Agroecology Analysis of Farming Systems: A Summer Course

Final Report for LNC01-196

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $18,303.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft
Iowa State Univ
Expand All

Project Information


This project has supported development and execution of an innovative, field-based immersion course that serves as a prototype for educators who seek to foster greater understanding of agroecosystems analysis. Seventy-six students, 10 faculty, and resources from eight institutions of higher learning participated. Students developed appropriate, multiple indicators of sustainability and then utilized the indicators to critically analyze the sustainability of nine different farming systems in Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Students reported a very high level of satisfaction in the course and would recommend the course to another person. Several courses have been developed or planned based on this experience.


Students within typical agriculture and natural resources education programs in U.S. universities usually experience a course- and campus-based “curriculum” within which to engage and process their learning. But such education is often highly compartmentalized and fragmented (Vietor, 1996). Students experience the curriculum as a collection of courses rather than an integrated “plan of learning.” Many undergraduate programs offer “field trips” and other short-term experiences within their curricula to introduce students in situ to farms, farm operations and practices. “Cooperative” education approaches, in which periods of formal classroom instruction alternate with ‘on-the-job’ experiences have been utilized for several decades in some fields (McKeachie, 1999). But such endeavors often do not provide the time and space for students to become “immersed” in critical reflection of their experiences and to develop a thorough and systematic perspective.

Similarly, some courses do not highlight the transferability of the experiences or concepts to other contexts (McKeachie, 1999).
Adults accumulate an ever increasing array of experiences upon which they base further learning, an idea that is consistent with a “constructivist” view of education (Angelo, 2000). This theory of learning maintains that learning occurs most readily when new information is acquired in a relevant context (Gillani, 2000; Ross and Schultz, 1999). “Constructivist” learning is based on a model whereby students are engaged through integrated and analytical approaches (Duffy and Cunningham, 2000)
Within more specialized topic areas such as “agroecosystems analysis,” many students have limited prior experiences through which to construct meaning and relevance. Thus, we see value in having students approach this topic through a “reality-rich” venue using an “experience that leads to critical reflection which leads to personal change” educational model characteristic of “transformational learning” (Mezirow, 1991; Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

Our goal is to bring students to a deep, comprehensive understanding of agroecosystems, but to do so in a way that allows them to see relevance and application for the concepts and information they are learning. Field-, immersion- and experiential-concept courses seem to be an ideal way to achieve this goal.

Our approach is designed to engage students over an extended period of time, as a “community” of learners, to undertake and debrief experiences on a number of purposefully-selected farms--including in-depth interviews of the farmers--as well as to visit other sites of social, historical or ecological significance that are important for understanding agroecosystems in a holistic way. Field-based, highly experiential courses are something like participating in a “feast.” One must develop a structure and discipline that assures adequate intellectual ingestion and digestion to assure that learners are not overwhelmed or “satiated” by the richness of the experience itself. Providing ample opportunities and venues for “preflection” (Falk, 1995) and reflection before, during and after the experience is important when approaching this challenge (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

Finally, evaluation and assessment of student learning and ‘well-being’ during the experience, both orally and in writing, is crucial (Davis, 1993).

Literature Citations:
Angelo, T. A. 2000. Transforming departments into productive learning communities.: Seven transformative ideas. Pp. 76-80. In A. F. Lucas et al. (eds.) Leading academic change:

Essential roles for department chairs. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

Davis, B. G. 1993. Tools for teaching. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. Dewey, J. 1938. Experience and education. Collier Books, New York.

Duffy, T. M., and D. J. Cunningham. 1996. Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In D. Johnassen (ed.) Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. Macmillan Library Reference, New York.

Falk, D. 1995. Preflection. A strategy for enhancing reflection. NSEE Quarterly, 13 (Winter).

Gillani, B.B. 2000. Using the web to create student-centered curriculum. In Robert A. Cole (ed.) Issues in Web-Based Pedagogy: A Critical Primer. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

McKeachie, W. J. 1999. Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Merriam, S. B., and R. S. Caffarella. 1999. Learning in adulthood: a comprehensive guide. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

Mezirow, J. 1991. Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

Ross, J. L. and R. A. Schulz. 1999. Using the world wide web to accommodate learning style diversity in the college classroom. College Teaching 47: 4.

Vietor, D., H. H. John, P. B. Thompson, and H. O. Kunkel. 1996. Higher education in agriculture: the setting and the need for change. pp. 6-16 In H. O. Kunkle, I. L. Maw, and C. L. Skaggs (eds.) Revolutionizing higher education in agriculture. Iowa State University Press. Ames, IA.

Project Objectives:
  • Train 54 students from several institutions, both land-grant and private, from the Midwest and other regions

    Increase students’ understanding of present Midwestern landscapes and their utilization by humans, in the context of history, landscape, and culture

    Increase students’ understanding that farms are a part of an agroecosystem

    Raise students’ awareness of farming systems that are different from the norm in their region
    Help students develop appropriate, multiple indicators of sustainability; require students to critically analyze several different farming systems, utilizing their indicators of sustainability

    Develop students’ ability to work in groups
    Encourage students to take a more active role in their responsibility for learning

    Increase awareness of instructors from other institutions about interactive learning activities within agroecology and agricultural production

    Encourage instructors who have participated in the summer field course to adopt interactive learning in their other courses, use farmers as instructors in their courses, and/or become instructors


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Lee Burras
  • Robb DeHaan
  • Charles Francis
  • Ricardo Salvador
  • Steve Simmons


Materials and methods:

Experiential education in farming systems is best accomplished in the field. Some of the best teachers are farmers; university faculty are ‘co-learners’ who guide students through practical learning. The course includes

  • Pre-travel orientation. Students receive reading material, about a month before the course commences. Reading material topics include foundation information about biological processes, Midwest landscapes, ecosystem services, historical agricultural development in the Midwest, and current agricultural statistics.

    Activities for team-building because students will work in groups during the course and develop oral and written presentations as a group
    Protocols and activities that help develop observation skills needed when interviewing farmers and collecting data on farms.

    Development of appropriate, multiple indicators of sustainability, in regards to the natural resources of the farm, the production of marketable entities, the farm’s relationship to the rural community, the economics of production.

    Eight days of “immersion” study, visiting at least seven farms and other sites of social, historical or ecological significance that are important for understanding agroecosystems in a holistic way. Farmers are the key resource at each site. Center for Rural Affairs, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture assist in finding suitable farms. The farms vary in their location (Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa), their landscape and soil texture (loess-derived rolling hills to glacier till-derived soils with little to no slope), their enterprises (e.g. dairy with grazing, grain using ridge tillage, pasture farrowing with hoop houses, no-till grain production), and farmer ideology (stewardship, preservation of wildlife, family farming, organic production). Farms are assessed for productivity, economic returns, environmental impacts, and social dimensions. Other sites include the wind farm in northwest Iowa, and Native American cultural locations.

    A library of resources is assembled by the instructors and includes: the green book series, Extension/ Education Materials for Sustainable Agriculture (partially financed with prior SARE grants). Students receive copies of Vol. 6 (Future Horizons: Recent Literature in Sustainable Agriculture) and Vol. 8 (Procedures for Evaluating Alternative Farming Systems).

    Daily group discussion about the farming systems visited.

    Team reflection and discussion about the information collected. Teams analyze the farms using the indicators of sustainability that they developed the first day.

    Individual reflection, journal writing and student and course evaluations are encouraged on a daily basis. Instructors evaluate the process using written forms and interviews with the students.

    Group oral presentation of the results of the students’ analysis efforts at the end of the week of study.

    Group written reports are completed and submitted within one month after the week of the course.

Additionally, we invite instructors from other universities, and other instructors from our own institutions. These faculties will develop competencies needed to offer interdisciplinary, multi-institutional educational courses based on farmer interviews and field experiences. They will be encouraged to add interactive learning to the courses they currently teach.

Research results and discussion:
Project Outputs

1. Primary output will be 54 students who complete the course over the two years with multi-dimensional appreciation of farming systems and their evaluation.
We successfully trained 76 students, 22 more students than we had anticipated, over four years. Our success the first year led to additional funding resources from several of our institutions. We were able to offer the course for four summers, instead of the two that we had originally planned.

2. Secondary outputs will be learning guidelines and teaching materials generated for the course, summarized along with student reports and learning materials in a green book.
We decided to disseminate information about the course and our experiences through our professional societies, a more likely way to reach the audience that we were aiming to reach (Wiedenhoeft et al., 2003).

3. A final output will be the trained cadre of instructors from several universities who will continue to use this approach and methods for other courses on integrated systems.
We have successfully provided an opportunity for eight additional faculty from either land-grant institutions or small private institutions. Four of the eight faculty were from the Midwest, while the other four were from either the Northeast or Northwest US. Dr. Cathy Perillo (Washington State Univ., participated in 2001) has organized a similar field course for Summer 2003/2004/2005 in SE and Central WA, with faculty cooperators from Washington State, Univ. of Idaho, and the College of S. Idaho. Drs. Gary Fick (Cornell, NY, participated in 2003 and 2004) and Heather Karsten (Penn State, participated in 2002) are developing a similar course for the northeastern US. They submitted a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant, March 2006.
This course is required by Iowa State University students majoring in Agronomy with an emphasis in agroecology. Beginning the fall of 2006, the summer agroecology course will be a core course in the Agroecology Program at the University of WisconsinMadison and required by all students enrolled in the Program.

Research conclusions:
Student Responses to a Follow-up Survey

A follow-up survey was conducted via e-mail during October 2002. Students from the classes of 2001 and 2002 were sent a 14-item survey including 13 items for rating with a Likert-type scale (below) and one open-ended question. In addition, students were asked to provide comments on each item. Seventeen students out of twenty-seven responded for a 63% response rate.

1. The course met my expectations. Mean response 4.47

2. The course helped develop my definition of agroecosystems. Mean response 3.71

3. I learn better in a group project environment. Mean response 3.65

4. There was good diversity among the farms visited. Mean response 4.47

5. I learn better in an experiential (“hands-on”) course than in a lecture course. Mean response 4.47

6. There was sufficient balance between technical details and “big picture” issues. Mean response 3.76

7. I relied on fellow students to help me when I had difficulty understanding technical information. Mean response 3.88

8. I enjoyed interacting with the course instructors as co-learners as opposed to experts. Mean response 4.35

9. I was able to share my knowledge and understanding in certain areas with fellow students. Mean response 4.71

10. After taking this course, I feel more confident in my ability to determine the sustainability of different agricultural practices. Mean response 3.82

11. The course changed my views about learning. Mean response 3.71

12. This course has caused me to evaluate my personal interests and career options. Mean response 3.82

13. I would recommend this class to another person. Mean response 4.71

Mean Response Scale: 1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neutral, 4=agree, 5=strongly agree

Economic Analysis

No economic analysis conducted for this project.

Farmer Adoption

We have regularly visited and interviewed farms/farm families involved in grain production using ridge-till; grain production using precision ag technology; milk production using large, in-barn dairy, production of organic grain and grazing beef; milk production using all forage, grazing, NZ-style milking parlor; and pork production for niche-marketing with pasture farrowing. Additionally; we have visited farms involved in grazing bison, vegetable production for farmers’ market and CSA, confinement pork production, and confinement egg production. We have repeated visits to the majority of the farmers. Often they comment that they look forward to the class visit and that of all their yearly visitors, this class is their favorite. One farm visit has expanded to include a visit to their community, allowing us to observe the agroecosystem beyond the farm gate.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
Dissemination of information:

Refereed journal article:

Francis, C., G. Lieblein, S. Gliessman, T.A. Breland, N. Creamer, R. Harwood, L. Salomonsson, J. Helenius, D. Rickerl, R. Salvador, M.

Wiedenhoeft, S. Simmons, P. Allen, M. Altieri, C. Flora, and R. Poincelot. 2003. Agroecology: The Ecology of Food Systems, J. of Sust. Agric. J. of Sust. Agric. 22:99-118.

Wiedenhoeft, M, S. Simmons, R. Salvador, G. McAndrews, C. Francis, J. King, and D. Hole. 2003. Agroecosystems Analysis from the Grass Roots: A Multi-dimensional Experiential Learning Course. J. Nat. Res. Life Sci. 32:73-79.

Presentations and posters:

Salvador, R.J., G.M. McAndrews, M.H. Wiedenhoeft, J. King, and C. Francis. 2001. Participatory learning in agroecosystem evaluation. Ecospheres Conference Proceedings. Lincoln NE, June. One-hr oral presentation.

Wiedenhoeft, M., R. Salvador, S. Simmons, P. Porter, C. Francis, J. King, R. DeHaan. Opportunities for Experiential Learning in Today’s Agricultural University. National NACTA meetings, 19-21 June, Lincoln, NE. Two-hr workshop
Francis, C. L., J.W. King, M. Wiedenhoeft, G. McAndrews, R. Salvador, and S. Simmons.

Agroecosystems analysis: active learning in an experiential short course. International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) International Conference, August, Victoria BC. Poster presentation
Wiedenhoeft, M., C. Francis, S. Simmons, P. Porter, R. DeHaan, and S. Pogranichniy.

Agroecosystems Analysis Summer Field Course. Training Tomorrow’s Trainer, A Conference for Students of Sustainable Agriculture, 25-27 October 2002, Madison, WI. Poster presentation
Pogranichniy, S.L., M.H. Wiedenhoeft, C.A. Francis, S.R. Simmons, P.M. Porter, R., DeHaan. 2002. Field Course in Agroecology: Comparative Analyses of Midwest Farms. In 2002 Agronomy abstracts. ASA, Madison, WI. Poster presentation.

Wiedenhoeft, M.H., R. DeHaan, P. Porter, S. Simmons, C. Francis, H. Karsten, C. Perillo, G. Fick. 2004. Innovative evaluation of experiential learning: measuring the immeasurable. In 2004 Agronomy Abstr., ASA. Madison, WI.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Although we have experienced much success, it is important to recognize that many of tomorrow’s agricultural leaders begin their education in high school vocational agriculture, biology, or environmental science programs. Teachers in these high school programs have received little attention from the regional SARE education program, and seldom have the opportunity to learn directly from innovative farmers in the region. We have received a grant for a project designed to make this kind of experiential learning a reality. Outcomes include an influential cadre of high school teachers who are well oriented in sustainable agricultural systems (short-term), course outlines and curricula that will be used in high schools in the North Central region (intermediate-term), and a functional regional network of agricultural professionals equipped to improve the economic, environmental and social health of the family farm sector in the North Central Region (long-term).

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.