Nebraska Ag IMPACT Project

Final Report for LNC95-081

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1995: $106,254.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $763,738.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Wyatt Fraas
Center for Rural Affairs
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Project Information

Summary:

The Nebraska Ag IMPACT Project supports local groups of beginning and established farmers in demonstrating and learning about sustainable farming systems. Three key agriculture organizations (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, and Center for Rural Affairs) collaborate to provide group organization support, design of on-farm projects, and networking linkages to other farmer groups and organizations.

The IMPACT Project recruits farmers and ranchers to form local sustainable farming IMPACT groups, which include nonfarm community members and local Extension Educators. Local groups foster community support for and increased adoption of sustainable farming systems. Groups receive staff support and cost-share funding for projects of their choosing, and participate in a statewide network of IMPACT groups.

IMPACT supported thirteen groups across Nebraska in 1996 and 18 groups in 1997, including more than 130 group members who controlled over 80,000 acres of farm and ranch land. Public demonstrations of their projects attracted more than 125 additional farmers and community members each year. Group projects have included legume cover crops, cooperative meat marketing, building stronger communities, improved grass management, consumer education, farming without chemicals, and other agronomic, marketing, and community development ideas.

Group members have credited the group process with encouraging them to try or adopt new farming practices. Over half reported adopting new practices within three years, and 30% saw profit improvement in that time. Half the participants expected improved water quality from their IMPACT activities, 40% saw decreased soil erosion, 60% increased their farm diversification (more grazing land and cattle, additional legumes and cover crops, and less tillage), and 50% reported improved wildlife habitat. Extension advisors have enthusiastically supported IMPACT group projects and have encouraged others to form their own groups. Most of the groups have plans to continue their activities in coming years.

Introduction:

The Nebraska Ag IMPACT Project supports local groups of beginning and established farmers in demonstrating and learning about sustainable farming systems. Three key agriculture organizations (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, and Center for Rural Affairs) collaborate to provide group organization support, design of on-farm projects, and networking linkages to other farmer groups and organizations.

The IMPACT Project recruits farmers and ranchers to form local sustainable farming IMPACT groups, which include nonfarm community members and local Extension Educators. Local groups foster community support for and increased adoption of sustainable farming systems. Groups receive staff and funding support for projects of their choosing.

IMPACT supported thirteen groups across Nebraska in 1996 and 18 groups in 1997, including more than 130 group members who controlled over 80,000 acres of farm and ranch land. Public demonstrations of their projects attracted more than 100 more farmers and community members each year. Group members have credited the group process with encouraging them to try or adopt new practices. Extension advisors have enthusiastically supported IMPACT group projects and have encouraged others to form their own groups. Most of the groups have plans to continue their activities in coming years.

Project Objectives:

1. Establish 10 or more IMPACT groups across Nebraska and provide staff and financial support to the on-farm research/demonstration and education efforts of those groups.

2. Increase the ability of beginning farmers and ranchers to implement sustainable agriculture practices and to become established farm operators.

3. Strengthen the capacity of Nebraska institutions to provide community-level support for adoption of sustainable agriculture across the state through a collaborative effort between Nebraska farmers and ranchers, the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS), the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

4. Share the lessons learned in this project with farmers, organizations and institutions elsewhere.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Cris Carusi
  • Wyatt Frass
  • Victoria Mundy

Research

Materials and methods:
Methods / Approach

The Nebraska Ag IMPACT Project supports local groups of farmers/ranchers and community members who choose to address issues of sustainability for their farms and communities. IMPACT staff help groups to form goals, develop activity plans, design on-farm research or demonstration projects, and find additional resources for group activities.

The IMPACT Project provides groups with funds for organizing activities and with cost-share funds for group projects. Groups manage these funds, conduct their own projects, and invite Extension, researchers, or other technical advisors to participate or assist with group activities. Each group presents a public demonstration of its project and summarizes its activities for annual publication.

IMPACT Project design and funding priorities are controlled by a Steering Committee comprised of IMPACT group representatives and representatives from the 3 sponsoring organizations. The Steering Committee has adopted priorities for supporting groups that include diverse community members, include beginning farmers in their activities, and emphasize whole-farm projects rather than single practices.

A major step to gaining acceptance of unconventional farming practices is to demonstrate that real farmers and ranchers are actually using the practices. After that, the ability to implement changes may take years, as crop rotations, chemical residues, equipment needs, financial resources, knowledge/skill levels, or the need to convince partners can all affect a farmer’s ability to take action. Peer pressure against change is an additional obstacle to use of new practices. Local groups are an effective means to help farmers try new practices, since group support shields individual members from public skepticism.

Learning is also increased through this process, because group members learn from each others’ experiences within their group (and farmers report that they prefer to learn from other farmers). Beginning farmers in a previous study welcomed opportunities to learn from more experienced farmers in local groups.

The self-directed activities of the IMPACT Project are designed to increase leadership development within local groups and rural communities through the ownership of projects and public presentation of results.

Research results and discussion:

Objective 1: Establish 10 groups and provide staff and financial support.
The IMPACT project supported 13 groups for the 1996 crop year and 18 groups in 1997, including at least one group in each of the five Extension Districts. Groups requested financial assistance for organizing and for special projects; over $45,000 was disbursed (from non-SARE sources); group members provided over $180,000 in in-kind funding for labor, equipment, land, etc. Project staff assisted groups to:

• recruit members
• set group goals
• plan a yearly workplan
• facilitate meetings
• organize farm tours
• publicize group activities
• locate technical resources and advisors
• seek additional funding.

Group projects included:

• demonstrating legume cover crops
• cooperatively marketing farm-raised meats
• consumer education about farmers’ markets
• developing a cooperative produce cooler
• educating farmers and rural businesspeople about electronic communications
• demonstrating CRP conversion to pasture
• farming without chemicals
• grass-based dairying
• building stronger families and communities
• other agronomic, marketing, and community development projects.

All groups held public events to share their results or ideas with other farmers, Extension personnel, and non-farm community members. From two to 35 non-group members attended each of these public demonstrations, greatly increasing the awareness of sustainable agriculture activities in Nebraska.

Objective 2: Increase the ability of beginning farmers to use sustainable practices and become established.

IMPACT groups include several beginning farmers. They are learning about and trying alternative farming practices based on the encouragement and financial assistance they receive through their IMPACT groups. For example, two farmers have improved their pasture production and the profitability of their grazing enterprises. They credit the ideas and information exchange within their group for their success. Other young farmers have gained new marketing strategies for their direct beef marketing business because of the experience of other members of their IMPACT group.

An unexpected benefit of the dairy graziers’ group is the improved attitude of the group members toward farming, which they say “is fun again”, and has increased their children’s involvement in farm activities. These farmers are now hopeful that their children will see farming as an enjoyable as well as profitable career.

Objective 3: Strengthen the capacity of NE institutions to provide support for sustainable agriculture.

CRA, the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln joined in a collaborative effort to start the IMPACT Project. These organizations have expanded their contacts with farmers through new group members. NE Extension has become involved with most groups, from local Extension educators providing logistic support to the groups, to statewide Extension specialists initiating new program support for IMPACT and other farmers with alternative practices, particularly in grass dairying and alternative forages. New partnerships have developed between Extension and nonprofit organizations to provide information to farmers, such as Extension-sponsored workshops on grazing maize and controlled grazing that used non-profit staff or IMPACT group members to plan and present the sessions. Two IMPACT staff have been funded to work both on IMPACT programming and on other UNL activities, which has strengthened the linkages between the organizations.

Additional organizations are also being drawn into the IMPACT network. Two Resource Conservation and Development districts are working with the IMPACT project to support group activities. Two Natural Resource Districts and NRCS offices are working with IMPACT groups on designing Environmental Quality Improvement Program guidelines and priorities.

Objective 4: Share the lessons learned in this project with farmers, organizations and institutions elsewhere.

Several activities have spread the lessons of this project. Project staff have presented the IMPACT design and lessons at two national Integrated Farming Systems conferences to similar projects across the country. The annual statewide gathering of IMPACT groups featured presentations from each group to the others. The next day, several group members presented their results at the annual meeting of the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society. IMPACT members also presented their practices and group experiences at the Center for Rural Affairs annual meeting in 1996 and 1997. IMPACT news and results is distributed regularly though newsletters of NSAS, CRA, and the UNL Center for Sustainable Ag Systems. Stories of the IMPACT Project and individual IMPACT groups have been reprinted in newsletters of other organizations around the country. Project staff presented the IMPACT design and results at the 1996 Kansas Rural Center annual meeting and at poster sessions of the American Society of Agronomy and the 1995 North American meeting of the Association for Farming Systems Research and Extension. The cumulative effect of stories about IMPACT activities resulted in recognition by the UNL Center for Rural Revitalization and Development for IMPACT as one of Nebraska’s top 100 rural development initiatives in 1996.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach activities are discussed in Objective 4 under Results, above. Annual results of IMPACT activities are in preparation and will be published in late 1997. These results will be distributed widely within Nebraska and to organizations and institutions around the country.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

A primary concern of the IMPACT Project is to increase the public awareness and acceptance of sustainable farming practices. Exposure to new ideas increases the likelihood of acceptance of those practices. IMPACT involved over 130 group members from 58 communities in 1996 and 1997. These members controlled over 80,000 acres of farm and ranch land. Approximately 125 additional farmers and community members attended public activities of the groups each year. Many more Nebraskans read of the groups’ activities in news accounts in local papers, newsletters, Nebraska Farmer Magazine, and DTN news stories, or heard summaries on farm radio stations that carried the CRA weekly commentary. As one neighbor stated, “If only one of you [IMPACT group members] had tried this, I could have ignored you. But there must be something to this if a group of you is doing it.”

A survey of some IMPACT groups in August 1997 showed that 57% of group members had made practice changes as a result of their IMPACT participation over three years. Of the remaining 43%, half said it was too soon to see changes, yet listed six practices they were trying. Thirty percent reported improved profitability, with the remainder saying it was too soon to tell, although several reported improved quantity and quality of forages. Half the participants expected improved surface water quality from their IMPACT activities, 40% saw decreased soil erosion, 60% increased their farm diversification (more grazing land and cattle, additional legumes and cover crops, and less tillage), and 50% reported improved wildlife habitat.

Substantial changes are occurring on some farms in several IMPACT groups. Exposure of their neighbors to these new practices will induce additional changes. However, farm practice adoption is a slow process, as is achieving results from those changes.

INVOLVEMENT OF OTHER AUDIENCES

IMPACT is making institutional inroads. Extension educators are closely associated with several IMPACT groups. These educators have begun to encourage their peers to look at IMPACT as a valuable tool for Extension programming. One educator encouraged a local IRM club to consider becoming an IMPACT group as a means of becoming more active and effective. Another spoke at a statewide meeting, saying “IMPACT is the best thing since McDonalds!” A dairy specialist said “IMPACT is responsible for getting me involved in dairy grazing.” He later organized the state’s first conference on dairy grazing.

Non-farm community members participate in several IMPACT groups, including a feed supplier, veterinarian, banker, farm co-op manager, and retail clothier. One IMPACT group works in urban Omaha to teach its members to garden and to sell produce at the farmer’s market; all its members are city dwellers. This group sent two representatives to a statewide IMPACT picnic and farm tour that resulted in significant discussions between the city dwellers and farmers trying to direct market their farm-raised meat products. A group raising pastured broiler chickens invites its customers, largely townspeople, to pick up their orders at the farms and to watch the processing on slaughter day. The group’s orders doubled in two years, to 6,000 birds.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

Many IMPACT groups are interested in improving farm profitability through alternative marketing opportunities. Two groups changed their emphasis in year 2 to include marketing farm products. These groups are asking for materials and information on direct marketing, farmer cooperatives, alternative financing, federal and state regulations on food processing, and business skills for these new enterprises. Current Extension, university, and commercial information sources are not aimed at providing these answers for small, rural, or agricultural enterprises.

Anticipating and directing change is little understood. Several IMPACT group members talk publicly about the effects of changes on their families and communities. These changes are often positive, but the farmers were unable to anticipate the nature or direction of some changes that affected their time with family members, satisfaction with farming, involvement with community organizations, or relationships with other group members.

Whole-farm planning and analysis is difficult for IMPACT group members and their advisors. For example, changing to certified organic production involves more than replacing chemical weed control with cultivation. Group members have found they need to think years ahead for rotations, as well as needing to know how to handle and market their certified organic crops separately from conventional crops. Group members who consider grazing their cattle must consider availability of feed sources year-round, relative values of crop and pasture areas, labor requirements, cash flow changes, and environmental effects.

Detailed case studies of the economics of alternative farming and marketing practices would greatly aid the discussion of these practices’ feasibility. Farmers, bankers, and politicians all question any practices that benefit the environment or community. One benefit of farmer-selected projects, as demonstrated in the IMPACT Project, is that farmers attempt only activities that are likely to be economically viable. This greatly increases the likelihood that practices will be adopted by the host farmer and evaluated seriously by neighboring farmers. Farmers also constantly redesign their projects to ensure the technical and economic success of their ideas.

The Nebraska Ag IMPACT Project continues to evolve as interest in our approach increases throughout the state. Although our first design called for support of on-farm research and demonstration, we have received an increasing number of requests for projects in other areas of sustainable rural development. New topic areas include delivery of rural health care, use of farms and crop production as juvenile offender treatment, urban garden development and gardener training, youth education in sustainable agriculture, and small business development assistance.

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.