Almost 600 county agents in Texas attended a two-hour training session which included a basic introduction to the concepts and principles of sustainable agriculture and information about sustainable agriculture resources that they can access to help the producers they serve. Resources developed include a website (http://sustainable.tamu.edu), a video illustrating farmers and ranchers in Texas working towards sustainability, and a display for meetings and trade shows. A regional meeting “Developing East Texas Sustainable Agriculture Systems for the 21st Century” was held in July, 1998. Activities associated with this grant have improved communication among professionals of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, the Prairie View A&M University Cooperative Extension Program, and alternative agriculture practitioners and groups.
Extension agents, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel, and other agricultural professionals will be able to explain the concept [of sustainable agriculture] and encourage their clients to consider the environmental and social consequences in addition to economics when making farm decisions.
The Texas Agricultural Extension Service and the Cooperative Extension Program, other agricultural and natural resource agencies, and alternative agricultural producers will increase communication and strengthen their working relationships to expand the concept of sustainable agriculture in Texas.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Agricultural producers in Texas who use alternative methods have traditionally felt ignored by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX). Prairie View A&M University Cooperative Extension Program (PVA&MU CEP) has been more aggressive in presenting the concepts of sustainable agriculture to producers. Nevertheless, Extension agents in general do not have a firm understanding of the full scope of sustainable agriculture. Leaders of the sustainable agriculture movement in Texas are open to working with Extension and have requested cooperation from the land grant schools within the state.
In 1995, representatives from TAEX, PVA&MU CEP, NRCS, other agricultural organizations, private industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) associated with agriculture developed a strategic plan for sustainable agriculture in Texas. The vision statement of this plan stated: “The Texas Agricultural Extension Service and 1890 Cooperative Extension Program, in partnership with agricultural producers and associated organization and agencies will focus resources to ensure a higher quality of life for citizens of Texas through economically, environmentally , and socially sound agricultural practices.”
The size and agricultural diversity of Texas present major challenges in planning and implementing any statewide training program for agricultural professionals. The appointed Sustainable Agriculture Leadership Team, made up of specialists and agents from both Texas Extension Programs, felt that the educational goals would best be accomplished by a basic training session for all agents, followed by more in-depth regional meetings.
Outreach and Publications
The Texas Sustainable Production Systems website was developed and expanded throughout the term of the grant. Our 22 minute video, completed in the spring of 1998, contains interviews with 7 Texas producers who are working towards sustainability on their farms or ranches. All county agents who participated in the training were shown the video. Copies were given to all participants in the video, and to any county agents who requested it. It is for sale to the public on our website.
The display illustrating sustainable agriculture in Texas was developed and is available to Extension agents and professionals from other participating agencies. It has been displayed at the Southern Region SARE meeting in January, 1999; the Stiles Farm Field Day in central Texas in June, 1999; and the statewide Extension staff conference at College Station in July, 1999. Illustrated SARE handouts on sustainable agriculture are distributed with the display.
Objective 1. Between August, 1998, and April, 1999, our program introducing the concepts and principles of sustainable agriculture was presented to county agents in all 12 Extension districts in the state. A regional workshop, “Developing East Texas Sustainable Agriculture Systems for the 21st Century” was conducted in the summer of 1998.
Objective 2. The video, which was shown to all agents, included interviews with Texas producers using alternative methods. Alternative producers and representatives of producer groups such as Texas Organic Growers Association (TOGA), and Holistic Resource Management (HRM) were among the speakers, tour stops, and participants in the meeting in East Texas. Specialists have been invited speakers at alternative agriculture meetings, such as ACRES, and are serving on the boards of HRM of Texas and TOGA. Agents are working with NGOs such as Promised Land Network to help educate producers and the public.
The next step in training in Texas should present information aimed at specific subjects and regions. Post-training survey comments such as “I don’t tolerate extremist views on agriculture that have no research to back them up!” show that they are not aware of the amount of research that does exist on alternative production systems. The agents expressed a need for specific production information on topics such as rotational grazing. When appropriate, these programs can be done in cooperation with groups such as HRM, and include tours and “hands on” learning for agents.
Future efforts in Texas would be much more successful if there were some commitment from and participation by the agricultural economists within the state. To the best of our knowledge, only one specialist from that department attended our training program. Economists in some other states have embraced these concepts and are leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement. Yet a new state-funded risk management effort in Texas which involved hiring an economist in each district to advise producers on a one-to-one basis seems to be based on traditional philosophies and methods. A regional sustainable agriculture meeting aimed specifically at economists would be appropriate, although it may be difficult to get them to attend.
Despite a personal meeting with state NRCS officials and FAXes to them notifying them of the training sessions, and repeated attempts to connect with state Farm Service Agency officials, we were not successful in encouraging professionals from other agencies to participate in the training. The only participation we had was several NRCS conservationists who attended the East Texas meeting.
Although Family and Consumer Science agents were required to attend the training, and we made an effort to include them, most felt (and rightly so) that the program was not relevant to their programs. Comments included “This is not one of my major programming areas. It is nice to be aware of, just for the sake of knowledge, but basically a waste of my time.” “The ag agents would not sit through or complete a survey about FCS subject matter & no one would expect them to!” One of the most difficult challenges within SARE is how to truly integrate the social aspect of sustainable agriculture and to encourage the (mostly male) agricultural agents to see the value of working with whole people and families, a concept most of them envision as something for the women to address.
The semantics of sustainable agriculture is a continuing problem. One participant commented that “Sustainable agriculture is a catch-all phrase.” Many agents indicated that they still believe the current system of agriculture is sustainable and that they already recommend sustainable practices to their clientele (which is certainly true in some cases). We did suggest that they consider which practices are most likely to be sustainable and report them in that way on their monthly reports. Despite clear statements to the contrary by the trainer, and a slide illustrating the point, the post-training survey showed that many trainees continue to believe that organic and sustainable agriculture have the same meaning. This may have been partly because most of the producers portrayed in the video advocated organic methods, but it apparently needs to be re-emphasized.
Although the number of agents who feel strongly about it seems to be low, there is still major resistance to an open-minded approach to agricultural alternatives. Views expressed on the post training surveys were: “Public must become accustomed to lower quality food, death by mycotoxins, and higher prices at the store.” To minimize this defensiveness, it would be helpful to address these concepts earlier in the process of educating county agents. Since most Extension educators are educated in land grant universities, including teaching faculty in sustainable agriculture training is one suggestion. We also wanted to include this training in the Texas Extension new-employee training, but were told by the person in charge that there was no room in the program for it.
Due to our inexperience with such programs, we did not request enough money to properly and fully complete this program. Since all of the leadership team members have other full-time responsibilities, we depended on our half-time Extension Assistant, who was employed in this project from February, 1998-September, 1999. We also found that the work load was such that we needed an undergraduate student worker to help with administrative duties and data analysis. The professional development program in sustainable agriculture that is needed in Texas would require a full time faculty member with administrative assistance.
The loss of so many producers indicates that major changes are needed within agriculture. Extension and other agricultural professionals must be innovators and develop creative programs, which encourage producers to use improved methods of farming. Our introduction to the principles of sustainable agriculture was intended to encourage these professionals to work with alternative producers, use a variety of sources for their information, and introduce conventional producers to alternative methods of approaching the challenges they face.
We have met our objectives of providing this basic training program of concepts of sustainable agriculture to all county agents in Texas. This included an introduction to the definition and concepts of SA, explanation of our website and computer resources, and information about some alternative agriculture groups and resources.
An additional benefit was the career enhancement of the Extension Assistant hired under this grant. She was able to complete her M.S. degree in Agricultural Development, using this training program as her thesis project. The knowledge she has gained about training and evaluation, as well as sustainable agriculture philosophies and practices, should enable her to become a leader in sustainable agriculture education.
We measured the perceptions, knowledge, attitudes, and actions of Texas county agents about sustainable agriculture through the use of pre and post-training (4-6 months after training) surveys. We did not find a significant change in the perceptions, and there was a non-significant trend towards increased knowledge. Although initial attitudes about sustainable agriculture were more positive than we had anticipated, (3.6 on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the most agreeable), they did increase slightly (to 3.7) after the training. There was also an increase in their actions about sustainable agriculture with more of them reporting that they had conducted sustainable agriculture activities in their counties.
Many have personally expressed that they would like to recommend alternative methods, such as products which are “environmentally friendly”. However, they often do not have the information to do that. Although many specialists and research scientists would like to conduct alternative research programs, they have trouble finding the support to do this. One specialist who attended the training expressed this in his comment: “As a specialist, I believe my time would be better spent developing materials that would support the sustainable ag program’s efforts. I am working with agents and other specialists to develop fact sheets, slide shows, etc. that address specific needs and issues within my expertise & job responsibilities. Hopefully my efforts will complement those of other specialists and agents as we address specific issues within the more general sustainable agriculture package.”
The real changes that we noticed during the time of this grant do not show up in the surveys. During the years of this grant, we observed changes in the attitudes of many agents. Two districts requested training sessions in organic farming/gardening, and several agents requested producer/homeowner programs on these subjects. Open-minded agents are finding that there are quite a few producers and homeowners who are interested in non-traditional agriculture. This program helped to reinforce the idea that they have the approval of the administration to pursue these types of programs.
Feedback from Farmers and Ranchers
The farmers and ranchers who attended the meeting in East Texas were enthusiastic about the meeting. Comments from the evaluation of that meeting included: “informative and educational”, a “great networking opportunity”, “I would like to see other conferences.” Those of us who worked on this effort, and became acquainted with alternative producers, found that our calls on these subject have greatly increased. When they learn that there are some specialists and agents who will help them to address production problems from a non-traditional perspective, they spread the word to others in their groups.