Sustainable Agriculture Training Project A Model of Collaborative Learning

1995 Annual Report for EW95-012

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1995: $31,450.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $42,775.00
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Nancy Matheson
Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO)

Sustainable Agriculture Training Project A Model of Collaborative Learning



1. Evaluate and revise the curriculum from the 1995 program and produce the materials necessary for it to be used by others to further implement the training.

2. Hold the multi-day core training in another state (we chose Idaho).

3. Target follow-up and financial support for participants in the 1995 program to implement projects and deliver training within their agencies. Follow-up with participants in the 1996 training through the growing season to assess their success in fostering sustainable agriculture in their arenas.


This professional development program targeted five states in the Intermountain West: Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, Wyoming and Utah. In 1995 Montana was the program site. In 1996 Idaho was the program site. We used the evaluation of the program in Montana to improve the program we offered in Idaho. The curriculum emphasized the most successful and valued elements of last year’s training. We continued to use as trainers farmers and ranchers who are leaders in sustainable agriculture and involved in farm improvement clubs. We also emphasized sessions featuring case studies, collaborative problem-solving and research, and hands-on experiences, such as farm tours, and opportunities for participants to network with each other and talk about sustainable agriculture projects they are already working on.

The program in Idaho was a logical extension and improved version of the one conducted in Montana. This program included: 1) a collaborative effort to plan and design a professional development training program involving agency leadership in Idaho and Washington, PCEI, IRC and AERO; 2) a two-day professional development training workshop and farm tours in Idaho; 3) over 30 farm tours and workshops hosted by farm improvement clubs across Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington; 4) a tour by WSU Extension’s Ag Horizons team, whose focus was sustainable agriculture, of exemplary farms in Montana; 5) a small grants program for agricultural service providers wanting to initiate projects or activities designed to help them and others learn more about sustainable agriculture; 6) a training workbook which others can use to conduct similar programs elsewhere; 7) an AERO co-sponsored workshop on composting at Montana State University (MSU); 8) a session at MSU’s Crop Pest Management School; and 9) two annual gatherings of farm improvement clubs–one in Montana and one in Idaho. Farmers and ranchers were an integral part of each piece of the training. This program effected well over 400 people in the region.

The training events themselves served to disseminate information beyond the trainees to farmers and ranchers and federal and tribal personnel who attended some of the training events. The most effective dissemination seemed to come through face-to-face contact between and among trainees and farmers and ranchers, primarily farm improvement clubs.

SATCHEL: Sustainable Agriculture Training Curriculum Handbook for Educators and Leaders documents what AERO learned about helping others understand the principles and essence of sustainable agriculture. It is designed to help others develop and deliver their own professional development programs. This document will be sent to all participants attending the training in Idaho. The document will be available to the public and participants attending the training in Montana for a small fee.

Impacts on Agricultural Professionals

The success, to date, of this Chapter 3 professional development program includes: 1) a network of agency leadership, who helped plan the training, that can provide on-going support for their field staff working with producers engaged in sustainable agriculture; 2) an expanded regional network of professionals who understand the principles of sustainable agriculture and collaborative learning and can provide each other with support and information; and 3) agency professionals that understand that sustainable agriculture is about more than practices -- that systems change is complex and requires problem-solving skills and facilitation rather than simple question-answering.

This professional development program overall had a positive impact on participants and institutional support for sustainable agriculture. One year after the training, participants were contacted for a phone interview to learn how the training impacted them. Data from the interviews shows that the training effectively: 1) boosted participant’s confidence in advocating for and communicating the principles of sustainable agriculture; 2) created a constituency supportive of sustainable agriculture among technical assistant providers; 3) catalyzed institutionalization of sustainable agriculture; 4) deepened participant’s understanding of sustainable agriculture; 5) broadened the role of technical assistance providers to include facilitator and co-learner; and 6) provided the climate for institutional receptivity to sustainable agriculture and professionals working on sustainable agriculture on farms and private organizations.

Reactions from Farmers and Ranchers

This program has resulted in developing a cadre of agency technical assistance providers in five states, primarily in Idaho and Montana, who are learning new approaches for serving farmers and ranchers and rethinking their roles. Here is how a few participants said, in their evaluations, the program impacted them:

"When the energy of community is there, agencies should step back and just provide logistical support and help facilitate. This project will change the way we [resource conservationists with NRCS] do this kind of work in the future. Our tour was planned by a team of agency people and ranchers, with ranchers taking the lead. The result was a tour that many said was the best they had ever been on."

"As an agronomist I realize that my role when working with farmers should be more of a facilitator. This workshop helped me do that."

"I’m learning that things are changing. The outside expert approach is dying and the collaborative approach is the coming thing."

As a result of the program, farmers and ranchers involved in sustainable agriculture in Idaho and eastern Washington are noticing more support for and interest in their projects by local agency technical assistance providers. Nancy Taylor, then coordinator of northern Idaho’s farm improvement clubs supported by PCEI said, “This year [1996] farm clubs are telling me that it has been much easier to garner support from local Extension agents and resource conservationists for their projects.”

Future Recommendations or New Hypotheses

This professional development program benefited from two consecutive grants from SARE. The year’s program in Idaho encompassed the best of the program we offered in Montana – thus resulting in a more effective program. We learned a lot about leading a Chapter 3 professional development program. 1) The program must cover not just what sustainable agriculture is and how to go about it, but how to best serve producers interested in it. This means acquiring both an understanding of new roles and processes of inquiry and support and technical knowledge. 2) Farmers and ranchers are invaluable as trainers, and are integral to each part of the program. 3) Incorporating the farm tours into the core training gave participants a chance to mesh theoretical learning with experiential learning, and ensured a continuity of participation. 4) Having written case studies about the farms on the tour is an effective way to prepare participants for the visits. 5) It is important to encourage public agency ownership in the program by involving them in the planning and implementation process. 6) Involving public and private organizations in the planning and implementation process fosters new roles and relationships. 7) It is most effective to engage a few high quality trainers. We believe that participants were able to delve deeply into a few topics by giving a few trainers more time for their sessions. 8) It is important to ensure that the trainers communicate a consistent message of a sustainable agriculture approach. 9) Two and a half days for the core training is adequate.

This summary was prepared by the project coordinator for the 1998 reporting cycle.