Building from excellent agents to effective organizers of collaborative, sustainable rural enterprise

Final Report for LS01-130

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $19,990.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. James Worstell
Delta Land & Community
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Project Information


Behind every successful cooperative is a good facilitator. Fifty-two agents who are living proof of this fact volunteered to pool their experience. Our purpose was to stimulate training programs to help traditional county agents become good facilitators. We began by collecting profiles of successful enterprise facilitators from the Delta states. These agents' experiences in becoming good organizers were the core of a design conference held in October 2001, several planning sessions, a training manual, and a continuing list serv. Results are: 1) a network of agents from the South, Michigan, Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri; 2). a multi-state integrated research/education project to improve organizing/facilitation.

Project Objectives:

1. Build awareness of the need for facilitation of collaborative enterprise & recruit participants.

2. Define the process of successful development of collaborative, sustainable rural enterprises.

3. Integrate research design with training plans in each agency.


Rural America has moved from occasional crises to recurrent crises to chronic crisis. Policy and education programs of the past were successful in achieving production goals. The dynamic, polarized complexity of today's chronic crisis requires additional skills. Naturally individualistic farmers have been encouraged to see their problems as arising from environmentalists and competition from other farmers. As one farmer puts it:

"Farmers have looked over the fence at their neighbors and thought that there was the competition. We had it all wrong. Our competition is in an office on Wall Street or Memphis. He is motivated by the bottom line only and what he can return to his shareholders. He gives not a thought to rural America and our way of life here. We must realize before its too late that our neighbors, farmers and small town dwellers, are not our competition but our allies."

The trend in agriculture today is toward vertical integration with control by huge corporations out of the hands of farmers. For example, January 2002 data show Tyson now "controls about 28 percent of the nation's beef market, 23 percent of the market for chickens and 18 percent of the pork market" (Mercer, 2002). The control of agriculture by large corporations is supported by the research of Keith Collins, Chief Economist of USDA ( 2001) and Bill Heffernan (2000). The low commodity prices provided by these corporations are forcing the greatest crisis ever seen in American agriculture requiring government payments at levels increasingly onerous to the tax-paying public.
In some parts of the country, particularly the Midwest, a new approach to organizing farmers has resulted in a new generation of farmer-owned businesses which has helped some farmers maintain profitability in the face of some of the lowest commodity prices ever seen.
Organized groups are the source of change. The observation of Margaret Mead-- "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"--was tested and proven true by county-level agents in the 1930s. These agents helped establish farmer cooperatives across the U.S. and Northern Europe, creating a huge impact on economic systems. The impact of organized farmer groups on ecological systems was first seen on a national scale in the 1980s in Australia. Beginning with a systems agriculture/facilitation training program at one agricultural college (Hawkesbury), natural resource systems facilitation training has spread to nearly all universities in Australia (Bawden, 1995). This type of facilitation training has not been institutionalized in U.S. universities, largely because organizing/facilitation in the U.S. since its heyday in the 30s become split into at least three competing disciplines: community development, Alinsky-type organizing, and corporate facilitation [see our website for further discussion (
Recently in the U.S. a new synthesis of these approaches has arisen, leading to a rapid increase in the number of farmer-owned value added ventures in the past decade. According to figures released by Iowa State University, there has been an exponential increase in producer-owned new-generation cooperatives (NGCs), with the number of new ventures at least doubling every year since 1990. However, nearly all these startups have been outside the South (Merritt, et al., 2001).
Those most familiar with this burgeoning phenomena explain this curve and the lack of activity in the South with the statement: "behind every successful cooperative is a good facilitator." Bill Patrie (1995), who has worked with more successful NGCs than any other person in the country, contends: "The greatest need in agriculture today is for good business facilitators." Many (whether in Extension or other organizations) have the technical expertise and, often, personal networks to help farmers develop "natural value chains". In the Upper Midwest, an informal network of such facilitators, led by Extension, has recently emerged (Holmes, 2001). Nearly every Midwestern state has an informal state network of agents who facilitate new enterprises. Three (Missouri, Nebraska and Michigan) have developed formal networks. The challenge for all states is to improve the skills of agents performing enterprise facilitation.
Value-chains. This initiative is based on the concept of maintaining the values of sustainable family farms through the value chain of food and fiber products. The value chain concept (Porter, 1985) disaggregates a firm into its strategically important activities to understand the behavior of the firm's costs and the firm's existing or potential sources of differentiation. A firm gains competitive advantage by performing these strategically important activities at a lower cost or better than its competitors. Dakota Pasta Growers Cooperative, for example, has established a value chain from its wheat farmer owners to health- and environment-conscious consumers. Many Southern agents (whether in Extension or other organizations) have the technical expertise and, often, personal networks to help farmers develop "natural value chains."
Extension has the staff in place to facilitate collaborative farmer efforts. Although U.S. Extension is admired worldwide for its successes in increasing production of commodities, less emphasis has been directed in recent years to organizing farmers for marketing and processing their production.
When extension was being established, organizing farmers was often the first job of the extension agent. In the early years after the Extension Service was created in 1914, before extension staff could bring the service's education programs to a county, the service was required to establish a farm organization composed of 20% of farmers in the county (CAFB, 2000).
A state extension administrator stated the importance of organizing to extension in 1916:
"It is recognized that the county agent must be able to do more than give out technical information. He must be a leader and organizer in order that people may be brought together and enlisted in an active way in the various movements . . ." A revitalized cooperative extension service, operating once again as a catalyst for organizing land-grant staff and rural people, could be an exciting and tremendously valuable tool for addressing an array of complex problems and opportunities. Extension could once again be the exciting place to work in agriculture–on the cutting edge of the needed transformation of American agriculture.
Methods of rural organizing. Classic facilitation, classic organizing, community development, rural entrepreneurial training all seek to help organize collaborative groups of people in rural areas. Each has much to offer; each has limitations. Classic organizing has been very successful in civil rights, labor and some environmental organizing. Community development efforts have been successful at gaining participation from whole communities. Classic facilitation efforts have been successful at conflict resolution and consensus-building. None of these three have been successful in enterprise creation. Entrepreneurial training has been successful at team-building for specific enterprises, but often the resulting enterprises have been detrimental to environmental and community values (Hendricksen & Heffernan, 2000).
The limitations of the various approaches has resulted in many attempts to synthesis an approach combining the most effective techniques from each. For example, rules for "new generation organizing" (Patrie, 1998) have been developed to replace Saul Alinsky's rules of organizing (Alinsky, 1969). A review of literature shows no synthesis of all four approaches.
In practice, the most successful organizers and facilitators draw from all these approaches and create their own unique approaches to match their personalities, places and times. What has been in short supply is the combination of expertise in ecologically-sound agricultural systems and openness to various methods of learning, organizing and facilitating.
A few individuals in agricultural research and extension have promoted facilitation techniques and/or been effective in organizing value-added enterprises. What's needed, however, is a high profile effort which places organizing collective action at the top of the agenda of major institutions and agents in the field. Such an initiative will provide an organizing principle which could unite sustainable agriculture, value-added efforts, community development and entrepreneurial training programs.
The missing link in developing alternative markets: team facilitation/organizing. Southern SARE, eight years ago, funded the "State of the South" project which conducted an assessment of research and education needs. The conclusion of a survey of Extension, NRCS and NGO staff in nearly 1200 Southern counties revealed that agents in every state ranked establishment of new marketing alternatives as the number one priority for both research and education in every state (Huston and Rhoades, 1995). Southern SARE has followed up on this conclusion by funding projects aimed at assisting farmers in alternative marketing and value-added diversification. In one project, agents were asked about their interest in training to help farmers establish value-added businesses. Of 91 agents surveyed at the project's Dyersburg, Tennessee, conference, 100% were interested in training in entrepreneurial agriculture.
Another recent SARE funded project resulted in entrepreneurial training for agents in Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. Tim Woods, the University of Kentucky co-investigator, said the project was very helpful, but was missing one key component which he and other ag economists and rural sociologists are not well-versed in. The area Woods and many other feel is neglected is the focus of this project: group dynamics, team-building and other skills needed in developing new collaborative organizations.
Uniting social psychology and agricultural science. Many agricultural professionals seem to agree with the Tennessee agent at a Dyersburg workshop who decried psychology research as "studying rats running around in mazes." Agents have focused on production, while the large corporations have used social psychological techniques to help them control that production. If we want to help small and limited resource farms survive, we need to have the same social psychological skills routinely taught to the MBAs now running large agribusinesses.
Partially supported by a SARE PDP grant and the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a list-serv of 14 successful agent-facilitators spent two years reaching consensus on the areas of social psychology most needed to help rural agents become adept at organizing CSREs. Six areas were identified in this process: I. Learning Systems and Systems Learning, II. Motivating Teams, III. Conceptual Pluralism, IV. Communication Beyond Words, V. Evoking Integration and Innovation and IV. Holistic Decision-Making. Vast amounts of research has been done on the relevance of skills in all these areas to facilitation/organizing. Much of this has been summarized on the website What has not been done is systematic research on the relative importance of each of these areas to helping agents become better organizers of CSRE. The purpose of this planning grant proposal is to discover those methods and turn that research into a training program.
Southern SARE recently awarded a planning grant to our institutions (Kentucky State University, University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, University of Tennessee, and Delta Land and Community) to design a project to help Extension agents and other agents become more adept at facilitating new enterprises. The planning grant supported a series of meetings, workshops, and interviews in five states.
Expert systems for developing good Extension agents. Every state extension service has an extensive plan for training and mentoring based on the long experience of extension leadership in that state. Kentucky's approach (Absher, 2000) is included here to show how facilitation and organizing is a natural outgrowth of existing extension activities.. As the accompanying diagram shows, this model can be represented as a wheel with six spokes: Service, Council, Accountability, Education, Leadership and Collaboration, which are developed in roughly that order, though by no means in lock-step fashion.
At the center, axis or axle of this is the good agent's high levels of integrity and self-confidence. Based on those character traits, the agent becomes adept at answering the questions which are addressed to his office (service spoke). A second spoke to develop is the agent's council/counsel. The agent must find a group of advisors to become his local extension council and to serve as counsel as he seeks to become a better agent. This council/counsel is later complemented by development of independent leadership for improvement of agricultural systems in his county. The third spoke is accountability. Agents must see themselves as accountable for their extension programs. Later, this spoke is complemented by a collaboration spoke when the agent becomes more a collaborator with county residents to improve agricultural systems, rather than as the personally accountable source of improvement. The service spoke is complemented by an education spoke.
Each spoke of the wheel must be in balance or the county extension system runs rough. A smoothly running extension wheel, in this model, becomes a facilitator and organizer of sustainable, resilient and continuously improving agricultural systems.
The Kentucky Legislature in the 2000 session assigned Extension the task of facilitating new agricultural marketing and value-added opportunities in each of Kentucky's 120 counties. Other Southern states may not have as explicit a legislative directive, but many have implicit legislative encouragement and even more have an independent desire to assist farmers in establishing alternative agricultural marketing and processing ventures.
The potential effect of Extension agents throughout the South is hard to underestimate. According to the Area Extension Director in Western Kentucky: "If we do this right, we'll have hundreds of new enterprises in Western Kentucky alone" (Prince, 2001).
Preliminary results. As part of our planning process, we conducted two focus groups with Southern Extension agents to solicit their opinions regarding constraints on the progress of Extension agents toward being successful organizers of collaborative rural enterprises. These results were used to design our approach and activities. We elicited both constraints, interventions and expected results from focus group participants. These were organized by participants into the following chart.

Some agents have successfully overcome these constraints. Case studies of their successes may be valuable. Case studies have been validated at the starting point for understanding complex phenomena such as LOVA facilitation. In recent years case studies have been widely used for classroom instruction to help students relate to a real life situation that required a justifiable solution. Since 1997 the Review of Agricultural Economics has published case studies as a core component of the journal–a lead many other agricultural journals are following. The Harvard Business School Executive Business Program has effectively used case studies to train thousands of management executives. The Harvard Business School program has been successful as a result of teaching faculty proactively developing outreach programs that are of use to business managers.
Extension education efforts have typically not used formal case study materials. Many Extension educators use case studies for their programming, but many of these case studies are never captured on paper as they are disseminated via word of mouth. Learners best relate to real-life situations, and agents tend to listen to others who have previously ventured into new areas. The case studies which have been employed in understanding community development have taken the standard sociological emphasis on effects of community and social factors, not on the influence of individual facilitators and the learning experiences leading to their possession of the skills crucial to assisting in creation of collaborative enterprise.


Materials and methods:

Activities performed to meet the project objectives were:

A. Identifying potential collaborators in the region. A group of over 150 successful agent/facilitators from our region was identified in discussions among the participating agencies in our network: Arkansas Municipal League, Delta Caucus, Arkansas Delta Council, Delta Land & Community, University of Kentucky/Kentucky State Cooperative Extension), University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, University of Tennessee Extension-Western Region, Partners for Family Farms, Center for Sustainable Systems, Mississippians Engaged in a Greener Agriculture (MEGA), USDA/Rural Development (Tennessee), Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA), Community Alliances for Interdependent AgriCulture (CAIA), and various local Chambers of Commerce. The project planning team selected the most effective of these for profiles and invitation to the conference described below. Methods used to develop the profiles followed standard decision case methods used in agriculture. (See for examples of such case studies and methods).

B. Interview and develop profiles of potential resource people. Methods used to develop the profiles followed standard decision case methods used in agriculture. (See for examples of such case studies and methods). These were conducted throughout the region in summer 2001. The 17 top profiles were published in a book (Transforming agents: new generation organizing) which has already been incorporated in training programs in Michigan and Missouri. Nine of those profiled, along with accomplished facilitators from outside the region, were featured speakers at the conference described below. A central conclusion was that successful facilitators in the South have independently discovered the methods successful in the Midwest.
C. Communication and meetings with administrators to secure commitment. Meetings were held in five states to secure commitment of administrators.

D. Highly interactive regional conference of resource people who have been successful in enterprise facilitation using a variety of methods (including organizing, facilitation, community development, entrepreneurial training) with collaborators from states. During the process of conducting this project we found that, in practice, the most successful organizers and facilitators draw from a variety of approaches and create their own unique approaches to match their personalities, places and times. We discovered there is a common focus, however, on what Patrie (1998) calls the rules for "new generation organizing" which build on Saul Alinsky's rules of organizing (Alinsky, 1969). Gardner (2002) in Missouri, LeCureux (2001) in Michigan, the First Responders Network in Nebraska have adapted Patrie's methods in their training programs. These three were among a total of 12 presenters of various unique approaches at the conference.
The conference was held in October 2001 with participants from six Southern states. The adaptation of the approach in Missouri, Michigan and various Southern states was presented and trainers and agents from Southern states applied their experience to the approach in breakout sessions after each of three sets of talks.
The conference created both a learning experience in enterprise facilitation training and a networking opportunity for agents throughout the region interested in value-added diversification. Participants in the conference included agents facilitating new enterprises in all major agricultural areas of the South. Conference participants established the first formal network for continuing learning regarding facilitation and organization of new enterprises.
Results of the conference are summarized on the website

E. A construct group took the output of conference participants and establish where both consensus and alternative hypotheses exist regarding benchmarks, skills and learning experiences. The construct group method assists groups in achieving synthesis of participant's experiences. The construct methods followed by the State of South project (Worstell, 1995) were used. This effort resulted in the proposal included in Appendix 1.

Research results and discussion:

The primary deliverables of the project are:

1. Published profiles of the 17 best practitioners in the four states.
2. With a multi-state, trans-institutional network of these practitioners and other resource staff, we defined the key approaches regarding facilitation of sustainable, collaborative enterprises.
3. A six state conference was held to assist in research-based continuous improvement of skills in facilitation of collaborative enterprises. (Conference agenda is included as an appendix.)
4. A multi-state plan of work for integrating research and education on facilitation (submitted as a proposal to Southern SARE).

Many Southern farmers fear they are watching the end of the Southern agrarian way of life as 200-year-old family farms are sold at auction. We say: we can stop this farm crisis as some communities in the Midwest have done using a new method of organizing groups of farmers. The challenge is adapting methods used in the Midwest to social and economic conditions of the South.
The South is home to a variety of forces which impede the development of collaborative sustainable value-added agricultural enterprises. Among these are: farm land owned by non-farmers, federal subsidies which encourage commodity production in Southern crops, huge integrated corporations, huge value-added cooperatives which conduct themselves like corporations.
In addition, organizing in the South has succeeded in making gains for African-Americans through Alinsky-type organizing. This type of organizing requires an enemy who has resources. This had produced divisions through rural America which large corporations have exploited to increase their holdings and control.
Furthermore, Extension agents in some Southern states remains convinced their role is assisting in production of commodities.
Our project thus faces a number of formidable barriers. The only way around these barriers is to create a supportive network. Those few of us working to change this system must support each other and create an alternative system which works with the existing institutions wherever possible and goes around those institutions in other situations.
The unity of our network is our main strength. We know we have an approach which is desperately needed in our region. Our continuing challenge is to help others see the wisdom and value of this approach.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The key publication of this project was "Transforming agents: new generation organizing."
The inherent nature of this project is outreach and dissemination. The core of the project is agents working with farmers to develop new enterprises and learning from this interaction to improve training of agents. Results from case studies are fed back to improve the programs. The agents then are trained more effectively and are more effective in helping create new enterprises.
More important than generating new enterprises, we will increase our understanding of the process of developing new enterprises in poor rural areas. This understanding will then produce a formalized set of learning experiences (curriculum).
According to Curtis Absher (2000) of UK Extension the resulting program will be incorporated in training for 95% of all Extension agents and 100% of new agents in Kentucky. In Arkansas, Tennessee, and other participating states, the training will be incorporated in at least one agency's training program for their staff.
We also anticipate our results being adapted in other states outside the South. Nebraska's First Responders program is the first to express interest in adapting the program to their state. The informal association of North Central facilitators of value-added enterprises (representing agencies from 16 states) has also signed on as a partner in adapting these concepts in their states. National impact will begin to occur during the life of the grant as we catalyze reflection on benchmarks of collaborative enterprise development.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The Outcomes of the project are listed following each subobjective below.

1. Build awareness & recruit participants.
1.1 Widen recruitment

Over 230 people participated in the planning process.

1.2 Expand interest gov't and NGO officials and administrators.

More than 52 resource people committed to work on the project.

1.3 Obtain commitment.

Four states committed to participate

1.4 Establish a network of mentors

An average of 14 agents committed in each state

2. Define process of successful development of collaborative, sustainable rural enterprises.
2.1 Establish relationships between state mentors.

Participants from all states have participated in several meetings and list-serv conversations.

2.2 Familiarize members with the varieties of facilitation/organizing.

The conference surveyed various successful approaches to facilitating CSRE and participants analyzed these in break-out sessions.

2.3 Establish agreement on benchmarks of progress.

Members reached a consensus on a research design.

3. Integrate research design with training plans in each state to produce integrated research and training plan for submission to funding sources.

Locally-appropriate training plans developed which fit research design.

Resulting integrated plan was submitted to various funding sources.

Economic Analysis

Not applicable.

Farmer Adoption

This project is focused on facilitation of groups of farmers. Usually farmers are too busy to spend time in this role. So, for the most part, the audience and participants in our project are Extension agents and others who assist farmers.
We would not recommend that farmers change their day to day operations to become facilitators since it would interfere with their farm work. For that same reason, we do not recruit farmers. However, we are eager to include them when farmers want to be involved when they have down time.
However, we have had several farmers participate. For example, in our main conference, six of the 52 participants were farmers. One of them said it was the best workshop he'd ever been to.


Areas needing additional study

We detail these in our proposal, included as an appendix. The foremost need is to understand what learning experiences can best lead agents to become better facilitators. We propose testing a variety of different methods by measuring the same dependent variables in several states with training programs, providing feedback to the programs, revising training programs, and continuing with this cycle until we have established a self-perpetuating, multi-state, integrated planning and evaluation system.

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.