Integrating Vermont Farmer and Service Provider Knowledges Using Co-Created Mental Models of Soil Health

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $14,968.00
Projected End Date: 05/01/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. V. Ernesto Mendez
University of Vermont


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: extension, focus group, participatory research, technical assistance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: indicators
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    In the Northeast, climate change is causing more frequent extreme precipitation events and periods of drought. Soil health is integral to farmer efforts to adapt to these emerging weather patterns. The diversity of agricultural systems in the region requires farmers and agricultural service providers to collaboratively identify soil health best management practices that work within unique local contexts. Despite shared end goals, however, prior research indicates that farmers and agricultural service providers have different types of agricultural knowledge. Left unaddressed, these differences may impede co-creation of knowledge and best practices related to soil health. Identifying processes to integrate farmer and scientific knowledge to achieve improved soil health outcomes remains a pressing need in the Northeast. Responding to this need, this project compares how farmers and agricultural service providers understand and assess soil health on Vermont farms. To accomplish this, we will co-create mental models of soil health with Vermont farmers and agricultural service providers. Mental models visualize the complex social-ecological factors that inform individuals’ understanding and behavior. Using participatory analysis to compare farmers’ and agricultural service providers’ mental models, we aim to identify: 1) divergent approaches to soil health, which may prevent collaboration towards shared goals regarding sustainable soil management; and 2) complementary or shared views that may provide leverage points to strengthen collaboration between farmers and agricultural service providers. Findings will be used to develop clear guidance for improving collaboration between farmers and agricultural service providers working towards improving and maintaining agricultural soil health in the Northeast.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The objectives of this research are:

    1. To visualize agricultural service providers’ mental models of soil health
    2. To visualize farmers’ mental models of soil health
    3. To identify how soil test results fit into farmers’ soil management strategies
    4. To visualize farmer mental models of soil health grouped by farm type
      • Farm type groups include organic dairy, conventional dairy, organic vegetable & fruit, conventional vegetable & fruit, organic non-dairy animal operations, conventional non-dairy animal operations. These groupings encompass the main agricultural production systems in Vermont. Different production systems entail different soil management strategies, which may influence mental models of soil health.
    5. To identify whether mental models of soil health differ across farm type
    1. To compare farmers’ and service providers’ mental models of soil health
    2. To identify differences in farmers’ and service providers’ understanding and assessment of soil health, which -if unidentified- may impede collaboration in research and outreach related to soil health 
    3. To identify complementary or shared ways of understanding and assessing soil health, which may provide leverage points to further improve collaboration and co-creation of knowledge between farmers and service providers
    4. To develop clear guidance for extension and other agricultural service providers in the Northeast on how to integrate farmer soil knowledge and collaboratively identify best practices for soil health.
    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.