Harvesting the Wealth: of AERO's Farm and Ranch Improvement Clubs

Final Report for EW99-015

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1999: $60,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Jonda Crosby
Alternative Energy Resources Organization
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Project Information


[Note to online version: The report for this project includes Appendices 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 [email protected].]

After 10 years, AERO's Farm and Ranch Improvement Club Program is a successful model by any measure. Nearly 500 people have been involved, including producers and their agency technical assistance providers. Farm Club participants acquired an impressive amount of practical knowledge and experience through whole field and whole farm research and education.

This program has historically encouraged collaborative groups of farmers, ranchers and technical assistance providers to explore and then share their knowledge on sustainable agriculture. The program has produced an experienced, talented pool of club participants, including farmers, ranchers, scientists, Extension agents and NRCS field staff. Participants in the farm club program have been great conduits for the information they've developed.

AERO's SARE PDP project "Harvesting the Wealth: of AERO's Farm and Ranch Improvement Clubs" was designed as an education and outreach project to share the multitude of results to a wider audience of ag service providers, farmers and ranchers.

Though AERO did not accomplish anywhere near what we had hoped with this project, we did succeed in several significant ways. Through this project, Farm and Ranch Improvement Club members were encouraged, supported and assisted in sharing the results of this model program and their specific on farm results to audiences, throughout Montana. Extension, NRCS, other sustainable agriculture non profits, agriculture organizations and agricultural institutions benefited from participating in an array of activities and education opportunities organized by AERO and led by Farm Club members.

"Farmers are solving difficult problems right in their own fields. Some are very innovative in how they approach things, and are able to communicate that to other farmers much more easily than researchers can explain their experiments. Farmers understand each other -- they are the ones doing the work. They need to network with each other. This program demonstrates how the hope and vision of a small group of individuals can change lives, farms and communities." Jan Tusick, Farm Club Member, Polson.

Project Objectives:

1. Synthesize the results of 10 years of farm improvement clubs and disseminate them through a variety of means, throughout the region.

2. Create from among experienced farm improvement club members and their technical assistance providers a formal resource pool of trainers, collaborators, presenters, writers, consultants and mentors in sustainable agriculture and alternative farming systems.

3. Use the information, resources and participant learning and research to engage a wider set of technical service providers so they can be conduits of this exciting sustainable agriculture information.

Education & Outreach Initiatives


We have used a myriad of outreach options to share the results of the Farm Club work including the field tours, individual consultations with ag service providers as well as farmers and ranchers, presentations at conferences and meetings, press releases and radio programs. Corresponding attachments reflect the scope of dissemination we have accomplished.

We did not, however, complete a significant piece of dissemination work that was to write up the full results of the Farm Club program. We had hoped the core focus of the written materials produced would show how the practices the farmers, ranchers, researchers and ag service providers experimented with had changed not only the physical aspects of their operations, but also to document what changed for them in regards to their marketing, planning for the future and impacts on their community as well.

Outcomes and impacts:

1. Synthesize the results of 10 years of farm improvement clubs and disseminate them through a variety of means, throughout the region.

In the summer of 1999, AERO completed a "Lessons Learned" evaluation with 8 other sustainable agriculture groups from across the country to document and share farmer-based learning. This evaluation documents the value of farm based learning and research. It also provides core information others have found helpful when starting "Farm Club" programs in their states. The following information is a summary of results.

Basic assumptions about organizing farmer groups are that they ...

• fill in an informational gap about innovative practices.
• speed up the learning process through cooperative learning.
• multiply the outreach through participation of NRCS and Extension.
• help bring mainstream farmers into an understanding of sustainable agricultural options.

Lessons Learned about Farmer Group Development

• Groups often begin with considerable enthusiasm and optimism. Early on, groups may be over- ambitious, causing them later to be disappointed with unmet goals. Reminding groups to set some short-term goals that can be realistically achieved can correct this tendency.
• Groups with broad goals tend to have a larger and more fluctuating membership. These groups can be caught up in continually grounding new members likely hindering overall group progress.
• Conflict can both stress groups and lead to growth. Requiring the group early on to identify how they will make decisions can help these group manage their own changes.
• Group transitions brought about by funding changes, changes in membership and completed goals create a critical stage in the life of a group. Groups should consciously plan for these transitions.
• Program staff are important to group development.

Lessons Learned with On-Farm Research

• Sustainable agricultural program planners need to develop a menu of options that can plug in individuals with a diversity of needs and interests. On-farm research, on-farm demonstrations, farmer groups and local food system projects should all be part of this menu.
• Staging the proper environment for constructive interaction between scientists and farmers deserves conscious attention. Programs should try to build egalitarian partnerships between stakeholders.
• Farmers and scientists often have different interests in conducting research. Farmers may be primarily concerned with what will work on their farm. Scientists may have pressure to publish research and be able to make general recommendations to many farmers. These different expectations can create tension but also create a synergy of both practical and empirical exploration.
• Often farmers are more interested in demonstrations than in replicated research due to personal time and labor restraints. Getting farmers started with farm demonstrations can whet their appetite for more sophisticated trials later.
• On farm research must be designed with respect for where the cooperators are at that time. Trying to do more than what they are willing to do will likely create disappointment. This research should principally be a process to create a shared learning experience that allows observations, monitoring and critical thinking among interested stakeholders.
• On-farm research provides not only wonderful data, but a process to learn how a particular technology or practices fits within the larger management and value system.
• On-farm demonstrations help illustrate which of many options can be most relevant for their specific area. These demonstrations can also be an effective way to transfer information. The most effective demonstration can be a well designed trial.
• Replication across individual farms can be an option to reduce farmer's investment in replicated research. It is crucial to coordinate of these trials to maintain sufficient consistency of treatment.

Lessons learned about structuring farmer groups are that they ...

• must meet practical needs of the farm business and family.
• are more appealing if the focus is broadened beyond on-farm research to include marketing, education and community involvement.
• can be catalyzed with small grants as an incentive for farmers to come together.
• are more likely to succeed with a planning process that develops shared vision, specific goals and action plans.
• work better within a program that allows flexibility to accommodate the differences in group needs and interests.
• need to be built upon local leadership.
• will eventually face a difficult transition in leadership if they are going to survive over a long term.
• naturally seek out individuals of their own ilk.
• develop more effectively through an organizing process that requests for proposals that include goals, action plans, decision making process and membership.
• are chosen by an oversight committee that reviews all applications.
• are energized through annual networking meetings that serve to connect diverse groups.
• must be built upon friendship and trust.
• can effectively work with an agency employee coordinating the group if this person takes on the ...

Lessons Learned about Use of Financial Support

• Funding local groups can serve as a catalyst to get people working together.
• Requiring local groups to apply each year for financial support requires each group to re-plan, builds in program accountability, and provides flexibility to respond to evolving opportunities.
• Coordination and communication within groups is critical to survival.
• Groups need to be sensitive to gender issues and provide opportunities for inclusion of both genders. Including women may help elevate issues of quality of life, safety and family within group activities.
• Financial assistance to groups for education and training is an effective, long-term investment. Support directed toward agricultural production expenditures should share the risk of experimentation and require some matching support from the local group.

• Projects have used various methods to provide program personnel support to local groups.

Lessons Learned about Community Groups, Marketing and Outreach

• Listening projects and focus groups are two strategies to initially focus community projects.
• Farmers can already have overbooked schedules with existing commodity groups. These existing connections can work to benefit on-farm research by providing funding and cooperators for on-farm research. This organizational base can also help disseminate findings.
• There is a significant trend in the sustainable ag movement toward producers creating value-added ventures that recapture profitability. This requires new entrepreneurial and marketing skills.
• In developing alternative markets, supply must be balanced with demand through incremental growth. Producers must respond to consumer preferences such as convenience and quantity. Producers must make a choice of direct marketing or going through conventional markets that require high capitalization for marketing. Mass marketing will require attractive and meaningful labeling. Educating mainstream consumers and environmental activists is challenging. Cooperatives require significant investment in developing constructive human relationships.
• Harvest festivals, farm tours with a recreational emphasis, farmers markets, CSAs, fresh produce subscription services, newsletters and media work are ways to connect the urban community back to farming. Success with urban/rural interaction is dependent upon convenient transportation.
• Community-based groups can address other aspects of life that relate to families, communities, or quality of life issues. Such groups can provide an outlet for women or other members of the community who may not feel part of farm practice-based groups to address other interests. These groups can provide excitement at annual gatherings that farm practices don't provide.


Annual written surveys to producers and to technical assistance providers give feedback to the project for replanning. Phone interviews and site visits help in evaluation. For evaluation to be meaningful, it should quickly feed back to program planners for replanning program effectiveness.

Check List for Effective Farmer Groups

• Groups often begin with enthusiasm and optimism. Use this opportunity to agree on how the group will make decisions, set goals and resolve conflicts.
• Make groups set some short-term goals that can be realistically achieved so they will have a sense of accomplishment.
• Groups need to consciously plan for leadership transitions as their membership changes.
• Plan the formation of a group to bring a variety of skills that will be needed. Match membership talents with leadership needs within the group.
• Annual networking meeting meet many needs, lend support, share experiences and provide positive feedback. Creatively plan for how farmer groups can learn and be inspired by each other.
• Provide a menu of program options that can plug in individuals with a diversity of needs and interests.

AERO compiled a complete file of farm club notebooks that are organized by topic area listing each club, their research and demonstration applications, yearly reports, articles written about the club, a list of the club members including their ag service provider, as well as any other written materials produced as a result of their project. These notebooks (four volumes) are only available at the AERO office and serve as a reference for AERO staff members and others looking to explore or replicate experiments and ideas on their farms and ranches. Over the past four years AERO has used the farm club notebook contents to answer over 120 information requests. In addition AERO compiled a shorter handy index of all the Farm Clubs from 1990 to 1998. The index includes the club's title, research or demonstration objective, major activities, primary contact person and titles of educational outreach or articles written about the club and where they can be found.

AERO also cataloged our extensive slide and picture file, which includes over 200 farm club and field tour images. We have used these images extensively for presentations. We had hoped to get these images scanned with full explanations and filed with an electronic version of the farm club notebooks so that others might use them more broadly.

AERO created a binder of example farm club materials used in the program. The binder includes articles and supporting information related to the farm club purpose, process and expected outcomes. The binder also includes samples of request for proposals, press releases, field tour planning process, media coverage, project expectations, resources available to clubs and program leaders, etc. The binder was created to help orient new farm club program staff and to share the model components with others.

2. Create from among experienced farm improvement club members and their technical assistance providers a formal resource pool of trainers, collaborators, presenters, writers, consultants and mentors in sustainable agriculture and alternative farming systems.

Through AERO's efforts, farm club leaders, their ag service providers and supporting researchers are becoming well known and sought after for their knowledge and ability to effectively share their sustainable experiences. For instance, AERO worked closely with the Idaho sustainable ag organization Rural Roots to include ten farm club members as presenters at their "Cultivating the Harvest" conference in the fall of 2003.

Over the past five years AERO has sponsored over 25 farm and ranch tours. The tours have highlighted farm club results such as cereal legume cropping systems, weed management strategies on dryland and pasture, organic production systems and marketing for livestock, vegetable and grains and alternative crops such as sunflowers and milk thistle. Since last summer (2003) over 350 participants from across Montana have attended our tours. Tour participants have included; farmers and ranchers, FSA, NRCS, Extension, Land Grant researchers and others interested in sustainable ideas, practices and marketing options that farm club participants have developed.

AERO staff received over 150 calls in the past four years requesting a wide range of information related to sustainable and organic practices and marketing. AERO staff used the farm club reports, club leaders and ag service providers who had participated in the clubs as key resources to respond to these queries. The queries have primarily come from farmers and ranchers and ag service providers looking to assist their clientele. Using AERO's detailed farm club reports, the Farm Club Index of contacts, AERO staff, ag service providers and the club participants worked together to effectively respond to this onslaught of requests.

AERO farm club members are knowledgeable, and through their experiences in the farm club program they gained tremendous leadership and speaking skills. They are recognized for the innovative work they have accomplished on their farms and in their communities and for their willingness and ability to share that knowledge. To further share the accumulated knowledge of the farm club participants, and to inspire other groups to start their own club programs, AERO supported key farm club spokespersons to participate at state, regional and national conferences. AERO also worked with club participants to showcase their results by encouraging them to do radio programs and commentaries, newspaper and television interviews. In addition, club participants have either written or been subjects of articles for AERO's Sun Times and newspapers throughout the state. These outreach efforts have focused primarily on sustainable practices and conservation as well as marketing opportunities club members have developed. An example of AERO Farm Club members sharing their knowledge to wider audiences is the "Listening to the Prairie" exhibit and presentations that the Missoula Public Library, AERO and others worked on together for the summer of 2003.

Over the past four years AERO has supported farm club member participation at several conferences and agricultural meetings to share their experiences as a farm club member. For example, Jan Tusick, past Farm Club member and currently the ag program specialist at the Mission Mountain Market, presented her work at a 2003 Washington State Extension Training to highlight the cooperative development work her organization is doing that is a direct result of her involvement in the farm club program. Mission Mountain Market is a 4.5 million dollar cooperative development and value-added ag products processing center located in Ronan, Montana. Mission Mountain Market "grew out of our farm club and our need to process sustainably grown products. Without the farm club members having a chance to meet, talk and plan, Mission Mountain Market would not exist today," states Jan. She goes on to say, "As I travel around the country sharing the work we are doing at Mission Mountain Market, I always base my talk on what kind of support, guidance and networking AERO provided the hundreds of participants in the farm clubs over all the years and in all the ways. What we learned from one another and knowing one another is what makes efforts like Mission Mountain Market and Timeless Seeds in Conrad remain viable businesses for sustainable farmers and ranchers in Montana." AERO worked with local, state and national organizers to include Farm Club member presentation at several conferences over the past four years such as the Bitterroot Valley Alternative Agriculture Conference held in 2003.

Other conferences AERO staff and Farm Club Members have been supported by AERO to participate in:

Bitterroot Valley Alternative Agriculture Conference, July 12 and 13, 2003: Nine Farm Club leaders led sessions, shared research or hosted farm tours.
Jan Tusick Western SARE WA 1999
Jan Tusick Western SAWG ID 2003
Dave Oien Small Farms Conference FL 1999
Jan Tusick Small Farms Conference IO 1999
Several Farm Club members: Spirit, Community and Sustainability MT 2000
Jan Tusick W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Conference 2000, 2001
Stephanie Rittmann Sustainable Northwest and Oregon Solutions 2000
Jonda Crosby Community Food Security Coalition Conf. WA 2002
Jonda Crosby Integrated Food and Farm Systems Kellogg Conf. 1999 2002

3. Use the information, resources and participant learning and research to engage a wider set of technical service providers so they can be conduits of this exciting sustainable agriculture information.

Over the past four years AERO has sponsored over 25 farm and ranch tours. The tours have largely included farm club participants and the results of their on farm research and efforts. At all tours ag service providers including Extension agents, NRCS and other agencies and organizations responsible for support or technical services for these farms and ranches have been a core and central presenter. For example Dr. Perry Miller, MSU Alternative Crops researcher, presented current research that supported the farmers' cropping systems demonstrations at the Whitehorn, Kvaalen, Edam and Boettcher tours. Wade Crouch, Extension agent in Cascade county, attended the Botti/Anderson beef ranch tour and shared ideas of how ranchers can use the no antibiotic and no hormone to their advantage in more mainstream retail outlets and cited examples across Montana where ranchers have started to do so successfully.

At the 2000 Annual Big Sandy Farm Tour led by farmer Robert Boettcher, eight ag service providers and researchers presented information related to sustainable agriculture systems. Sharron Quisenberry, Dean of College of Ag in Bozeman, gave the opening address congratulating the four host Big Sandy farmers on their remarkable achievements in sustainable and organic systems research and practices. Over 130 farmers and ranchers, NRCS, Extension, bankers and others attended the Big Sandy tour.

In the fall of 2002 AERO worked with Brian Kahn, producer of the public radio program "Common Ground," to develop a live radio forum of panelists to share ideas and insights on the future of agriculture in Montana. The two-part agriculture forum featured AERO farm club members specifically chosen for their ability to share success stories from their farm club experiences. We also assisted Brian with enlisting the participation of other folks such as the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Montana State University. Our premise for the forums: "It is increasingly clear that many current agricultural operations cannot compete in global commodity markets. If family-based agriculture is to remain vibrant part of our region's community, new directions must be found. These new strategies may well hinge on creative and ongoing public/private partnerships. But some observers argue that something more fundamental is needed: a change in the "mindset" of traditional agriculture from a "production" mindset to a "customer" mindset. To these advocates, the "customer mindset" includes a focus on healthy, high quality foods, produced sustainably, commanding a higher market price. But if this is true, will publicly funded research shift its focus to reflect those priorities? And who will advocate/drive such a shift?"

The forum was extremely successful in terms of participation by listeners at home on the radio and folks that turned out in person at the forums. In addition, the panelists learned from one another. As Chase Hibbard (rancher from Helena) remarked after being questioned by AERO member Tom Elliott if he was or was not a sustainably minded rancher, "Yes, I can see that conventional ways of growing and selling ag products has got to change for our ranch to survive, and though I wouldn't have said I was a sustainable rancher before tonight. I will have to be (sustainable) in order for our operation to survive into the next century"!

Project Outcomes


Potential Contributions

Partnerships between ag service providers and farmers and ranchers allow for immediate feedback on new ideas and practices. At the Floweree field day in 2003, the farmer was explaining his rotation and the lack of nitrogen in his barley crop that followed plow-down peas. Researchers attending the field tour went over his rotation on the spot and determined the cause of the deficiency. Everyone attending got a little lesson in nitrogen cycling in the soil, and researchers got to share research that had not even been published to a ready audience.

Farmer and researcher relationships can shape the type of research being done. The farm tours and requests for information we received have clearly defined a few research areas we need much more information on, for instance we need good risk management assessment tools for farmers using sustainable practices.

Researchers who worked with farm club members are viewed as credible resources for ag professionals, and to other farmers and ranchers in their community. For example MSU researcher Dave Buschena attended the Robert Boettcher field day and later designed a research project to analyze the economic differences between conventional and organic farming systems. Dave returned to the Boettcher field day a year later to present those results. (Attachment IX)

The evaluation of the Farm Club Programs clearly point out the value of researcher, ag service provider and on-the-ground farmers and ranchers benefiting mutually when they work together. This model could be applied to other disciplines.

The relationships and networking the Farm Clubs provided are a lasting benefit to Montana agriculture as many of the club members still work closely together.

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.