Bridging the communication gap: toward a more informed public understanding of sustainable farming

Progress report for SW21-928

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $348,841.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Host Institution Award ID: G242-22-W8612
Grant Recipients: Oregon State University; Red Tomato; FrameWorks Institute
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Clare Sullivan
Oregon State University
Julie Sweetland
FrameWorks Institute
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Project Information


Diverse Western agricultural stakeholders have identified the need to increase public understanding of why sustainable agriculture matters, how it works, what the challenges are, and how society can support sustainable approaches. For example, improving consumer education is a stated priority in at least seven Pest Management Strategic Plans for western crops. Likewise, the California Alternatives to Chlorpyrifos Work Group identified a need to develop shared language around agriculture, environmental protection, and community health.

Our project will help meet these needs. We approach communications dilemmas by analyzing the deeply embedded mindsets that shape public thinking, rather than relying on surface-level messaging techniques. Over the last six years, the Farming and Food Narrative Project (FFNP) has developed a social science research base that sheds new light on why long-standing communications challenges in sustainable agriculture persist, and how to resolve them. With support from WSARE, we seek to extend this research, answering the following questions:

  • What conversational strategies or arguments do ordinary people in the Western region use to resist new information or scientifically-informed perspectives? 
  • What communication tools and strategies effectively work to overcome such resistance? 

To ensure that findings are optimally useful in the western U.S., our project’s outreach and dissemination design depends on close collaboration with stakeholders. Project leaders will engage with Western growers and practitioners to pinpoint current needs and challenges in explaining and elevating sustainable agriculture. Communications strategists and educators will use what we learn to design communication trainings and build a toolkit of communication resources. 

Research findings will be reported in a highly-accessible strategic brief that highlights the key communications shifts that will elevate public understanding and support. This brief, and the related toolkit, will be made publicly available and will be disseminated widely through the Farming & Food Narrative’s distribution list and other digital venues.

 By supporting research that confirms and adapts national recommendations for use in the West, this project leverages more than $600,000 in investments from previous funders of FFNP work and aligns it with the goals of WSARE. Expected outputs include: 

  • A research-based set of effective communications recommendations, including new narrative elements, that work to explain and elevate sustainable agriculture in the West;
  • Refined training modules that equip a variety of agricultural stakeholders to communicate more effectively with multiple audiences;
  • A digital toolkit that translates project recommendations into formats requested by sustainable agriculture stakeholders in the West.

 We expect this project to have both immediate outcomes and long-term impacts. During the short-term, we expect to see changes in participants’ communications knowledge and practices. In the medium-term, we expect those changes in communication practices to be shared among participant's networks, which over the long-term, will build public support for policies that support sustainable agriculture, and will increase consumer demand for sustainably-grown products. Fresh policy approaches will enhance economic, environmental, and social outcomes by providing farmers with more operational capacity to adopt sustainable practices.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1 (Research): Complete Qualitative Frame Testing by conducting four peer review sessions in the West (2021-22).

This objective involves the final efficacy testing of new narrative elements in an interactive group setting, including the testing for “stickiness” during person-to-person transmission. We will conduct four separate peer discourse sessions (similar to focus groups) in western states during 2021-22, including two with rural-leaning audiences, and two with urban-leaning audiences. These sessions aim to answer the following questions:

  • What conversational strategies or arguments do ordinary people in the western region use to resist new information or scientifically-informed perspectives? 
  • What communication tools and strategies effectively work to overcome such resistance?

Objective 2 (Research): Develop a Reframing Toolkit including new narrative elements, guidelines for their use, a variety of digital support materials/tools, and a series of trainings, both virtual and in-person (2021-2022). 

During 2021-2022, for use in 2022-2024, FrameWorks and the project team will develop a “Reframing Toolkit," a combination of FrameWorks-designed digital resources plus FFNP training tools and events. This toolkit will include: guidelines for communicators; new narrative elements for organizational websites and written materials; an introductory webinar; an interactive, curated list-serve/community of practice focused around real-time communication challenges; a 3-hour Re-framing workshop; and a one-day intensive training for "influencers." 

Objective 3 (Education): Conduct three in-depth, 1-day train-the-trainer sessions in Oregon and California (2023-2024) with thought leaders (farmers, university professionals, and organizational communicators) who will then influence their own stakeholder networks.

We will co-design a 1-day intensive workshop in the form of a “train-the-trainers seminar” to train 50-60 “thought leaders,” who are well positioned to train other communicators in utilizing the framing recommendations that come out of the Reframing Toolkit (Objective 2). We will deliver three of these workshops, hopefully in person, in Oregon and in California, in the third and final year of this project. 

Objective 4 (Education): Disseminate research results and communication tools to a diverse audience of farming and food practitioners--growers, university professionals and organizational communicators in NGOs, government agencies, and businesses-- in the western region during 2023-2024, via a mix of on-line, hard copy, and in-person strategies, trainings, and events.

This objective will transform research conclusions and learnings into a variety of training tools and guides that will be useful to the field of farming and food communicators. A series of web-based, hard copy, and in-person guides and trainings will be developed and disseminated.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Henry Catalan - Producer
  • Steve Ela - Producer
  • Gayle Goschie - Producer
  • Tunyalee Martin - Technical Advisor
  • Clare Sullivan (Educator)
  • Teresa Thorne - Technical Advisor



The Qualitative Frame Testing process will identify which narrative frames have the best chance of entering the public discourse, how various group identities shape thinking on the topic of sustainable agriculture, and will identify potential strategies for opening up a productive conversation across groups. 

The framing tools and science-translation strategies developed by FrameWorks and the WSARE project team will be adopted by a targeted audience who wish to increase the public understanding of sustainable agriculture.

Materials and methods:
Strategic Frame Analysis is an iterative, test-and-learn, social science methodology, with the findings of each step informing the next. Figure 1 below illustrates each step involved in this methodology, based on the overall five-year (national) FFNP project. By 2020, the national project had completed the descriptive phase of the research: Expert Interviews (step 1), Cognitive Interviews with the public (step 2), and Media Content and Field Frame Analysis research (step 3) [6,11]. The prescriptive phase was initiated in late 2020, and in 2021-22 the project completed the Reframe Candidates (4), On-The-Street/On-Line Interviews (5), and Controlled Experiments (6) to test “reframe candidates.” Funding from Western SARE will complete the social science research component through Qualitative Frame Testing (step 7), and begin the post-research phase of FFNP with dissemination and education focused on the western United States (see Objective 2 in this section, and Objectives 3 and 4 in education plan). 

Figure 1. Research components in the reframing process.

Objective 1: Complete Qualitative Frame Testing by conducting four peer review sessions in the West (2021-22).

This objective involves the final efficacy testing of new narrative elements in an interactive group setting, including the testing for “stickiness” during person-to-person transmission. In May 2022, we will conduct four separate peer discourse sessions (similar to focus groups) in the western states via Zoom. These sessions aim to answer the following questions:

  • What conversational strategies or arguments do ordinary people in the western region use to resist new information or scientifically-informed perspectives? 
  • What communication tools and strategies effectively work to overcome such resistance? 

To explore these questions, we will conduct peer discourse sessions in which researchers foster conversations on the focus issue in small groups of 6-8. Groups are created purposefully to allow for comparison and contrast – we are looking for both patterns of thinking that hold across groups and also exploring how social context and identity shift discourse [12]. The group compositions will aim for the maximal diverse sample from the western states, and will be representative of actual statistics from the western region (i.e. rural/urban, race and ethnicity, gender, age, political views, etc.). The goal is to have at least one representative from each western state, with priority given to major horticultural/agronomic agricultural states. Those who work professionally related to agriculture will be excluded as session participants, since the goal is to understand the "public understanding" of sustainable agriculture.

Transcripts and video from the peer discourse sessions are analyzed using a cognitive analysis process that examines the ways people think about a topic, their patterns of reasoning, the connections they make to other issues, and the devices they use to resist new information. This method surfaces themes and trends, affords an exploration of how well new frames help to reshape thinking, and it identifies those frames that have the best chance of entering the public discourse. We will also analyze any differences between groups, which will provide insight into how social identities and group dynamics adjust, refocus, or filter the way people talk and think about a social issue. 

By exploring the social discourse around sustainable farming and food using science-based methods, we will 1) reveal the ways in which various group identities shape thinking on this topic, and 2) identify potential strategies for opening up a productive conversation across groups. The answers to these questions offer communicators important insights into how to elevate public discourse around sustainable agriculture, how to respond to frequent misconceptions, and how to adapt a shared high-level framing strategy to messaging in the Western region. These answers, along with our previous research, will then be used to inform the development of a "Reframing Toolkit" for agricultural communicators, containing a variety of tools and resources (see Objective 2). 

Objective 2: Develop a Reframing Toolkit including new narrative elements, guidelines for their use, a variety of digital support materials/tools, and a series of trainings, both virtual and in-person (2021-2022). 

FrameWorks and the project team have begun developing a “Reframing Toolkit" that will be used for the educational components in 2022-2024, which will include a combination of digital resources, training tools and events, and an online community of practice. This toolkit will provide specific guidelines for communicators, including new narrative elements for organizational websites and written materials that have proven to foster more productive conversations. It will also include an introductory webinar, a 3-hour Re-framing workshop, a one-day intensive training for "influencers", and an interactive, curated list-serve/community of practice focused around real-time communication challenges.

The FrameWorks team will lead the development of a multimedia digital resource bank for this toolkit, including how-to guides and sample communications. Specifically, Frameworks will develop: (i) a Final Report which showcases the recommended frames and framing strategies, and the evidence that led to the recommendations; (ii) materials such as slides, handouts, instructional videos, “quick start” guides that orient users to key framing shifts, and multiple examples of framing strategies applied to communications. The specific tools that FrameWorks chooses to develop will be determined in collaboration with stakeholders, as well as the project team, to ensure they include the types of "job aids" (in communications, this is a resource that can be used as a reminder of important points), communications types, and issue foci that are most relevant and useful to the field.

This is longstanding methodology for FrameWorks, which generally produces 3-5 toolkits a year on a variety of social issues, each one accessed thousands of times. Two toolkit examples are listed below for reference:


The curriculum design and instructional methods underlying the Frameworks methodology have been validated in external evaluations and research [13,14,15].

To complement and make best use of the tools described above, the team will also develop for the Reframing Toolkit:

(iii) a 90-minute interactive webinar that will become the standard introduction to the project, the methodology, research results, results application, and how to learn more (see Objective 4). We will pilot this content through the project team and national project stakeholders to ensure high quality. We will also utilize skilled facilitators to make this a professional and impactful webinar that will leave participants wanting to learn more about these methods; 

(iv) a 3-hour, hands-on Reframing workshop aimed at practitioners, who can apply what they learn immediately in their own work (see Objective 4). The content for this workshop will be developed in close collaboration with the Frameworks team, and will deliver educational content around the concept of cognitive frames and the idea of "Reframing" as a way to improve messaging and engage in more productive conversations;

(v) a one-day, intensive, train-the-trainer session for "key influencers," who will use what they learn in their work, as well as be equipped to train other agricultural stakeholders in effective communications (Objective 3). The project team will work closely with Frameworks to develop a full-day curriculum for this session, which will deliver information about the project and its results, concepts of framing and re-framing, and recommended new frames and framing strategies. The content will be designed in such a way that participants will be equipped to deliver similar trainings within their networks. The project advisory group will help identify participants in the recruitment process. We will include a diverse group of participants, including multiple representatives from underserved communities who will be trained to deliver these tools within their networks (see Objective 3 for more on session delivery). 

(vi) an interactive, curated list-serve community of practice focused around solutions to real-time communications challenges. This will be modeled after current successful online communities of practice around food systems work, co-led by project team members.  

Research results and discussion:

Justification of research delay:

The iterative process used in Strategic Frame Analysis results in a very strong product, but improvements made on earlier steps can cause delays in later steps. The first three steps in the prescriptive research portion of this project (Reframe Candidates, On-The-Street/On-Line Interviews, and Controlled Experiments) were significantly slowed down due to revisions, resulting in a delayed start for the Qualitative Frame Testing (Objective 1, originally scheduled for fall 2021). FrameWorks researchers engaged in extensive discussions and review/revisions processes with the Farming and Food Narrative Project (FFNP) Core Team to make sure the Reframe Candidates were the right ones, and were supported by all the earlier work in the descriptive portion of the project. The engagement and revisions impeded our timeline, but not our research.

The prescriptive research process began in fall 2020 with an articulation of the goals and tasks for specific framing strategies. The goal was to establish 8-10 candidate frames to be tested through qualitative and quantitative research for efficacy. Our collaborative, multi-disciplinary process added time to this step, but the additional time spent proved worthwhile. The FFNP’s Core Team did not approve the candidate frames that FrameWorks presented in November and December 2020. This caused FrameWorks to hit 'pause' and reevaluate, and ultimately make changes in the research team. As applied communications researchers, FrameWorks’ researchers consider time to clarify and sharpen the intended goals and outcomes to be time well-spent. For instance, we improved on an initial goal of building public understanding of sustainable farming practices by re-articulating the objective to build public understanding of sustainable farming dilemmas. This elevated the sophistication of the subsequent candidate framing strategies. The initial version of the objective would have led us to try to do a better job of explaining discrete farming practices like crop rotation or cover crops – a worthwhile tactic, but something that our Core Team members know has already been tried, and hasn’t had the desired “breakthrough” effect with the public. Now, the framing strategies we are pursuing will focus on helping people understand the tensions and competing considerations that constrain the widespread adoption of sustainable farming practices. In the end, this level of attention to detail ensured that the recommended strategy truly breaks new communication ground.

By May 2021, FrameWorks was ready to test a series of candidate metaphors and examples in framing experiments with the general public. The COVID-19 pandemic and related shelter-in-place orders required FrameWorks to significantly retool its research methods to find alternatives to face-to-face interviews and focus groups. This resulted in a redesign and testing of On-Line Interview (instead of On-The-Street) and focus group formats which worked well, replacing face-to-face interviews during the life of this project. The first round of On-Line Interviews were inconclusive, and FrameWorks made some changes before conducting the interviews again, which also delayed the timeline. The Controlled Experiments, from which results will be used to for the Qualitative Frame Testing, were not completed until March 2022 (original timeline was summer 2021).

Based on the final round of On-Line Interviews, FrameWorks selected several candidate frames to test further. These included values messages that speak to why society should care about sustainable agriculture; metaphors for external pressures that present obstacles to sustainable farming practices; and explanations or examples related to economic, social, or environmental sustainability. 
FrameWorks researchers fielded a national survey experiment (Controlled Experiment, Step 6) in March 2022 to test various approaches to framing sustainable agriculture. This controlled experiment queried a representative sample including over 3,000 US residents. Participants read messages using different framing strategies and then responded to a series of questions probing knowledge, attitudes, and policy preferences regarding environmental, economic, and social sustainability topics. While analysis is ongoing - and final conclusions may change - our initial findings include:
  • Comparing the economic pressures on farmers to walking a tightrope had significant effects. Participants who were exposed to this metaphor-based message were more likely than the control group (which read no message) to rank farming as a profession that is essential to society and to agree that current policies make it more difficult for farmers to adopt environmentally-friendly practices.
  • Explaining IPM by using the example of crop rotation led to more support for environmentally sustainable policies. A similar explanation that used the example of pest monitoring and trapping had little effect on attitudes or policy support. 
  • Explaining the policies that historically have presented barriers to farm ownership for women and people of color led to significant increases in support for more expansive programs and funding for these groups.
  • There were no statistically significant interactions between responses and the following demographic categories: political affiliation; urban/rural residency; residency in a farming community. Despite the lack of significant effects, we can see some directional differences between people who live in a farming community and those who do not. People who live in a farming community, overall, have higher levels of understanding and support for sustainable agriculture policies. This means that messaging may encounter a “ceiling  effect.” People who do not live in a farming community are more likely to shift their thinking in response to messaging, but this “malleability” also poses the risk of “backfire effects” in which messages move thinking in an undesirable direction.

Objective 1: Qualitative Frame Testing (peer discourse sessions)

As explained above, the qualitative frame testing was delayed from the original timeline of fall 2021, and will occur in May 2022. At the time of this writing, we anticipate the findings from the Controlled Experiment will inform the peer discourse sessions in several ways. These include initial plans to probe the following questions in the qualitative research sessions:
  • Are there ways that the tightrope metaphor can be adapted to have more powerful effects on public thinking?
  • How can we make sense of the differences between different examples of pest management practices?
  • How can we build on or amplify the positive effects of messages that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in farming?


Objective 2: Reframing Toolkit

Results from the Peer Discourse Sessions (May 2022) are needed before specific resources can be created for the Reframing Toolkit. However, the project team has been exploring tools to be created alongside the FrameWorks tools, including: i) 30-minute webinars that introduce communicators to the FFNP and Framing Strategies; ii) one-page digestible bites of information about the Project and Framing; iii) periodic newsletters; iv) interactive listserve.

We have developed a 90-minute webinar format, that has been delivered two times to different networks. This webinar can be tailored to geographic and sectoral context that gives greater value to attendees, providing immediate findings that can inform their work in addition to generating long term interest and value in the Project’s final communication tools. The feedback we received on our most recent delivery has encouraged us that not only is this research timely, but it is also valuable, and attendees expressed interest in learning more and utilizing findings in their day-to-day work: “Overall, the summary points as to what the gaps in thinking on farming were an eye-opener for me,” “the presentation and tips on good messaging was incredibly helpful - already putting into action!” Most importantly, all feedback indicated that participants are sharing the reports and research findings with others in their organization or business, and with other in the field.

The WSARE project team is working on identifying appropriate audiences for the trainings, and has been in conversation with Agricultural Leadership groups, Agricultural Professional groups, commodity commissions, individual farmers, non-profits, and IPM Centers.

Participation Summary
3 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

3 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

16 Farmers participated
76 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Webinar: We presented an introductory webinar (90 minutes in length) to a diverse and mostly Western audience of farm and food professionals on April 30, 2021. 

Presentation: A virtual presentation was given to the National IPM Coordinating Committee on October 19, 2021 on the Farming and Food Narrative Project, including future plans for the WSARE project. 

Webinar: We presented an introductory webinar on the Farming and Food Narrative Project, the Northeast growing realities and communication challenges that spurred on the creation of the Project, and the FrameWorks findings to date on January 5, 2022 through the Southern IPM Center.

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.