Messages for Messengers: Growing Conservation Leaders in North Carolina

Progress report for SPDP23-019

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2023: $89,314.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2025
Grant Recipients: National Wildlife Federation; North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Jessica Espenshade
National Wildlife Federation
Bryan Evans
NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts
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Project Information


More than ever, it is critical that North Carolina farmers and ranchers work with trusted technical assistance providers, such as North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (NCASWCD) and its partners, to implement conservation practices that protect water quality and enhance soil health. Focused efforts and new approaches to messaging are needed to reach farmers and ranchers who have been reluctant to adopt conservation practices, as well as producers from historically underserved groups. National Wildlife Federation, in partnership with NCASWCD, proposes to significantly bolster outreach capacity in North Carolina through trainings and ongoing support for innovative outreach delivered by agricultural professionals. Our overarching project goal is to improve outreach professionals’ effectiveness by providing strategies to motivate southern farmers to adopt best management practices that benefit soil health and water quality by equipping outreach professionals with improved capacity and confidence to message on soil health and sustainable agriculture practices through the proven Grow More program. NWF in partnership with NCASWCD has completed one Grow More training in Louisburg, North Carolina on January 30, 2024 with 11 attendees.

Project Objectives:

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), in partnership with NCASWCD, proposes to build conservation outreach capacity in conservation district staff and partners through training and ongoing support. This project will improve outreach by applying concepts from social science and theories of behavior change to engage previously difficult to reach producers and by delivering this outreach through trusted messengers.

Objective 1: Increase the capacity of local conservation field staff and partners to conduct effective outreach to non-adopting farmers resulting in increased awareness, positive attitudes, and adoption of soil health practices by North Carolina producers.

Objective 2: Promote and enhance the collaborative network of producers and conservation organizations in North Carolina by assisting in the creation of shared messaging and outreach approaches for soil health and water quality focused sustainable agriculture practices.

These objectives will be accomplished through the utilization and customization of NWF’s successful outreach programs. NWF’s Grow More is a training workshop targeted to outreach professionals, including Soil and Water Conservation Districts, state resource agencies, conservation and agriculture NGOs, and private sector consultants. Since 2018, Grow More has trained over 740 outreach professionals across 10 states and 4 Canadian provinces. As technical experts in agronomy and natural resources, outreach staff often have limited training in social science and communications. Grow More training participants will learn strategies, based on current social science and insights gained from NWF’s work with outreach professionals for over a decade, to reach “beyond the choir” of innovative producers who usually show up at soil health events, and to meaningfully engage a broader group. Trainings will also include strategies to increase engagement with women farmers and landowners, socially disadvantaged groups, and beginning farmers and ranchers. An emphasis will be placed on recruiting participants from organizations that represent or serve historically underserved producers including 1890 institutions. NWF will provide 6 trainings (3 per year) across North Carolina to lower barriers to participation and allow smaller group sizes, which encourages learning and engagement. Participants in this program will also have access to NWF’s new outreach toolkit, which is currently in development and will include supplemental tutorials on behavior change and outreach topics, planning and program evaluation resources, and example messaging and outreach strategies. 

To ensure curricula is relevant and applicable to local farmers and outreach professionals, NWF will convene with North Carolina conservation representatives at the start of the project to frame local challenges and tailor the Grow More program specifically to the interactions conservation field staff have with farmers in the state. Our combined partnership and wide range of experience and expertise in the conduction and assistance of conservation outreach efforts throughout the existing network of mentor farmers, has wide-ranging experience conducting and supporting conservation outreach in the state, and through their existing networks of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural groups, will ensure local buy-in and extensive networks of potential participants to recruit from. NWF along with the in-state partners will provide consultation and continuous support throughout the span of the project by providing feedback, refining activities, promote program opportunities amongst shared networks, and participating in the trainings.


Educational approach:

The proposed project approach centers on leveraging social and behavioral sciences to identify and understand the motivations of different outreach audiences which in turn allows conservation professionals to craft messaging strategies and events (workshops, farmer meetings, and field days) that appeal to new audiences. This approach has been successful in both the Midwest and the Chesapeake Bay regions, where NWF has conducted 35 “Grow More” training workshops since 2019, reaching 740 natural resource professionals including conservation district field staff. These training workshops have had demonstrated success, with workshop participants incorporating at least one new messaging approach and 100% of participants indicating the training increased their confidence in at least one outreach skill. In North Carolina the project will tailor this approach specifically to fit the interactions that mentor farmers and conservation partners across the state have with individual producers, fostering greater landowner engagement in meeting long term conservation goals for the state.  


The “Grow More” training approach is structured as a flexible workshop, where trainees come together to learn from NWF staff and each other. Workshops are comprised of eight modules that address a range of conservation outreach components. The first modules introduce key social science and behavior change principles that underlie farmer decision making, followed by outreach messaging and framing strategies that incorporate these principles. Participants are also introduced to planning and evaluation tools that support ongoing outreach efforts. Trainings are comprised of a mixture of presentations by NWF staff, small group breakouts to discuss key concepts, large group discussions to collaboratively brainstorm applications of approaches and concepts, and dedicated planning sessions where participants apply lessons to current outreach efforts. These workshops and modules will be crafted to meet the specific needs of trainees, including the resource and geographic context as well as time and venue constraints. Most often, these workshops are run over two half-day sessions to allow time for participants to reflect and process key concepts. NWF provides not only novel content that can improve outreach efforts, but also strives to build confidence and leadership skills among our participants. 


To support development of behavior change-based outreach capacity in North Carolina, NWF and NCASWCD will invite staff and collaborators from various conservation entities including soil and water conservation districts, state resource agencies, and conservation NGOs to attend one of six training workshops in different locations across the state. Providing a total of six training options will minimize travel constraints and allow access to most relevant professionals, while also allowing for smaller, more intimate group sizes which facilitates better engagement and learning. Trainings will be organized by NCASWCD and led by NWF staff, with time commitment from conservation professionals limited to attending the training.  


Among the most important aspects of flexibility in the “Grow More” program is the ability to craft the lessons and examples to best meet the needs of the attendees. This program has been successfully implemented in multiple states and regions with different emphases depending on the local situation. To ensure that these training workshops address conditions unique to North Carolina, this project will begin with a planning process with input from local professionals. NWF will work with North Carolina soil and water conservation districts as well as reach out to North Carolina-based conservation organizations, and representatives from North Carolina A&T, to participate in a multi-hour virtual planning session. In addition, we will prioritize identifying organizations representing or with experience engaging with traditionally underserved producers. This planning session will be used to identify the particular needs of conservation organizations and professionals in North Carolina and how the workshops can be best structured to build key capacities to expand outreach efforts.  


The primary goal of this training approach is to empower outreach professionals with the knowledge, skills, and tools to expand the reach and impact of their efforts. This program is designed to have lasting impacts on the success of conservation outreach in the state. Participants will go on to demonstrate and share by example the effectiveness of these innovative outreach strategies with the greater network of local conservation professionals in the state. NWF is committed to providing continued support to workshop participants by providing planning tools and evaluation templates for participant use in subsequent outreach planning efforts.  


Following the trainings, NWF will administer questionnaires and interviews with participants to evaluate changes in key attitude, skill, and behavior metrics, as well as which strategies participants have incorporated into programming after attending the trainings. NWF will also conduct an evaluation of producer perceptions about programs and outreach efforts through online surveys. This will provide valuable feedback about how different outreach approaches meet producers’ needs, their perceptions of conservation practices and programs, and what further efforts might be needed in the future to support conservation adoption. These evaluation efforts will culminate in a written report produced by NWF to be shared with conservation partners. In addition to the written report, the findings of this project evaluation and producer feedback will be shared with conservation partners in a webinar at the close of the project. 

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Grow More training

Increase ability to reach middle adopter farmers and ranchers through outreach.


The Grow More program provides social science-based messaging and communication skills to conservation outreach professionals to improve their outreach to non-adopting farmers.

Outcomes and impacts:

We have sent out a follow-up survey which will assess the impact of new outreach strategies and confidence with the presented materials.

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

1 Agency
10 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)

Learning Outcomes

11 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
11 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

National Wildlife Federation has held one Grow More training for 11 people. The training was well received and attendees gave positive feedback at the training. A formal post training survey was distributed 8 weeks after the event, but the responses are still being collected.

11 Agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
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.