Using farmer-rancher input to develop and implement experiential educational opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers

Final Report for SW05-039

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $160,056.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Western
State: Idaho
Principal Investigator:
Cinda Williams
University of Idaho Extension
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Project Information

Abstract:

This project was undertaken to improve on-farm experiential education offered through the Cultivating Success: Small Farms Education Program and other similar sustainable agriculture education programs. This project reviewed and assessed existing experiential education models and surveyed small farms in Washington and Idaho to evaluate the appropriateness of existing models to their educational needs. Using the feedback from twelve focus groups and the survey results, we identified a variety of content and format alternatives on farm experiential education to conduct, document and evaluate. Eight experiential farmer/rancher educational programs in Idaho and Washington were documented and evaluated through follow-up interviews with farmer instructors and on-line evaluation of workshop participants. Survey results have been presented at three regional workshops and one national conference. The case studies, summary of the project and lessons learned, Enhancing Farmer to Farmer Education in the Inland Northwest: Case Studies of On-Farm Experiential Education, will be available online through project partner websites.

Project Objectives:

1. Identify and evaluate existing models for delivering experiential learning that have potential for contributing to a whole-farm or ranch systems approach to small acreage farming and ranching.
2. Assess the relevance of existing experiential learning models to determine how well they will meet the needs of beginning farmers wanting to learn practical, whole system-based sustainable farm and ranch management.
3. Develop the capacity of experienced sustainable farmers and ranchers, extension educators and researchers to offer effective and meaningful experiential educational opportunities on working farms, university farms and research stations.
4. Provide experiential education opportunities in small acreage farming and ranching in Washington and Idaho and evaluate their impact on resource management and farm profitability.

Introduction:

On-farm experiential learning opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers can result in increased adoption of skills, increased efficiency, cost savings, and improved farm management. As a result, we anticipate an increase in production and direct marketing of sustainable products to local markets, an increase in individual farm income, and enhanced success of beginning farmers and ranchers.

The need for this research and resulting education was established by the experience of the project team while offering a series of courses to academic students, beginning and existing farmers or community members considering starting a small farm (www.cultivatingsuccess.org). Our experience with more than 2000 community members and farmers taking the Cultivating Success courses indicates that beginning and transitioning farmers have educational needs based on different levels of skills, education and background. Some of our traditional educational models may not be appropriate due to length of time commitment, relocation limitations, travel requirements, and lack of enough “hands-on” opportunities. Developing a range of experiential opportunities to meet the needs of these and other beginning farmers is critical to increasing their potential for success.

Studies support our hypothesis that beginning farmers need experiential educational opportunities that lie outside of the classroom and are more flexible than the traditional summer-long on-farm apprenticeship/internship model. The project helped to identify specific experiential educational needs for beginning farmers and ranchers in Washington and Idaho and what opportunities can be made available on working farms to most effectively meet those needs.

Research

Materials and methods:
Objective 1: Identify and evaluate existing models for delivering experiential learning

Research and document the existing experiential agricultural education programs offered by farmers/ranchers, grower organizations, and university farm and university research station education programs in the U.S. and Canada. Each model’s educational content, degree of emphasis on whole-farm systems, approach to adult education, and stated success in meeting the learning objectives of beginning farmers, students and other audiences will be documented.

Objective 2: Assess the relevance of existing experiential learning models

Organize and conduct twelve farmer focus session in Washington and Idaho. Six of the focus sessions were with beginning farmers, asking them to identify their experiential education needs and possible on-farm approaches to meeting those needs. Another six focus sessions were held with experienced farmers exploring the type of on-farm educational opportunities they could provide to other farmers and what resources and assistance it would take to offer those programs. Particular attention was given to how existing farmers can offer on-farm experiential educational opportunities while continuing to accomplish their same level of production.

The potential of the educational models identified in objective 1 and those outlined by farmers in the focus sessions to meet the needs of beginning farmers was assessed through a mail survey of Idaho and Washington farmers.

Farmer mailing lists from Idaho and Washington sustainable agriculture organizations, county extension offices and other university small farm and sustainable agriculture programs were used to define the audience. A random sample of 1200 listings drawn from this pool comprised the survey population.

The mail survey instrument was developed with help from the UI Social Survey Research Unit(SSRU). The survey was tested with a subset of the survey population and then the full mail survey was implemented following the Dillman method in September of 2006. The SSRU worked with project team members to analyze the results based on up to 40 variables.

Survey results were compiled and reviewed by SSRU and project team members. Survey results were presented at three farmer workshops to gain feedback to aid in the identification of experiential educational formats to document and assess.

Cooperating farmers provided guidance in many aspects for accomplishing this project objective. While six farmers collaborated on multiple aspects of the project, only two of the original farmers identified as potential collaborators were involved due to: 1) distance, time and travel considerations 2) availability of producers to participate and 3) appropriate match of educational format.

Objective 3: Develop the capacity to offer effective on-farm experiential opportunities

We established new and built on existing relationships with farmers and ranchers, extension educators and researchers who are interested in offering experiential educational programs for beginning farmers and ranchers. We identified incentives for farmer-mentor participation, increased publicity to solicit interested producers, and conducted improved training sessions to farmers, ranchers and interested educators.

In the past, the Cultivating Success program has offered two separate trainings, a course instructor training for extension educators and farmer-mentor training for people interested in hosting apprentices on their farm. Rather than continue to separate these audiences, this project offered three trainings to a combined audience of extension educators, farmers and non-profit farm organization staff. By combining the three audiences, we will facilitate networking to enhance local capacity for collaborative experiential education programs for beginning farmers and ranchers.

Our current training manual, which offers extensive information on apprenticeship curriculum development, adult education theory and practice and many tips for farmers hosting apprentices, will be expanded to include our findings relative to the different approaches for offering on-farm experiential education.

Objective 4: Provide experiential opportunities on WA and ID farms and evaluate impact

The project team collaborated with producers on eight experiential educational programs, three in Washington and five in Idaho, for beginning farmers and ranchers. The project team documented the educational approach, assessed the learning process and evaluated the success of each through post-workshop on-line surveys or interviews of participants and interviews of farmer instructors.

The educational events that were documented and evaluated were selected by a team of collaborating farmers and the project team based on: 1) type of format fitting farmer’s skill and interest level; 2) variety of format types; 3) location and ease for project team to attend and document; and 4) scheduled producer planned events that fit our criteria and were suitable for collaboration.

Project team members worked closely with the farmer-mentors and their farmer-students during the educational experience and follow-up with them afterwards. Students were surveyed to determine skills and knowledge gained. The strengths and challenges of the learning experience were evaluated from both the beginning farmer and the farmer-mentor/educator perspectives.

Research results and discussion:
Accomplishments/Milestones for Objective 1:

• Online research of over 50 organizations and institutions was conducted to determine existing models for delivering experiential learning in programs focused on education of sustainable agriculture systems
• A survey and an in-depth analysis of 10 organizations, including 3 university-based and 7 community-based affiliations, provided additional evaluative information on existing models. The research was done by initial contact through the Internet and informational brochures and followed up by an email survey.
• We found a common thread among the 10 organizations in that they did not utilize a methodology for evaluating the effectiveness of their on-farm learning programs. Out of the 10 organizations that were surveyed, only 3 were able to evaluate and track the long-term outcomes of their program (2 out of those 3 were university-based programs).
• Five members of our project team attended either the first or second Annual Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture Education conference (first held at Asilomar, CA and the second in Ithaca, New York). The conferences allowed us to network and build relationships with other colleagues who have experience with on-farm learning programs. Cultivating Success team members continue to stay updated on other models for delivering effective experiential learning opportunities. Two members participated in a January 2009 webinar on “Building New Farm Incubator Programs.”

Accomplishments/Milestones for Objective 2

• A total of twelve focus groups were conducted, including six groups of experienced farmers and six of beginning farmers. One hundred and twenty-five people attended the focus groups in six locations of Idaho and eastern Washington.
• A survey instrument was designed from the results of the focus group sessions to evaluate interest and preferred format/content of on-farm learning activities. A pilot version of the survey was sent to 40 of the total sample to assure question comprehension and design. The survey was revised following the pre-test and mailed to a mailing list of 1200.
• Our survey of Washington and Idaho small farms was completed and analyzed in January 2007. The UI Social Science Research Unit presented a completed report of their findings in February 2007.
• A poster on the Cultivating Success Small Farm Education Program was presented at the 2nd National Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture conference in July 2007 in Ithaca, New York. Over 170 people attended the conference. As part of the poster presentation, handouts of our preliminary survey results were distributed to approximately 50 participants.
• Survey results have been presented to and discussed with farmers at three events; the Washington Tilth Conference in November 2007; and two Cultivating Success Farmer Mentor Orientations in Moscow, Idaho, December 2007 and in Boise, February 2008.

Accomplishments/Milestones for Objective 3

• Focus groups have provided valuable communication between farmers, community members, students, and the Cultivating Success team to integrate concerns and needs into the evaluation of program development for offering on-farm experiential opportunities.
• University farm capacity increased at both the University of Idaho and Washington State University. A new Organic Farm Practicum course was developed at the Washington State University Organic Teaching Farm, averaging 12 students per year since 2005. Students involved in the University of Idaho student-run organic farm developed their own Community Supported Agriculture program, and the farm is now serving as both a working and teaching farm where students learn how to implement practices of organic farming and gardening.
• Three Cultivating Success Orientation and Instructor Trainings have been held in Washington from 2005-2008. The audience was a mix of extension instructors, project partners and interested farmer mentors. Yearly attendance averages 20 with 5-10 new instructors each time.
• Two Cultivating Success Farmer Mentor Trainings were held in Idaho in 2007 and 2008. Thirty-four farmers were provided information on the program, the project survey results, tips for on-farm apprenticeships and useful discussions on what has worked for on-farm education.
• The Cultivating Success “Farmer Mentor Handbook,” developed by one of our lead producers, has been revised with new material related to on-farm education. The handbook is used in our Farmer Mentor trainings, as a resource to prepare future farmer mentors and is available to access and download on the Cultivating Success website: http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org/farmer_mentor_handbook.htm
• The Cultivating Success website is routinely updated to promote the overall program and new course offerings and to serve as an online location for the farmer mentor manual, instructor materials, and updated class materials. http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org/. Over 22,000 hits have been recorded since 2006. The apprenticeship section has been updated with a new apprenticeship application and new information on how to become a farmer-mentor.
• A publication of lessons for on-farm lab activities was developed to go with the Sustainable Small Acreage Farming and Ranching course. This course is taught at sites throughout Washington and Idaho and will serve to strengthen the on-farm component of the course. The lessons were developed at the University of Idaho student organic farm, but are applicable to multiple university or working farm situations.
• Capacity building and development of additional on-farm learning events are occurring in SE Idaho as a result of this project. Project leaders worked closely with SE Idaho NRCS partners and have resulted in two Sustainable Small Acreage Farming and Ranching course offerings with strong farmer cooperation and on-farm learning tours.

Accomplishments/Milestones for Objective 4

• Eight farms are currently certified as Cultivating Success Farmer Mentor sites, including five farms in Idaho and three farms in Washington. Three new farmer mentor applications were submitted to Cultivating Success in late 2008 and are being reviewed. These farmers have attended training and developed curriculum based learning activities for offering internship and mentorship opportunities. Apprenticeship opportunities on these farms are detailed on the Cultivating Success website at: http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org/farmermentors.htm
• A variety of on-farm learning activities were conducted in 2007 and 2008. All activities were attended by at least one team member, were documented through photos, farmer interviews and student/participant post workshop evaluations:
1) Intensive week-long on-farm offering of the Sustainable Small Farm course
2) Summer internship supplemented with weekly half-day educational classes that are open to public for a fee
3) Internship on cattle ranch; weekend on-farm work and learning sessions throughout spring and fall
4) Two topic focused, one-day, on-farm workshops (lambing school and hoop house construction)
5) Mentorship through a series of on-farm educational work days; instruction in exchange for work hours
6) Three-hour farm walk with producers and agricultural professionals
7) Organic Farming Practicum course at WSU Organic Farm site

Research conclusions:

This project has enhanced opportunities for the Cultivating Success program to gain national recognition for its efforts in sustainable small farm education through attendance, poster presentations and informal discussions at numerous national meetings. We have developed and strengthened connections with other universities and programs that offer on-farm educational opportunities both through attendance at Sustainable Agriculture Education conferences and through direct communication with other organizations across the country. We have a database of other programs and have reviewed and assessed what models are working for both academic and other on-farm learning. In addition, the Cultivating Success program has been entered into a national database that lists programs that offer on-farm educational experiences, which has allowed the program to connect with additional colleagues who are also researching and implementing on-farm experiential education.

In addition to development of a usable survey tool to evaluate on-farm educational experiences, the focus group sessions allowed the Cultivating Success team to connect with a large number of new and existing farmers, adding more than 140 farmers, community members and students to our network. Several farmers newly connected to our program have become enthusiastic participants in the further success of the program, and are willing to serve as potential mentors, advisors to on-farm educational opportunities and/or provide future farm tours or farm-walk events. An unplanned outcome of our farmer focus group was building the program’s strength with these new farmer contacts.
Over 60 producers, extension educators and project partners are more aware of the program, our research and resulting work to improve on-farm experiential learning after participating in one of three presentations about our preliminary survey results conducted in 2007. Participants at these events provided additional input and ideas to contribute to future on-farm educational offerings.
The completed survey results have provided new information and expanded the project team’s knowledge about the needs for on-farm learning as a critical component for educating beginning farmers about whole systems-based, sustainable farms and ranches.
The survey results showed trends of what both beginning farmers would like in educational formats and content and what experienced farmer preferred to provide.

A total of 70 agricultural professionals and farmers have attended a Cultivating Success Instructor Training from 2005-2008. This instructor training not only strengthened the knowledge base of current and new instructors, but also served as a method of further enhancing community knowledge of the overall Cultivating Success program.

Capacity for offering experiential education was increased through the farmer mentor orientation and training. Thirty to 40 farmers have attended a Cultivating Success Orientation/Farmer Mentor Training to learn how to provide effective on-farm educational experiences. All participants increased their understanding of successful on-farm learning formats, learned new teaching tips and educational techniques, increased their understanding of how to incorporate education into a work based internship and gained new insights about solving/preventing potential conflicts between farmer and apprentice/student.
Completion and online publication of the Farmer Mentor Handbook has provided a valuable resource to farmers interested in learning how to be a successful mentor for future apprenticeships on their farm or ranch. The Farmer Mentor Handbook will serve as a model for current and future programs that would like to develop and implement this type of process for furthering the capacity of experienced farmers to provide efficient on-farm learning experiences to new and future farmers.
A farmer in NE Washington attended training, became more interested in Cultivating Success and has become a Farmer-Mentor, offered a week long version of the Sustainable Small Farming course and is now serving as a member of our leadership team. The WSU Organic Farm manager has also become a certified Cultivating Success Farmer Mentor.
Six farmers offering on-farm education events were surveyed about what they would recommend to other farmers to improve the effectiveness of the experiential learning of participants. This information is documented in eight case studies, ‘Farmer-to-Farmer Education in the Inland Northwest: Case Studies of Eight On-Farm Educational Opportunities.’

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

A poster on the Cultivating Success Small Farm Education Program was presented at the 2nd National Facilitating Sustainable Agriculture conference in July 2007 in Ithaca, New York. Over 170 people attended the conference. As part of the poster presentation, handouts of our preliminary survey results were distributed to approximately 50 participants.

Survey results have been presented to and discussed with over sixty farmers at three events; the Washington Tilth Conference in November of 2007; and two Cultivating Success Farmer Mentor Orientations in Moscow, Idaho, December 2007 and in Boise, February 2008.

The Cultivating Success website is routinely updated to promote the overall program, new course offerings, and serves as an online location for the farmer mentor manual, instructor materials, and updated class materials. Over 22,000 hits have been recorded since 2006. The apprenticeship section has been updated with a new apprenticeship application and new information on how to become a farmer-mentor.
http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org

The Cultivating Success “Farmer Mentor Handbook,” developed by one of our lead producers, has been revised with new material related to on-farm education. The handbook is used in our Farmer Mentor trainings, as a resource to prepare future farmer mentors and is available to access and download on the Cultivating Success website: http://www.cultivatingsuccess.org/farmer_mentor_handbook.htm

A publication of lessons for on-farm lab activities was developed to go with the Sustainable Small Acreage Farming and Ranching course. This course is taught at sites throughout Washington and Idaho and will serve to strengthen the on-farm component of the course. The lessons were developed at the University of Idaho student organic farm, but are applicable to multiple university or working farm situations. Will be available on the Cultivating Success web site in summer of 2009.

A series of eight case studies are developed and in review. They will be published with an accompanying section that summarizes information about the project and evaluation results and farmer recommendations for offering effective on-farm educational experiences. The full publication and/or individual case studies, Enhancing Farmer to Farmer Education in the Inland Northwest: Case Studies of On-Farm Experiential Education, will be available through UI Sustainable Agriculture, Cultivating Success and Rural Roots web sites by late 2009.

Project team members are currently working on a journal article to highlight research results and implications that will be submitted to the Journal of Extension in fall of 2009. Project team members, Williams and Agenbroad, have submitted an abstract for presenting the results of this project at the Fifth National Small Farm Conference in September of 2009. (Pending)

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Economic capacity of beginning farmers and ranchers has the potential to improve by participation in on-farm educational activities. Eighty-eight percent of the farmers surveyed following five on-farm workshops indicated they would save money or be more efficient in farming practices due to the workshop. Also 92% indicated they were better prepared to manage their farm following on-farm learning activities.

Although difficult to quantify the direct relationship resulting from this project, increased participation in on-farm education has the potential to increase the volume of farm product sales in Idaho and Washington as the production and marketing skills of beginning farmers and ranchers improve. According to the 2007 Ag Census, the number of total Idaho farms in each of the following three categories of gross sales increased by more than 200 between 2002 and 2007: $5000 to $9999, $10,000 to $24,999 and $25,000 to $50,000. Although that cannot be directly attributed to our programs we do know that farmers in our programs and participating in on-farm learning and mentoring from experienced farmers have demonstrated success. An experienced Idaho producer arranged an on-farm educational mentoring and work exchange with two beginning farmers who she met during a fall 2006 offering of the Sustainable Small Acreage Farming course. One of these beginning farmers went on to raise heritage turkeys and has had two successful years of sales.

Increasing the number of sustainable farms and ranches will have positive economic impacts on local economies. Most of the agricultural operations we are serving in this program sell direct to consumer and help contribute to local economies as money goes to local goods and services.

As farmland is preserved it has a positive effect on the local economies due to the reduced amount of direct costs for services to development as compared to farmland. The cost of land, property taxes and cost of living go up as farmland is converted to development. This is a critical issue in rapidly urbanizing areas of western Washington, north Idaho and southwest Idaho. Here, farm and ranch land contributes to the increase in area property values because it preserves scenic, cultural and historic landscapes, community character and adds to the quality of life. The managed open spaces of farm and ranch land provide beautiful views and opportunities for recreational activities. This natural beauty also opens up opportunities for agro-tourism as more city dwellers are becoming inclined to spend vacation time in rural settings to enjoy the open space of farmland, bringing the tourist dollars to the local economy.

Farmer Adoption

The experiential educational strategies developed as a result of this research were grounded in the experience and needs of beginning and transitioning farmers. Farmers participated in one or more aspects of the project: planning and methods design, coordination and implementation of focus groups, participated in pre-test of survey instrument, provided feedback following survey results, helped to identify formats for on-farm learning events; and conducted workshops or other learning opportunities. Farmer involvement in multiple aspects of project encourages buy-in to the project and will result in greater farmer adoption. All six farmers who provided leadership in this project will continue to play a key role in educational outreach and information dissemination. The lesson learned were specifically for the purpose of helping experienced farmers conduct meaningful on-farm learning and for beginning farmers to have increased opportunities resulting in enhanced likelihood of farming success. Participating farmers will continue to offer on-farm events and will expand the variety of formats. Eighty-eight percent of beginning farmers surveyed following five on-farm workshops indicated they would save money or be more efficient in farming practices due to the workshop. One hundred percent indicted they would likely or very likely attend another on-farm workshop.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

The project team will continue to evaluate and refine the on-farm experiences offered to beginning farmers and ranchers through the Cultivating Success program.

Efforts are underway through another project to refine evaluation parameters of experiential learning approaches.

Information is needed to quantify the impact of our program and associated on-farm learning activities to the increase in numbers and success of sustainable farms and ranches in Idaho and Washington.

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.