Sustainable agriculture programming by agricultural professionals – including Extension Educators – is often a challenge due to individuals’ own disciplinary training/focus obscuring the ‘bigger picture’ and due to challenges in obtaining the necessary understanding of agri-food system complexities. We brought professionals together in an interdisciplinary field course and through instructor trainings, and assessed the short and medium-term impacts of these experiences toward meeting the above challenges. The field-immersion approach of learning about food systems by meeting with farmers, processors at their sites was seen as valuable at the time, and had positive impacts on their professional work 5+ years later.
1) Increase the region’s agricultural professionals’ interdisciplinary and holistic understanding of agricultural and food systems, esp. understanding and acceptance of sustainable agricultural practices.
2) Increase the networked pool of agricultural professionals who can deliver sustainable agriculture, whole-farm planning programs to farmers and ranchers.
3) Determine the extent to which the Cultivating Success Field Course and Instructor Trainings have influenced the participants’ knowledge retention and subsequent program delivery in sustainable agricultural and alternative marketing practices (medium- and long-term impacts of past and proposed activities).
Today’s activities and challenges in sustainability with respect to agriculture and food systems are typically complex, interdisciplinary, and require farmers, ranchers and agricultural professionals to communicate more than ever, and to be able to communicate with consumers and other food systems entities. Yet most agricultural professionals are trained in only one or two specific disciplines, hence as they go about their work they may have a relatively narrow perspective (their discipline’s perspective). Coupled with their disciplinary focus, these professionals may be familiar with only one type of marketing (e.g., commodity markets OR direct markets), hence their primary expertise may be both disciplinary and confined to a specific type of food system. Even if they recognize this narrow perspective, there have been relatively few opportunities for broader systems training that provide concrete examples.
We believe that when agricultural professionals (including extension educators, government agency and NGO staff, etc.) have a holistic understanding of our agricultural and food systems, including a clear understanding of the complex relationships within these systems, they will be more likely to offer sustainable agriculture programming and be more successful in doing so.
Since 2002, the Cultivating Success (CS) program (a collaborative educational program of Washington State University, (WSU), the University of Idaho (UI), and Rural Roots (a regional non-profit organization)) has developed and offered a number of courses in sustainable small farming and ranching through county extension offices and on campus (see cultivatingsuccess.org). In this project, we proposed to explicitly include agricultural professionals in an existing course (Field Analysis of Sustainable Food Systems) that visits a variety of farms and ranches as well as processing facilities and marketing venues – with the goal of participants better understanding the connections and relationships between economic, environmental, and sociocultural aspects of each component in a variety of today’s food systems. In addition to gaining an increased understanding of the systems relationships, participants also are exposed to a wide variety of farming practices, and can see how different types of practices (e.g., plantings to enhance beneficial insect populations, rotational grazing, no-till, etc.) affect the whole operation. We also proposed to hold CS Instructor Trainings for agricultural professionals to teach the CS-developed Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching (SSFR) course through e.g., county extension offices by extension faculty. Extension faculty and other professionals participating in these training sessions receive an instructor manual as well as a binder of resources to provide to their students (including many SARE/SAN publications).
Based on personal observations, and extremely positive end-of-course and workshop evaluations for the Field Course and CS Instructor Trainings over the five years prior to this project, it seemed that both of these professional development activities provided valuable experiences, tools, and contacts for the agricultural professionals who participated – at least in terms of awareness, acceptance, etc., of sustainable agriculture practices (i.e. short term impacts). We proposed to begin assessing the effectiveness toward medium- and long-term change in programming on the part of the participating professionals – by more deeply analyzing past evaluation results as well as getting feedback from agricultural professionals regarding the influence of these activities on their current professional activities.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
To meet Objectives 1 and 2, two types of activities were conducted:
1) Immersion experiences for agricultural professionals: Five agricultural professionals participated in the Field Analysis of Sustainable Food Systems course in March 2009 (Wenatchee, WA area); and ten agricultural professionals participated in a 2-day Cultivating Success retreat (Rice, WA) in October 2010
2) CS Instructor Trainings for County Extension and other agricultural professionals to teach CS courses: One training in Sept. 2009 – our first held via video- and tele-conferencing (made necessary due to a state-wide travel ban for university employees); another (also by video conference) in Dec.2009 (for 2010 instruction), and an in-person training in March 2011. Each training had approximately 20 participants, including new instructors as well as several current instructors who helped present sections of the training and/or shared their own experiences with specific activities and questions.
To meet Objective 3, it was originally planned to conduct a survey of all past participants in the Field SFS course and Instructor Trainings, as well as transcribe and collate past written evaluations from both activities. We were successful in transcribing/collating the past evaluations (with IRB approval), but had to modify the proposed ‘past participant survey’ to a simplified approach where specific alumni of the Field SFS course known to be now serving as educators in agricultural topic areas were asked to respond to three questions targeted specifically to how their participation in the course has (or not) affected their educational programming in their current position. The questions asked were about the: 1) Value of learning from stakeholders on their turf (e.g., from farmers on their farm, retailers in their store, etc.) compared to having learned about the sites in a classroom setting; 2) Value and longer term impact of the course (if any!) on you a) personally, and b) professionally; and 3) How taking that course has affected (if it has) your program delivery regarding sustainable agriculture and/or direct marketing (if relevant to you)? They were also asked to rank the value for each of the three questions on a 1 (very low) to 5 (very high) scale.
Outreach and Publications
Perillo, C.A., M.R. Ostrom , and J.G. Goldberger. 2011. Agroecological Learning From Stakeholders On Their Turf: Student Reactions and Reflections. Invited Oral Presentation: American Society of Agronomy Annual Meetings, San Antonio, TX. Oct. 16-19, 2011
(Abstract and Handout from presentation are attached)
1. 15 agricultural professionals participated in intensive, immersion experiences related to agricultural systems education
2. Approximately 60 agricultural professionals participated in Cultivating Success Instructor Trainings
3. We compiled the results of the End of Course Evaluations from 2003-2009 offerings of the Field SFS course
4. We received feedback regarding the longer term perspectives on the educational value of the Field SFS course from selected current agricultural professionals regarding its impact on their current professional activities.
Collated data on benefits of the field course immersion approach, and collected new data on the longer term impacts participation in the course had on them personally and professionally. This solidified our hypothesized assertions on the benefits of experiential / immersion learning from farmers and other players in our food systems in order to understand the relationships and complexities of our food systems and goals of “sustainability”.
The instructor trainings brought together three sets of 20 agricultural educators over the course of two years, to discuss specific curricula, as well as over-arching approaches and lessons-learned in teaching sustainable agriculture topics to their respective community clientele. Revisions to pieces of the original CS curricula (funded separately) were also incorporated into the trainings, and brought in new WSU faculty partners.
We believe that the information this project generated regarding the importance of learning a broader systems perspective from farmers (and other stakeholders in our agri-food systems) and through an intensive immersion process will help encourage additional such educational opportunities be developed for a wide range of agricultural professionals.
We believe that SARE’s focus on farmer-involvement is valuable and should continue to be encouraged. We recommend that efforts continue to bring students (whether academic or continuing education) to the ‘field’ (whether farm, processing facility, retail outlet, etc.) to encourage valuable understanding of the whole systems context of our agri-food systems. We also recommend that SARE (including WSARE) work to find ways to increase the offering of immersion-type experiences for professional development, because of its power to bring about whole systems understanding as well as peer-to-peer networking.