Farming for the Future: Adopting Sustainable Agriculture Practices

Final report for ES13-120

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2013: $55,904.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2017
Grant Recipient: Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Megan Clayton
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
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Project Information

Abstract:

Trainings on sustainable agriculture practices were held in southern Texas for employees of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Prairie View A&M Cooperative Extension Service, and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The main training for the project, ‘Farming for the Future’, was a hands-on farm training conducted at six locations, classroom presentations and discussions over four days, totaled 40.5 participation hours.  Eleven farmers and ranchers served as trainers during the on-site visits for 45 professional trainees.

A second training was held on ‘Restoration Agriculture’ at the Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas in November 2015 for the same target audience as the sustainable agriculture training, but we opened up the opportunity for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, private consultants, and university employees to attend. There were 42 participants at the one-day training, totaling 336 participation hours. Mark Shepard, farmer and author of the book ‘Restoration Agriculture’ led the training.

A third training named ‘Farm and Ranch to Table’ was held at the Parker Creek Ranch in D’Hanis, Texas in June 2016.  Thirty-five Extension and USDA-NCRS educators attended the event where 10 farmers served as speakers. Participants rotated between four stations educating on land management, marketing, understanding terminology, and sustainable agriculture practices, for a total of 262.5 participation hours.

Our final training opportunity on Business Basics: Business and Financial Plan Development was offered 26 April 2017, in San Antonio, Texas.  Eighteen Extension educators and seven farmers attended the event.  Speakers included established farmers, and Extension economic development specialist, and an educator from the UTSA Small Business Development Center.  The planning and management presentations lasted seven hours for a total of 175 participation hours.

Project Objectives:

The training committee developed the following four behavior-based objectives evaluated through post-retrospective evaluations:

  1. Increase the knowledge of South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS about multiple successful sustainable and organic farming operations. Goal: Given that the CEAs reported having no training or less training than necessary, the goal is to increase knowledge by 70%, by post-retropective self-assessments on the economic, environmental, and social issues related to sustainable systems.
  2. Increase the knowledge of South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS personnel about Texas and Federal sustainable agricultural programs available to limited-resource farmers and ranchers. Goal: To increase knowledge by 50%, based on post-retrospective evaluations
  3. Improve the attitudes of South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS about the importance and applicability of sustainable and/or organic agricultural operations for small to medium-sized landowners. Goal: To increase the rankings (post-retrospective evaluation) by at least one rank (i.e., from Somewhat important to Important) of the practice of sustainable agriculture and its potential to improve profitability in multi-generational farms, and to increase the percentage of their clientele that they estimate sustainable and/or organic practices will be applicable for by 30%.
  4. Provide the skills necessary for South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS personnel to confidently educate and advise landowners interested in beginning or improving sustainable and/or organic agricultural practices.  Goal: To have every participant rank either Confident or Very confident their ability to design and host sustainable and/or organic agriculture workshops.
Introduction:

Although 86% of the land in Texas is in some form of agricultural production (Texas Department of Agriculture Fact Sheet 3.13.13), growing urban centers continue to increase the gap between our population and the origin of our food. The population of Texas has increased 20.6% since 2000 (http://www.thetexaseconomy.org/people-places/population/), while simultaneously 10 rural counties actually experienced population decreases. In addition, the small to mid-sized landowners who were more likely to interact with the nearby community are leaving the business because of age or inability to compete with large commercial producers. These individual or family producers have traditionally made up 98.5% of agricultural operations in the state (Texas Depart. of Ag Fact Sheet 3.13.13). As a result, family farms are being divided and/or sold to non-traditional landowners who may use the property for recreational or hobby purposes. If land is distributed among the next generation, these smaller parcels may not fit the operation previously established for decades.

Texas ranks first in U.S. cattle production (http://www.agclassroom.org/ kids/stats/texas.pdf), but it has recently undergone a multi-year drought of record. Cattle numbers are estimated to have shrunk 5% in Texas and 2% nationwide from pre-drought levels (http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/02/01/4594023/drought-shrinks-texas-cattle-herd.html). With cattle prices remaining high, the cost to buy back into a traditional cow/calf operation remains a high risk. This situation has left thousands of livestock operators looking for other ways to make their land profitable and maintain their agricultural tax valuation. The livestock industry in Texas took a $2.06 billion hit from the 2011 drought (http://www.window.state.tx.us /specialrpt/drought/drought2011.php).

The charge of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Prairie View Cooperative Extension is to provide relevant research and innovative information to landowners in support of their work as farmers and ranchers. However, our clientele are changing faster than are our CEAs’ skill sets. Like agricultural agencies in many other southern states, Texas Extension is at a crossroads.  Do we continue to support the larger operations with the solid, valuable research that has been developed and disseminated for years at Extension programs across the state? Or do we integrate new, cutting-edge ideas that appeal to the urban populations and support healthier economies in rural communities? 

Educating our clientele on how to break into innovative, sustainable, and organic practices will require competence on the subject by CEAs and NRCS, as they are the local resources who landowners look to for advice.

Because sustainable agriculture spans many operations, this topic is difficult to cover in a daylong training or through distance technology. Therefore, our main training consisted of a 4-day, more in-depth, and hands-on farm training for personnel in Extension and NRCS who showed an interest in learning and experiencing different sustainable and organic practices.

Another focus of the training was farmer efforts to conserve water, a limited resource in Texas with a growing demand in urban areas. By 2060, groundwater resources are expected to fall by 30%, but municipal water use is projected to increase by 11% (http://www.window.state.tx.us /specialrpt/drought/planning.php), making water conservation a necessity for agricultural producers.

In the final session of our main training, participants learned about state and Federal programs for limited-resource farmers and ranchers. We also discussed programs already accessed by the farmers, programs that may be applicable but are not being used, and the steps involved in applying for these programs.

This main training was followed by three more topic oriented opportunities including restoration agriculture, farm to table, and business basics.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Loncito Cartwright
  • Dr. Megan Clayton
  • Dr. Nelson Daniels
  • Dr. Monty Dozier
  • Ginger Easton Smith
  • Mark Gretchen
  • Thien Gretchen
  • Mandy Krause
  • Travis Krause
  • Kara Matheney
  • Omar Montemayor
  • Dale Rankin
  • Vidal Saenz
  • Gerry Shudde
  • Janelle Shudde
  • Sandy Steubing
  • Scott Willey

Education

Educational approach:

Our trainings used at least four different educational approaches.  Our ‘Farming for the Future’ training was both hands-on experiential learning and farmer-led tours and presentations.  Our ‘Restoration Agriculture’ and ‘Business Basics’ trainings were in classroom formal teaching using real-world examples.  Finally, our ‘Farm and Ranch to Table’ training used demonstrations, integrated tours, and classroom type lecture.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Farming for the Future Educational Training
Objective:

The training committee developed the following four behavior-based objectives evaluated through post-retrospective evaluations:

A. Increase the knowledge of South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS about multiple successful sustainable and organic farming operations.

Goal: Given that the CEAs reported having no training or less training than necessary, the goal is to increase knowledge by 70%, by post-retropective self-assessments on the economic, environmental, and social issues related to sustainable systems.

B. Increase the knowledge of South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS personnel about Texas and Federal sustainable agricultural programs available to limited-resource farmers and ranchers.

Goal: To increase knowledge by 50%, based on post-retrospective evaluations

C. Improve the attitudes of South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS about the importance and applicability of sustainable and/or organic agricultural operations for small to medium-sized landowners.

Goal: To increase the rankings (post-retrospective evaluation) by at least one rank (i.e., from Somewhat important to Important) of the practice of sustainable agriculture and its potential to improve profitability in multi-generational farms, and to increase the percentage of their clientele that they estimate sustainable and/or organic practices will be applicable for by 30%.

D. Provide the skills necessary for South and Central Texas CEAs and NRCS personnel to confidently educate and advise landowners interested in beginning or improving sustainable and/or organic agricultural practices.

Goal: To have every participant rank either Confident or Very confident their ability to design and host sustainable and/or organic agriculture workshops.

Description:

This four-day on-farm experiential training took place on six farms near San Antonio, TX, October 8-11, 2014. The announcement flyer is attached. Farmers were selected based on their ability to educate, willingness to allow hands-on trainings at their farm, and the sustainable practices they use in their operations.

Outcomes and impacts:

The percent of participants that either agreed or strongly agreed with the following aspects of sustainable agriculture and increased their attitudes through the training were:

  • Understanding of sustainable agriculture terms – 82% increase
    • Goal was to increase sustainable ag. environmental understanding by 70%
  • Variety of sustainable production methods – 78% increase
    • Goal was to increase understanding of economic opportunities by 70%
  • Understanding of the social aspect of sustainable ag – 73% increase
    • Goal was to increase by 70%
  • Awareness of educational and financial resources available – 73% increase
    • Goal was to increase by 50%
  • Sustainable ag operations are applicable for their clientele – 38% increase
    • Goal was to increase by 30%
  • Would encourage landowners to explore sustainable ag practices – 46% increase
  • Felt confident about designing and hosting sustainable ag workshops – 59% increase
    • Goal was to have all participants confident – we increased 59%, but the other 41% felt confident prior to attending the workshop.

Educational & Outreach Activities

7 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
6 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Tours
20 Webinars / talks / presentations
4 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

78 Extension
29 NRCS
2 Researchers
3 Nonprofit
7 Agency
36 Farmers/ranchers

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

1. Farming for the Future Training

Our main sustainable agriculture training (Farming for the Future), based out of San Antonio, Texas, was held during four consecutive days in October 2014. In addition to the 11 farmers and ranchers who served as trainers, 20 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension employees, 19 USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel, and 6 Prairie View A&M Cooperative Extension employees participated in this training. The participants represented 35 different counties, primarily in South and Central Texas regions.

This project contributed to sustainable agricultural publications by using Extension funds to develop an Extension/SARE publication titled ‘Starting a Sustainable Agriculture Business’ and video ‘The Faces of Sustainable Agriculture’ highlighting components of this farmer-taught training. The publication is available on our Texas Extension Bookstore Website and the South Texas Rangelands website, while the video was uploaded to YouTube and posted on an Extension Website for viewing.

In addition to the 11 farmers and ranchers who served as trainers, 20 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension employees, 19 USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel, and 6 Prairie View A&M Cooperative Extension employees participated in this training. The participants represented 35 different counties, primarily in South and Central Texas regions. The number of participants accepted was based on the feasibility of allowing hands-on training opportunities and accepting only those individuals who had a strong desire to attend.

Through a post-retrospective study, the percent increase of participants who agreed or strongly agreed that they were knowledgeable about:

  • Pasture-raised swine increased 42%
  • Grass-fed dairy cattle increased 64%
  • Honey bee production increased 52%
  • Grass fed beef increased 38%
  • Pasture-raised poultry increased 71%
  • Wholesale marketing increased 58%
  • Marketing products on farm increased 53%
  • Marketing products at a farmers market increased 48%

 

The percent of participants that either agreed or strongly agreed with the following aspects of sustainable agriculture and increased their attitudes through the training were:

  • Understanding of sustainable agriculture terms – 82% increase
    • Goal was to increase sustainable ag. environmental understanding by 70%
  • Variety of sustainable production methods – 78% increase
    • Goal was to increase understanding of economic opportunities by 70%
  • Understanding of the social aspect of sustainable ag – 73% increase
    • Goal was to increase by 70%
  • Awareness of educational and financial resources available – 73% increase
    • Goal was to increase by 50%
  • Sustainable ag operations are applicable for their clientele – 38% increase
    • Goal was to increase by 30%
  • Would encourage landowners to explore sustainable ag practices – 46% increase
  • Felt confident about designing and hosting sustainable ag workshops – 59% increase
    • Goal was to have all participants confident – we increased 59%, but the other 41% felt confident prior to attending the workshop.

Participants were asked to report on group activities they conducted during the 5 months post-training that were a result of the information learned during the SARE Training. Additionally, reports included 106 individuals that were educated by our training participants on starting a sustainable agriculture business outside of a group activity. Group educational programs just 5 months post-training included 18 events involving 37 different counties, which reached a total of 918 additional participants.

 

2. Restoration Agriculture Training

The one-day restoration agriculture workshop, held at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, was in November 2015. Mark Shepard, farmer and author of the book ‘Restoration Agriculture’ led the training. In addition to the 7 Texas A&M AgriLife Extension employees, 10 USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel, and 1 Prairie View A&M Cooperative Extension employee, we had space in the meeting room to open up the workshop to 24 other professionals from universities, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and farmers/ranchers. The participants were specifically representing 18 counties, although 5 listed statewide responsibilities.  The number of years participants claimed to work in the agricultural field ranged from 1-40, with an average of 10.6.

As a result of the training, participant average knowledge about:

  • State and federal programs increased 13%
  • Restoration agriculture increased 18%
  • Applicable ranching alternatives increased 5%
  • 90.5% of participants either agreed or strongly agreed they would recommend these restoration agriculture methods to others
  • 88% of participants would encourage landowners to implement restoration agriculture methods in their business
  • Only 28% of participants were familiar with Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture book, but 98% agreed they would recommend this training to other agricultural leaders.

 

3. Farm and Ranch to Table Training

On June 1, 2016, we hosted a Farm and Ranch to Table Training in D’Hanis, Texas at the Parker Creek Ranch, a pastured poultry and grass fed beef ranch.  A new sustainable food movement has provided opportunities for smaller land owners to produce products in demand and yield a higher profit. County Extension Agents will need to understand the production, land management, and cooking and nutrition associated with such products in order to serve their clientele.

Results:

  • 35 educators and 10 farmers/speakers attended the event. 20 people responded to the survey a week post-training
  • 85% of participants were either somewhat (15%) or very (70%) satisfied with the training.
  • Participants described the training as well organized, high quality, engaging, informative, and useful.
  • One difficulty identified is the lack of much research on many of these niche market production techniques.
  • 90% of participants were likely to use the information in their professional lives
  • On average, participants valued the training at $70, or $2450 total.

 

4. Business Basics Training

Effort has been made to provide information through this Southern SARE Grant on starting and operating several different types of sustainable businesses, understanding what it means to direct market, and how alternative agricultural products can contribute to the food supply.  However, our final training was designed to educate participants on best management practices for starting and running the business and financial side of the operation.  Texas A&M AgriLife Extension employees are often well-suited for agent positions because of their background in agriculture studies, but they may be weak on business and finance.  Funded with the Southern SARE Professional Development Grant, we provided a training opportunity on April 26, 2017.  There were 18 Extension personnel and 7 farmers who participated in the one day training.

Results:

  • The average number of years working in their current or similar position was 8.5 years, although time varied from 1 to 25 years. We had a very diverse audience.
  • 81% of participants either agreed or strongly agreed that they felt knowledgeable about developing business plans, developing financial plans, small business market opportunities, small business management, and business financing after the training.
  • The main purpose of the workshop was to help educators feel confident to educate others about starting a small alternative ag business if it fit their situation. 48% strongly agreed and 33% agreed they could educate others about business start-up at the end of the training.
  • A third of the participants had never received any sort of training on business basics before.
  • All participants either agreed or strongly agreed that the training was well organized and their educational expectations were met.
  • All participants would recommend this training to other agricultural leaders.
120 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
36 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

Although not part of a formal individual evaluation tool, the final session on the fourth (last) day of the training did allow an opportunity for participants to openly share something they learned during the training that specifically stood out to them. Participants came to the training with their own biases or preconceived ideas about Sustainable Agriculture and left having realized: 1) the importance of the producer’s personal story in marketing, 2) the raw passion for their product that drove them to success, 3) that “personable” people were involved in direct marketing, 4) that smaller producers have to be knowledgeable about every aspect of the business, 5) their needs are very similar to traditional producers in Texas, 6) the need for budgeting and record keeping support, 7) their vulnerability to the environment and market, 8) the high demand for their sustainable products (including ecotourism/agritainment, 9) mistakes are very costly, 10) the pros and cons to different marketing outlets (including the use of social media), 11) the better understanding of sustainable terms, and 12) the rigid management of traditional ranching compared to the flexibility required to be a sustainable farmer.

Recommendations:

We are very appreciative for the funding to provide these opportunities to our agricultural educators in Texas.  We see an increased presence of farmer’s markets and locally available food throughout our state and will need continuous trainings to stay abreast of the best management practices for alternative agriculture operators.  Additionally, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension is proud to be leading a ‘Healthy Texas’ initiative.  As we demonstrated with our ‘Farm and Ranch to Table’ training, diverse opportunities such as this to connect ag producers with the final consumer (or educators of those final consumers) will be an important component moving forward.

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.