a lot of time for the participants to meet in small groups and discuss some possible projects. We found, however, that participants, for the most part, wanted to hear more lectures about how to plan and carry out the projects. They wanted more explicit instructions on how to use the techniques introduced by Lorna.

The committee felt that it would be extremely useful to conduct a follow-up evaluation on this training after 6 months or a year. This has not taken place due to time and resource constraints, but some of the committee members are interested and plan to discuss the prospects after all this year’s conference details have been taken care of.

Potential Contributions

The potential contributions to New England agriculture from this project will result from the fact that Extension, NRCS, FSA, Conservation District and State Department of Agriculture personnel from throughout the region have been exposed to a wide array of issues (production, marketing, economic, community, political, etc.) relating to sustainable agriculture. This has been done through conferences, workshops, training events, farm tours, and collaborations on producing technical materials. The project has included farmers and farm-based organizations and has provided opportunities for interaction with agency folks to interact, talk about needed strategies for sustaining farms and farmers in the region and collaborate on projects locally and regionally. The committee hopes that agency personnel will utilize the tools to implement collaborative research and outreach projects; and that agency personnel will use knowledge gained in the trainings to work with farmers to take a more holistic, biologically based approach to production challenges.

Future Recommendations

One area that needs additional study is a better way of assessing the impact of PDP projects. The program was designed to influence changes in individual behavior as well as in institutional processes. It would be useful to evaluate the different training methods used across the country to see what the long term impact of the program has been. In New England, we have determined that there is a need for more in-depth exposure to specific issues relating to sustainable agriculture – both technical methods and social implications of farming systems. We are planning comprehensive training sessions for groups of agency personnel and farmers from throughout the region. These trainings will take place in the winter of 1998-1999. This next year will be a planning year, during which we will organize several sessions across the Northeast to assess the specific needs of the agency personnel and their clientele.

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.