How farmers learn: improving sustainable agriculture education

Final Report for LS07-195

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2007: $205,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Nancy Franz
Virginia Tech
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Project Information

Abstract:
How Farmers Learn: Lessons for Agriculture Education

Change for farmers is sometimes difficult and Extension educators are often frustrated that farmers don’t internalize, apply, or use practices they recommend. Some of the disconnect between educator teaching and farmers learning may be due to educational delivery methods. This project explores how farmers prefer to learn and what that means for agricultural education, especially Extension education.

A Southern SARE grant secured for three years studies how farmers learn in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana. This third year, data from fifteen focus groups with 94 farmers and 21 Extension agents and specialists was analyzed and disseminated through multiple methods.

All focus group participants discussed ways farmers prefer to learn and how specific situations or events lead the farmer to learn which in turn motivates the farmer to “gather information” over time from many sources (see the figure below). During the “gather information” stage the farmer seeks evidence to support their decision, ensures the costs and savings of the decision are sound, discovers any pitfalls of the decision, and then applies it to their situation. The “gathering information” stage can lead to making
change or not making change to save time and/or money, to adopting cutting edge research, or to simply enjoy socializing with and learning from others.

Eighty-six of 94 farmer focus group participants completed a survey and discussed the ways they prefer to learn. The top six preferred learning methods by participating farmers were hands-on (99%), demonstration (96%), farm visit (94%), field day (88%), discussion (87%), and one-on-one (85%). Farmers had mixed preference for online-web, newsletters, books/manuals, on-farm tests, meetings, and lectures. Finally, four ways these farmers do not prefer to learn were games (80%), comics (78%), role playing (77%), and radio (63 %). Differences between men and women and farmer groups were discovered.

Completed projects from this project include six journal articles, one popular press article, five conference presentations, five inservice presentations, five Extension fact sheets, one literature review, one logic model, five formal poster presentations, one voice over Powerpoint presentation, and six reports. Several of these items can be found at: http://intra.ext.vt.edu/anr/

Faculty comments:
•I enjoyed the presentation. I need to make time to bolster my internet stuff. With this information I will try even harder to get this done. It becomes a higher priority knowing farmers might actually access the system.
•Thanks for your feedback on how farmers learn. I’ve been using it to focus some ideas for developing producer panels. The approach is new enough that I’ve stepped back from a major grant submission and I’m looking at trying a small group to see how to work out some of the logistics first.
•Excellent summary! Extension is facing a challenge to deliver learning opportunities in the manner that growers wan to receive it.

Collaborators: Fred Piercy, VT CLAHS; Joseph Donaldson, UT Extension; Robert Richard, LSU Extension; Johnnie Westbrook, VT CALS; Brad Jarvis, VCE

Contact: Nancy Franz, Professor/Extension Specialist Program Development, Dept. of AEE at VT

Project Objectives:

1. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff, as a group, designed and carried out an assessment of how Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia farmers prefered to learn.
2. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff assessed Extension agent perceptions of how farmers in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia prefered to learn and determined how these perceptions were similar to or different from farmer’s stated learning preferences.
3. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff recommended how Extension educators should change or reinforce teaching methods and educational experiences to align with farmers
learning preferences for more successful educational programming.
4. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff analyzed and interpreted the data with stakeholders, wrote summary reports, and disseminated findings to farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and secondary audiences.

Introduction:

Few studies have examined the types of educational delivery methods preferred by farmers (Eckert & Bell, 2005; Eckert & Bell, 2006). Such studies have typically used quantitative methods for very specific groups of producers. In contrast, this participatory action research project explored the preferred learning methods of a variety of farmers including rice, beef, tobacco, dairy, and organic fruit and vegetable producers in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia. Data on learning methods collected directly from farmers was compared with preferred teaching methods of Extension agents and specialists. Since most educators tend to teach the way they prefer to learn (Davis, 2006), the findings should shape agent and specialist perspectives on appropriate educational delivery methods when educating farmers and working towards farmer adoption of new practices (Hall, Dunkelberger, Ferreira, Prevatt, & Martin, 2003; Rogers, 1960). While much research is available on farmer learning preferences, such data must be updated since farmers’ demographics and information technologies are constantly changing.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Bennet Cassell
  • Jessie Deelo
  • Joseph Donaldson
  • Dale Gardner
  • Andy Hankins
  • Brad Jarvis
  • Charles Maloney
  • Miriam Maloney
  • Cyndi Marston
  • Fred Piercy
  • Robert Richard
  • Jim Riddell
  • Richard Rudd
  • Scott Sink
  • Laura Teany
  • Johnnie Westbrook

Research

Materials and methods:

A steering committee of farmers and agricultural educators guided this research project in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia. They helped determine research methods and assisted with focus group participant recruitment, logistics, and data collection, as well as data analysis, interpretation, and dissemination. The Collegiate Young Farmers Club at Virginia Tech piloted the initial focus group questions and written survey.

In the first year of the project, data collection began with a survey of Extension agents and specialists on teaching methods they use with farmers. This survey helped shape the focus group protocol questions developed previously by the steering committee. In all, our study involved 15 focus groups of 94 farmers and 21 Extension agents/specialists over a year and a half in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The sample of farmers for this study was convenience and purposive in nature. We selected specific types of farmers in consultation with Cooperative Extension agricultural program leaders to represent a variety of agricultural perspectives and commodities in each state. Participants were also mostly recruited by Extension educators who secured farmers to attend the focus groups. In some instances, groups of farmers were already meeting for other purposes and changed their usual agenda to participate in the focus group.

Each focus group was facilitated by a Project Investigator. Focus group participants were given a written survey partway through the interview about their learning preferences. Observations of focus group participants also were recorded by steering committee members, the graduate student on the project, or other project staff.
Data were analyzed by hand noting common themes within and across focus groups. After each focus group was transcribed, researchers coded lines in the transcript to identify emerging themes. Quotes from the transcripts were then arranged around each theme. Researchers also wrote associated notes in the margins of the transcripts and made entries in their personal research journals related to emerging patterns from the themes. After the coding process was conducted by individuals, the team as a group compared and contrasted interpretations of the themes and patterns. This practice moved back and forth between inductive and deductive processes with focus groups in each state and then across all the focus groups. These procedures follow the case analysis processes suggested by Eisenhardt (1989) and grounded and pattern theory approaches to data analysis (Cresswell 1998; Strauss 1987).
Results were triangulated by comparing themes derived from the focus group analysis with the results of the agent and specialist survey, focus group participant surveys, and other data. An additional survey was conducted the first year to determine the value of the steering committee member experience in participatory action research. Data from focus groups also were triangulated with other sources of data in each state (e.g. Extension educator reports, farmer conference panels) about how farmers learn and the practices of agricultural educators.

Several steps were taken to enhance the credibility, trustworthiness, and transferability of the data (Anfara, Brown, and Mangione 2002; Guba and Lincoln 1989; Koch 1994; Rogers and Cowles 1993).

Research results and discussion:

How do Farmers Prefer to Learn?

Eighty-six of 94 farmer focus group participants completed a survey and discussed the ways they prefer to learn. The top six preferred learning methods were: hands-on (99%), demonstration (96%), farm visit (94%), field day (88%), discussion (87%), and one-on-one (85%). Farmers had mixed preference for online-web, newsletters, books/manuals, on-farm tests, meetings, and lectures. Finally, four ways these farmers do not prefer to learn are: games (80%), comics (78%), role playing (77%), and radio (63 %).

What are Extension Agent/Specialist Perceptions of how Farmers Learn?

Twenty of 21 agents/specialists who participated in focus groups completed a survey, and discussed the ways they believe farmers prefer to learn. The top five preferred learning methods, as perceived by agents/specialists were: farm visits (100%), one-one-one (100%), demonstrations (95%), field day (90%), and on-farm tests (90%). Mixed preferences were discussion, networking, question and answer, workshops, experiment, and hands-on. Agents/specialists indicated that farmers least often preferred: comics (80%), role-playing (80%), and games (75%).

How are Agent/Specialist and Farmer Learning Preferences Different from Each Other?

In focus groups, farmers’ top preferences for learning methods did not totally match agent/specialist perception of how farmers prefer to learn (see the table below). This was also found in a survey of Virginia Extension agents/specialists where agents and specialists indicated most often used the following with farmers: demonstration (96%), lecture (88%), field trip (71%), experiment (67%), and problem solving (58%). Agents and specialists responding to the survey said they least often used the following teaching methods with farmers: online presentation (0%), creative arts (2%), debate (2%), online tutorial (2%), and simulation (4%).

Comparison of Agent/Specialist and Farmer Perceptions of Farmer Learning Preferences

Agent/Specialist Perception of How Farmers Learn-Prefer
• Farm visit (100%)
• One-on-one (100%)
• Demonstrations (95%)
• Field Day (90%)
• On-farm test (90%)
Farmer Response-Prefer
• Hands-on (99%)
• Demonstration (96%)
• Farm visit (94%)
• Field Day (88%)
• Discussions (87%)
• One-on-one (85%)
Agent/Specialist Perception of How Farmers Learn-Not Prefer
• Comics (80%)
• Role-Playing (80%)
• Games (75%)
Farmer Response-Not Prefer
• Games (80%)
• Comics (78%)
• Role-Playing (77%)
• Radio (63%)

Teaching methods used with farmers often depend on the individual agent and specialist, the context, or the farmer’s type of business. One agent said, “We all know what is best for teaching farmers, but we don’t always do what is best because of the constraints on our time.”

What Should Extension Agents/Specialists Change or Reinforce in Teaching Methods or Educational Experiences to Align with Farmer Preferences?

For meaningful educational experiences and opportunities, farmers want from Extension:

Help with Interpreting Information

•Unbiased opinions
•Translate information into lay terms
•Validate or disconfirm information from other sources
•Help farmers understand how to apply information
•Remember that farmers have a short attention span
•Realize farmers are kinesthetic learners
Knowledge
•Research-based knowledge
•Knowledgeable agents and specialists
•Participation in and use of Extension/Land Grant research
•Technical assistance and advice to improve marketing
•Expanded educational offerings in both content and process
•Cutting edge and relevant
•Farmers seek out trusted sources of information
•Extension is a valued information provider, but may not be the primary provider
•Increase online learning resources
Relationship Building
•Agents and specialists need to create networks between agricultural groups and service providers
•Agents and specialists need to build a relationship with farmers
•Organize farmer-to-farmer networks
•Provide opportunities for socialization as part of educational events
•The needs of female and organic farmers are not being met by Extension
•Hire agents/specialists with people and group process skills
Support
•One-on-one attention on the farm
•Agents who honor and respect farmer’s lifestyle goals and values
•Be available for immediate problem-solving
•Increase support for Extension so agents can spend more time with farmers
•Be sensitive to all types of agribusiness
•Know the audience they are working with
•Focus education on the local context
•Realize the agricultural industry is changing
Time and Money
•Provide timely research results so farmers can quickly use them for decision making
•Help farmers save time and money
•Provide educational programs that reveal the economic feasibility of practices

Agents and Specialists want Extension to understand and/or do the following to support better learning for farmers:

Dynamics of Learning
•Learning is what you do with information
•Farmers collect information in many places and ask the agent to check it
•There are a wide variety of learners and ways they prefer to learn

Provide and Extend Resources
•Technology resources for agents/specialists, including instructional technology
•Have “master” programs to train farmers and/or volunteers to help deliver Extension education
•Set up strong mentoring programs for new agents

Recognize and Remove Barriers
•Better communication between specialists and agents
•Intense time helping new farmers and farmers new to the area
•Eroding and fluctuating Extension budgets are compromising Extension’s ability to use farmers’ preferred learning methods
•Streamline reporting requirements
•Agent turnover, age, and experience affects the ability to teach farmers
•Job demands change as demographics and the nature of the work changes
•Agents assigned to larger geographic areas have more difficulty building local trust

Discussion

The following observations based on the focus group discussions with farmers, Extension agents, and specialists should enhance farmer learning.

Provide Relevant and Localized Teaching

Teaching methods should be relevant to the farmer and his/her context. Towards that end, agents should take into account the producer’s amount of experience with farming, their level of education, and their geographic location. Further, information disseminated to farmers should be understandable regardless of education and experience levels, and specifically tailored to their context.

Connect Farmers and Experts

The nature of Extension work is changing. Agents and specialists must meet the needs of a wide variety of producers from conventional agriculture to alternative agriculture to part time farmers and those who hire others to work their operation. Extension is no longer seen as the only source of information and education for farmers. Therefore, agents and specialists increasingly need to facilitate farmer-to-farmer networks and other group processes to help farmers and experts learn from each other.

Provide Connected, Trusted, and Knowledgeable Agents and Specialists

Extension agents and specialists need to be well-connected to agricultural groups, agencies, and resource people. They should also have a wide variety of agricultural content and build deep and trusting relationships with a diverse array of farmers.

Honor Farmer’s Values

Agents and specialists need to be willing to work with farmers who hold a wide range of values and use a variety of production methods.

Care About and Respect Farmers, their Goals and their Lifestyle

Farmers appreciate agents and specialists who take time to show they care about them as individuals, their profession, their dreams, and who they are in the world. Agents and specialists need to understand farmers and their agribusinesses before they are ready to learn with and from them. Agents and specialists also need to understand farmer’s work ethic and values before they start teaching.

Farmers Enjoy Teaching Each Other

Peer teaching and learning, including apprenticeships and work with experienced farmers, are valued by farmers. Agents and specialists should use this interest in peer teaching as an educational delivery method and as a way to enhance adoption of new practices.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

See results section

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Completed projects from this project include six journal articles (one published, three forthcoming, two under review), one popular press article, five conference presentations, five inservice presentations, five Extension fact sheets, one literature review, one logic model, five formal poster presentations, one voice over Powerpoint presentation, and six reports. Several of these items can be found at: http://intra.ext.vt.edu/anr/

Faculty comments:
•I enjoyed the presentation. I need to make time to bolster my internet stuff. With this information I will try even harder to get this done. It becomes a higher priority knowing farmers might actually access the system.
•Thanks for your feedback on how farmers learn. I’ve been using it to focus some ideas for developing producer panels. The approach is new enough that I’ve stepped back from a major grant submission and I’m looking at trying a small group to see how to work out some of the logistics first.
•Excellent summary! Extension is facing a challenge to deliver learning opportunities in the manner that growers wan to receive it.

Implications

This project gave farmers the opportunity to voice their ideas for enhancing the delivery of Extension educational programs. The data suggest the following improvements and changes for Cooperative Extension:

Administration

•New agents/specialists need people skills, not just a focus on sharing information.
•Extension needs to give new agents/specialists time to build relationships with key farmers.
•New agents/specialists need a deep local orientation with key contacts to be socialized into farmer networks.
•Agents need to be good generalists trained in areas outside their specialty to meet a wide variety of farmer’s needs.
•New agents/specialists need to be freed from bureaucratic duties to build relationships and get to know the farmer’s context.
•As state Cooperative Extension Systems have fewer agents and specialists , they need to work across states to share information and learning opportunities.
•Since there is value in building deep and long-term relationships with farmers, Extension should enhance incentives to retain agents and specialists.
•Extension agents/specialists’ professional development should equip them with tools and experience to meet farmer learning preferences and needs.

Agents/Specialists
•Extension’s educational program delivery should reflect farmer’s preferred learning styles.
•To build relationships with farmers and agencies, Extension agents and specialists should learn group process and facilitation skills.
•Agents/specialists should add incentives to educational programs.
•Farm visits are important to initiate and maintain relationships with and among farmers.
•Extension agents and specialists should use the Internet for teaching those farmers who preferred this learning method (in this study, 73% preferred the Internet).
•Extension agents and specialists need to facilitate on-farm research, farmer and industry relationships, and farmer-to-farmer networking.
•Extension should provide focused newsletters for specific agribusinesses rather than general “one-size-fits-all” content.
•One-on-one and face-to-face educational delivery is highly-valued by agents and specialists. Since they have less time for field visits than in the past, they need to develop volunteers to expand their work.
•Eroding Extension budgets compromise the ability to meet preferred farmer learning needs. Therefore new partnerships are needed to maintain and expand farmer relationships and learning.
•Extension agents and specialists need to realize that farmers are not highly motivated to attend meetings unless their needs are directly and specifically addressed.

Conclusion

Extension agents and specialists need to not only be experts in a particular subject matter but also be architects of relationships, learning processes, and environments that directly meet farmer’s needs to catalyze transformative learning (Franz, 2003; Percy, 2005). The farmers interviewed and surveyed in this study were generally supportive of Cooperative Extension’s educational efforts. However, to better meet farmer’s educational needs, they believe Extension needs to more often use farmer’s preferred methods of learning in delivering educational programs including a larger on-line presence. Finally, Extension also needs to continue helping farmers gain and interpret new information/knowledge, helping farmers build relationships with experts, providing educational support for farmers, and helping them save time and money to maintain a comfortable quality of life

Farmer Adoption

Farmers assisted with all aspects of this project and have begun sharing the results with other farmers.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

This research project revealed that farmers are motived to learn by saving time and money, the social aspects of learning, an interest on keeping agriculture alive, and gaining cutting edge research. These motivations should be more fully studied to determine how agricultural educators can align educational program development and marketing more closely with farmer motivations.

The project also found that farmers believe they learn best in collaborations with peers and experts. Research is needed to determine best practices of planning, implementing, maintaining, and evaluating these types of learning partnerships.

Finally, this project discovered a high number of farmers using the internet for learning. Research is needed to determine what online learning tools and venues are most preferred by farmers for agricuultural education.

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.