‘Increasing Farmer Participation in Local Government’ examined the disconnect between Pennsylvania municipalities and the farmers who live and work in them, by encouraging farmers to become directly involved in local government as elected and appointed officials or as active citizens. The two key project components are 1) research into the factors that inhibit active participation and 2) the development and delivery of educational programming to encourage more participation. A brief video “What’s In it For Me?: Farmers and Local Government” is designed for use by Extension educators and others to introduce a discussion of local government involvement. Although the video references Pennsylvania it is applicable to any state.
192 individuals participated in the research phase of the project through focus groups or personal interviews, including members of PA Farm Bureau, PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture and other statewide groups. To reach special audiences such as young farmers, focus groups were held with the Mid-Atlantic Young Growers, and the PA Young Farmers and Ranchers. 85 individuals from these and other organizations attended educational programs. A follow-up evaluation indicated that while the level of formal involvement in local government did not increase, participants reported more civic participation through awareness of and attention to local government as informed citizens, which may well be the first step to more formal involvement in the future.
- Increase the number of farmer candidates for local government offices
- Increase farmer civic participation
- Increase farmer participation in legislative advocacy and activities on behalf of their professional associations
- Create better understanding and support for the agricultural community at the local government level thorugh farmer involvement
Phase 1: Issues and Outreach 6 focus group were conducted in 2015 and 2016:
- Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, 65 participants
- Mid-Atlantic Young Growers Alliance, 36 participants
- Young Farmers and Ranchers (Farm Bureau), 20 participants
- Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, 32 participants
- Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association, 16 participants
- Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations, 23 participants
Data from the focus groups was collected and aggregated into a table format. summary table Major categories of input include
- Number of focus group members already involved in local government, and in what capacity
- The level of farmer participation in local government; whether and how it has changed over the past twenty years
- Reasons for low levels of participation
- Barriers to participation, grouped into time concerns, conflict concerns, business concerns and other
- Issues in farmer-local government relations and local government ag-related policy
- Suggestions for increasing involvement
Phase 2: Program Development A PowerPoint and video presentation has been developed titled “What’s In It for Me: Farmers and Local Government”. Based on the data collected in the focus group research, it became apparent that farmers wanted to hear examples of how local government policy impacts agriculture. This was emphasized by the younger participants in the focus groups. When asked for suggestions on how to increase farmer involvement in local government, one young grower responded ‘show me what’s in it for me’ which became both the title and the theme of the presentation.
To demonstrate the impact of local government policy and the importance of having agriculture’s voice at the local government table, I identified and interviewed 6 farmers and local government officials, and included three of them as stories in the PowerPoint presentation. The presentation is structured so that others who wish to use it in the future could easily replace these stories with examples from another state, a specific ag commodity group, or a specific issue.
Phase 3: Program Delivery The first scheduled presentation, to the PA Grange in October 2016, was unsuccessful due to scheduling problems at the Grange conference. (Their membership ran an hour longer than anticipated and I was unable to present my workshop). The following presentations were well-received:
- PA Farm Bureau, 26 participants
- Women’s Agricultural Network, 12 participants
- PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture, 29 participants
- PA Young Farmers, 18 participants
Cooperating farmer Charles Myers attended the PA Farm Bureau session.
- Working with agricultural organizations was more successful for research than for program delivery. Most ag organizations I contacted were happy to arrange a focus group discussion with their membership, usually in conjunction with a conference or scheduled meeting of the organization. It was more difficult to convince the same organizations to find time in their conferences and meetings to include a session on farmers and local government.
- Little interest in train-the-trainer. Those ag organizations who offered focus groups and hosted educational sessions were not interested in accessing the educational materials for their own use. The intensified interest in local government since the 2016 presidential election, on all sides of the political spectrum, is more likely to result in increased demand for educational sessions than in access to educational materials. This researcher has received two such requests since the project close-out.
- Special audiences have more interest in the link between agriculture and local government. As a direct result of this project, this researcher has received two requests for presentations (see #2 above) from the PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture and from USDA Rural Development’s outreach to women and Hispanic farmers.
- Real-world examples have impact. Workshop participants expressed interest in the real-world examples included in the educational presentation, as evidenced in questions from the audience. This researcher also noticed an increase in attention during those portions of the presentation.
- The connectness of the ag world can open doors. Many farmers belong to more than one ag organization, and their interconnectedness helped spread the word about this project.
- Participation in local government is simply not a critical issue for most farmers, particularly the younger ones. Unless a specific issue such as permitting has impacted a farmer directly, he or she is unlikely to recognize the role of local government in agricultural operations. Many participants in the focus groups evidenced little understanding of the structure of local government, and focused their attention on federal regulations such as FSMA. Further research might focus on the extent to which farmers understand the roles and responsibilities of federal, state and local governments in oversight of agricultural operations.
- Timing is everything, particularly for civic participation. The 2016 presidential election sparked activism across the political spectrum. It is this researcher’s belief that, had the project been initiated in 2017, there would have been much greater interest in both the focus group research and the educational sessions. One indication of this is the level of interest in local government education (two conference presentations, two workshops) since the project closed.
- A little education can go a long way in increasing civic engagement. Although participation in the follow-up evaluation was low, those who responded indicated an increased level of awareness and involvement which may be attributable to the issues raised in the educational workshops.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Presentation “Farmers and Local Government: What’s In It for Me?”
- PA Farm Bureau 11/15/16
- Women’s Agricultural Network 12/6/16
- Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture 2/3/17
- PA Young Farmers 2/7/17
Developed recorded webinar of presentation which included research details, and a shorter version which is housed on the Penn State Extension website.
The project has generated substantial interest (some of which may be attributable to the current national political environment which has caused an uptick in interest in grassroots politics).
- a half-day workshop on this topic at the PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture annual conference in February 2018.
- a workshop on the importance of women farmers’ participation in local government for an NRCS-sponsored event in April 2018 geared toward women producers in Union, Snyder, Mifflin, and Juniata Counties.
- a series of 3 workshops to educate citizens on local government opportunities, sponsored by the Waynesboro Chamber of Commerce in rural Franklin County PA.
Greater awareness of the impact of local government policies, increased involvement in local government as an informed citizen and/or volunteer.
I am hopeful that one of the impacts of this project is an increased interest among the collaborating agricultural organizations – and others – in promoting discussion of local government involvement. This can be accomplished by including sessions such as the one developed in this project at annual meetings and conferences, providing information and featuring guest blogs and articles in membership publications and on websites, etc. Given the current climate of incivility in politics and elections in general in our country, it remains to be seen whether targeted outreach can convince members of the agriculture community to overcome the barriers to involvement.
A disconcerting aspect of the input from my focus group research is the relative apathy of younger farmers regarding their local government. Few of the younger farmers I spoke with had really thought about the impact of local government policies on their livelihoods. The exception seemed to be those farmers who had experienced an issue in local permitting. Clearly this is an area that most farmers won’t think about until there is such an issue — but continuing the dialogue in venues such as PASA and Farm Bureau may help elevate awareness of local government and generate more interest among farmers.