This three-year project actively involved fifty-one people—thirteen from Extension, seven university specialists, five from USDA, thirteen from non-governmental organizations, and thirteen farmers. The goal was to develop understanding, skills and leadership in sustainable agriculture. Participants attended classroom trainings, and then applied new skills and understanding to four regional projects that focused on preserving rural character (New Hampshire), urban agriculture (Connecticut, Maryland, and Rhode Island), soil and water quality (New Jersey) and new markets for farmers (Delaware and Maryland). The regional teams demonstrated leadership and enhanced sustainable agriculture networks, reaching at least 2,344 people at 42 outreach events. Three resource kits were produced, and a non-profit marketing institute was established with this project’s assistance.
To provide training for Cooperative Extension, USDA agency personnel, and stakeholders that improved their understanding of the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture, provided new educational tools and techniques, and enhanced leadership capacity.
A planning team from eight northeastern states, representing extension, NRCS, farmer organizations, and state agencies met in May1998 to plan the project’s activities. Regional team leaders were identified to recruit participants and organize regional teams. Topics were identified for initial classroom training on principles and practices of sustainable agriculture. A time line was developed outlining how regional activities and whole-group activities would be coordinated. The intent was to have whole-group meetings for conceptual training complemented by regional projects; these regional efforts that would address specific issues of local concern and provide a context for putting what was learned into practice.
Performance Target Outcomes
In November 1998, thirty participants completed an intensive eight-page survey to guide planning for the classroom training. The survey captured the baseline knowledge of sustainable agriculture and identified participant perceptions of relevant issues. The majority (77%) indicated that societal and business conditions were key barriers to sustaining agriculture, yet their skills and professional support were primarily focused on production.
In January1999, forty-five people and fourteen presenters attended a two-day classroom training. The program covered social, financial, and scientific aspects of sustainable agriculture, practical applications including whole-farm record keeping, and innovative educational tools such as fish bowl discussions and role-playing. A large resource notebook was developed for participants with sections on sustainable agriculture definitions, innovative educational tools, whole farm planning, and information resources. In post-training evaluations, 84% of participants said the training had improved their understanding of sustainable agriculture; 80% felt their leadership capacity had been increased; 56% said the resource notebook would be helpful.
From June 1998 through June 2001, the four regional teams designed and implemented projects. The New Hampshire team worked with the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustaining Agriculture to develop trainings for town and state planning officials to help them accommodate the needs of the farm community. They developed a resource kit in binder form called “Preserving Rural Character Through Agriculture,” which was distributed to 207 municipalities and to state agencies and libraries.
The New Jersey team held three educational events on soil and water quality attended by over 150 people. They developed “A Manual of Soil Health, Nutrient Management and Water Quality.”
The southern New England team (Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) worked with non-profits, researchers, and farmers to promote the development of urban farms and gardens. They held a field day attended by 84 people, and they collaborated with University of Massachusetts to initiate research on growing and marketing of ethnic crops for Hispanic customers.
The Delaware team formed study circles to examine market opportunities and obstacles, took field trips and held workshops to identify options for farmers struggling against low commodity prices and declining profitability. They established a non-profit corporation called Chesapeake Fields Institute to assist with development of new markets for farmers.
At the end of 1999, fifteen participants met for a second two-day training. Regional teams summarized their project activities and results. Training in the ‘outcomes framework’ was provided, and the group analyzed the region using this approach. Of the eleven participants that submitted detailed descriptions of their involvement in the project, all said the project had increased their understanding of sustainable agriculture, and 91% said that they had demonstrated more leadership in sustainable agriculture as a result of the project.
It isn’t a simple thing to increase people’s understanding of sustainable agriculture, improve their educational skills, and enhance their leadership capacity. The challenge is made greater with extension and other USDA agency personnel because of the many demands they face from conventional constituents, the culture of their organizations, and their lack of exposure to alternative world-views from credible sources. This project demonstrated that involvement with a broader range of audiences and clients and the use of nontraditional formats for interacting with those people can help us open our minds to what the real problems are, and to more creative, integrated and ongoing approaches to finding solutions.
More work is needed to help extension and agency personnel develop a deeper understanding of sustainable agriculture, to encourage them to take risks, and to help them join networks of people outside their normal sphere of influence. Perhaps more effort should be targeted at educating land grant and agency administrators so they can provide the leadership that is necessary if sustainable agriculture is to become widely accepted.