Locally Led Farmer Groups for Sustainable Agriculture: The Study Circle Approach

Final Report for ENE98-044

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1998: $6,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Federal Funds: $6,500.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $7,500.00
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Jim Hanson
Department of Ag Resource Economics
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Project Information

Summary:

Maryland Cooperative Extension and Future Harvest – Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (Future Harvest – CASA) coordinated the development and implementation of small, participatory farmer groups or study circles. Study Circle leaders attended an initial training session titled “New Educational Techniques: the Study Circle Approach.” As a result of the initial training, Maryland Cooperative Extension offered a competitive grants program to support projects that utilize the study circle approach. A total of seven projects were funded as a result of the grant request. The projects ranged in both scope and dimension, but were invaluable in creating opportunities to further evaluate the sustainability of agriculture in the mid-Atlantic region.

Methods / Approach

Study Circle leaders attended an initial training session titled “New Educational Techniques: the Study Circle Approach.” The training program was led by Dr. Duane Dale of DFD Associates, Amherst, MA and was held November 5, 1998. Training highlighted the guiding principles of study circles; illustrated what can be accomplished through the use of study circles; and used concept mapping as a way to determine potential study circle topics. A total of 20 people attended this training. As a result if the initial training, Maryland Cooperative Extension offered a competitive grants program on December 10, 1999, to support projects utilizing the study circle approach. A total of eight projects were funded as a result of the request for proposals.

Results

“Future of Maryland Agriculture: Visions of Emerging Leaders” a study circle was conducted by The LEAD Maryland Class I, with support and guidance from Dr. Nan Booth, Extension Specialist; and Susan Harrison, LEAD Maryland’s executive director.
The purpose of the Study Circle was to develop and present to the public the future of Maryland Agriculture as envisioned by the emerging leaders in LEAD Maryland’s Class I.

“Milk Futures – Risk Management Tool for Milk Producers” study circle included dairymen, agribusiness’s including several lenders, and Extension personnel. Participants began utilizing a “Model Dairy Farm” to simulate trading with milk futures/options. While most participants used milk futures and options trading on paper only, several actually participated utilizing milk options for their personal businesses. Fortunately, those individuals were able to maintain/improve their financial situation. Transactions – on paper only – made on behalf of the “Model Dairy Farm” resulted in a positive position. All participants gained knowledge and skills useful to utilizing this means of risk management.

Study circle to “Explore the Production of Native Warm Season Grass Seed” investigated the requirements to successfully and economically produce native warm season grass seed on Maryland farms. This study circle involved producers, staff at USDA –NRCS, and University of Maryland. Seed availability, ecotypes, plant breeding, and seed availability were all points of discussion. One meeting included a visit to research plots of native warm season grasses. It was concluded that the opportunity exists to produce source-identified seed for resale in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“Organic Study Circle Group” was composed of Upper Eastern Shore farmers in Maryland who discussed organic production issues since 1998. The discussions have switched from production issues to marketing issues. The question we have framed becomes: “ Can we produce food instead of feed in the Mid-Atlantic region? Could we find some grain products that could be processed for human consumption? What other agricultural alternatives exist that could impact this area? Study Circle participants visited Freshfields (Wholefoods) to evaluate potential new markets, visited Walnut Acres in Pennsylvania, and attended the natural food show in Baltimore, Fall of 1999.

Impacts and Potential Contributions

“Milk Futures – Risk Management Tool for Milk Producers” Study Circle decided to continue to meet in 2000 to at least entertain the idea of continuing to meet and gain more experience with this particular risk management tool – an independent, self-sufficient, Milk Futures Study Circle.

LEAD-MD class developed a general statement and a vision statement of their vision of Maryland agriculture. Statement strongly reflects definitions of sustainable agriculture.

Participants of the Warm Season Grasses study circle are working to generate funds to determine genetic differentiation between local and non local plant species. If a genetic difference is identified among a plant species, the difference could warrant the production of native seed and the creation of local seed suppliers.

Organic Study Circle Group helped contribute to the formation of the Chesapeake Fields Institute. The Chesapeake Fields Institute is a nonprofit education and research and development organization that is exploring the possible creation of an agricultural business park in Kent County, MD.

Project Objectives:

Maryland Cooperative Extension and Future Harvest – Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (Future Harvest – CASA) coordinated the development and implementation of small, participatory farmer groups in the mid-Atlantic region to enhance farmer understanding and application of sustainable agriculture. The groups were co-led by Maryland Cooperative Extension, farmers and other agricultural professionals.

Specifically, this project worked to:

  • Enhance knowledge of sustainable agriculture principals and methods for cooperative extension and farmers through collaborative learning process

    Introduce co-learning methodology to Cooperative Extension

    Provide training and support to Cooperative Extension to improve farmer to farmer networking and learning.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Bruce Mertz

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Publications/Outreach

Outreach and Dissemination

Results and information from the projects were varied in the degree of dissemination and outreach. The only known information product that was developed was a report titled “Ecomarketing in the Chesapeake Bay region.” This report is a summary of a meeting that was held to explore the possibility of an ecolabel, or other regional ecomarketing activities. A copy of this report was disseminated to workshop participants and was shared with evaluators and employees at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

This project was successful in introducing the study circle technique to extension educators and other agricultural personnel. The leadership groups have adopted the study circle technique into their leadership curriculum. Several study circle groups are also continuing to meet on an as needed basis.

Performance Target Outcomes

Outcomes

Results

LEAD Maryland Study Circle

“Future of Maryland Agriculture: Visions of Emerging Leaders,” a study circle was conducted by: The LEAD Maryland Class I, with support and guidance from Dr. Nan Booth, Extension Specialist; and Susan Harrison, LEAD Maryland’s executive director. LEAD Maryland is a program designed to provide men and women interested in the future of Maryland agriculture with opportunities to expand their leadership abilities, develop an active network of diverse people, increase their understanding of critical public issues, and enhance their knowledge of technological practices, marketing strategies, and environmental concerns. The purpose of the Study Circle was to develop and present to the public the future of Maryland Agriculture as envisioned by the emerging leaders in LEAD Maryland’s Class I.

Objectives obtained from the Study Circle exercise:

1. Class members learned the study circle approach as taught by Duane Dale.
2. Over a period of the first 7 sessions that the class has met for, the class members have discussed the question, “What is the future of Maryland Agriculture?”
3. The class has put together a general statement and a vision statement of their vision of Maryland agriculture. (Statement follows this summary)

Many other related topics were brought up in the study circles. Notes were taken and some of the topics revisited when appropriate to add to the progress of the work of the class. The statement created is just one of the end products from the study circle exercise. Much sharing and teamwork and other leadership elements were incorporated throughout the process.

LEAD Maryland Class I: General Statement (as of March 14, 2000)

Agriculture is economically, environmentally, and socially important to Maryland. Maintaining and improving a strong agriculture structure is in the best interest for the citizens of Maryland. Agriculture is a dynamic process that makes the most sustainable and productive use of natural resources. High quality food supply and natural resource products are benefits of Maryland Agriculture. Additionally, working landscapes, stable social structures, and employment opportunities improve the quality of life for all Maryland citizens. Farms are economic entities, which must be profitable. To rise to the challenges of the 21st Century agriculture must use innovative technical and marketing skills. Producers, policy makers, educators, and other interested groups must cooperate to promote environmental stewardship and economic prosperity.

Milk Futures – Risk Management Tool for Milk Producers: a Study Circle

On February 26, 1999 a proposal was submitted to develop a study circle in Carroll County to include immediately surrounding Maryland counties. The topic to be investigated by this study circle was “Milk Futures – Risk Management Tool for Milk Producers. This Study circle’s first meeting was on April 23, 1999, 11am-1pm. At this time teaching/learning the language and strategies of the “Futures” industry began. The Study Circle decided to meet once a month for two hours for the reminder of 1999. Dairymen, agribusiness’s including several lenders, and Extension personnel composed the majority of this particular SC. Eight sessions were held. At each, we reviewed what was discussed at the previous session, answered questions, and discussed what had happened since the last session regarding milk futures before tackling new topics. Starting at the third session we began utilizing a “Model Dairy Farm” to simulate trading with milk futures/options. Opportunities and strategies were discussed at length and a unanimous decision had to be reached before action was taken. The Internet was used to provide additional resources to participants – included specific sites developed by Dr. McNew as well as those of other Land Grant Universities and Industry.

While most participants used milk futures and options trading on paper only, several actually participated utilizing milk options for their personal businesses. Fortunately, those individuals were able to maintain/improve their financial situation. Transactions – on paper only – made on behalf of the “Model Dairy Farm” resulted in a positive position. With this in mind, it is clear that all participants gained knowledge and skills useful to utilizing this means of risk management.

Each objective of this Study Circle was met. We were able to: bring interested individuals together to discuss “Milk Futures” as a risk management tool; expose producers to the language and strategy of “Milk Futures”; locate local human resources with varying levels of experience in the use of this risk management tool; and increase the number of viable dairy farm businesses in Carroll and surrounding Maryland (and Pennsylvania- Adams) counties.

Study circle to explore the production of native warm season grass seed

Native warm season grasses have many benefits: wildlife habitat, livestock forage, soil erosion control, and nutrient management. In the Chesapeake region, warm season grasses can be used either in pastures, streamside buffers, or landscapes. Today most warm season grass seed is acquired from sources outside of Maryland — in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. A lack of native seed stock in Maryland has been identified as an obstacle to the reintroduction of these valuable grass species. Production of native warm season grass seed could provide and an income for farmers who can successfully master seed production and storage techniques.

The purpose of this farmer circle was to explore the requirements to successfully and economically produce native warm season grass seed on Maryland farms. The initial meeting of this study circle occurred involved information gathering from plant breeders at USDA -NRCS and the University of Maryland. Seed availability, ecotypes, plant breeding, and seed availability were all discussed at this meeting. At subsequent meetings, discussion focused on determining who is currently providing warm season grass (WSG) seed for planting in the Chesapeake region. Much time was spent discussing whether it mattered that seed was produced in the Midwest and then planted in the Chesapeake region. Are warm season grasses grown in the Midwest genetically similar to warm season grasses growing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore? Genetic testing may answer this question.

The final meeting of the study circle was held at the Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown, MD, and included a visit to research plots of native warm season grasses. The connection between wildlife and warm season grasses was also discussed. Four main options were suggested as ways to produce seeds for warm season grass mixtures: collect plant material, use released material, grow for Ernst Conservation seeds in Pennsylvania, or grow whatever Ernst is not growing. The project leader of the group visited Ernst Conservation Seeds in Pennsylvania and discussed growing opportunities for Mid-Atlantic farmers. Seed storage, seed cleaning and other production issues were explored. It was concluded that the opportunity exists to produce source-identified seed for resale in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As a result of this project, participants of the study circle are working to generate funds to determine genetic differentiation between local and non local plant species. If a genetic difference is identified among a plant species, the difference could warrant the production of native seed and the creation of local seed suppliers.

Exploring marketing opportunities for fruit and vegetable producers

Future Harvest – CASA and Maryland Cooperative Extension convened a one-day workshop on Sept. 27, 1999, to explore the potential for a regional ecolabel, or other regional ecomarketing activities, to effectively encourage bay-friendly agricultural practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Discussion focused on the various pressure points within the food system, including consumers, producers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Participants in the workshop included: Cooperative Extension, Maryland Department of Agriculture, USDA, University of MD and Penn State University, Dairy Network Partnership, Environmental organizations, local government, and food retailer Giant Foods.

The first half of the workshop had presentations addressing food production, processing and distribution in the Chesapeake region. Presentations on various existing labels in the region were also provided. The second half of the workshop involved discussion of Cooperatives in the Chesapeake region and brainstorming of ways to expand current labeling efforts. Finally, the group identified some “next steps” that could lead to increased adoption of sustainable farming practices.

Water Resources Leadership Institute (WRLI) Class 1: A Study Circle

The purpose of the Study Circle grant was to develop a vision for the future of water resources on the eastern shore of Maryland as perceived by the Fellows in the Water Resources Leadership Institute (WRLI) Class 1.

Objectives of the grant included the following:

1. Fellows learn the study circle approach as taught by Duane Dale.
2. Devote one hour at each seminar to use the study circle approach to discuss the future of water resources.
3. Develop consensus among WRLI I Class 1 Fellows on a vision for water resources for the eastern shore of Maryland.

Actions Completed

Phil Favero and Nan Booth provided an overview of the study circle approach at Seminar I in February 1999. Each Fellow was also given reference material. After teaching the concept, Nan and Phil co-facilitated the first study circle which focused on the stakeholders for water resources. Fellows were asked to volunteer to co-lead one a study circle in one of the following seminars. With assistance from Phil and Nan, study circles were conducted in Seminar 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Fellows volunteered to co-facilitate these circles.

During the fall, a small group worked between seminars to begin to draft a vision statement that was reviewed and approved by the entire WRLI Class. This vision statement is now being printed to give to WRLI Class I Fellows. Fellows have indicated they will frame the vision and use it as a reference as they work toward their leadership goals. The study circle was again introduced to the WRLI Class II and a similar protocol will be used to have and students develop their vision of the future of Maryland water resources.

Project Outcomes

This project was successful in introducing the Study Circle technique to Extension faculty at the University of Maryland. A total of 20 Maryland Cooperative Extension faculty attended the initial study circle training session offered by Duane Dale in 1998. In a subsequent request for proposals, a total of 8 study circle projects where funded and were to be conducted in 1999. Cooperative Extension educators where either project leaders or collaborators for the funded study circle projects.

This project demonstrated that the study circle technique was an excellent forum for groups to explore new opportunities to improve the profitability of farming through various means. For example, the topic of milk futures was assessed by a group of educators, dairy farmers and ag professionals. Another group of farmers, wildlife specialists and plant breeders explored new crop opportunities for producers in the area of warm season grasses and native seed production. Another study circle explored value-added marketing opportunities in the form of an ecolabels for fruit, vegetable, and milk producers.

Study circles in this project provided a forum for collaboration between farmers and local, state and rural development professionals working to increase profitability on farms. For example, the organic study circle is currently working with rural development agencies in Maryland to trademark the label Chesapeake Fields. This work is being done through the newly formed Chesapeake Fields Institute, which was developed in part as a result of the hard work of the organic study circle group.

Finally, the project was successful in engaging many new and emerging leaders involved directly and indirectly with agriculture. The leadership group LEAD MD successfully used the study circle technique as a traing tool to define their vision of agriculture in MD. Much discussion and debate resulted from the use of the study circle technique. This vision forming process enabled agricultural leaders to closely examine sustainability issues that Maryland farmers face in the coming years.

Future Recommendations

What are the Next Steps?

Future Harvest – CASA and other interested parties should collaborate with and monitor the progress of the Environmental Quality Initiative’s USDA FSMIP grant activity. Future Harvest – CASA should be aware of any focus group research or other research on information that is being undertaken in FSMIP activity.

Involve Maryland farmers in Chesapeake Milk. Such an action would involve identifying a small processor in MD that could handle logistical constraints of milk production and transportation.

The Environmental Quality Initiative could be used on grain production if criteria were developed and made sense environmentally and economically.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation should get members to participate on consumer boards at Giant Foods to voice their opinions of organic and ecolabeling.

Use market research or surveys to determine consumer and producer interest in using a “Chesapeake Healthy” label.

In the future, Future Harvest-CASA and environmental groups such as Sierra Club, Rachel Carson Institute, and CBF should exchange information on their activities in agriculture and explore opportunities for collaboration.

Determine which strategy makes sense: promoting “locally grown” or promoting “sustainably grown.” Or both.

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.