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:
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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:

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 in-depth 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 had minimal impact on the overall project timeline).

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 presenting ideas on sustainable agriculture and good farming practices, and to see how they reinforce or challenge expert and citizen perspectives.

While the MCFFA research was underway (Fall ‘19-Winter ‘20), we at Red Tomato were organizing and searching for a university-based research partner (presumably, the right university professor with 1-3 grad students, or an undergraduate class) to join us for the design and implementation of the research work to be conducted with Northeast-based orchards in 2020-21. We circulated an RFP to approximately 7 prospective universities we identified at universities and had expected to choose the one or two research partners by March 2020.

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 the 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 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:

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, and in January 2021 proposed a new schedule for research and reporting in the prescriptive phase which would have given us research results and reframing strategies by Winter 2022.

The FrameWorks research team developed a series of candidate metaphors and examples to help explain the context of agricultural decision making in the U.S. These explanations are being tested in framing experiments (i.e. targeted surveys and ‘on-the-screen’ interviews) that will detect their ability to open up conversations and build deeper understanding.

The investigation has proven the complexity of farming models in the minds of the public and requires more experiments to find conclusive and statistically relevant results for meaningful recommendations. For example, it’s proven tricky to find framing strategies that make a measurable difference in public attitudes because people already hold a positive (albeit romanticized) view of farming. Researchers are exploring different avenues to get around this “ceiling effect.”

The timeline has been updated and we anticipate receiving a final report and reframing recommendations by April 2022 which means we will have a tight turn around to apply our FrameWorks findings to our Northeast Orchard by the 2022 growing season (June-October). 

Following the pivot in our means of data collection, RT staff Kelsey Gosch and FrameWorks Research lead developed an interview instrument for baseline evaluation with growers to establish what communication themes and challenges they face and who is communicating with the public on behalf of the farm (initial communications assessment). One-hour-long interviews were conducted with 7 farm managers, owners, and key communicators on staff in the Summer of 2021. All seven orchards have challenges answering questions about organic certification which is often conflated with ‘no spray’ or ‘no pesticide use', and whether they use pesticides at all in their orchards. Almost all orchards have highschool/collegiate seasonal workers who require quick and efficient training on how to communicate about on-farm practices to their visitors.

Interviews were followed up by on-farm observation (4 hours each) at peak U-Pick hours in October. Kelsey was stationed at the points of most interaction between farm staff and orchard visitors to see how farm staff interacted and answered questions in real time. She also identified potential opportunities for additional interaction where growers could talk about the context, opportunities, and challenges of growing in the Northeast region based on the current operations and positioning of staff.

Findings from the baseline communications assessment will be used to adapt the final FrameWorks research findings (underway, to be completed in April 2022) to the needs of the growers. They will then be given tools and trainings to assist the identified communicators, public-facing and U-Pick staff, in their identified communication challenges/settings. Trainings will be given in person with key orchard communicators and those who on-board new workers (unless COVID-19 continues to impact in-person events in which case they will be virtual), and short comprehensive online pre-job-entry courses for seasonal employees. Following the deployment of these tools and trainings, their effectiveness will be evaluated through follow up interviews with the same people from the baseline interviews and additional on-farm observation in the 2022 growing season (October 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
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

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

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.

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.

Workshop: (a) We were 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 were planning to hold our FFNP annual meeting in Sacramento, CA on March 13, where we would have presented the FFNP findings to approx. 30 representatives of western farm and food organizations, including farmers, trade groups, NGOs. The training for WSARE was delivered on-line via zoom in a 3-hour workshop format to the Western SARE Advisory Council meeting in Bozeman, MT, revised at the last minute due to COVID19.

Webinar/Training: A webinar-under-design in Sept. 2020 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 a significant impact on how we present and design webinars going forward.

Webinar/Training: A 1-hour Webinar/Training was delivered on January 22, 2021 as part of the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual meeting. The audience (expected to be 40-60) included farmers, academics, and educators.

Webinar: We presented an introductory webinar (90 minutes in length) to a diverse and mostly Western audience of farm and food professionals on April 30, 2021 along with a dress rehearsal for a select audience of 12 select individuals. This is the follow up to an all-day introductory meeting on the research and the project which was canceled in March 2020 due to COVID.

Presentation: A virtual presentation was given to the National IPM Coordinating Committee on October 19, 2021 on the Farming and Food Narrative Project, including the FrameWorks communication findings funded under the NESARE grant. 

Webinar: We presented an introductory webinar on the Farming and Food Narrative Project, the Northeast growing realities and communication challenges that spurred on the creation of the Project, and the FrameWorks findings to date on January 5, 2022 through the Southern IPM Center.

Information Products

    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.