During this two year effort, our project team developed and broadcast 52 minute-long radio features profiling innovative Minnesota farmers and their enterprises. The project team met quarterly by conference call to discuss progress, and to develop story lineups and publicity strategies. Program themes were selected by a collaborative process including all team members. They included alternative crops, livestock, on-farm processing and value-added enterprises, conservation, and marketing and were seasonal when possible. We estimate each program reached more than 302,000 rural Minnesota Farm Network listeners. A compilation CD containing 40 of the programs was also made and distributed to all rural radio stations in Minnesota and to interested individuals. The shows were posted to and remain available on-line for those who don’t live in a broadcast area. Story transcripts and links to additional information for each of the story topics are also provided.
(note: for a full color report that includes graphics, call 651-201-6012)
The goal of this project was to reach traditional commodity farmers—in a respectful and nonjudgmental way—with the message that farm enterprise diversification can be an important strategy for those looking to balance environmental performance, economic performance and quality of life/satisfaction on their farms.
This two-year project used paid messages on a commercial agricultural radio network to tell the stories of Minnesota farmers who are doing innovative things on their operations. We were not aware of other efforts that used radio as an outreach tool to reach mainstream agricultural audiences with sustainable agriculture-oriented messages. The project featured the voices of farmers who are growing new or non-traditional crops, integrating livestock, adding value to commodities, trying new marketing strategies, cooperating in unique business ventures, or managing their farmscapes and landscapes with special conservation or production method.
We predicated the project on a number of assumptions, which had led us to believe that radio would be an effective and compelling medium for profiling individuals who have bucked conventional wisdom and are trying something a little different than agricultural professionals have typically recommended or neighbors typically do.
* Farmers like to learn from other farmers.
* Farmer-to-farmer networking is effective and can lead to bigger things
* Examples of diversification already exist, although awareness of them may be low.
* Diversity is an important strategy for risk reduction and sustainability.
* Diversified operations can be profitable.
* The corn-soybean rotation is dominant in many parts of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.
* The corn-soybean rotation may be ecologically and economically unsustainable over the long term.
* Consumer interest in locally grown products has been growing, spelling an opportunity to interest them in where and how these local products are grown.
* Portions of Minnesota are currently underserved by agricultural services and agriculture options. In Northeast Minnesota, for example, farmers receive comparatively little support from public agricultural institutions because the conventional wisdom is “it’s not farm country.” Nevertheless, nontraditional farms are finding ways to thrive in this region.
* Radio has not been tested as a medium to deliver sustainable agriculture messages.
Short–term expected outcomes:
S-1. Increased experimentation and awareness of farmers and rural citizens about the range and viability of agricultural diversification options.
Minute-long programs on 52 crop, livestock, fruit and vegetable, conservation, and value added topics aired on a 33-member network of radio stations that reaches 302,000 rural listeners each week.
S-2. Increased appreciation of the importance of sustainable agriculture and diversification to urban/consumer audiences.
Difficult to quantify progress. Media monitoring did not work as well as expected.
S-3. Increased knowledge about NCR-SARE and MDA producer grant programs, projects, and recipients.
One program profiled Carol Ford, a SARE farmer/rancher grantee, and provided links to information about the SARE Farmer Rancher and MDA Sustainable Agriculture Grant Programs.
Intermediate expected outcomes:
I-1. More farmers seek information about and experiment with diversification options.
Web counts provide an indication that at least 3,200 people sought additional information about one or more topics. We believe that these shows planted the seed of an enterprise idea between the ears of more than one farmer, but realize that we would have to be very lucky to ever be able to quantify a direct impact.
I-2. Closer working relationships among partners.
Since starting the project, some partners have worked together on other efforts.
I-3. New friendships, collegiality among farmer team members.
Team member reflections at the end of the project, especially those of the farmers, indicated they found this a valuable activity and appreciated getting to know and work with each other, even across distance.
Long term expected outcomes:
L-1. Increased programs and resources committed to ag diversification.
L-2. Wider array of agricultural enterprises on MN farms.
L-3. More infrastructure for farming alternatives.
L4. More successful farms on landscape.
L-5. Increased ag business opportunities in rural communities.
We are optimistic that agriculture will continue to diversify; we hear conversations about the merits of diversification continuing and see examples of it in rural (and urban) areas. We hope our project contributed to the complex context that is constantly shifting and is shaped by: funding (or lack thereof) available for research, farm program policies, high commodity and land prices, interest in local and regional food and energy production, conservation and climate concerns, and the uncertain stability and existence of programs like SARE and the USDA Value Added Producer Grant Program, among other things.
A functioning project team met quarterly – starting with one face to face meeting and then using conference call technology. The team was comprised of two MDA staff members, the MFU Communications Director, the MFN broadcaster who produced all the programs, and five farmers representing different regions of Minnesota. The team discussed the progress of the project (who was hearing coffee-shop buzz, etc.) and brainstormed and selected story ideas for coming three months. Team members frequently suggested subjects to profile and usually came to the call ready with contact information, which was a tremendous help to the show host and producer. Members seemed invested in the project and rarely miss a call. In between calls, all but one member of the team used e-mail to discuss issues that arose. e-mail. (The team member who did not have e-mail so inadvertently got left out of discussions and decisions sometimes.)
Project team member Tom Rothman took the lineups and produced 52 minute-long programs, which each aired a minimum of five times on all 33 MFN member stations. At an estimated 302,000 listener impressions, per week, our show has been heard about 15.7 million times.
At the end of each broadcast, Rothman announced that more information was available at www.minnesotafarmnetwork.com. That link took listeners the directly to the Ag Opportunities on the Air web page:
The web site described the program, granted rebroadcast permission, provided MP3 audio files of each broadcast, provided a link to the MFU site where transcripts were stored (Figure 2), and listed links to web-based information and resources about each program topic housed at an MDA web page collection called “Minnesota Farm Opportunities.” A student worker updated these resource pages, concentrating on all the broadcast program topic areas.
By the end of the first year, the team recognized a need to do more to promote the project. With the help of a graphic designer at the MDA, the team designed and purchased 2,500 2.5” square magnets at a cost of $770. These were distributed by individual team members in their own parts of the state and by project partners MDA and MFU at agricultural meetings, conferences, and workshops. With Ag in the Classroom in mind, we also printed quantities of bookmarks to promote the program and the web resources.
To encourage stations outside the MFN to broadcast shows, we posted a clear “permission to download and rebroadcast” statement along with the MP3s on the web site and issued a press release about the easy accessibility and availability of the programs. Three quarters of the way through the project, the team came up with the idea of giveaway compilation CDs. We pressed 1,000 copies of the CD (at about $1.00 each, including case) which we sent to all rural radio stations in eye-catching bright red foil padded envelopes, along with a pre-paid response card to help us evaluate the likelihood that the stories would be used. Team members distributed CDs in their areas of the state, and partners gave them away at agricultural conferences, meetings and workshops.
Project team members decided they wanted to expand the show to rural residents outside of MFN broadcast areas. Farmer Jane Jewett, for example, approached her local public radio station, KAXE, and initiated discussions with them. One result has been a regular “local foods beat” broadcast on that station. Others members of the team contacted stations in their area as well and encouraged them to use the stories packaged on CD.
At the end of the project, the team produced a “tips” booklet of lessons learned for others who may want to pursue a similar to ours. This is being distributed it to all SARE state coordinators.
1.Functioning Project Team – a cohesive team formed rapidly with an initial face-to-face meeting where we decided on the scope of the project, story parameters, special considerations (such as that stories reflect regional diversification across Minnesota and incorporate seasonality in scheduling – e.g., heritage turkeys in November; chocolate covered potato chips at Valentine’s Day), and determined that we would use consensus as our basis for making decisions.
A complete list of topics follows:
-Aerial Seeding a Rye Cover Crop
-Growing Grapes in Field Crop Country
-Living Fences and Windbreaks
-Organic Farming – The Second Best Decision in my Life
-Potatoes in Peat – Growing and Marketing
-Specialty Hay – Markets and Production
-Beekeeping and Honey Production
-Compost Bedding for Dairy Cows
-Composting Beef Manure Makes Black Gold
-Consumers are Hungry for Grass Fed Beef
-Game Farming – Deer and Elk
-Green Eggs Wow Customers
-Milking Dairy Goats
-Operating a Therapeutic Riding Stable
-Sheep and Lamb
-Step Right Up, Ladies: Automatic System Milks on Cows’ Own Schedules
-Transitioning for Organic Dairy
-Yakity Yakking About Yak
Fruits & Vegetables
-Start Your Own Apple Orchard
-Self-Serve Sweetcorn Stands
-Hydroponic Winter Growing Community Supported Agriculture / Subscription Farming
-Don Reding grows grapes on the prairie
-Flowers – high value; big demand
-Advice from a Young Farm Entrepreneur: The Next Farm Generation
-Direct Marketing to Restaurants
-On-Farm Processing – Adding Value to Small Grains
-Making Biodiesel on Your Farm
-#2 Yellow Corn Delivery Service – From Field to Furnace
-The Business End of Horse Boarding
-Renting Your Farm as Hunting Land
-Ag Tourism – Making Your Farm a Destination
-Selling at Farmers’ Markets
-Starting a Pick Your Own Berry Business
-Chocolate Covered Potato Chips – What a treat!
-Picking Rocks for Big Profits – Landscapers pay top dollar
-Growing Vodka in Minnesota Farm Fields
Conserving Soil, Energy, and Resources
-Auto Guidance Can Make Field Operations More Efficient
-Boosting Fertilizer and Fuel Efficiency with Strip Tillage
-Ethanol from Barley?
-Strip Till: Saving Money and Conserving Soil
-Wind Turbines: Harvesting energy on your own farm
-Grant programs help farmers try new things (this broadcast was underwritten by the Ag Opportunities on the Air Project and the Minnesota SARE program)
3. Outreach and promotional materials
a. Major media news releases (also directed through informal networks to farm organizations, nonprofits, agencies, etc.)
4. Compilation CD
a. Distributed to 100+ rural radio stations in Minnesota
b. Distributed by team members to friends, colleagues, and at farming events.
5. Web presence (single doorway at www.minnesotafarmnetwork.com)
a. MP3 recordings of radio programs – www.mda.state.mn.us/news/radioopps.htm
b. Topical resources – www.mda.state.mn.us/news/radioopps.htm
c. Program transcripts- www.mfu.org
d. Diversification articles
MFU devoted a half page to the project in each issue of a monthly print publication, Minnesota Agriculture. Included each issue were: a summary of the project, a broadcast transcript, and an article providing more information about that particular topic. Here is an example:
While activity was relatively been easy to measure (e.g., number of members on team, number of team meetings held, number of programs produced and aired) we had a more difficult time assessing the impact of this project than we expected. We had hoped to see evidence of piggy backing – that is to say media outlets using the show for story ideas and following up with coverage about the topics. A story about CSAs in March 2006 might generate newspaper stories about the topic in April, for example. Our news clipping service did not providing concrete evidence that this happened, however. We didn’t know whether this lack of evidence was due to our clipping service missing the stories that would prove our hypothesis, writers are not hearing the stories, or writers are hearing but not inspired by the stories.
Then the MDA changed clipping services in November 2006, from a service that reviews actual physical newspapers to one that reviews local and national news outlets that have web sites.
At first, we thought this was good news, because we were able to specify (and periodically change) keywords we wanted them to look for. However, we quickly realized that since the new clipping service was web-based, and since many of the rural papers in Minnesota are tiny and print only, this change made it more difficult to monitor impact. We basically gave up trying to measure the impact and “life” of these stories that way.
Based on data provided by the early clipping service, we do know that a news release containing general information about the show released in July 2006 reached more than 52,000 readers in Minnesota. The release was also picked up by other organizations, including: the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture’s NASDA NEWS, an electronic newsletter that reaches leaders in all state departments of agriculture; the University of Minnesota’s Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter; Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association Newsletter; Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota Newsletter; Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, and www.allbusiness.com
We also used web counts as a way to estimate the project’s impact. The Ag Opportunities on the Air page(s) housed at the MDA were visited by more than 3,200 different individuals. Although there are variations across months, with activity increasing in months outside the active farming season, no other usage pattern is readily apparent.
After the first year of the project, the team developed some priorities for the second year:
Needs Identified in Year One/
How Addressed in Year Two
Increase visibility/outreach efforts (bookmarks, magnets, etc.)/ Designed, ordered and distributed 2,500 promotional magnets. Designed and distributed bookmarks (printed in-house)
Seek sponsors to continue project beyond end of SARE funding./ Began discussions among ourselves. Project members expressed interest in seeing project continue, but have not contacted potential funders. MDA is currently preparing a proposal for an another outside short-term funder.
Encourage program rebroadcasting by other networks, agencies, etc./ Posted liberal “permission to rebroadcast” on web site, encouraging downloading and free reuse. Publicized free use with media release. Made compilation CD containing 40 Ag Opps programs and distributed to all rural radio stations with an invitation to rebroadcast freely.
Publicize resource (broadcast and web) to agricultural agencies and groups (e.g., Agri-Marketing Magazine, Extension, FSA, etc., as well as through general meeting.)/ Targeted information about the show and web-based resources to: Agriculture in the Classroom, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Agriculture Programs, Minnesota Farm Service Agency, Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service, Minnesota Extension staff (via State SARE PDP coordinator, Independent Community Bankers Association, ATTRA News, Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, Minnesota Grown Promotion Council, Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Assocaiton, Sustainable Farming Assn of MN and other nonprofit groups.
Fourteen radio stations returned the evaluation cards that asked about the likelihood that the station would use shows from the CD and for an estimate of how many. More than half of the respondents said they were likely to use 10 or more shows.
What worked well for us:
* An “editorial board” largely made up of farmers from all corners of the state. Farmers are curious about other farmers. These “out of the box thinkers” came up with most of the story ideas. Their geographical distribution helped us present a wide spectrum of stories about farms and farmers in every part of Minnesota.
* Meeting by phone every three months to work out a playlist of timely topics and keeping a master list of topics that had run and those still “in the hopper.”
* Having a skilled broadcaster on the project team from the very beginning. Tom was one of us and looked out for the show’s quality and interests. This connection also enabled us to score 162 “freebie” broadcasts.
* Matching stories to seasons and holidays – e.g., apples in autumn, sheep/lamb around Easter time.
* In each story, having the farmer tell as much of the story – in his or her own words – as possible.
* Putting MP3 recordings and transcripts of each show on a central web site, along with links to more info about each topic.
* Referring listeners to a web site containing additional information about each show topic.
* Contacting other radio networks about the opportunity. One farmer worked so hard to get her rural public radio station to broadcast the shows that the station started its own “Local Foods Beat” program.
All the team members evaluated this project as a positive experience:
“After being able to visit with the team members for the first time I was surprised to learn of the diversity of the members. Also, the enthusiasm of all the members has been refreshing. It has also been a very good learning experience for me learning that there are actually people who make a living in ways I thought would be impossible or I would have never even tried.” – Team member and farmer Paul Kukowski, Georgetown
“This project was an excellent experience for me. I learned more about the diversity of agriculture in Minnesota, and also made new contacts with other farmers across the state. It was extremely interesting to hear the kinds of knowledge and connections that farmers in other parts of Minnesota have. I found it rewarding to watch the process unfold from idea to contact person to a genuine radio broadcast.” – Team member and farmer Jane Grimsbo Jewett, Palisade
“I was able to see the “invisible” farmers that are doing niche farming. It provided helpful and encouraging insights. It was great to be able to share with youth and others a great resource at my fingertips. The CDs and Internet source as well as radio all blend together for getting the word out in many formats. I have not seen a project like this before. It is far more then just a once a time project. I believe we are just getting warmed up!” – Team member and farmer Noreen Thomas, Moorhead
“The [Minnesota Farmers Union] works to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life of family farmers and ranchers, and rural communities. They also believe there should be diversification in agriculture, and that farmers should be free to make choices about the type of production that works best for themselves, and their land. …Ag Opportunities on the Air…definitely fit that bill. It highlighted individuals that were using a less common practice on their farm. It brought an awareness of that practice to light, as well as an appreciation or knowledge of the activity to those not familiar. It helped spread the word of different activities rural America could use to optimize their resources and land.” – Team member and MFU Communications Director Katie Pass
“I think the main success of the program came from…a diverse farmer input team from across the state of Minnesota. This team was able to find interesting and successful farming operations that were willing to share their farming stories. This made the Ag Opportunities on the Air radio programs interesting and informative.” – Team member and farmer Andy Hart, Elgin
“Being a part of the grant team has been very rewarding for me and for my family. […] Working and phone chats with new faces, new ideas and timelines has been a positive experience. I feel the project was very successful. I have handed out 150+ CDs on the project and will continue to do so until they are gone. The magnets are plugged into a new avenue…I think the CD will help keep the project alive for sometime. Maybe this will be a positive experience for our project to be used in other states with the winning ideas we used to be share with others.” – Team member and farmer Terese Hall, Butterfield
As noted above, efforts to measure the impact of this project have proved frustrating. The 356 farmer profiles have each theoretically reached more than 302,000 rural listeners, although we do not know what listeners think about our do with the information. In an effort to measure awareness about the program, the 2007 Minnesota Organic Conference and Sustainable Farming Association Conference included questions about it on their conference evaluation forms. Only 7 percent of Organic Conference respondents reported hearing it. Again, this information is only minimally helpful, because it begs even more, somewhat maddening, questions: Did the other 93% not hear it, hear but not remember it, or do they not listen to the mainstream farm network stations that broadcast the show?
During the course of the project, we experienced occasional delays in posting shows to the web site and reconfiguring MFO resource pages because the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) underwent a complete redesign of its entire Internet site in the middle of the project, so for awhile, technical staff were not as available to us as we expected. In addition, the project representative from MFU, one of our major partners, changed in the middle of the project. Communications director Les Heen, who had helped design the project, left the organization and it took the new director, Katie Pass, some time to get up to speed with the project.
This project was not designed with a component that allowed us to analyze any economic impact. However, our team recognizes economics as a critical component of sustainability and we decided at the very beginning of the project that while we would focus on success stories, we wouldn’t gloss over limitations and challenges, and that each profile would address challenges the farmer had faces, including labor, market access, and/or overhead/capital requirements.
Project team members did report anecdotal feedback about farmer awareness of the program. Tom Rothman received a number of calls and e-mails from people who had heard the shows and wanted to know more – particularly about selling farm rock for profit, making biodiesel and season extension. Paul, Noreen and Terese reported hearing some conversations about the show topics or diversification articles in MFU’s Minnesota Agriculture while they were out and about (in town, at the bank, etc.)
Educational & Outreach Activities
The outreach products of the project are numerous:
-56 minute-long diversification oriented radio programs
-1,000 compilation compact discs
-2 formal press releases
Areas needing additional study
Our “handbooklet” includes information that the team thinks it’s important for others contemplating a similar sort project to know. It is available on the MDA web site and was distributed to State SARE coordinators via e-mail.
Things we wish we’d thought of, or had thought of earlier in the project:
*Promotional items – our team made up a jingle about the show and printed bookmarks and magnets to promote the idea and the web site. Team members distributed them locally, we also offered them at agricultural meetings and expos. We wish we’d thought of this earlier.
*CDs – we selected 40 tracks and had a compilation CD made. We sent a copy out to all the radio stations in the state so that even those outside the original “Ag Opps” network could use them. Team members helped distribute them, and we gave them away at farm and ag shows. Making the CDs cost us less than $1.00 each! (although we did have to order 1,000 to get that great price).
*Distribute magnets and CDs at local agriculture – related businesses…banks, co-ops, elevators, implement and feed dealers, etc.
*Connect to Ag in the Classroom program and other educators. Encourage teachers to use the radio shows and web materials in their lessons.
*Ask other agriculture web sites to provide hot links to Ag Opportunities on the Air site and its shows, transcripts, and topic resource materials.