Reframing the Sustainable Farming Narrative to Help Northeast Farmers Effectively Activate Consumers

Progress report for LNE19-390R

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2019: $175,412.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2022
Grant Recipient: Red Tomato
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Expand All

Project Information

Project Objective:

To activate consumers to support Northeast farmers, we will:

  1. Use Strategic Frame Analysis (a social science research process) to create and test new narratives that explain sustainable farming;
  2. Apply research outputs to Northeast orchards using IPM and test how (and whether) new narrative elements improve communication to customers and community;
  3. Package project outputs into a Communications Training Kit that will enable Northeast farmers to more effectively activate and expand their customer base.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Kelsey Gosch (Educator and Researcher)
  • Julie Sweetland (Educator and Researcher)
  • Patrick O'Shea (Educator and Researcher)
  • Sue Futrell (Educator and Researcher)


  1. Understanding of the cultural models that average citizens use when interpreting information about sustainable farming will inform the development of reframed, or, new frames that lessen people’s misconceptions about farming and build more accurate understanding about sustainable farming.
  2. These new frames will provide Northeast fruit growers with communication tools (accompanied by training) that enable them to explain their integrated pest management (IPM) practices to customers more effectively than before.
Materials and methods:

(old post) Summer 2019. This regionally-focused NESARE project is part of a larger national social science research project called Farming & Food Narrative Project (FFNP). FFNP concluded a phase of research at the end of 2018 known as Cultural Models with a Map the Gaps report  (the gaps between what experts think and what ordinary citizens--the public--thinks). In response to this report, we received important, credible, critical feedback from several communication partners (insiders' feedback) that our Expert Story did not adequately represent the views and experience of experts (farmers and scientists) of color. We decided to revise the Expert Story and conducted 5 additional indepth interviews with experts of color, for a total of 17 expert interviews, and revised the Expert Story, and parts of the Map the Gaps report. Four farmers participated in these interviews. The revised report was issued December 2019:

These changes were spontaneous, and not planned as part of the NESARE grant. They were not paid for with NESARE funds. However, the decision to redo the Expert Story caused a several-month delay in the launch of the Media Content and Field Frame Analysis (MCFFA), which began in mid-Fall instead of during summer. This has minimal impact on the overall project timeline.

(old post) November 2019. The MCFFA research phase of the FFNP got underway in November 2019. FrameWorks researchers are studying the communications of print media (mainly newspapers), and a sample of "the field"--12 advocacy organizations, 2 academic/scientific organizations, and 10 trade groups--to see how they are thinking and presenting ideas on sustainable agriculture and good farming practices, and to see how they compare with expert and citizen perspectives.

(old post) Winter 2019/2020. We, at Red Tomato, are organizing and searching for a university-based research partner (presumably, the right university professor with 1-3 grad students, or an undergraduate class) who can join us for the design and implementation of the research work to be conducted with Northeast-based orchards in 2020-21. We are circulating an RFP to approx. 7 prospects we have identified at universities in New England, and expect to choose the one or two research partners by March 2020.

(new post) September 2020. The MCFFA research report was completed by FrameWorks in August 2020, and published and made available free on-line in September 2020. The title is: Understanding the Conversation about Farming: An Analysis of Media and Field Communications, and it can be found here:

(new post) Fall 2020 into Winter 2020/21 saw the launch of Phase II of project research. Phase I, the descriptive phase (Expert Story + Cultural Models + MCFFA) ended with the MCFFA report. Phase II, the prescriptive phase, is where the re-framing work happens leading to new narrative elements (new frames) and guidelines/tools on how to use them. The first step is to establish 8-10 candidate frames that can be tested through qualitative and quantitative research for efficacy. We hit bumps along the road as the project's Core Team in November/December 2020 did not approve the candidate frames as presented in the first two rounds. This caused FrameWorks to hit 'pause' and reevaluate. FrameWorks made changes in the research team assigned to FFNP (us), and in January 2021 proposed a new schedule for research and reporting in the prescriptive phase. If all proceeds on the revised schedule with the revised research team, we will have results by Fall 2020 and will be on track to proceed to the application of results to five orchards in the Northeast. The new timeline is tighter than the original timeline, but it's workable.

(new post) Spring and Summer 2020. We set out to interview 7 potential university-based research partners--a professor and either one of their undergraduate classes or a small group of their graduate students--in order to choose one to work with closely in our assessment and reframing of 5 orchard's communications. We also conducted 12 interviews with potential orchards (speaking with a communications manager if they had one, or more often the farmer/owner). Simultaneously, we began design of the communications assessment and reframing process. It became clear that though several of the university-based prospects (most of them social or agricultural/ environmental scientists) had strong interest and related skills, they did not have sufficient expertise in cognitive science and narrative reframing, especially when compared with our research partners at FrameWorks Institute (FW). We decided to 'reboot,' to let go of our plan to work with a university-based professor and class, and instead recruit and hire lead scientist Julie Sweetland at FW to lead us through the orchard-based communication assessment and reframing process in partnership with Red Tomato staff. We also learned from the growers that the most useful communications assistance we could provide through this project would be to help them with their oral, customer service communications with retail and PYO customers (as opposed to on-line or print communications). The baseline, the initial communications assessment, will take place in late summer/early Fall 2021. The reframing will take place over the Winter 2021/22. The testing of reframed communications will take place on farms during late summer/early Fall 2022.

Participation Summary
16 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities:

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

20 Farmers
50 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Outreach description:

(old post) Publication: On-line publication in December 2019 of Map the Gap research report: The Landscape of Public Thinking About Farming. The report is also circulated directly to ~200 "communication partners" on the Project e-mailing list which includes ~15 growers.

(new post) Publication: On-line publication in September 2020 of MCFFA research report: Understanding the Conversation About Farming: An Analysis of Media & Field Communications. The report is also circulated directly to ~250 "communication partners" on the Project e-mailing list which includes ~20 growers.

(old post) Workshops planned for March 2020: (a) We've been invited by WesternSARE to conduct a half-day workshop/training in Bozeman, MT on March 12 for their advisory group (~20) on the subject of framing/effective communication, sharing the work of the FFNP. (b) Because of the Bozeman invitation, we are holding our FFNP annual meeting in Sacramento, CA on March 13, where we will present the FFNP findings to approx. 30 representatives of western farm and food organizations, including farmers, trade groups, NGOs

(new post) March 2020 3-hour Workshop/Training for WSARE was delivered on-line to the Western SARE Advisory Council meeting in Bozeman, MT, revised at the last minute due to COVID19.

(new post) September 2020. A webinar-under-design was presented for critical review to an audience of approx. 20 members of the project Core Team + IPM Voice board of directors + 7 guests invited because of their experience and critical capacity. A review session was held afterward which will have significant impact on how we present and design webinars going forward.

(new post) January 22, 2021. A 1-hour Webinar/Training will be delivered as part of the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual meeting. The audience (expected to be 40-60) will include farmers and educators.

(new post) April 30, 2020. We will present an introductory webinar (2-3 hours in length) to a diverse and mostly Western audience of farm and food professionals. This is the follow up to an all-day introductory meeting on the research and the project which was cancelled in March 2020 due to COVID.

(new post) Changes in staffing and budget will be noted and detailed in a letter to Kali McPeters requesting a reallocation of funds among budget lines, with no impact on total amounts.

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.