Improving Farmer Engagement in Sustainable Agriculture using Participatory Learning Techniques

Progress report for SNE20-011-PA

Project Type: PDP State Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $134,022.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2023
Grant Recipient: The Pennsylvania State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
State Coordinator:
Dr. Kristy Borrelli
The Pennsylvania State University
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Project Information

Summary:

Problem and Justification. Adults, including farmers, learn best when they participate in relevant experiences and utilize practical information in ways that make them feel respected and valued. Farmers also prefer learning about issues concerning agriculture and natural resource conservation from other farmers and participatory learning techniques provide them an opportunity to share experiences as they problem-solve complex agricultural issues with peers. However, many Agricultural Service Providers (ASPs) are unfamiliar with such teaching tactics and unsure how to incorporate them into their typical subject-based Extension programs. Although the majority of ASPs are highly educated and skilled in specific agricultural disciplines, many have minimal training in education methodology, especially as it relates to adult learners. A lack of focus on approaches that engage adult learners are leaving farmers unengaged and unsupported when attending programs that teach information that could help them manage agricultural sustainability.
Solution and Approach. This professional development program will educate 20 ASPs in Pennsylvania about better strategies for engaging farmers with participatory learning techniques during facilitated on-line and in-person activities and discussions that increase their knowledge and familiarity about adult education strategies. Through this program, 20 ASPs learn about adult education techniques by engaging with prepared materials focused on various concepts. Six online and 3 in-person activities and discussions focused on the material’s subject matter will help them incorporate multiple participatory learning techniques into 20 sustainable agriculture outreach programs (one program per ASP) that they will host for 400 farmers. To minimize the need for extra meeting and travel time, project activities will be incorporated into existing team meeting schedules and program areas, so they are compatible with ASP’s current commitments. The state coordinator, subject experts, and peer groups will help them apply newly learned techniques into their programs. Four-hundred farmers who participate in activities hosted by ASP participants will have opportunities to share their own experiences during meetings that provide them with chances to interact with other farmers, professional advisors, and educational materials. Stronger peer-collaboration during events focused on addressing sustainability issues on farms can collectively benefit all participant’s abilities to improve critical thinking skills, receive social support, and effectively gain knowledge.

Performance Target:

Over three years, agricultural service providers will improve their knowledge and abilities to use participatory learning techniques during facilitated on-line (6) and in-person (3) activities and discussions that increase their familiarity with adult education strategies. Continuous engagement with topic experts, peer groups, and at annual symposiums will further increase ASPs knowledge about participatory education. 20 Agricultural Service Providers incorporate learned strategies into 20 separate meetings for 400 farmers in order to create co-learning opportunities where farmers and agricultural partners can examine and problem-solve complex sustainable agriculture issues together.

Introduction:

Agricultural Need. Pennsylvania has 53,157 total farms and assuming some overlap in practices, nearly 40 thousand have harvested cropland and 18 thousand raise cattle and calves (USDA NASS, 2017). The commonwealth produces 193 million bushels of corn, soybeans, and small grains and 8.1 million tons of forage annually (USDA NASS, 2017). The importance of field and forage-based cropping systems to the Pennsylvania farming community necessitates that educational programs exist to help farmers comprehend and navigate complex sustainability concerns around issues like crop and nutrient management, soil health, pest control, and changing markets.

In-person meetings are an important outreach method that agricultural service providers (ASPs) use to address sustainability issues with crop farmers. Face-to-face gatherings are often cited as farmers’ preferred outlets for learning (Arbuckle, 2012; Comito et al., 2017; Franz et al., 2010) and an internal survey of 360 Pennsylvania crop producers stated they prefer short regional meetings (data not shown). Between January and March 2020, 20 Agronomy Extension ASPs hosted over 100 meetings with farmers and will host approximately 30 additional events throughout the rest of the year. Unfortunately, ASPs expressed concern about farmer engagement due in part to a lack of consideration for best adult education strategies (Bell and McCallister, 2012; Grudens-Schuck et al. 2003; Franz et al., 2010). Adults, including farmers, learn best when they participate in relevant experiences and utilize practical information in ways that make them feel respected and valued (Karge et al., 2011). Farmers also prefer learning about issues concerning agriculture and natural resource conservation from other farmers (Borrelli et al., 2016; Comito et al., 2017; Grudens-Schuck et al., 2003; Franz et al., 2010) and participatory learning experiences provide opportunities to examine and problem-solve complex issues together.

The role of the Extension educator remains important in guiding educational interactions among farmers and affiliated stakeholders (Grudens-Schuck et al., 2003; Franz et al., 2010). However, applying participatory learning strategies is often difficult for many ASPs who are unfamiliar with such tactics and unsure how to incorporate them into existing subject-based, Extension programs. The majority of ASPs are highly educated and skilled in specific disciplines, but many have limited to no training in education methodology, especially as it relates to adult learners. ASPs recognize these shortcomings and 20 agronomy ASPs explicitly asked for more professional development about adult education strategies in team in-service post-evaluations (data not shown) and conversations. One notable comment stated, “Not having an education degree, it is nice to learn about different teaching styles and ways to run workshops. Any sort of education professional development would be great for the whole group.” Another ASP commented, “I liked [the speaker’s participatory learning] concept and am interested in developing discussions for agronomy topics and pesticide education.” Further evaluations revealed that the ASPs are less interested in the theoretical aspects of adult education and more interested in learning approaches they can apply directly to farmers.  

Proposed Solution. Through this program, 20 ASPs learn about various adult education strategies by engaging with prepared materials. Online and in-person discussions of the materials will assist them to apply participatory learning techniques into sustainable agriculture outreach programs that they will host with farmers. The state coordinator, subject experts, and peer groups will help them apply newly learned techniques into their programs. Offering resources and financial support while tailoring project milestones of a stated area of interest into ASPs ongoing responsibilities will lessen the burden of professional development responsibilities. Four-hundred farmers who participate in project activities will experience deeper engagement and peer-collaboration during events focused on addressing sustainability issues on farms.

ASP Interest. Twenty Penn State agronomy Extension ASPs expressed high interest in education about participatory learning techniques in meeting evaluations and team discussions that sought their input about professional development activities. To minimize the need for extra meeting and travel time, project activities will be incorporated into existing team meeting schedules and program areas over 3-years, so they are compatible with ASP’s current commitments. An online learning center and discussion recordings will allow ASPs to participate at their convenience. In-person trainings will be incorporated into 3 existing team in-service workshops. Six schedule-compatible discussions will be identified by ASPs. Twenty ASPs will incorporate the participatory learning techniques they learn into 20 farmer-focused meetings that they already host, reaching 400 farmers. Financial support will only be provided to ASPs who participate in project activities and evaluations. The state coordinator will support ASPs by preparing necessary resources, connecting them experts, and preparing evaluations and other materials that they will use in programs.

Works cited

Advisors/Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Sarah Bay Nawa - Producer (Educator)
  • Dr. Kristy Borrelli
  • Dr. Daniel Foster (Educator)
  • Janet McAllister - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Nicole Santangelo (Educator)
  • Doug Wentzel (Educator)
  • Seth Wilner (Educator)

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Recruitment

Thirty-five Extension ASPs who previously expressed interest in participatory learning strategies will be invited to attend an online orientation that describes the project’s opportunities, expectations, and incentives. Twenty interested ASPs will opt into the project and continue through a 3-year, educational program designed to complement the existing team’s structure, ongoing activities, and individual program areas. Working within the existing team framework and including digital resources will reduce time and travel obligations and lessen the likelihood that professional development activities will overwhelm ASPs beyond their existing commitments. ASPs who do not opt into the project will still be involved in training at 3 in-person agronomy meetings. Any educational resources and materials that support the ASPs learning will be provided by the project.

Participating ASPs will host at least one farmer event (total 20) where they choose a sustainable agriculture concern to address using participatory learning strategies. Each ASP will receive financial support for any related meeting expenses including materials for demonstrations, technical equipment, or travel costs. ASPs must participate in 5 discussions on the online learning platform, 5 face-to-face digital discussions, 2 in-person trainings and complete all follow-up surveys and evaluations to receive funds. All necessary resources, materials, and evaluations, including those to be used with farmers, will be prepared and facilitated by the state coordinator in order to reduce the work burden of ASPs.

Education

This professional development program’s educational approach incorporates online and in-person resources to provide ASPs flexible options for building skills together with peers. Because the project’s intention is to strengthen ASPs approaches to adult education, they must also be engaged as adult learners. Therefore, multiple participatory learning strategies will be incorporated into all activities as a way of increasing ASPs knowledge about various techniques that could also be used with farmers. Activities will be organized and facilitated by the state coordinator with assistance from topic experts.

Digital learning center. Using software common in college courses (e.g., Canvas), a learning center will serve as a platform for a discussion board and space to organize and share articles and videos. Materials in the learning center will be organized into 6 topic areas (draft curriculum) that highlight teaching approaches that can be directly applied to agronomy programs. ASPs will have unlimited access to learning center resources. The learning center will house any recordings, meeting reports, and follow-up discussions.

Each topic will have a corresponding digital discussion (e.g., Zoom) twice per year (6) throughout the project (draft schedule). Digital discussions will be recorded. Prior to each discussion online, ASPs view materials and respond to two topic-related thought questions on the discussion board where they also interact with posts from peers and experts. Thought questions and meeting discussions will focus on how the topic relates to farmer education and its implications for agricultural sustainability. Through this process, ASPs engage with new concepts and consider their impact on existing programs. Additional conversations will be scheduled as needed.

In-service workshops. Learning center activities will be enhanced at annual team in-services where ASPs collaboratively evaluate common Extension meeting structures to determine how participatory learning strategies can improve farmer education (draft curriculum). Focused on one meeting type per in-service, ASPs will use techniques like games, word webs, or facilitated group discussions to examine and discuss existing meetings. Participation in the exercises will help ASPs develop their confidence to integrate new teaching styles into familiar meeting formats.     

ASP participatory farmer meetings. ASPs will incorporate various teaching strategies into meetings with farmers throughout the second and third year of the project. ASPs choose the meeting topic(s) and program strategy(s) based on the needs of farmers in their regions. Various strategies will become apparent to ASPs throughout the program but might include hands-on activities or networking events. ASPs will be encouraged to form peer-groups to troubleshoot ideas and plan meetings. The state coordinator will assist them to connect with appropriate experts as needed.

Teaching and Learning symposium. ASPs have the option to participate in regional conferences related to participatory learning to increase their interactions with others involved in the discipline. Activities might include Penn State’s Teaching and Learning Technology Team Symposium or activities with other Northeast SARE State projects.

Information, resources, and curriculum design developed in this program will enhance an emerging network of resources and personnel within SARE and Penn State who are passionate about improving participatory learning strategies for agricultural education.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

35 ASPs attend an online orientation that describes the project’s opportunities, expectations, and incentives. 20 ASPs will opt into the project and continue through a 3-year, educational program designed to complement the existing team’s structure, ongoing activities, and individual program areas.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
35
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 ASPs opt into project and sign a commitment form that outlines project opportunities, expectations, incentives including qualifications to receive payment to host farmer workshops. (Requirement summary: ASPs must participate in 5 discussions on the online learning platform, 5 face-to-face digital discussions, 2 in-person trainings and complete all follow-up surveys and evaluations to receive funds).

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 Agricultural Service Providers complete 1 in-person interview with the state coordinator prior to hosting an event with farmers to evaluate each ASP’s experiences teaching sustainable agriculture using participatory learning techniques and where they seek further support to assist farmers.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 ASPs who opt into project report participation in project activities including online discussions, face-to-face digital discussions, and in-person trainings to State Coordinator who tracks participation in project activities to provide funding to 20 ASP eligible participants to host farmer workshops.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

6 Project Advisory Group members attend an annual virtual meeting with state coordinator to become acquainted with each other and discuss the project concepts and ASPs’ interests and learning goals (Year 1, 2021), discuss previous year’s plans, ongoing topics, and any challenges ASPs are facing (Year 2, 2022), and ongoing topics and any challenges ASPs are facing as well as future opportunities for outreach and engagement about participatory learning with farmers (Year 3, 2023)

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed Completion Date:
January 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

30 Agricultural Service Providers (includes 20 ASPs plus 10 Agronomy Extension Specialists) participate in 1 in-person “Global Café” activity during an in-service workshop to examine how participatory learning strategies can be incorporated into field days and farm walks to better meet farmer’s educational needs (Year 1, 2020). 1 in-person “Building your own Vehicle” activity during an in-service workshop to examine how participatory learning strategies can be incorporated into break-out sessions at conferences to improve active engagement with farmers (Year 2, 2021). 1 in-person “Unpeeling the Onion” activity during an in-service workshop to examine how participatory learning strategies can be incorporated into half and full-day workshops that focus on navigating farmers through problem solving (Year 3, 2022).

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
November 30, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

October 26 2020 - In response to COVID-19 Social Distancing requirments that restricted in-person gatherings for ASP and Extension events with farmers made it necessary to pivot for online learning.  Instead of the "Global Cafe" proposed, we hosted a 2.5-hour online session with a guest speaker focused on "Engaging Audiences in Online Learning." In which the guest speaker discussed important methods for engaging audiences and lead a group of Agronomy educators through activities that can be done in the Zoom online platform for facilitating group conversations (e.g. break out rooms) and peer learning through discussion. Topics for this session focused around what people would miss in in-person gatherings with suggestions for mimicking similar scenarios online.  35 ASPs attended this session.

Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

30 Agricultural Service providers attend a final in-person workshop to share their different approaches for incorporating learning strategies into farmer educational outreach programs discussing their successes, challenges, and interests for future programming. Learning topics, themes and outcomes from project surveys and evaluations are summarized and presented to the group.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
September 30, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 Agronomy Educator ASPs, review 2 sets of prepared materials, per year (total 6) and respond to 6 topic-related thought questions on a discussion board in an online learning center prior to virtual discussions featuring the same topics. Documents and thought questions are prepared by the State Coordinator in collaboration with an Adult Education expert in order to introduce ASPs to specific teaching approaches that can be directly applied to agronomy programs .

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
July 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 Agricultural Service Providers attend 6 facilitated, face-to-face virtual discussions each year, featuring the same topics presented in the online learning center. Web-based conversations will give ASPs an opportunity to discuss how ideas presented in the discussion board can be related directly to agronomy programs with their colleagues and adult education experts.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
July 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #10 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

10 of the 20 participating Agricultural Service Providers attend Penn State’s Teaching and Learning Technology Team Symposium in State College, PA as an opportunity to engage with a wider community of professionals involved in participatory learning.

Note: these meetings may be substituted by any collaborative educational opportunities offered for ASPs through Northeast SARE on Adult Education in the region.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
April 30, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #11 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

10 of the 20 participating Agricultural Service Providers (different from 2022 cohort) attend Penn State’s Teaching and Learning Technology Team Symposium in State College, PA as an opportunity to engage with a wider community of professionals involved in participatory learning.

Note: these meetings may be substituted by any collaborative educational opportunities offered for ASPs through Northeast SARE on Adult Education in the region.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
April 30, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #12 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 Agricultural Service Providers complete an annual online survey (3) that assesses the quality of information presented as well as the digital and in-person techniques used throughout the program. The surveys will also allow ASPs to provide anonymous input and requests that will be used to enhance the ongoing program.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #13 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 Service providers submit results from evaluations collected from 400 farmers who attended meetings where participatory learning techniques were incorporated to determine how effective the teaching approach was in helping them feel engaged with the topic and with other meeting participants during the session.
Results will include their likeliness to adopt a learned sustainable agronomy strategy or to seek assistance from other meeting attendees after the workshop.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
400
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

SARE Outreach

Outreach about SARE:

SARE information will be available at project field days and presentations as well as made available through Penn State Extension listserves and newsletters. In particular, the state coordinator will sponsor exhibit sites and share SARE outreach materials and information at:

Exhibits at

  • Farming for the Future Conference, Pennsylvania Association Sustainable Agriculture, State College, PA. February 
  • Penn State Ag Progress Days, State College, PA. August 
  • Pennsylvania Women and Agriculture Network Conference, State College PA, December 
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.