Facilitating Farmer to Farmer Networks: An Experimental Approach

Final Report for LST96-012

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1996: $80,997.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $80,997.00
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Marilyn Swisher
University of Florida
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Project Information

Abstract:

Extension at the University of Florida and Florida A&M successfully served as catalysts for the development and strengthening of farmer networks. The kinds of networks that developed varied greatly. In Marion County, for example, small farmers producing a wide range of products came together to form a Small Farm Association and recently opened a farmers’ market in that county. Rabbit producers from three states came together to form the Southern Commercial Rabbit Producers’ Association, which concentrated on finding slaughter facilities for its members. In addition to the development of thriving farmer organizations, this project resulted in increased institutional capacity to serve small farmers and both small farms and sustainable agriculture gained increased stature and recognition in Florida Extension.

Project Objectives:

The overall objective of the project is to explore alternative approaches that Extension can use to facilitate the development of farmer networks, particularly for small and/or part-time farmers.

The specific objectives are to (1) Provide Extension agents and other agricultural professionals with the skills, knowledge and experience needed to serve as successful catalysts for the development of farmer-to-farmer interchange, (2) implement different approaches to farmer-to-farmer interchange in North and Central Florida, (3) evaluate the effectiveness of the approaches that are used, using participatory process evaluation strategies and (4) share results with Extension agents, farmers, and other agricultural professionals throughout the Southern region.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Cass Gardener
  • Michie Swisher

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

Project Situation

Although once the heart of Extension programing, Extension’s capacity for meeting the educational needs of small farmers has steadily declined over the years as more and more emphasis has moved to large scale commercial agriculture. In recent years, our capacity has declined even further because the number of county faculty working in Extension has decreased. In all but a few cases, we have been trying to meet the needs of small farmers through the same venues used to reach larger farmers, such as traditional “producers'” meetings and traditional statewide or national producers’ associations. For many small farmers, these venues have not been appropriate. Weekday, daytime meetings are not appropriate for many small farmers who hold off-farm jobs, for example. Traditional producers’ associations, usually dominated by representatives of large scale commercial agriculture, focus on issues, production techniques, and technical information not appropriate for small farms. Our other approach has been to offer advice on a one-on-one basis at the county level. We reach relatively few farmers this way, while consuming many, many hours of Extension time. A new, more effective, more efficient approach is needed.

At the same time, many community based and grass roots organizations have grown up both in Florida and nationally that are based on much more participatory approaches to education. While we in Extension have traditionally stressed, correctly so, that our information is “science based,” we have been slow to open our doors to sources of information that lie “outside” the traditional University system and to information that is originated by farmers, non-profit organizations, and other groups. To a large degree, we have continued to rely on a philosophy that see education as a one way flow of information, from the researcher to the extension person to the farmer. This approach fails to take advantage of a large pool of legitimate information. More importantly, it fails to build farmers into the Extension system not only as receivers of information and “students” in Extension’s educational programs — but also as providers of information and educators themselves.

The overall goal of the Farmer-to-Farmer project was to experiment with alternative ways for Extension to reach small farmers, stressing an experimental approach to facilitating the development of small farmer networks. Our objective from the perspective of professional development was to develop a cadre of state and county faculty who would (1) see small farm alternative agriculture as a major part of their Extension programs, (2) build local farmer groups that can act as self-organizing networks to improve both access to and delivery of Extension programs by taking on an educational role themselves, and (3) raise the visibility and importance of small farm sustainable agriculture Extension programs in our institutions to increase state emphasis on programing in these areas.

Outreach and Publications

The document, “Lessons Learned,” described in the original proposal, will be sent to state sustainable agriculture coordinators throughout the Southern region. In addition, we are in the process of establishing a small farm sustainable agriculture electronic bulleting board and discussion group, primarily oriented toward state and county faculty, collaborating institutions such as Heifer Project International and Florida Organic Growers, and farmers in Florida, but also open to membership by others who wish to share their experiences and information.

Outcomes and impacts:
Project Situation

Although once the heart of Extension programing, Extension’s capacity for meeting the educational needs of small farmers has steadily declined over the years as more and more emphasis has moved to large scale commercial agriculture. In recent years, our capacity has declined even further because the number of county faculty working in Extension has decreased. In all but a few cases, we have been trying to meet the needs of small farmers through the same venues used to reach larger farmers, such as traditional “producers'” meetings and traditional statewide or national producers’ associations. For many small farmers, these venues have not been appropriate. Weekday, daytime meetings are not appropriate for many small farmers who hold off-farm jobs, for example. Traditional producers’ associations, usually dominated by representatives of large scale commercial agriculture, focus on issues, production techniques, and technical information not appropriate for small farms. Our other approach has been to offer advice on a one-on-one basis at the county level. We reach relatively few farmers this way, while consuming many, many hours of Extension time. A new, more effective, more efficient approach is needed.

At the same time, many community based and grass roots organizations have grown up both in Florida and nationally that are based on much more participatory approaches to education. While we in Extension have traditionally stressed, correctly so, that our information is “science based,” we have been slow to open our doors to sources of information that lie “outside” the traditional University system and to information that is originated by farmers, non-profit organizations, and other groups. To a large degree, we have continued to rely on a philosophy that see education as a one way flow of information, from the researcher to the extension person to the farmer. This approach fails to take advantage of a large pool of legitimate information. More importantly, it fails to build farmers into the Extension system not only as receivers of information and “students” in Extension’s educational programs — but also as providers of information and educators themselves.

The overall goal of the Farmer-to-Farmer project was to experiment with alternative ways for Extension to reach small farmers, stressing an experimental approach to facilitating the development of small farmer networks. Our objective from the perspective of professional development was to develop a cadre of state and county faculty who would (1) see small farm alternative agriculture as a major part of their Extension programs, (2) build local farmer groups that can act as self-organizing networks to improve both access to and delivery of Extension programs by taking on an educational role themselves, and (3) raise the visibility and importance of small farm sustainable agriculture Extension programs in our institutions to increase state emphasis on programing in these areas.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Future Recommendations

1. Focus one of our annual PDP meetings on facilitating farmer organizational development so that people from all over the Southern region can share experiences and interests.

2. See if Southern SARE can find funds for and an institution that would be willing to host a regional small farm sustainable agriculture conference. This could complement the National Small Farm Conference nicely since that conference is not a yearly event. It would permit small scale producers and Extension professionals throughout the region to come together and focus on issues of specific concern to the region (such as alternatives to tobacco farming, etc.). The Small Farm Conference sponsored by “Small Farm Today” each year is a good model. This should be a self-financing event.

3. We desperately need help meeting the needs of new or inexperienced farmers both nationwide and in the region. Perhaps SARE could play a catalyst role in this by forming a committee of state and county faculty, not-for-profits, and farmer organizations around the region to develop some educational materials (one major need), hopefully that individual institutions in the region would support financially. For example, the University of Florida is trying to put together a series of fact sheets on “Matching Your Resources to Enterprise Requirements.” If other states are doing other things we could share our materials and reduce the demand on any one state.

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.