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

Final report for LNE19-390R

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2019: $175,412.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Red Tomato
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
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Project Information


The American public, most notably the fraction concerned with healthy eating and sustainable farming practices, does not understand that organic fruit production is extremely difficult at a wholesale/commercial scale in all of the Eastern United States. Consequently, locally-grown, ecologically-raised Eastern tree fruit is increasingly taking a back seat in the marketplace to exclusive club varieties and to Western organic fruit. Eastern tree fruit growers need narrative tools and communications training to bolster the confidence and understanding of their customers, their communities, and the general public.

In this project, we teamed up with an in depth social science research effort called the Farming & Food Narrative Project aimed at developing a new narrative to explain sustainable farming practices to an American public. We applied the general findings of this research toward the development of communication tools specifically for seven Northeast tree fruit orchards. The social science research was conducted by FrameWorks Institute (FW). They interviewed agricultural experts, asking what was most important for the public to understand about sustainable farming. Then they determined what the public actually understood about sustainable farming–they described 14 cultural (mental) models held by a diverse sample of average Americans. Next they profiled how the media and how food and farm organizations spoke about sustainable farming. These four data sets provided the foundation for reframing, the creation of new narrative–language and tools– to move the public mindset(s) from the here and now in the direction that expert opinion said was most important. 

FrameWorks Institute produced three detailed reports: one on cultural models and public thinking in 2019, one on media and field organizations in 2020, and a final set of conclusions and recommendations called "Reframing Farming" in 2022. All reports are available on-line at no cost. There were no silver bullet findings, no magical short cuts for farmers or ag educators that would quickly create deep understanding in a skeptical or inattentive public audience. Rather, an ongoing process of navigation: using new language, new narrative, to navigate the 'swamp' of cultural models that exist in everyone's brain, which people use to interpret information, not only facts, but also stories and experiences; navigating to avoid using language that triggers unproductive thinking; and navigating toward the productive responses people offer showing that they are listening and engaging to some degree. 

Red Tomato chose seven orchards where owners expressed interest in improving direct communications with customers in either a Pick-Your-Own operation and/or in a retail farmstand. The aim was to help orchard communicators explain how they farm, explain advanced integrated pest management, and connect more positively with the portion of their customers who care the most about local agriculture and sustainable farming. The research on farms began with RT staff observation of the interaction and communications between orchard employees and their customers (Fall 2021). One year later we provided the orchards with sample narrative (based on the FrameWorks findings) that responded to the most important and common customer questions, such as: Do you spray? Are you organic? We also provided short training videos to use with employees. Because of delays in the FrameWorks research process, we were not able to introduce these tools early enough in 2022 to be able to observe them in action. We concluded the project with 60-90 minute interviews with each orchard owner or manager, including an assessment of the tools provided. Red Tomato is already planning to change some tools  based on feedback, and we'll be sharing them with a wider group of growers for 2023.

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.

In the Northeast, we grow (and enjoy) some of the best apples in the world. And yet, a 2002 study found the Northeast region’s share of apples sold at the Boston Terminal Market declined by 30% between 1980 and 1995, and the trend continues. Retail buyers report organic West coast apple sales outperform ‘conventional’ Northeast apples by 8 to 1. In order to survive in the East coast industry, fruit produced sustainably from our region's 8502 orchards must be recognized as valuable assets by the consuming public.

The common public understanding of farming practices in the U.S. quickly devolves into the organic (good) vs. conventional (bad) mindset, or frame. Organic farmers enjoy a price premium and recognition of growing healthy, safe food ‘the right way.’ Yet, this frame excludes a large portion of our country’s farmers raising wholesale crops where organic production at a commercial scale is not viable. Fruit production in the Northeast is a prime example where climate and pest pressures require the more nuanced practice of advanced Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Like organic, advanced IPM growers assume additional risk and cost, and in return, they too seek public recognition and appreciation for prioritizing agro-ecological production. Recognition, commitment, and willingness to pay require public understanding of these sustainable production practices. Despite creativity and hard work over decades, farmers, scientists, and organizations like Red Tomato have struggled to explain this method of sustainable farming in a way that inspires eaters to commit to sustainably produced fruit from the region. In a time when Northeast growers are rapidly losing market share to West coast production, addressing this gap in public understanding has become critical to the survival of our farms and orchards.

Farmers and scientists have worked hard to educate the public about IPM for fifty plus years with limited success. They often make facts the center of their story and these messages rarely get through. Humans are “fast and frugal thinkers” whose brains resist deliberation or reason. When presented with facts that don’t fit existing understandings (mental models), the fact goes, and the pre-existing assumption stays.

Launched by Red Tomato in 2005, the EcoApple® program is a third-party certification program for Northeast orchards representing, in an average year, 12-18 orchards and 1,500-2,000 acres. Farms join the program for technical assistance in ecological production and for a verifiable way to communicate their sustainable practices. In early years, the combination of sustainable, local, and farm-identified was enough to secure a small premium over conventional supermarket prices. Recently, however, that premium has been eroded by ever-increasing West coast production of both organic and conventional fruit.

The novel approach in this project was the marriage of an ongoing national social science research effort called The Farming and Food Narrative Project (FFNP) and the application of its findings to Northeast orchards who practice advanced integrated pest management (IPM). Utilizing the social science of framing—the cognitive science that studies how people make sense of information–this project researched, created, tested, and applied new frames (metaphors, examples, and narrative) for explaining sustainable agriculture to the public audience of Northeast orchards.


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. Of the 17, 4 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.

Below, we showcase two of the dominant cultural (mental) models that emerged in the report:

  1. Organic and Local = Natural and Pure. The Natural vs. Human-Made model is the foundational model that shapes thinking about organic and locally grown food. In this sub-model, which reflects a pattern of thinking within the larger Natural vs. Human-Made model, people equate organic and local with “natural” (i.e., using few, if any, human-made materials and substances). In turn, people think of organic and locally grown produce as purer—as healthier and, implicitly, morally preferable because it does not pervert nature. Communicators can productively leverage this model when discussing consumer health, but they should avoid activating this model to bring attention to other effects, such as the health and economic well-being of farmers and farmworkers and the protection and enhancement of the environment.
  2. The Natural vs. Human-Made Cultural Model. Members of the public define nature and human society in opposition to one another. “Natural” means untouched by human beings and is understood as pure and healthy. Human intervention, by contrast, pollutes and defiles nature. This way of thinking leads people to assume that food production in general, and farming specifically, should involve as little human intervention as possible and the use of few, if any, human-made substances. Seeing nature and human society in opposition causes people to think that less human intervention and fewer synthetic substances are better for the environment. While most participants viewed farming as necessarily disruptive to the natural environment, they also distinguished farming practices by degree. Less “natural” practices, especially the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, were assumed to be inherently more harmful to the environment. This way of thinking yields skepticism about the use of technology and chemicals in farming, which leads people to reject whole categories of farming practice and to automatically favor “organic” and “natural” food over alternatives. This makes it difficult for people to see that different practices are appropriate in different contexts and that technology and chemicals can, in many cases, improve health and protect the environment. Disrupting the natural vs. human-made binary and opening space for a more accurate assessment of farming methods is perhaps the most important—and most challenging—task for future research.

The MCFFA research phase of the FFNP got underway in November 2019. FrameWorks researchers studied 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 presented ideas on sustainable agriculture and good farming practices, and to see how they reinforced or challenged 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 with the farmer/owner). Simultaneously, we began the design of the orchard 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.' We let go of our plan to work with a university-based professor and class, and instead recruited and hired 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 in-person 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, was where the re-framing work happened, leading to new narrative elements (new frames) and guidelines/tools on how to use them. The first step was to establish 8-10 candidate frames that were 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 the prescriptive phase which showed completion of research results and reframing strategies by Winter 2022.

The revised FrameWorks research team developed a new series of candidate metaphors and examples that were accepted by project staff and by the Core Team. These candidates were shared in framing experiments (i.e. targeted surveys and ‘on-the-screen’ interviews) that tested their ability to open up conversations and build deeper understanding.

The investigation proved the degree of complexity of farming models that existed in the minds of the public. It required more experimentation to lead to conclusive and statistically relevant results and recommendations. For example, it proved tricky to find framing strategies that made a measurable positive difference in the public's general attitude toward farming. People already held a positive view of farming. However, it was romanticized and unrealistic. Researchers explored different avenues to get around this “ceiling effect.”

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. 

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 were used to adapt the final FrameWorks research findings to the needs of the growers. They were then given tools and trainings to assist the identified communicators, public-facing and U-Pick staff, in their identified communication challenges/settings. Following the tool roll out, their potential impact and utility was discussed with the same people from the baseline interviews and their communication staff (October 2022).

The delayed timeline posed a challenge for the orchard-focused part of the research: a tight turn around to apply our FrameWorks findings to our Northeast orchards in the 2022 growing season (June-October). We managed this squeeze to some degree by having conversations with Frameworks researchers about their findings and the possible implications for orchard managers before they actually wrote them down for the final report. However, we were unable to test the performance of new frames in action on orchards in Fall 2022. Instead, we held in depth interviews with each orchard separately, and had each farmer assess the new tools.

Research results and discussion:

Results and discussion of Hypothesis 1: Understanding of the cultural models that average citizens use when interpreting information about sustainable farming will lead to the development of reframed, or, new frames that lessen people’s misconceptions about farming and build more accurate understanding about sustainable farming.

The data that formed the basis for the development of new frames were comprised of:

  • The recorded and transcribed answers of 17 agricultural experts given during 17 one-on-one one hour long interviews in pursuit of expert opinion about what's most important for the public to understand about farming and good farming practices.
  • The recorded and transcribed answers of 24 in-depth, semi-structured, in-person ~two-hour interviews with members of the American public–selected for diversity in terms of geography, urban/rural, age, gender, income, education, race and ethnicity, political ideology, marital status, and parental status. The data reflected participants' answers to broad open-ended questions probing how they think about farming and good farming, as opposed to what they think, which is common in more narrowly-framed surveys or interviews where participants choose from among predetermined choices. The data in this FrameWorks research was curated and organized to reveal deeper patterns of thinking among broad populations, something that large-scale quantitative surveys can't do.
  • Portions of written communications selected from (i) 118 media articles taken from a diverse set of US-based news sources (newspapers and websites); and from 113 websites of 26 farm/food organizations that were either scientific/academic organizations, issue advocacy groups, or trade groups. Researchers performed quantitative coding to enumerate narrative components such as sustainability or pest management. Next, researchers used qualitative analysis to identify themes, trends, and patterns of meaning in the data. Finally, researchers compared the data against the public's cultural models.

In the midst of Phase I, the Descriptive Research (the first half of the project), we learned that we had failed to include sufficient diversity in our choice of the 12 Experts we initially interviewed. We added 5 Experts of color to the group for a total of 17 Experts, without changing the questions or the interview structure in any way. This pivot added several months to our timeline. It changed the Expert Story in ways that impacted the final recommendations.

The first level of findings was a summary of expert opinion. The second level of findings was the crystallization of 14 cultural models that describe the public's deep assumptions and implicit understandings about farming and food production systems. This made possible the third level which was the direct comparison of the first two levels and the identification of the all-important gaps between them which revealed the essence of the reframing challenge. See Mapping the Gaps report.

Hypothesis 1 is true as written. However, what became evident in 2021 and 2022, was that there was no short, straight line connecting the cultural models (and the Map of the gaps) to the new frames. In writing Hypothesis 1 we (the NESARE project staff) underestimated the difficulty of step one in the reframing process (the second phase, the Prescriptive Phase of FrameWorks' overall process) –selecting the Tasks that the new frames had to accomplish (their job description). For example, Task 1 (of 6) was: "Expand the public's understanding of farming as complex work and farmers as expert problem solvers." Task 6 was: "Broaden people's understanding of what pest management strategies involve beyond pesticides."

The determination of Tasks (that the new frames had to accomplish) proved to be an extended process, a long multi-step discussion including researchers, NESARE project staff, and the Farming & Food Narrative Project Core Team. Which public "misconceptions" to focus on, and what approach to take in "building more accurate understanding about sustainable farming" was not explicit in reading the Expert Story or the Cultural Models or the Media and Field Organization report. It was a matter of debate and choice. One of the great challenges of transdisciplinary work revealed itself when social scientists and agricultural scientists and nonscientists brought their problem-solving perspectives and methodology to the same "table." The process, replete with revisions and disagreement, was resolved in the end. No one left the "table." The pain was worth the gain. The project was delayed several additional months.

Results and discussion of Hypothesis 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.

Red Tomato staff collected qualitative data from 7 orchards regarding their current communication contexts and challenges with their direct-markets (U-Pick, farm stands and stores, and farmers markets). Data were collected through interviews with farm owners, managers, presidents, and/or communication staff and on-farm observation to see how questions and conversations regarding IPM practices unfolded. Since the data set is small (7 orchards), they were manually coded and analyzed by Red Tomato and FrameWorks staff. There were various recurring codes across all participating orchards as well as challenges/opportunities unique to each orchard which allowed for more tailored feedback to growers. Common themes in these communication settings were:

  1. Connection to Nature/Farms: Customers are attracted to the participating orchards because they want to be in a nature based environment and have a relationship with their local farms. This puts growers in a position of communicating with a self-selected audience that is more receptive to learning.
  2. Spraying Practices: The most frequently asked questions by visitors/customers are “do you spray,” “do you use pesticides” (as relayed by orchard leaders and reinforced in on-farm observation). Growers also find these the most challenging to answer in a way that satisfies and doesn’t trigger fear in their immediate audience.
  3. Staffing: Many orchards employ young seasonal staff (predominantly high school and college students). Due to the seasonal nature of the direct markets, there is a high rate of turnover and a weak base of understanding of on-farm practices. Thus, the staff are not well equipped to answer visitor/customer questions about how produce is grown and why.
  4. Intergenerational Visitors: Many visitors were combinations of grandparents, parents and children. There is an opportunity to reach multiple generations–specifically a younger generation that will grow up to make their own informed decisions in the food system. This makes accessible language a necessity to reach all visitors.
  5. Time Trade-Off: Growers and their staff are eager to inform and build trust with customers but need to make it quick. On busy days when there are long check-in lines, there’s the trade-off between satisfying and connecting with customers through meaningful conversations and not holding up traffic to the point it becomes a negative experience for other visitors. There’s also the trade-off of having those meaningful conversations and running the on-farm operations.

The overarching themes from orchard interviews and observation were used to inform a Communicating Eco toolkit that wove in the FrameWorks’ research on effectively connecting with the public. The toolkit also offered ‘nuggets’ of FrameWorks methodology that pulls back the curtain to explain why it’s important to say things one way rather than another. The toolkit included short informative clips on why it’s important to engage with visitors on the farm, how to explain EcoCertified, and how to explain why orchards are not organic. For example,avoid the term pesticides because it triggers public concerns about food safety. Instead, use more precise terms like fungicide and the names of specific diseases…"

Each grower also received a compiled findings report for their individual orchard which included where other orchards shared similar communication struggles and challenges/opportunities unique to their operation.

After reviewing the orchard reports, many growers admitted that training their new staff is a part of their business that continuously gets put on the back burner. Many growers, however, were surprised at just how much their staff struggled to describe Eco and the on-farm practices. Orchards recognized their need to train young staffers in a streamlined way that equips them to engage with visitors. While the Eco toolkit was a step toward more productive conversations with and greater understanding of visitors, growers said they would benefit from a train-the-trainer style ‘Communicating Eco’ workshop for orchard leaders. 

To further reinforce our findings, following tool deployment, we would have liked to conduct exit surveys with customers who conversed with staff to gauge the shift in their understanding of IPM practices. (i.e. spraying, pesticides, [non]organic). This effort, however, required more time and resources than we had. This would have actually measured the change in customers’ perception & understanding of sustainable practices.

At the start of the project we imagined that new frames would provide better ways of explaining the elusive concept of integrated pest management. By the end of the project it was clear that the technical language embedded in IPM was not only hard to understand; it was a full-blown impediment to communications, one we needed to surrender for a public audience. Instead, we should be communicating familiar concepts at the heart of IPM  such as pollinator protection, soil health, and natural controls, without mentioning IPM at all. In an age where climate is increasingly on people's minds, the list of Frequently Asked Questions extended beyond spraying, chemicals, and pest management to include soil health, bees and the weather.

At the start of the project we held an assumption that newly created frames, rigorously tested for efficacy, would be the key communication tool(s) for education and shifting mindsets in a public audience. Mid-way into the project it became clear: there would be no 'silver bullets.' New frames were necessary, invaluable tools, indeed, however, changing mindsets was a long game. The word navigating emerged as the best way to understand what we had signed up for–navigating the 'swamp' of cultural models that exist in everyone's brain, which people use to interpret information, not only facts, but also stories and experiences; navigating to avoid using language that triggers unproductive thinking; navigating toward the productive responses people offer showing that they are listening and engaged to some degree.

We learned that different kinds of employees require different communication tools. Owners and some middle-level farm managers have sufficient confidence and knowledge of farming such  that they can memorize or internalize the concepts from a Frequently Asked Questions sheet. And they benefit from short training videos. The all-important part-time staff, many of them high school or college students, need something closer to an index card in their pocket for the 3 most frequently asked questions which they can read aloud to inquiring customers.

Research conclusions:

This NESARE research project unfolded on two levels: (a) Strategic Frame Analysis–seven years of social science research conducted by FrameWorks Institute between 2016-2022, the latter half which coincided in time with this NESARE project; and (b) The Northeast Orchard Application–the application of lessons learned from level (a) to the communications and marketing challenges faced by seven tree fruit orchards in the Northeast. Below, we report on the conclusions and recommendations from both levels of research.

FrameWorks Institute summarized their final recommendations in a report issued December 2022 called Reframing Farming: Strategies for expanding thinking about agriculture (attached in report).

FrameWorks synthesized all their data into 6 primary recommendations/guidelines that should be incorporated into public-facing communications to broaden society’s understanding of sustainable agriculture:

  1. Start with farming, not food. When we start conversations about farming with the theme of food, the issue quickly narrows to individual safety or eating experience. From there, people are quick to endorse anything that they perceive to promote the “purity” of food, whether or not the idea objectively reduces risk to consumer health or fits with the reality of farming. On the other hand, when we enter conversations about farming through other issues – especially community vibrancy or environmental concerns – people can and will begin to grapple with the complexity of farming. 
  2. Make the story about interconnection. People readily agree that farming is vital to society; we don’t need to spend precious communications energy convincing them that it matters. We do, however, need to remind people why it’s an issue that deserves more public attention. Emphasize topics that lend themselves to the interdependence of farming and other parts of society. Elaborate on examples that illustrate the interrelated nature of different aspects of farming. 
  3. Show how adjusting farming practices and policies can contribute to the type of communities we want. Farming is often far out on the horizon in public thinking and public discourse. If people think about farming at all, they picture it as something in the background of society. Use framing to bring it closer to the communities where people live and connect it to the ideals that people believe society should uphold. 
  4. Talk about the tightrope that farms must cross. Compare the risky, complex decision making involved in farming to the process of crossing a tightrope. Talk about how current policy and market conditions make it harder for farms to make it across – and how the right changes could help more farmers strike the right balance.
  5. Tell science-rich stories about innovative practices on farms. Show how innovative, scientifically informed practices are being implemented on all types of farms. Explain the ways in which farmers develop, test, and adopt evidence-based practices to solve specific dilemmas that arise from their context. Set the scene for science by describing the puzzle that arises from needing to grow this crop under these conditions, with these threats from insects or diseases. Our research suggests that deepening the public’s understanding of the different practices that farmers might use, why certain practices might be used over others, and these practices’ effects on economic, environmental, and social dimensions, is needed to generate support for programs and policies that meet the needs of everyone in society. 
  6. Speak directly to historical and contemporary inequities. The social upheavals stemming from the events of 2020 are changing the way people think and talk about long standing injustices stemming from unfair economic design, systemic racism, and political processes.3 We need to change the way we talk about farming as well. If agricultural voices don’t engage in these issues, we are not only missing important opportunities to make farming better, we are also sidelining ourselves from the most vibrant public discussions of our time. Participating in public discourse on these topics is part of reframing farming as central, not peripheral, to the rest of society. It is important for agricultural communicators to listen closely to these national conversations – and to join them. 

These broad recommendations offer insights that all farmers and ag educators, anywhere, might be able to use in their communications and marketing. Every application of such broad recommendations requires a fine sieve in which they are made relevant and useful to one farm or organization's particular context. When narrowing down the scope of these recommendations to Northeast orchards that employ IPM practices, the most poignant contextual communication barriers were around spray practices (i.e. pesticide use, and organic vs non-organic farming). All seven growers in this project called out this issue as being the most challenging to communicate to their visitors in a way that provided a satisfying explanation and built trust and meaningful understanding. Adding to the challenge, growers were working with a high staff turnover rate–mostly high school and college students that worked during the summer/fall. They needed to quickly and efficiently train new employees every year, and oftentimes in the midst of peak selling season.

In early Fall 2022 we provided orchards with a Communicating Eco Toolkit which received a strong positive response from growers who believed it addressed the main challenges mentioned above. Growers also expressed enthusiasm and demand for more training beyond the NESARE grant period. Red Tomato is committed to ongoing work on communications with orchards, and not only the seven included in this NESARE study.

The multiple delays in the FrameWorks research process inevitably changed the 2022 work on farms. By the time the final conclusions and recommendations arrived from FrameWorks–more than one year later than originally expected–we had missed the window for training orchard employees for the 2022 harvest/PYO season. We replaced the 2022 on-farm observations with 60-90 minute virtual interviews with each orchard. What we gained with that approach was having the full and undivided attention of farm owners, focused on communications and employee training, without the inevitable distractions that occur during farm visits. That made it clearer for RT how to proceed with our communication work in 2023; how to customize benefits for different orchards. We learned from the interviews that we were on to something–that growers/owners perceived the tools to be useful and likely to be used. What we lost was the opportunity to observe whether and how the new communication tools performed in action.

There's a research design flaw here, however. We overestimated the small number of meaningful interactions that occur between customers and orchard employees. When someone does ask about growing practices or about the farm in general, it's an important moment for customer development–these are the customers likely to spread positive (or negative) words-of-mouth. But these moments are infrequent and difficult to observe, which speaks to  how important it is that all employees be equipped with a communication tool they know how to use to guide their response (whatever their capacity).

There were other key, important conclusions from this research project that we–NESARE project staff, Red Tomato staff, the Core Team of the Farming & Food Narrative Project–are now applying to our advocacy and education work with tree fruit growers. Some of these conclusions didn't jump directly out of the data; rather, some were learned along the way, by being on the journey of a transdisciplinary project, by working directly with social scientists, and by working closely with growers while trying to apply the level (a) FrameWorks findings.

  • In conventional communications and marketing training, we are/were taught that effective communications begin with "knowing the audience," typically defined by demographic measures: age, gender, income level, education level, race/ethnicity, urban v. rural, etc. These measures tell you who your audience is; but not how they're thinking about your issue or problem or product. Strategic framing taught us the importance of knowing the audience by deep listening that revealed the dominant cultural models in their minds, thereby setting the stage for future communications that potentially begin to shift mindsets.

Because of participation in this transdisciplinary project, and through direct work with  social scientists, Red Tomato staff will from hereon bring a different approach to our communications and marketing work on behalf of and with the region's growers. Strategic framing has taught us to ask different questions about the audience, to frame messages differently, to deliver them in a different voice, and to advocate for a stronger role by growers and their employees in delivering certain messages directly to customers.

Participation Summary
18 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities:

9 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Online trainings
3 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days
7 Other educational activities: Individual discussions with each farm to discuss their specific on-farm findings and how to use the Communicating Eco Toolkit based on their contexts.

Participation Summary:

14 Farmers participated
75 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.

Other: Individual discussions with all 7 participating orchards on their specific on-farm opportunities/challenges and how to use the Communicating Eco Toolkit (Oct/Nov 2022).

Publication: FrameWorks’ final report, Reframing Farming: Strategies for expanding thinking about agriculture (attached in report). FrameWorks synthesized all their data into 6 primary recommendations/guidelines that should be incorporated into public-facing communications to broaden society’s understanding of sustainable agriculture.

Annual In-Person Eco Growers Meeting: Feb 27-28, 2023 will include a 3-hour section on communications with the findings and recommendations from this NESARE project interspersed throughout. The growers meeting typically includes 20-35 growers, 6-12 scientists, 8 RT staff, and a handful of community members.

Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
28 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
28 Educators or agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their project outreach
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

We understand that all farmers and service providers included in the numbers entered above may not have gained knowledge in all areas described below.

  1. The old 'best practices' for presentation (better facts, graphs, photos, research results…) don't really work.
  2. Topics that are integral to navigate in order to connect with the public that leads to better understanding of farm systems & on-farm practices (ie. IPM & spraying practices), and strategies/messaging to do so.
  3. Staff needs for better communication with visitors/customers & on-farm opportunities for them to broach conversations about the farm.

Project Outcomes

4 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
$685,000.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
11 New working collaborations
Success stories:

Story #1: A diversified fruit and vegetable farm in the Hudson Valley draws large crowds of eaters from nearby urban areas to their store, CSA, and You-Pick operation. This farm is very focused on their direct-market communications. They’ve spent a lot of time crafting signage and cultivating a relationship with visitors and the surrounding community. They raise their number one crop, apples, using two approaches: some as certified Organic, and quite a bit more acreage as Eco certified (ecologically-grown). However, they experience apple communications as a narrative stand off between what some visitors expect to hear–that organic is the gold standard of farm production–and the story that tells their own truth, that the Eco approach is their preferred way to raise apples on this farm, in this climate.


RT staff spent time observing this orchard, including a hayride that transports visitors to different apple varieties around the orchard. RT staff heard a consistent drum beat of excitement from riders every time the tractor passed the beehive–something that farm management hadn’t zeroed in on. It was as if the bees were trying to tell orchard employees: hey, this is how you tell the story about how you farm. Tell them all you DO to protect us, to build the soil, to keep the workers safe. Pollinator protection is one example of how to illustrate  the EcoCertified program story without resorting to jargon or technical language, broadening eaters' understanding of ‘good’ farming practices beyond just spray use, chemicals,  and things they know through the lens of fear.


Story #2: A well-known, multi-generational  fruit orchard in Connecticut had conflicting feelings about whether conversations with visitors about farming practices–especially around pesticides and spraying–were worth broaching at all. They worried that a conversation about how they farm could shift a visitor's mindset away from the idealized (albeit incorrect) image of the farm that drew them in, thereby losing their trust and their purchase. After the on-farm observation by RT staff, they realized that not only were their orchard staff not having conversations about on-farm practices, they weren’t engaging visitors at all beyond prices and some questions about where to find specific varieties. They saw the missed opportunity to engage eaters in a different way. They were seriously considering the investment in training staff to address visitor questions more directly and more skillfully, seeing the potential benefit as instilling trust in them as growers, strengthening relationships with their surrounding community, and encouraging repeat visits.

Story #3: An orchard in Pennsylvania drew attention to the connections among IPM education, workforce training, language, and culture. As an orchard with only direct market sales–farmers markets and their farm store–they found that when there was a Spanish-speaking salesperson at the farmers market booth, there were more sales to Spanish-speaking customers. When they had Amish staff at the booth, they sold more fruit to Amish customers. This orchard was undergoing a lot of change: their workforce was increasingly Spanish-speaking. Though three generations were still involved, the youngest generation was assuming more and more leadership authority–the generational transfer was well underway. The younger generation raised a question we are now entertaining seriously: what about a version of the ‘Communicating Eco Toolkit’ in Spanish? One of the middle generation owners of this farm, impressed by the commitment of their child to the training and care of their workforce, made a comment about the farm loss they are seeing in their county; “farmers farming without a clear sense of purpose are going to be the next ones to go.”

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

As mentioned in the research discussion, evaluation should be conducted to understand how the ‘Communicating Eco’ resources impact how staff–from management level to the seasonal employees–engage with visitors and answer difficult questions around on-farm practices/decision-making. Additionally, how do the tools get incorporated into non-oral farm communications? Future areas of research that build off this project include examining how these communication tools shift the visitor perception of sustainable farming practices (advanced IPM/EcoCertified practices), both in the short and medium term, and how their understanding shifts the kinds of questions they ask of farm staff. What would the subsequent shift in on-farm communication challenges/opportunities look like? This would guide the focus/development of future communication resources for growers to continue to build relationships with their customers and ensure their viability. In the long term–how does the utilization of FrameWorks recommendations impact the discourse around agriculture, and improve public understanding of sustainable agriculture on the whole?

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.