Sustainable Agriculture Curriculum Development Project for Extension Professionals in California's San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast Regions

Final Report for EW96-009

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1996: $98,773.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $98,393.00
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information

Abstract:

[Note to online version: The report for this project includes tables, figures, and attachments that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact Western SARE at (435) 797-2257 or wsare@ext.usu.edu.]

Interest in the concept of soil quality and health is increasing. There are numerous efforts around the country to develop soil quality indices and soil health assessment cards, and there is a renewed interest on the part of farmers and ranchers in such management practices as cover cropping, minimum tillage, mulching, and incorporation of organic matter. This interest in soil quality was confirmed by the two educational resource development teams (representing the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast regions) that set the direction for this project during its first year. Both teams identified soil quality and management as the top priority issue for their region and assisted in formulating educational goals for the project and identifying materials that should be included. The final product of this project is a package of educational materials titled Soil Quality Topics: A Selection of Resources for Education and Extension. Approximately 250 copies of the package were produced. It includes Internet resources, video and slide set lists, and print publications. Print materials are organized in four areas: Soil Quality Overview, Soil Quality Assessment Methods, Soil Biology, and Cropping Systems Management. Under each of these headings we have assembled articles and information sheets that can be photocopied for handouts, as well as resources for background and reference. The package was developed primarily for extension professionals as they educate and advise producers about practices that enhance soil quality. Through this guide we aim to: increase access to information, educational materials, and expertise related to soil quality; enhance the number and quality of educational opportunities available to producers on this topic; and raise the level of understanding among farmers and ranchers about the importance of soil quality, and provide information that helps them improve and refine their production systems. One copy of the package has been distributed free of charge to each county extension and NRCS offices in California, and also to all state sustainable ag leaders in the Western Region. Additional copies are available for purchase from the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (Price: $30).

Project Objectives:

1. Coordinate, test, and document a participatory process for determining educational needs and objectives related to sustainable agriculture in the target area, and develop high quality curricula and educational packages for the identified needs.

2. Produce two educational packages that can inform and be used by Cooperative Extension (CE) advisors and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel to enhance extension and outreach programs related to sustainable agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast region.

3. Evaluate both the product and the curriculum development process and suggest ways to improve and adapt the process to other locations throughout California and the Western Region.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Approximately 250 copies of the package were produced. One copy of the package has been sent free of charge to each county extension and NRCS office in California, to all state sustainable ag leaders in the Western Region, and to each of the individuals who participated on our educational resource development teams. Additional copies are available for purchase from the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at a cost of $30. [Copies of the binder have already been sent under separate cover to Phil Rasmussen, Al Kurki, Jim Freeburn, and the national SARE offices in Washington, D.C.] Over the next few months we will be working on a plan to promote the binder and advertise it more widely among our target audiences.

Outcomes and impacts:

Objective 1 (Project Development): Coordinate, test and document a participatory process for determining educational needs and objectives related to sustainable agriculture in the target area, and develop high quality curricula and educational packages or the identified needs.

Interest in the concept of soil quality and health is increasing. There are numerous efforts around the country to develop soil quality indices and soil health assessment cards, and there is a renewed interest on the part of farmers and ranchers in such management practices as cover cropping, minimum tillage, mulching, and incorporation of organic matter. This interest in soil quality was confirmed by the two educational resource development teams that set the direction for this project during its first year. These teams (one in the Southern San Joaquin Valley and one in the Central Coast region) included extension educators from the University of California, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies and non profit organizations. They were specifically charged with establishing the priority topics for their region for which they felt educational materials were most urgently needed.

Working independently, both teams identified soil quality and management as the top priority issue for their region. Each team also identified important sub topics to address under this general heading, and helped formulate educational goals and objectives for the resource package. Team members and subject matter specialists were asked to contribute materials they thought would be appropriate for the resource package. Concurrently, we undertook an extensive search of our own to seek out additional materials that could be included. These materials were organized into a preliminary package and screened by team members for: 1) quality, credibility, and validity of the information and concepts, 2) relevance to soil quality issues and farm/ranch systems in the region, and 3) how easily the resources could be used in or adapted to educational programs.

The total package was reviewed and evaluated at a second round of resource development team meetings in the beginning of 1998. The package was modified (both content and organization) based on team member suggestions and previewed at two workshops in the spring of 1998 where we received additional input from farmers, pest control advisors and extension educators (see Product Evaluation section below). The first formal draft of the package was completed in summer ’98 and sent to 15 individuals for peer review (also see Product Evaluation section below). Additional changes and revisions were incorporated in the final version which was completed in March 1999.

The diagram below illustrates our plan for developing a product that would be relevant to our target audience (CE and NRCS personnel). Following this strategy has also helped facilitate promotion and distribution of the resource package.

Objective 2 (The Final Product): Produce two educational packages that can inform and be used by Cooperative Extension (CE) advisors and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel to enhance extension and outreach programs related to sustainable agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast region. This objective was revised to producing one educational package after both teams identified the same topic (soil quality) to work on for their region.

The result of the coordinated effort described above is a resource guide titled Soil Quality Topics: A Selection of Resources for Education and Extension. It is a 3 ring binder featuring three major components: Internet resources, video and slide set lists, and print publications. Print materials are organized in four areas: Soil Quality Overview, Soil Quality Assessment Methods, Soil Biology, and Cropping Systems Management. Under each of these headings were assembled articles and information sheets that can be photocopied for handouts, as well as resources for background and reference.

The package was developed primarily for extension professionals as they educate and advise producers about practices that enhance soil quality. Specific educational objectives for the guide are to: increase access to information, educational materials, and expertise related to soil quality; enhance the number and quality of educational opportunities available to producers on this topic; and raise the level of understanding among farmers and ranchers about the importance of soil quality, and provide information that helps them improve and refine their production systems.

Approximately 250 copies of the package were produced. One copy of the package has been sent free of charge to each county extension and NRCS office in California, to all state sustainable ag leaders in the Western Region, and to each of the individuals who participated on our educational resource development teams. Additional copies are available for purchase from the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at a cost of $30. [Copies of the binder have already been sent under separate cover to Phil Rasmussen, Al Kurki, Jim Freeburn, and the national SARE offices in Washington, D.C.] Over the next few months we will be working on a plan to promote the binder and advertise it more widely among our target audiences.

Objective 3 (Evaluation): Evaluate both the product and the curriculum development process and suggest ways to improve and adapt the process to other locations throughout California and the Western Region.

Product Evaluation

The draft resource package was evaluated and reviewed through a number of venues that provided input from a variety of individuals representing the clientele we were trying to reach with this project. These are each described in the paragraphs below.

Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems PDP workshops. The draft resource package was presented at two Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems (BIOS) professional development meetings in spring 1998: one held in Modesto, Calif. on April 22, and another in Fresno, Calif. on April 29. Participants at these workshops included producers, NRCS field staff, CE advisors and agricultural consultants. Each participant had the opportunity to review materials included in either the Internet Resources or Print Materials sections of the draft package. Evaluation forms were filled out and each session concluded with an interactive evaluation facilitated by one of the project coordinators. A total of seventeen written evaluations were collected. The comments were generally favorable. A variety of helpful suggestions were collected and changes were made to the resource package based on this input. See Attachment A for detailed results of this evaluation.

San Diego SWCS Meeting. Additional input from a broader audience was solicited at the Soil and Water Conservation Society annual meeting in San Diego, California, July 6 8, 1998. A poster on the project was presented and an abstract published in the Society’s Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Attachment B.) We received minimal feedback at this event.

Final Peer Review. A final peer review of the resource package was conducted during the final design phase of the project. Our goal with this last review was to obtain input on overall look, organization, design and content of the package. A total of 16 individuals including members of the initial educational resource development teams, and additional experts from the NRCS Soil Quality Institute were sent copies of the binder and were requested to fill out an evaluation form. Seven evaluations were returned. Feedback from this review was not extensive or highly detailed, which was not surprising at this stage of the project. We did get some very valuable feedback from the NRCS Soil Quality Institute reviewers, however, and incorporated that into the final version. A brief summary of reviewer comments is included in Attachment C.

Process Evaluation. The process for developing the soil quality guide is outlined above, and described in detail in our December, 1997 Progress Report. In the final phase of the project we took the opportunity to survey the individuals who participated on our two educational resource teams in order to evaluate the process we used to develop the soil quality resource package. Due to the high cost in both time and resources to bring the teams together, the project coordinators opted to conduct the final evaluation using a written instrument. This instrument was faxed to each member of the teams. Team members were requested to return the instrument to Dr. Phyllis Kuehn, professor, California State University, Fresno. Dr. Kuehn performed an independent evaluation of the process used by the teams.

Of the twenty-three surveys sent, fifteen were returned and fourteen of these were usable. This represents a 61 percent usable response rate. A copy of the survey instrument is included in this report as Attachment D.

The responses to the seven questions were generally quite positive. Responses were made on a five point Likert type scale anchored with the descriptors strongly agree (1) to strongly disagree (5). The table below summarizes the responses to each question.

The most positive response was on item 5, rating the project coordinators. The least positive responses (not negative, still in the positive range) were items 4 (participation/time spent) and 6 (expanding of process to other topics). Project planners may wish to consider these ratings and their associated comments when planning future resource development projects. Specific comments from team members are included in Attachment E.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

The participatory nature of this project required a significant commitment of time and resources on the part of the project coordinators as well as the educational resource team members. At various times, it was tempting to circumvent the team process and make unilateral decisions in order to move the work along more quickly. At those junctures, we reminded ourselves that each person’s involvement and buy in was critical to the development of a quality publication. In addition, we felt that this approach would foster greater ownership of the product on the part of each team member, and thereby potentially stronger and more effective outreach once the package was completed and distributed.

In our estimation, that conviction has proved true. Through the team process, we can be entirely confident that the subject matter is relevant to our target audience. And, although many team members felt they had limited time to devote to this project, their feedback indicates that the resource guide will be something that they refer to and recommend. At the same time, we know that a more organized and targeted promotional effort will be necessary to distribute the guide more widely and to demonstrate its usefulness to our clientele. The first step in that effort was to “purchase” enough copies of the guide ourselves so that a copy could be sent free to each county Extension and NRCS office in the state. Following on this initial mailing, we are planning on writing a press release for various agency newsletters that describes the guide, how it can be used, and where to get it. In addition, we are exploring the possibility of a workshop next year for NRCS field staff that builds on the contents of the binder and that also brings in other information, resource people, and hands on activities.

Soil quality is a topic of intense interest across the region. With that in mind, we sent a copy of the binder free of charge to each state leader in the Western Region and encouraged them to let others in their state know about it. We have. received several calls as a result of that step and are hopeful that it will be of use across a wide range of audiences and locations. In relation to the process we used to develop the guide, we would highly recommend this approach to anyone in extension that is interested in developing new educational materials on topics related to sustainable agriculture. The investment of time and energy ultimately pays off in terms of product quality and relevance, and how well the materials are received once completed and distributed.

Potential Contributions

The potential benefits of this resource guide are reflected in the educational objectives set out at the beginning of the project: 1. Increase access to information, educational materials, and expertise related to certain aspects of soil quality, 2. Enhance the number and quality of educational opportunities available to producers on these topics, and 3. Raise the level of understanding among farmers and ranchers about the importance of soil quality and provide information that helps them improve and refine their production systems.

The binder is not intended to be a complete treatise or text on all aspects of soil management, but having a notebook of resources about soil quality will enable CE advisors and NRCS personnel respond more effectively and efficiently to information requests from their clientele. The various components of the package can be used in a variety of educational settings (workshops, field days, short courses, seminars, presentations, or one on one consultations) and can be selected to match the needs and interests of their particular audience. With the diversity of climates, cropping system, and audiences in the region, we feel confident that a variety of methods will be found for using these materials effectively.

Impacts on Agricultural Professionals

The potential impact of this resource guide is reflected in the results of the preview evaluation sessions at the BIOS PDP meetings in spring 1998 (see Attachment A). In addition to the written comments and the notes from the interactive review, we also conducted an “exit survey” that allowed us to gauge people’s impressions of the resource package as they left the session. We asked the group, “How useful are these materials to you or your clientele?” Participants answered this question by placing a colored dot on a rating scale (very useful — somewhat useful — not useful) posted on the wall by the door of the meeting room. The results of this rapid assessment are shown below. Taken together, we feel these results indicate a significant impact on county level advisors, field staff, and the producers they serve. Initial comments received since the package has been completed and distributed more widely have been very appreciative and confirm this conclusion.

Reactions from Farmers and Ranchers

Farmers and ranchers participated in the BIOS PDP workshops described above. Their comments were incorporated into the group process we used at those meetings (Attachment A). The results of that evaluation we believe fairly reflect the opinions of the farmers and ranchers who may be approaching NRCS and extension with questions about soil quality and management.

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.