How Technology Enhances or Impedes Sustainable Agriculture for Black Limited Resource Farmers in the Southeast Black Belt Region

Progress report for LS21-362

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $199,840.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: McIntosh SEED
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
John Littles, Sr
McIntosh SEED
Co-Investigators:
James Ford
Square O Consulting LLC
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

The science of growing food is more advanced and technical than methods used even 10 years ago. Agricultural production and the food system have evolved into an industry that relies on information disseminated through digital formats and platforms. Successful farmers have embraced technology for farming operations. Aging and rural farmers either embraced the use of technology or have passed the use of digital farming to the next generation or have chosen not to use it at all. With an increased reliance on information technology, the proposed project will collect data to assess the effectiveness and level of adoption and integration of technology platforms. The project explores the digital disparities that exist for black limited resource and mainly rural farmers. The project will explore factors ranging from lack of knowledge and interest to broader societal problems, such as, lack of broadband, internet access, and equipment due to the lack of financial resources.   

Limited-resource farmers complain the movement of information from USDA agencies to online platforms, creates gaps and barriers to their participation in agricultural pursuits. Limited-resource farmers are not aware of all the programs and assistance offered by USDA/NRCS and other supporting agencies. Beginning farmers have not enrolled in USDA programs and are not aware of the steps or protocols for enrolling in FSA and NRCS programs. With limited to no knowledge of USDA programs and resources, limited-resource farmers and their farms are at a great disadvantage. These farmers lack the knowledge and resources to access the conservation and agricultural practices needed to sustain agriculture production and their farming businesses. (Participation in Conservation Programs by Targeted Farmers/EIB 62 Economic Research Service; USDA.) Limited resource farmers have land that is under-utilized due to their inability to access resources.  With access to digital information and comparable technology skills, as large-scale farmers, it will allow limited resource farmers to become more competitive.

The proposed project will target Black, limited-resource farmers in Georgia. John Littles, Principal Investigator, is an Outreach Provider with USDA. John has been the Executive Director of McIntosh SEED since 2000.  The organization has a program specifically designed to provide outreach to farmers of color in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Project partners include James Ford CEO of Square O Consulting, LLC, Handy Kennedy of HKJ Ranch, LLC in Georgia, and Lamar Berry in Georgia. The partners’ collective experience ensures successful project implementation. The partners are knowledgeable in USDA programs and have farming experience.

Programmatic objectives of the group include:

  • Assessing the technological capacity of black farmers in the targeted group. We will be researching both informational and production technologies.
  • Identifying the problems and gaps with targeted farmers accessing and using informational and production technologies
  • Identify availability of high speed internet in rural communities 

The proposed project will:

(1) Measure farmers’ technology education software and hardware capacity, utilizing a questionnaire

(2) Based upon research results, the project will seek to build the agricultural technology capacity of limited resources farmers, with training sessions .

(3) Increase limited-resource farmers’ access and participation in USDA and Agricultural Extension programs and services using technology.

 

 

Project Objectives:

The goal of the proposed project is to examine “How Technology Enhances or Impedes Sustainable Agriculture for Limited Resource Farmers in Georgia."

The project will:

  • Assess the technological capacity of black farmers in the target group. The project will research both information and production technologies.
  • Identify the problems and gaps with targeted farmers accessing and using informational and production technologies

The project will:

(1) Develop and implement a method to identify limited-resource farmers’ technology software and hardware capacity.

(2) Based on research results, develop a platform to address gaps in the agricultural technology capacity of black limited resources farmers through training, peer-to-peer, USDA partners, and university partners.

(3) Based on research results, develop training programs and outreach that will lead to an increase in the number of black limited-resource farmers’ access and participation in USDA programs and services using technology.

(4) Engage with 100 farmers in  Georgia

 

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Lamar Berry - Producer
  • John Littles, Sr.

Research

Materials and methods:

The proposed project will follow basic impact research methods by using quantitative and qualitative data collection.  To measure the impact of the project, there are several approaches and methods that will be used for data collection. The proposed project’s approach and methods for data collection will focus primarily on location, demographics, and farmers' knowledge. Some of the approach and methods used will include but are not limited to the following: surveys,  interviews (with proper social distancing), training sessions, peer to peer (with proper social distancing), mailings, telephone conferences, bringing USDA/NRCS and USDA/FSA to farmers, questionnaires, observations, case study on the number of people applying based on resources from USDA and Fort Valley State University Extension, field experience and demonstrations with farmers cooperators, pre- and post-assessment, evaluations and self -certification.

Our research, in partnership with Fort Valley State University, will focus on methods of information transmission, instruments used for reception, methods to respond to information, and inquiries on how user-friendly it is for small, limited resource farmers. Critical to this research is discovering what digital disparities exist for limited-resource farmers. Technology access and usage supports a holistic farming approach. For example, farmers can respond to requests from institutions, such as Land Grant Colleges and State Departments of Agriculture, in real time. They can also apply in a timely manner for loans and enroll in commodity and conservation programs and communicate with extension specialists and farm suppliers regarding farm production. 

Objective 1) Research, develop and implement methods to identify black limited-resource farmers’ technology software and hardware capacity.

A questionnaire will be implemented that will help to identify the technological resources available and those needed for expanding sustainability efforts for black farmers.

Collaborators and Project Directors will develop the pre-assessment. The pre-assessment will be designed to be “farmer-friendly,” meaning, Collaborators and farmer advisors will implement the pre-assessment in more of a conversational-type method versus an impersonal, structured, and formal interview. All project Collaborators have been intentional in creating a project implementation plan that focuses on supporting the farmers. Because Project Directors have a history and wealth of experience in working with farmers and farmer groups,  the project team’s approach is to provide the targeted farmers with an experience that is non-intimidating and rigid, but one that is more aligned with coaching and peer-mentoring.

Interviews will serve as the lead approach in obtaining information. Interviews are one on one. Speaking directly with participants through interviews will provide a direct correlation to whether they have access to participation in USDA programs using technology. The number of interviews and locations will be determined using the Census of Agriculture, the existing database, and contacts from universities.  Teleconferences will be used to generate conversations with a group of participants.

  • Telephone interviews
  • face-to-face interviews
  • focus groups (with masks/social distancing as necessary)

In addition to questionnaires, assessment of farmer current technology resources, as well as their gain in technical knowledge, skills, and abilities, will also occur through the use of pre- and post-assessments administered to target farmers. Tools such as the Fort Valley State University mobile unit can be used to take technology to the farmers and their hands-on abilities can be assessed before and after training.  The mobile unit is a tractor compartment with 20 computer stations that can be set up and used at any rural location.

The information obtained from the survey and pre-assessments will be used to develop educational events. Results from both the pre- and post-assessments will be shared with all cooperators and project participants.

. Objective 2 – Develop a platform and outreach programs to address gaps in the agricultural technology capacity of black limited resources farmers through training by peers, USDA partners, and university partners.

Due to changing times, innovation and up-to-date technology are becoming necessary. Various segments of the agricultural-based entities, including co-ops, USDA partners, and Fort Valley State University are operated by individuals with varying knowledge bases. 

For example, when person meetings are not possible, conversations can occur through conference calls and zoom calls which should stimulate participants to realize the value of the use of technology in their farming operations. Participating in the conference calls and workshops will be USDA officials to provide information that relates to limited-resource farmers and their access to programs using technology

  • Peer to peer approach

Regardless, studies have indicated that farmers prefer to receive information via a peer-to-peer approach (i.e. word-of-mouth from others in the business). The success of peer educators has been attributed to identifying with the educator, trainer use of appropriate jargon/teaching styles, and a lack of formal educational training which, in essence, makes the educator more relatable (Chambers, 1997; Hassanien, 1999; Bunch, 1995). This approach allows demonstration techniques that require a paradigm shift from methods currently used in the farm/ranch operation.

  • Farmers workshops

Farmers value workshops for the dialog and networking with other farmers sharing their experiences in discussion learning (preferred by 87% of farmers in a Franz et al., 2010 survey. In-person training will be provided (with masks and social distancing as necessary) that allow for hands-on training and demonstrations which were among the top methods of learning preferred by farmers (99% and 96% preferred respectively; Franz et al., 2010). At workshops, peer demonstration of technology occurs.  For instance, one farmer contacting another farmer via smartphones by utilizing the transfer of information through texting. Technology has the power to improve limited resource farmers' lives and their livelihood.

  • Fort Valley University Mobile Technology Lab

Fort Valley State University Mobile Technology Lab and stationary sites with technological access (i.e. extension offices and universities will be used for training farmers to use hardware and software.   During Field Days, farmers will be introduced to technology that may be beyond current capabilities such as Global Positioning Systems on tractors and drones to reduce pesticide /herbicide use as well as chemical use.

  • Virtual Meeting and training

Virtual training can be offered with project staff and extension staff hosting the training for those not comfortable with handling it themselves. Upon seeing the value and ease of this type of training, it is expected that more farmers will utilize these opportunities.

Objective 3 – Evaluate the increase in the number of black limited-resource farmers’ access and participation in USDA programs and services using technology.

  • The project will interact with 100 black limited resource farmers.

Engaging farmers is always important, but it is even more crucial to foster this type of relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although face-to-face contact is posing a challenge, communication methods should be executed through online forums, virtual lectures, and support groups.  With ongoing conversation, farmers can feel supported, while still providing peer-to-peer learning to boost sustainability and profitability. 

  • The project will assess the number of black limited resource farmers accessing USDA relief programs and services.

Project participants will be administered an evaluation instrument to collect data that is   qualitative to garner the impact of the project on the participants' quality of life and the

diffusion of innovation through their willingness to disseminate information to other   farmers.

  • Self-certification is a method that provides self-determination of limited resource farmers' progress and accessibility to different programs using technology.

USDA will not release information regarding the methods used for Limited Resource    farmer's participation in programs. Self-Certification will provide an element to our research that serves as a benchmark to help solidify the information gained through the various approach and methods.

As with the technology and self-certification surveys, the satisfaction evaluation will be developed as a group with Project Directors and collaborators.  The methods of evaluation will include phone, written, and one-on-one interviews.  

Due to the changing times, innovation and up-to-date technology are becoming increasingly necessary as a means of “safe” communication. Various segments of the agricultural-based entities, including co-ops, USDA partners, and Fort Valley State University, should work together to deliver effective training. Minority farm operations are operated by individuals with varying knowledge bases. Studies have indicated that farmers prefer to receive information via a peer-to-peer approach (i.e. word-of-mouth from others in the business). This approach allows demonstration techniques that require a paradigm shift from methods currently used in the farm/ranch operation.  Farmers value workshops primarily for dialog and networking with other farmers sharing their experiences.  For instance, one farmer contacting another farmer via smartphones by utilizing the transfer of information through texting. Technology has the power to improve limited resource farmers' lives and their livelihood.

Interviews will serve as the lead approach in obtaining information.  Interviews are one on one. Speaking directly with participants through interviews will provide a direct correlation to whether they have access to participation in USDA programs using technology. The number of interviews and locations will be determined using the Census of Agriculture existing databases and contacts from universities. Teleconferences will be used to generate conversations with a group of participants. Conversation in a conference should stimulate participants to realize the value of the use of technology in their farming operations. 

Participating in the conference call will be USDA officials to provide information that relates to limited-resource farmers and their access to programs using technology.

Self-certification is a method that provides self-determination of limited resource farmers' progress and accessibility to different programs using technology. USDA will not release information regarding the methods used for Limited Resource farmer's participation in programs. Self-Certification will provide an element to our research that serves as a benchmark to help solidify the information gained through the various approach and methods.

An important method used to evaluate the project will be the use of a pre- and post-assessment that will be administered to targeted farmers.  The results from the pre-assessment will be documented to measure the increase/decrease in project participants' technology knowledge and utilization capacity.  Results from both the pre and post assessments will be shared with all cooperators and project participants. Project participants will also be administered a post-assessment instrument to collect data that is qualitative in order to garner the impact of the project on the participants' quality of life and the diffusion of innovation to disseminate information to other farmers.  

 

Research results and discussion:

Research is still in progress- Surveys have been administered to targeted population and educational activities are being implemented. 

Participation Summary
50 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

Educational Outreach
John Littles (McSEED) consults with Mr. and Mrs. Deveaux (Farmers)
James Ford- Square O Consulting- Conducting Farm Bill presentation
James Ford- Square O Consulting-                  Farm Bill Presentation during Farmer workshop

Project Partners and Collaborators are still in the first phase of the project. The following educational approaches will be used during Phase II of the project: 

-The project seeks to build the agricultural technology capacity of limited resource farmers through the implementation of trainings and webinars to improve knowledge and awareness of technology tools that are available to improve farms and farming practices.

-An educational workshop will be presented to limited resource farmers on the topic of the "Basics of Computer Literacy."  Project partners have engaged with a computer technology specialist to conduct the workshop(s) for the limited resource farmers. 

-The project seeks to increase limited resource farmers' access and participation in USDA and Agricultural Extension programs through workshops that are specifically designed to help limited resource farmers access online tools and programs available through these agencies.  A representative from each of the agencies will present a session on how to access their site and programs. The workshop will be interactive and will utilized guided-instruction to introduce and help navigate limited resource farmers to and through the Farmers.Gov website and other online tools and resources. 

 

Educational & Outreach Activities

25 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Online trainings
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
3 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Key to the success of this project will be in the effectiveness and impact of the project team’s outreach efforts. Those efforts are impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic. The project’s traditional outreach implementation plan will depend upon the variable of Covid-19. Outreach methods, outlined below, will reflect traditional and non-traditional outreach strategies.

Project Collaborators acknowledge the project is not a “one-size” fits all project. The outreach strategies used in the project will be tailored to take into account the diversity of the targeted audience, which goes beyond race, age, ethnicity, gender, culture, and geography.

The outreach efforts of the Project Collaborators will assist farmers with gaining information and knowledge of the impact technology has on farming and farming practices.

Outreach and training workshops will utilize culturally appropriate educational materials, presentations by agricultural, conservation and community development professionals and “hands-on” experiential field training sessions.  All project team partners will work together to educate and nurture targeted populations’ understanding of technology and conservation programs (with a particular focus on EQIP) and will assist the participants to implement appropriate conservation practices on their properties.

In partnership with project collaborators, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, Fort Valley State University, and other conservation agencies, the project proposes to identify, survey, and provide technical assistance to 100 participants, over the 2-year project period.

Project partners will utilize their existing databases, farmer referrals, census data, data from SARE and Fort Valley State University, listservs, farmer cooperatives, non-profits, and “word-of-mouth” to identify the targeted number of project participants. Outreach methods will include phone calls, flyers, text messages, face-to-face (using social distancing guidelines), radio advertisement, posts on social media, online forums, virtual lectures, and support groups. 

Project Collaborators understand the importance of the dissemination of information and outreach in the long-term sustainability of this work and as part of its farmer network. Peer learning exchanges and the sharing of best practices are key strategies that will be utilized to reach a greater number of landowners, farmers, new and beginning farmers, ranchers, and/or veterans. Project Collaborators will use the social capital within communities to engage farmers and new and beginning farmers and veterans.

An important strategy of this project will focus on building relationships, establishing trust, and making connections with farmers and members of the community and partnerships. Building the level of trust is essential to obtaining the goals of this project.

Project Collaborators will conduct outreach through churches, phone calls, radio, television, flyers, emails, co-workers, farmer-to-farmer, and family and friends to share information regarding meetings, workshops, and training sessions and other outreach methods.

Project Collaborators will capture and utilize the learning from this project so that it may be replicated in other communities and programs. To this end, Project Collaborators will implement the following strategies to promote sustainable agriculture:

  • Advertise and promote meetings and project objectives in local media and social media outlets to identify existing and potential new farms and farmers
  • Host local county meetings with farmers in partnership with local Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offices
  • Host multi-county meetings with farmers for input and information gathering
  • Host multi-county meetings to share knowledge and resources from all local and state agencies.
  • Help farmers identify and develop strategies for accessing USDA resources
  • Host one-on-one meetings, conference calls, and follow-up with farmers to assess technology usage capacity
  • Provide on-going and consistent technical assistance for farmers with application submission processes and updates on the Farm Bill

Outreach efforts will utilize traditional means; however, with the uncertainty of Covid-19 and social distancing guidelines, the project will utilize outreach methods that will keep Project Collaborators, farmers and partners safe; therefore, there may a heavy reliance on phone calls, flyers, text messages, radio advertisements, social media, online forums, virtual lectures, and support groups. 

Project partners will share findings with SSARE, USDA, Non Profits, Farmers Cooperatives, Extension Services, 1890 Land Grant Universities and other entities who work or provide services to black limited resource farmers.

 

 

Progress:

Education and outreach activities were conducted via virtual meetings and included representation from NRCS, FSA, Fort Valley State University, Georgia Forestry Commission and Conservation agencies.

Project Partners and Collaborators conducted the following education and outreach activities: 

-Consultations were held with 25 limited resource producers regarding identifying markets and marketing strategies for produce and livestock.

-On-Farm demonstration was conducted at the Copeland's Living Waters Farm in Shiloh,GA. Educational topics included Cattle Reproduction, Hay Quality, Pasture Management, Cattle Supplements: Vitamins and Minerals, VitaFerm and Cattle Assessments.  Educational session was conducted by Dean Ralph Noble of Fort Valley State University. 

-Online sessions and Webinars were conducted by Dean Ralph Noble of Fort Valley State University.

-Agricultural Professionals from NRCS, The Georgia Cattlemen's Association and Fort Valley State University presented sessions to forest owners, vegetable and livestock producers. 

 

 

Learning Outcomes

50 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

10 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This project will contribute to the future agricultural sustainability through the narrowing of the informational technology knowledge gaps with limited resource farmers, which limits their access to innovations in agriculture technology. In this digital age, society has a heavy reliance on technology. Technological advancements have helped farmers to produce greter yields on less land which increases the dynamics of scale, economy and environmental impacts. 

Sustaining farmers and agriculture are vital to the broader system of environmental preservation, local food systems and economies, and healthy and resilient communities. By doing this research and finding what technological gaps exists, we hope to discover if black farmers use technology to farm more sustainably, can they become more financially viable; consequently, leading to an increase in healthier rural black communities.

With project implementation, data will be collected to examine the impact of information technology on the ability of Black farmers to access USDA/NRCS programs and resources. Farmers will be surveyed regarding the current level of technology use. After identifying technology barriers, the proposed project will focus on closing the digital divide by providing training and access to technology, utilizing various means, such as webinars, video conferencing, emails, and other agriculture software. We believe that identifying these gaps and addressing them can make our black farmers more sustainable

This project will determine whether increasing technological capacity will make black farmers more sustainable by increasing the number of farmers applying for USDA programs and increasing the number of farmers using production side technology. With increased access to resources, farmers will be able to stay up-to-date with provisions in the Farm Bill,  access agencies for agriculture sustainability, such as risk management: crop insurance and natural disaster assistance,   food production, farm succession, and legacy planning. The project will also target the next generation of black beginning farmers for farm viability and agriculture sustainability. Since COVID- 19 has limited person-to-person contact with agency personnel, this limited contact may become the norm. It will be important for us to document the impact of COVID- 19 on the implementation of our project and the potential long-term effects on sustainable agriculture and share those findings with SARE and our project evaluator.

A key to sustainability is the conservation and improvement of soil resources. A major push by USDA is soil quality. Farmers know the basics for conservation and soil quality, but there are constant changes in maintaining soil quality due to changes in climate, seed technology, machinery, and discoveries regarding the relationship with plant cover, rainfall, and temperature relationships. Using technology or the lack thereof, may have an impact on soil quality and sustainability. Knowledge and skills can be obtained through a continuing education process from various sources. The usefulness of this information to farmers is dependent on the source it is originating from, what mechanism the farmer can receive it, and the ease of navigating the application process.

Sustainable farms are also dependent on the farm's ability to make a profit, reinvest in improvements to the operations, and being able to create wealth for the next generation. Successful farms are using the best management practices and are taking advantage of available government programs.

In small rural communities in the south agriculture is what drives economic value.  A dollar spent at a local owned store is usually spent 6 to 15 times before it leaves the community. From $1 you create $5 to $14 in value in a community. (Tim Mitchell. Northwest Earth Institute, Choices for Sustainable Living). Sustainability for farms are important in the economy of Georgia. Agriculture contributes approximately $73 billion annually to Georgia’s economy. The Gate Value for the state was $13.75 billion. One in seven Georgians work in agriculture, forestry or related fields (Georgia Farm Bureau) Additionally Georgia have a Conservation Use  Value Assessment  (CUVA) that was designed to protect property owners from being pressured by tax burden to convert their land from agriculture to other qualifying use to  residential or commercial. (Georgia Forestland Protection Act.)

If agriculture can be sustainable, it will help communities to become sustainable. In the south, farms vary in size, by the commodities they produce, and the race, gender, and ethnicity of operators. Farmers have the opportunity to become economic change agents in their communities. If farms are sustainable, productive, and profitable, the economic benefits for communities can increase exponentially.  Farmers can influence and drive the local economy by putting under-utilized land into production, create jobs, increase production and supply to meet growing market demands, which can result in an income to boost the local economy.

 

Recommendations:

This project is just completing Phase 1 and more data and information will be presented during Phase 2 of the project. 

Participants

No participants
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.