Learning how to use communities of practice to address sustainable agriculture issues

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2008: $65,958.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Richard Pirog
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Beth Larabee
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Annual Reports

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: workshop
  • Sustainable Communities: social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    This project proposes to develop materials and train 48 Extension, agency, and/or non-profit educators and researchers in the North Central states on using Communities of Practice (CoPs) to address challenges in sustainable agriculture. This project will reach an additional 120 North Central educators and researchers from Extension, agencies, and non-profits as participants establish and operate CoPs of their own. The rationale for this project comes from requests made by non-profits and universities to the Value Chain Partnerships project (VCP), which is currently and successfully using the CoP model to address sustainable agriculture challenges in Iowa.

    CoP training will be delivered via an initial face-to-face workshop in Year 1, followed by regular conference calls and creation of a listserv to provide networking and problem solving support, and a workshop in Year 2 where participants can share best practices as their new CoPs develop and evolve. Iowa State University (ISU) Extension county and field staff (20-24 people) will participate in a pilot to test the training and materials prior to its formal launch. Training materials and short presentations also will be shared on the VCP web site. Evaluation activities will use project surveys to measure short-term learning outcomes after each workshop in both Years 1 and 2. Year 2 evaluation activities will rely on face-to-face and/or telephone interviews to measure medium-term impacts of this project in terms of changes participants and representative organizations/agencies have made as a result of their participation and application.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Short-term outcomes will include new knowledge of the CoP model as a viable way of organizing diverse stakeholders into productive, synergetic problem solving groups. Participants will gain knowledge of the structure and function of CoPs, the benefits of using CoP approaches and the tools to start, facilitate, manage, fund and/or support CoPs in their own state or region. Participants will gain a fresh perspective on seeking out, recognizing and utilizing the human resources available within their regions, plus making the best use of their accompanying social and monetary resources. Successful utilization of these resources will result in more motivation to work across organizations and stimulate systems-based change through development and implementation of CoPs. Educators will gain skills through first hand participation in an existing CoP meeting and exposure to systems approaches to problem solving.

    Intermediate outcomes will be increased effectiveness among educators in delivering services to farmers, ranchers and others in sustainable agriculture systems. New communities of practice will likely form around specific issues in food, fiber and energy while expanding and diversifying their client and partner base. Through the CoP model, educators will leverage more federal, state, local and non-profit and private resources to provide assistance and education to clients. Educators will share the CoP model and experience with their peers and colleagues and assist and advise new CoPs as they organize and begin their work. Plans of work for Extension and non-profits are expected to change, resulting in an increase in the total number of organizations using the CoP model in their state and/or regional sustainable agriculture and food systems work.

    Desired long-term outcomes of this project will be a diverse set of educators (extension, government agencies and other agricultural educators in the governmental, profit and non-profit sectors) with the skill sets necessary to utilize a Communities of Practice (CoP) framework with farmers, ranchers and the others to develop and deliver programs and build new projects and collaborations. Several new Communities of Practice will be established across the North Central Region and subsequent institutionalization of CoPs within organizations involved in sustainable agriculture education will support systematic changes in program planning and implementation. Educators will adopt a systems approach to the sustainable agriculture research and outreach systems and leverage resources for enhanced technical assistance across organizations. Leadership will be shared and maintained through increased, sustained buy-in among a larger group of stakeholders (educators, researchers, farmers, ranchers, community leaders and others) resulting in programs and activities that enhance sustainability of rural communities and the farmers and ranchers that support them. These are desired long-term outcomes and are not expected to occur within the two-year project time frame.

    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.