Increasing the Effectiveness of Field Agent Response to Producer Requests for Alternative Marketing Assistance

Final Report for EW04-006

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2004: $95,939.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Western
State: New Mexico
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project builds on the established Southwest Marketing Network (SWMN) that supports alternative marketing in the Four Corners States. A conference, including specific agent workshops, was in held each of three years to increase agents’ alternative marketing knowledge, build capacity to respond to inquiries, and establish working relationships among agents, specialists, and producers. A guide to responding to requests for alternative marketing assistance, comprehensive Marketing Topics resources, and a Directory of Expertise were developed and posted on a “Resources for Agents” page on the SWMN website at

Project Objectives:

The project objectives are: 1) To increase the ability of agents (and similar service providers) to provide well-informed initial responses to producers asking for advice with alternative marketing questions, and to make referrals as appropriate. 2) To help agents better understand the unique marketing needs of small-scale and minority producers, and 3) To allow agents to establish familiarity and good working relationships across state and reservation borders in order to maximize resources available to assist producers.

The idea is not to make these agents into marketing experts, but to allow them as non-marketing specialists to help producers find the help they need. In addition to 30 or so agents from AZ, CO, NM, & UT, we will have several marketing specialists and producers to help identify needs, issues, effective techniques, and resources. We expect that all will be learners and all will be trainers in this project.

Introduction:

Expertise in alternative marketing is considerable and continues to increase in Extension and other organizations in the Four Corners states. Yet, a significant number of field agents—Extension, as well as NRCS, NGOs, and others with direct contact with producers—feel that they have little depth to their marketing knowledge, especially for alternative marketing, so they quickly refer producers to whatever marketing specialists they know of. This initial contact is a critical point for the potential alternative marketer—a point at which they are best served by well-informed initial guidance from the agent and the most direct referral to the specialists—wherever they may be—that can help them most. The aim of this project is to make this interaction among producers, agents, and specialists more informed and effective.

The SWMN conducted a survey in late 2002 which asked service providers what alternative marketing assistance they or their organizations had to offer, and what training and information they and their clients needed most. Of 87 valid surveys, respondents included Extension agents (51%), other university research and education personnel (9%), producer-marketers (12%), non-profits (9%), as well as NRCS agents, state departments of agriculture, and private service providers.

First, the survey results have helped the Network identify the organizations and agents who can best provide assistance in over 40 different alternative marketing categories. Secondly, we now know the relative need for assistance in these forty-plus areas, and the responses indicate that agents and other service providers generally expressed about the same needs for themselves as their clients, ie., these service providers are hungry for more capacity in alternative marketing. When asked about how they, as service providers, usually seek training in these topics, conferences, workshops, and field days (ie., personal contact/experience) topped the list.

With this background in mind, we have proposed to increase the familiarity among agents and specialists of the special needs of small scale, alternative, and minority producers; build agents capacity to field their inquiries; and build working relationships among agents, specialists, and producers-marketers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Le Adams
  • Gerald Chacon
  • Dan Drost
  • Jim Dyer
  • Dennis Lamm
  • Pam Roy
  • Russ Tronstad

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Below is a description of the methods used to implement this project:

A baseline questionnaire was sent out in Spring 2006 just before the first conference to ascertain existing knowledge and capacity to respond to client inquiries. (See Attachment 1 for questionnaire and results)

The SWMN Annual Conference was held on 27-29 March 2006 in Grand Junction. A dedicated “PDP Workshop” was held with 28 agents, 11 marketing specialists, and 8 producers. Participants could then choose to attend 5 of approximately 25 specific workshops. (See Attachment 2 for the agenda, and Attachment 3 for the conference workshops.)

The presentation by Dawn Thilmany of CSU Extension was incorporated into a preliminary guidance document on deciding how much and what type of assistance an agent could offer to clients with alternative marketing questions.

Following 2 years of initial hosting by NCAT, the SWMN website was moved to a new host in Durango. The structure was revised in response to user needs and a private section was created for project participants to review draft resource materials for feedback.

A baseline questionnaire was given to those planning to attend the 2007 Conference who had not participated in 2006. (See Attachment 4 for the questionnaire and results.)

The 2007 SWMN Annual Conference was held in Flagstaff, AZ on 26-28 March. For the “PDP Workshop” we had 25 agents, 6 marketing specialists, and 6 producers, who also could attend 5 of 24 additional workshops. (See Attachment 5 for the PDP Workshop agenda, and Attachment 6 for all the Conference workshops).

Resources were posted on the re-designed SWMN website to assist agents making referrals and their clients. Resource pages for 40 distinct “Marketing Topics” were posted, and a prototype “Directory of Expertise” was developed.

A final draft of Dawn Thilmany’s guidance document was prepared from feedback received from participants. A guide to making referrals was drafted. Both documents were posted on the website in Fall 2007 for review and feedback from participants, and finalized in Spring 2008.

The 2008 SWMN Annual Conference was held from 5-7 May in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A workshop, “Resources For Agents and Producers” was offered on an optional basis for PDP participants. This workshop showcased the products of this project as well as the WSARE-funded “Entrepreneurial Sustainable Agriculture” DVD from Western Rural Development Center. It also featured videos produced under the WSARE project of the SWMN and Farm to Table, and assistance available from the national sustainable agriculture information service, ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas). Participants were also able to attend 4 of the 24 workshops offered. (See Attachment 7 for the conference workshops)

A final questionnaire was sent to all who had participated over the project period. (See Attachment 8 for the questionnaire and results)

Outreach and Publications

Publications: posted at www.swmarketingnetwork.org/index.php/resources-for-agents

1) Decision-Making Guide To Determining If, When, and How Much You Can Effectively Assist Producers With Direct Marketing Questions (Attachment 13)

2) Tips on Referring Producers with Direct Marketing Questions to Appropriate Specialists (Attachment 14)

Website: See “Resources for Agents” page on SWMN website: http://www.swmarketingnetwork.org/index.php/resources-for-agents

Website is receiving about 280,000 hits/year currently.

Workshops: See Attachment 15 for participation statistics.

Outcomes and impacts:

Participation:
As detailed in the “Conference Data” (Attachment 9), 84 participants, mostly Extension personnel, were involved in the 2006 and 2007 dedicated “PDP” workshops and the additional conference workshops. Assuming five workshops attended by each participant, approximately 420 workshops were delivered to PDP participants.

We were able to achieve a good mix of agents/service providers, specialists, and producers in these workshops. Their participation in the conference as a whole provided learning and networking opportunities with a wide variety of other participants: small-scale producers, minority producers, and participants from the Four Corners states. Participants rated the PDP Workshops highly.

Initial Baseline Survey Results:
Attachment 10 indicates that most respondents report:
a) They do receive alternative marketing inquires.
b) Only moderate understanding of alternative marketing topics.
c) Low to moderate ability to refer clients to resources or people who can help them.
d) Low to moderate ability to give adequate advice to clients.
e) Low familiarity with alternative marketing specialists and resources across the Four Corners states.
f) Moderate understanding of needs of small scale and minority producers.

Website:
The SWMN website, which includes PDP-specific and general alternative marketing resources is attracting about 280,000 hits per year at this time.

Final Questionnaire Results:
The final questionnaire in May 2008 asked the degree of improvement as a result of their participation in this project in the five objective areas. Respondents were asked to rate their improvement on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being no improvement and 5 being high improvement. While the response rate was low, average ratings ranged from 3.4 to 3.9 out of 5, in other words moderate improvement, in all five areas:
a) Understanding of the basics of alternative marketing topics
b) Ability to refer producers effectively
c) Ability to give well-informed advice
d) Familiarity with alternative marketing specialists
e) Understanding of the unique needs of small-scale and minority producers

Narrative Feedback on Resources Developed under this Project:

Participants were asked to provided open-ended feedback as the resources were being finalized. Excerpts are located in Attachment 11.

Some selected positive feedback includes:

Person A: “I think both documents [Decision-making Guide and Tips for Referrals] are a great start for folks who are new to the arena (as well as those who may have worked in the field, but don’t have to deal with these issues very often).”

Person B: “I wish I had had Dawn’s “checklist” when I first started. I had 3 clients that I would have handled differently and been more helpful in the process if I had had it then. I will use it in the future.”

Person C: “I have been in this position for almost 2 years and have attended both PDP opportunities. They have been invaluable to me.”

The following feedback reflects the time pressures that make it hard for some agents to engage at all on alternative marketing:
“I am spread so thin right now anyway that I doubt I would be a very good advisor. … I doubt I really have the background at this time to determine the person’s preparedness or how much assistance they need. I’m not a marketing specialist; I just need to know how to find someone who is.”

Conclusions: Some (subjective) conclusions resulting from the implementation of, and feedback from, this project include:

a) Time constraints facing agents and similar service providers seems to the overriding factor determining the amount of time and effort they can expend on alternative marketing inquiries — especially in an area that they tend to feel less qualified.
b) Although the advice provided by Dawn Thilmany seemed very logical to the participants, insufficient familiarity with the marketing concepts and jargon remained, so that many agents will most likely refer questions as quickly as possible.
c) While we may not have greatly increased the willingness of agents and service providers to engage in more detailed discussion and advice sessions with their clients on these topics, it appears that they appreciate the assistance for making referrals.
d) Improvement ratings were the highest for their increased capacity for making referrals a result of this project. In terms of the products of this project, ratings were highest for the Directory of Expertise, Marketing Resources, and the associated resources available from ATTRA.
e) Strong support was received for the Directory of Expertise as a means of referring clients to someone who is willing to respond personally by e-mail or phone. This one-on-one contact was seen as a critical need for many clients.

Impacts into the Future: This project should better enable agents to assist producers in initiating and implementing alternative marketing strategies. This assistance will be extended from the agent themselves, and to a greater extent from those to whom the agent refers the producer. Successful implementation should help producers achieve greater diversification and hopefully greater profit.

In that the majority of alternative marketing initiatives are in response to consumer demands for safer, more nutritious food that is sustainably produced, consumers should benefit directly through products more aligned to their needs and values and indirectly through a healthier environment and community around them.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In addition to the outcomes described above, this project afforded us the opportunity to bring together a number of marketing specialists and state agency representatives who are responsible for lending marketing assistance. This occurred formally in the PDP Workshops, but informally throughout the three conferences.

The overall conference statistics (Attachment 12) indicate the diversity of those who the project participants had a chance to learn from and network with. Having a good distribution of producers and non-producers (usually about 50% of each), small scale producers typical of our conferences, and Native American representation (from 14-43% from conference evaluation results) most likely exposed many project participants to new perspectives.

This project also allowed us to develop web-based resources, the Marketing Topics, and the prototype Directory of Expertise (which will be refined and expanded in the near future), that will benefit all of the clientele of the SWMN (over 3400 on our mailing list).

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Potential Contributions to ag professional and producer understanding of this topic:

As described above, nearly all of the products of this project — web-based resources and the guidance documents — can be used by many more agents, other service providers, and producers alike. The Marketing topics and the Directory of Expertise have become an integral part of the SWMN website and will be maintained and further developed into the future.

Future Recommendations

While we believe we made very significant progress in increasing the ability of agents and other service providers to assist and refer clients, there are some remaining issues that bear on future efforts.

1) Extension agents in particular appear to be stretched thin in terms of time and geography. Until this is addressed, efforts to substantially increase their ability to assist with alternative marketing will not reach their full potential.
2) Alternative and small-scale marketing specialists within Extension who are able to directly assist producers are rare. We need more.
3) Extension agents need more of a balance in the amount of training they obtain in production versus marketing. The overwhelming emphasis of their training is production, so a modest increase in their marketing training could reap significant benefits. Continuing education opportunities, of the type that the SWMN tries to provide, can be a significant remedy to this situation.
4) There will be a continuing need for the web-based resources such as our “Marketing Topics” and the personal assistance afforded by the Directory of Expertise.

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.