Sustainable Agriculture Mentor Program

Final Report for LNC93-060

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1993: $77,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Timothy Powell
University of Nebraska
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Project Information

Summary:

[Note to online version: The report for this project includes tables and 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 North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or ncrsare@unl.edu.]

We recruited 18 mentors at the start of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Mentor Project. These mentors reflected a geographical and subject expertise dispersion. During the remaining years we did not actively recruit additional mentors but added mentors when a need existed, either through a contact and need from a mentee farmer or through a perceived gap in coverage, geographical or subject area (see Appendix, Attachment #2 for current mentor list). We lost a few mentors over the life of the project but also added a few to end with 20 mentors. A mentor handbook was developed in year 1. It was used throughout the project as a reference for mentors in the project process and procedures.

Contact was made with the mentors from time-to-time to check on progress of the mentoring process and to inform them about professional improvement (PI) activities (meetings, farm tours, and other educational activities and opportunities). Some of the mentors took advantage of the PI aspect of the project and some did not. Time was given as the most limiting resources or constraints by mentors to attending educational activities.

Project publicity and promotional efforts were conducted throughout the life of the project. Efforts included newsletters (Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society newsletter, Center for Rural Affairs newsletter, and the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems newsletter), newspaper articles and popular magazines (Norfolk Daily News, The New Farm, Nebraska Farmer, others). Project brochures were sent to all the major agriculture agencies (fmha, SCS, ASCS, [old names],and Extension). See Appendix, Attachment #3 for a sampling of promotional and press coverage of the project. The project was also promoted at a number of agriculture meetings by UNL Extension and Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS) staff B NSAS Western and Annual meetings, and the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Association annual meetings. Mentors were encouraged to give presentations at agriculture meetings and some of them did so. Mentors were also encouraged to give farm tours that highlight their operations. Again, many of them did so.

Results from evaluation of program participants conducted at the end of the project showed that farmers like one-on-one mentoring (rated good by mentors). Nearly ninety percent of the participants said that the project should continue, even if no further funding was secured. Participants in general were very pleased with the project. Almost 70% of the mentee farmers said that they changed their operation as a result of working with a project mentor. Of those that didn’t change their operation the most common answer was timing was not right for change. Only thirty-five percent of the farmer mentees said that they changed their thinking about sustainable agriculture due to working with a project mentor. Those that didn’t change their thinking went on to say that they already were in agreement with sustainable agriculture.

Project Objectives:

The project had two main objectives:

1. Create a mentoring program to help farm families implement sustainable agriculture practices and technology.

2. Evaluate the mentor program and share progress with others.

Research

Materials and methods:

The focus of the Mentor Project was to facilitate one-on-one mentoring between experienced farmers and new or transition farmers wanting to try sustainable agricultural practices. To implement this a group of experienced farmers were recruited to participate in the project. Potential mentors were recruited from across the state from the NSAS membership list, NSAS board member referral, and University Extension Educator referral. Anticipated areas of greatest interest were grazing systems, integrated cropping systems, and low-cost swine production.

At the beginning of the project mentor farmers were invited to attend training workshops where we covered the implementation aspects of the project and communication and interpersonal skills (Meyers-Briggs personality tests and interpretation, goals setting, etc.). A project notebook was developed and given to all mentors. It outlined the referral process and the typical meeting process between the mentor and mentee client. Guidelines and forms for reimbursement were included. There was a good response in attendance and interest in the program. Mentor program procedures were reviewed and mentors were asked for suggestions on how to improve the program.

An update meeting was held at the beginning of year three for all mentors old and new, to update program information and orient new mentors, and discuss objectives and possible changes to improve the project. Two meetings were held, one in eastern Nebraska and one in western Nebraska. Attendance was good with only a few mentors not being able to attend.

Another part of the project consisted of the Professional Improvement (PI) aspect. This part of the project allowed mentors to attend educational activities (tours, workshops, short courses, etc.) And get reimbursed for part of their expenses. These activities were different from the periodic group training offered by the project to all mentors. The PI activities were chosen by each mentor to enhance their individual skills on subjects of their choice. At the end of the project educational materials (books, tapes, etc.) Were offered to each mentor. These were selected by each mentor from sources that publish sustainable agriculture materials. Some mentors took advantage of this and some did not.

At the beginning of the project mentor farmers were matched with mentee farmers by the project coordinator based on mentee needs and geographical proximity. Later, this was supplemented by some mentors finding mentee farmers to work with. These matches were based on contacts the mentors had with others during farm meetings, farm tours, or neighborly contact situations.

Mentors were reimbursed for their time and expenses in working with the mentee client farmers. We started with a rate of $100 per day reimbursement for mentor time. Based on mentor feedback we increased the reimbursement to $150 per day the last year of the project. Mileage was paid at 254 per mile at the start of the project and increased to 294 per mile by the end of the project. All other expenses (meals, telephone, motels) were reimbursed at actual cost.

At the end of the project a mail survey was conducted to evaluate the project. Questionnaires were sent to all mentor farmers asking for input on project results and outcomes. A separate questionnaire was sent to all of the mentee client farmers. The results of these surveys in included as part of the results section.

Research results and discussion:

Most of the results can be described in the interactions and working relationships of the mentor farmers and mentee client farmers. The following includes a synopsis of these relationships listed by mentor farmer.

Jim Bender

Jim was one of the original mentor farmers but did not mentor anyone during the first year of the project. Opportunities existed to match Jim with a mentee during the later years of the project but he became very busy with other activities and requested to be removed from the active mentor list. He did not take advantage of the professional improvement aspect of the project but did attend the training session.

Dennis Demmel

Dennis made a number of contacts during the life of the project but they did not developed into a mentoring relationship for which he wanted to take advantage of the project. Dennis did take advantage of the professional improvement aspects of the project by attending two Holistic Resource Management courses in Nebraska.

Ron Ellermeier

Ron stopped farming shortly after the start of the project. He kept on as a mentor but did not work with anyone as part of the project. He attended the training sessions and gave valuable input into the implementation of the project. He did not take advantage of the professional improvement aspects of the project.

Mike and Sue Grant

Mike and Sue were not able to attend any of the training sessions due to conflicts with calving season. The did not work with anyone as part of the project but did take advantage of educational materials purchased as part of the project.

David Hansen

David made 4-5 contacts and worked with three farmers as part of the project. He worked with Hall and Bain on sheep production and Miller on crop rotations and rye and soybean production. He attended all of the project meetings and gave good input into the process.

Gerald Henzler

Gerald worked with a number of farmers on intensive grazing of livestock. He worked with the Masons to installed cross fencing, a water system, controlled burning, and controlled grazing on CRP land brought into pasture production. Gerald helped with the planning and implementing of these practices. The Masons had a couple of farm tours to highlight the changes on their farm. They have also been successful in getting two SARE farmer grants since working with the mentor project.

Gerald worked with Freudenburg on intensive grazing of livestock over a number of meetings. Freudenburg purchased a farm and wanted to convert the entire operation from continuous grazing to intensive rotational grazing.

Gerald made a number of contacts with other farmers about intensive grazing. He worked with two other farmers, Wagner and Lund on rotational grazing of livestock. Gerald hosted a tour for 50 farmers to highlight his grazing techniques. He took advantage of some of the professional improvement activities and attended most of the project meetings.

Mike Herman

Mike hosted a farm tour to organic growers as part of the project and took advantage of the professional improvement aspects of the project. He had numerous contacts with farmers and worked with Anderson on crop rotations.

Tom Higgins

Tom attended the training meetings but did not work with anyone as part of the project. He did not take advantage of the professional improvement aspect of the program.

Arnold Jones

Arnold worked with Tomkins on cross fencing to better utilize forage resources.

Ben Jones

Ben worked with a number of farmers as part of the project, including Softley, Mazour, and Smies on organic certification and crop production. He hosted a tour of Oak Creek Farms (manufacturers of organic corn chips) as part of the project and participated in educational materials purchased by the project.

Tom Larson

Tom worked with a number of farmers as part of the project. He also hosted a number of farm tours during the project. Tom worked with Ostry, Menke, Klein, Kleinschmit, Lammers, Smydra, and Wiedel. Tom shared his techniques on intensive grazing , narrow strip cropping, and cultivation with the Bezzerides cultivator. Tom also worked with Dave Kohls (Natural Resource District Specialist) on watering systems and paddock design. Tom participated in project meetings and took advantage of the professional improvement aspect of the project.

Wyman McCain

Wyman worked with Fiedler on low cost swine production. He participated in meetings and took advantage of the professional improvement aspects of the project.

Ron Miller

Ron attended the training meetings but did not work with anyone as part of the project. He did not take advantage of the professional improvement aspect of the program.

Billene Nemec

Billene was added as a mentor the third year of the project. She worked with farmers and market organizers in five locations (Gretna, Seward, Columbus, North Platte, and Omaha) to help establish or strengthen farmers markets in Nebraska. Billene gave a tour of the farmers market in Lincoln, Nebraska and gave presentations at sustainable agriculture meetings with the help of the project. She also participated in the educational materials portion of the project.

Bryce Ritz

Bryce mentored Nagorski on the subjects of organic crop production and natural beef production. Bryce attend the training meetings but did not take advantage of the professional improvement aspect of the project.

Warren Sahs

Warren attended most project meetings and gave good input into the process. He did not work with anyone as part of the project but did take advantage of the professional improvement aspects of the project.

Joel and Jim Starr

Joel and Jim did not mentor anyone as part of the Mentor Project but the provided input into Mentor meetings.

Tom Tomas

Tom worked with a number of farmers as part of the project. Tom focused on gardening, vegetable and perennial production, and green house production when he worked with Barrett, Baird, Blickenstaff. He took advantage of the professional improvement aspect of the project. Tom also gave numerous presentations at sustainable agriculture farmer meetings as part of the project.

Michael Wiest

Mike came aboard as a mentor in the third year of the project to help Western Nebraska farmers. Mike worked with three farmers; Michelman, Kastens, and Span on crop rotations and OCIA certification. Since Mike started late in the project he missed the initial training but he attended the last year training/evaluation meeting of the project.

Dave Welsch

Dave worked with two farmers as part of the project. He helped Kash-Brown with ridge-till practices and planter settings. He helped Akeson with crop rotations. Dave participated in most project meetings and took advantage of the professional improvement aspects of the project.

Gary Young

Gary worked with one farmer as part of the project. He helped Zahrt with livestock grazing and grass production. He was ill during the later part of the project but did participate in the educational materials purchased as part of the project.

Evaluation

The evaluation component of the project was very informative. The Appendix, Attachment #6 shows the questionnaires used for project evaluation. A questionnaire was sent each mentor farmer and each mentee farmer who participated in the project, 20 and 27, respectively. Fifteen mentors returned questionnaires for a seventy-five percent response rate. Eighteen mentees returned questionnaires for a sixty-seven percent response rate. A summary of the results from the survey follows.

Table 1 gives the results from the mentor survey. Eighty percent of the mentors attended the training sessions and they rated them as good. Of those not attending the training, it was divided equally among time, location, and other for reasons of not being able to attend. Sixty Seven percent of the mentors took advantage of the Professional Improvement aspect of the project and rated these activities as good to very good. Time constraints (80%) were the reason given most as not being able to do professional improvement activities.

Sixty-seven percent of the mentors helped someone as part of the project. They rated the usefulness to themselves as good and the usefulness to the mentees as good to very good. Of those mentors not helping someone as part of the project, sixty percent did no recruiting on their own. One hundred percent of the mentor are current or past members of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society.

Over half of the mentors had mixed (crop – livestock) operations. The grow a wide range of crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, alfalfa, oats, pasture, millet, amaranth, popcorn, turnips, field beans, rye, fruits and vegetables. The average size was 672 acres but ranged from 60 acres to 1850 acres. The mentors raised cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens, and rabbits with a average of 62, 100, 78, for the first three, respectively.

Thirty-three percent of the mentors made changes to their operation by participating in the program. They changed grazing, weed control, and cooperated more with their neighbors as an outcome of project participation. They thought that mentoring was good to very good in terms of effectiveness for teaching sustainable agriculture practices and ideas. Eighty-six percent thought that the project should continue without funding. The most common suggestion to improve the project was to publicize and advertise the program more.

Other comments included:
“Difficult to get people interested in formal mentoring, independent attitude of farmers –destined to same mistakes made by others, farmers will always share ideas, some are not open to new ideas, I thought project was good idea, good feeling to help someone, probably the most effective tool for communicating sustainable agriculture practices that I have been involved in, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, we are always mentoring, understanding of program was lacking — regret not being able to take advantage of program.”

Table 2 summarized the mentee responses to the survey. Their experience with the project was rated as good to very good in terms of usefulness to them. They rated the usefulness to the mentors as average to good. Half of the mentees heard about the program form NSAS with the mentor and other methods next most important ways of hearing about the program. Only six percent said they heard about the program from the media. More publicity and advertising were given as ways to improve the program most often.

Fifty-nine percent of the mentees are members of NSAS but this leaves forty-one percent as non-members. Sixty-five percent of the mentees have mixed farms. They grow a variety of crops and livestock just as the mentors do. The average size mentee farm is 402 acres. This is significantly smaller that the average mentor farm. Nearly seventy percent of the mentees changed their farm as a result of working with a mentor. The changes they made includes: intensive grazing, long term goals, planted canary grass, strip farming, no insecticides, crop rotations, water for pasture, less chemicals. Of those not making changes, reasons included: timing is not right, too late in season, I may in future, present operation very efficient, lack of some flexibility.

Only thirty-five percent of the mentees thought that working with a mentor changed their thinking about sustainable agriculture but a majority of those not changed stated that they already believed in sustainable agriculture. Eight-seven percent of the mentees thought that the project should continue even without funding.

Other comments on the project included:
“Amazed with mentor operation but don’t know how it will fit in my operation with irrigation constraints, NSAS does very well with newsletter, seminars, mentor program — hope to take advantage of your fine work, we value Tom Thomas’ input very much — he was so patient — he was as encouraging as he could possibility be, need more help with decisions, a very good program, I was very satisfied — I appreciate the help, the western end of the state doesn’t get much attention.”

Research conclusions:

A number of positive benefits are resulting from the mentor program. They include leadership and human capital development from the training of the mentors. Also, the mentees have expressed their appreciation with the fact that they get personalized one-on-one help from the mentor. We have also sent out information to others interested in starting a mentoring program. (See Appendix, Attachment #8 for an example.)

We feel that one-on-one mentoring provides a positive relationship for technology transfer. It also works towards building community in rural areas The evaluation of program participants supports these statements.

Economic Analysis

The mentor program has not focuses on the economics of sustainable agriculture but on technology transfer toward sustainable agriculture.

Farmer Adoption

A number of participants are reporting changes (see the evaluation summary section). Our experiences show that farmers like to learn from other farmers and that this can be an effect method to change but continual efforts are needed to help establish and nurture the mentoring process.

Farmer Evaluations / Testimonials

We have received positive feed-back on the project and incorporated some of it in our promotional efforts during the life of the project(see Appendix, Attachment #9 for examples).

Involvement of Other Audiences

Number of growers/producers in attendance at:

Workshops/Conferences – the mentor program participated (mentor speakers, workshops on project, other involvement )in 6 major conferences and helped sponsor 5 workshops where over 900 producers participated.

Field Days/Farm tours – over 11 tours (mentor farms, activities) with over 500 farmers attending.

We encouraged both the farmer and spouse to participate in the mentoring process.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

A number of methods have been used to disseminate and promote the mentor project. A number have been mentioned already, including: newsletters, news releases, articles, farm tours, and presentations at sustainable agriculture meetings. (See Appendix, Attachment #7 for specifics on a number of these.) A summary of the project results is on the NSAS Web page, http://www.netins.net/showcase/nsas.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Promotion is critical to the success of the project. For a project such as this one a formal marketing/advertising campaign with appropriate budget would have been useful. We received a lot of free publicity from the media but we did not pay for advertising. It may have been beneficial in this project but the budget did not support it.

Farmers liked the mentoring process but continuing efforts are needed to nurture the process from initial contacts by interested farmers to a successful mentor-mentee relationship. If left on their own many initial contacts would produce little follow-up. It seemed that an outside person (project coordinator) was needed to get both parties to advance further in the mentoring process. More work needs to be done in this area.

If we were to do it again I think we would ask for an explicit budget allocation for marketing and advertising of the project. A more formal effort was needed that would require the assistance of professional marketing campaign developed by professional marketing personal.

We felt that we got good promotion to and participation of those farmers that already possess a sustainable agriculture attitude toward farming. This was supported by project results and the evaluations. Work needs to be done on reaching those farmers that don’t have the sustainable agriculture attitude toward farming.

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.