Collaborative Learning among Farmers as an Approach to Alternative Agricultural Education

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2002: $9,540.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: Southern
State: Tennessee
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
John Peters
University of Tennessee

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: general education and training


    Alternative agricultural enterprises hold promise for small and family farmers attempting to remain viable in today’s agricultural economy. Correspondingly, agricultural educators are offering an increasing number of seminars and presentations about alternative farming methods. However, these types of educational efforts often fall short in generating the knowledge and information required to successfully implement an alternative farming enterprise.
    In response to this need, an alternative agriculture educational program was initiated in Blount County, Tennessee, for a period of one year. This program consisted of local farmers participating in monthly educational meetings, in which the researcher and the participating farmers engaged in two types of teaching and learning - Type I, or lecture-based presentation, and Type III, collaborative learning. The intent of this study was to identify whether participating farmers felt that the combination of Types I and III teaching and learning was an effective approach to alternative agricultural education. This was accomplished by asking farmers to describe their experiences participating in the combined Types I and III teaching and learning structure of the meetings. Due to the importance of the teacher/facilitator role in any educational program, farmers’ perceptions of facilitation in this learning experience were also investigated.
    Individual interviews, field notes, and reflective journaling were used to obtain descriptions of farmers' learning experiences and perceptions of the researcher’s role as facilitator/participant. Data were analyzed using domain analysis and coding methods. The results were expressed as categories of data that described farmers' perceptions of facilitation in the meetings and their assessment of the two types of teaching and learning.
    Farmers participating in this study responded positively to the combination of the two types of teaching and learning, as well as to the facilitative efforts of the researcher. Results suggest that Type III may be used in addition to conventional educational strategies to enable farmers to construct knowledge about alternative farming enterprises, and to involve farmers in dialogue about specific issues pertinent to their individual farming operations. Findings also led to recommendations for research and practice in the area of alternative agricultural education.


    In the United States, agricultural and rural economies are based upon the contributions of small farmers (National Commission on Small Farms, 1998). Unfortunately, the current agricultural trends in America do not reflect this importance. While modern technology and governmental farm policies have enabled vast improvements in agricultural production, the number of full-time small farmers continues to shrink every year (National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1999). Farmers attempting to make a living in agriculture are faced with low commodity prices, expensive equipment, high labor and maintenance costs, increasingly strict regulations, scrutiny by the media and the non-farm public, and an overall poor farm economy. To stay competitive, many farmers have been forced either to expand their operations or to become more productive on the land they farm, paving the way for large corporate farms that can reap the benefits of high volume, lower cost production. All the while, farmers have become more dependent on governmental price supports and subsidies, most of which are provided to the largest farmers (Beus and Dunlap, 1990). This cycle works against the vast majority of American farms, which are relatively small, family owned and operated businesses (Papendick, 1987; National Commission on Small Farms, 1998; National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1999).
    This phenomenon is well illustrated in Blount County, Tennessee, which over the last several years has transformed from a rural to a suburban area. Virtually all the farms in Blount County are classified as small operations (Economic Research Service, 1999). Due to its pleasant climate, close proximity to a major metropolitan area, and access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blount County has seen dramatic population growth, as well as a decline of farmland and farmers. For local small farmers wishing to remain in agriculture, skyrocketing land values and socioeconomic pressure from the population boom have compounded the already difficult task of making their farming operations economically viable (Blount County Planning Commission, 2001).
    A potential solution – Alternative agriculture
    Over the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in alternatives to traditional farming practices to help ensure the viability of small farms into the future (Ulbricht 1980; Papendick, 1987). In 1997, the National Commission on Small Farms was formed to study the rapid decline of small and family farms and its subsequent impact on U.S. agriculture and the world’s food supply. The report of the Commission’s findings, A Time to Act (1998), highlighted the necessity of further research and development of alternatives to conventional farming practices. These alternatives, such as non-traditional crops and livestock, organic practices, retail marketing, agri-tourism, value-added products, on-farm business enterprises, and other farming methods, have the potential to supplement or replace traditional farming systems. Through commodity diversification and increased profit potential, adopting alternative agriculture increases the likelihood that the small farm will remain viable for future generations, thus becoming a crucial factor in maintaining a farming lifestyle (Ulbricht 1980; Papendick et al., 1986; Kroma and Flora, 2001). For example, the suburban population explosion that has led to the demise of many small farms in Blount County may also provide opportunities for small farmers to tap into alternative enterprises, such as direct marketing of specialty crops or agri-tourism.
    The motivating factor for many farmers investigating alternative agriculture is the search for knowledge and ideas that promise enhancement of financial and ecological sustainability and quality of farm life (Kroma and Flora, 2001). However, there are many potential pitfalls and uncertainties that accompany alternative enterprises. For farmers investigating a transition to alternative agriculture, intensive research and planning are necessary to transform an alternative agricultural idea into a practice (Sauer and Sullivan, 2000).
    Traditionally, agricultural professionals are the predominant source of alternative agricultural information for farmers (Kroma and Flora, 2001). For example, in Tennessee, agricultural professionals are stepping up efforts to provide information about alternative agriculture to farmers by offering field days, farm visits, and presentations addressing alternative agriculture topics. These events, which are typical of most agricultural education activities, are designed to inform farmers about alternative agricultural practices through lecture based delivery methods. Peters and Armstrong (1998) refer to this type of educational effort as Type I teaching and learning.
    Type I teaching and learning is analogous to a typical classroom environment, where the instructor or presenter is seen as the sole source of knowledge and members of the audience are passive recipients of information. In a Type I learning experience, learners have little or no input in the selection of material or on the manner in which it is distributed. Knowledge gleaned by learners in Type I has usually been pre-determined by the instructor, and lecture is the primary mode of information dissemination (Peters and Armstrong, 1998).
    While Type I presentations are helpful in increasing awareness of alternative agriculture practices, the drawback to this type of teaching and learning is that it rarely allows for discussion of specific issues faced by individual farmers. There is also little opportunity for farmers to share their personal thoughts or experiences with each other - input that may help create additional understanding about the topic under discussion or reveal new knowledge about alternative agriculture.
    The need for participatory strategies in alternative agricultural education
    Standing in contrast to Type I strategies are those that enable learners to directly participate in the selection of content and method, as well as to participate in the construction of new knowledge. Some participatory strategies have been used in alternative agricultural education. The closest example of this is the so-called grassroots group approach. Grassroots groups enable farmers to share knowledge and experience, as well as fellowship, in a non-competitive arena where all participants have a chance to voice their views. For example, the mission statement of one such group, the Grassroots Grazing Group in Northwest Arkansas, is “to facilitate the free flow of ideas and to learn from each other by observing, sharing and discussing information concerning forages” (Wells, 2000). Participation in these groups helps farmers vocalize their needs regarding alternative agriculture and further their awareness and knowledge concerning alternative farming systems. For example, in their assessment of farmers learning in grassroots groups, Kroma and Flora (2001) reported that the sharing of experiences helped farmers realize that they could be teachers as well as learners, which empowered them to make decisions about alternative agriculture and to adopt new agricultural practices.
    Importantly, Kroma and Flora (2001) discovered that farmers not only value their peers’ knowledge and techniques, but “perceive their social networks as important arenas for sharing and exchanging that knowledge” (p. 78). Furthermore, these researchers reported that farmers who have investigated alternative agriculture found traditional educational activities less helpful than these social networks. This suggests that the act of sharing experiences among farmers creates a learning activity more conducive to the investigation of alternative agriculture.
    As articulated by Andrew (1988), in order to obtain the information necessary to initiate an alternative agricultural enterprise, the farmer must not only be a recipient of information, but an active participant in knowledge creation. The predominant method of agricultural education, however, still relies upon information dispersal from specialists to farmers. If the root of the problem is lack of educational opportunities for farmers to engage with one another, it stands to reason that a more participatory educational strategy might better serve the needs of farmers as they investigate alternative agriculture. This need for participatory educational strategies in alternative agriculture seems to point towards the integration of other teaching and learning strategies into alternative agricultural education. Following the teaching and learning typology of Peters and Armstrong (1998), in designing the present study another Type of teaching and learning, Type III, was used in addition to Type I. (Peters and Armstrong (1998) actually identify three Types of teaching and learning, Types I, II, and III. Type II, in which individuals work together to interpret presented subject matter, did not seem able to address the needs of farmers in alternative agricultural education as comprehensively as Type III. Therefore, Type II was not investigated in this study as an addition to Type I.)
    Type III teaching and learning – Collaborative learning
    Type III is a collaborative learning approach, where there is no longer a sole source of knowledge, and the teacher’s role shifts from teacher to facilitator and group member. Peters and Armstrong (1998) define collaborative learning (Type III) as people working together to construct knowledge. Central to collaborative learning is the theory of social construction, which states that knowledge is created through interaction with others (Gergen, 1999). Bruffee (1993) describes collaborative learning as the social construction of knowledge that occurs among a group of peers. In collaborative learning, the facilitator is no longer the sole source of information, and a collaborative relationship is established among members based upon the valuation of their contributions to the group (Geltner, 1994; Imel, 1997).
    In collaborative learning, dialogue is the primary mode of discourse by which participants engage each other in conversation. Dialogue requires collaborators to get to know one another, to suspend assumptions, to become aware of others’ backgrounds, and to establish trust and respect (Isaacs, 1999). Reflection upon long held beliefs, values, and practices is also important in collaborative learning (Geltner, 1994). In a collaborative learning experience, group members interact and share experiences, then make meaning by reflecting upon their own actions and the actions of others. Another important facet of collaborative learning is that individuals work together to jointly construct new knowledge (Peters and Armstrong, 1998). New knowledge in this sense is something socially constructed between collaborators as they work together; it is new because it is knowledge that did not exist in the lives of the individual participants before the collaborative learning experience. Collaborators not only direct their efforts toward creating this new knowledge, but attend to it during the process of collaborative learning.
    In suggesting that Type III may apply to alternative agricultural education, it is noteworthy that farmers investigating alternative agriculture engage in “a conscious search for an alternative approach to agricultural production that expresses farmers’ broader definition of themselves in relation to agricultural practice” (Kroma and Flora, 2001, p. 76). Correspondingly, Harré (1993) and Gergen (1999) articulate that the self - in this case, the self as farmer - is a social construction. Perhaps farmers investigating alternative agriculture need to engage in a process of construction regarding perceptions of themselves within their agricultural practices. Moreover, Meares (1997) proposes that the trend towards alternative agriculture is a social movement, and knowledge and meaning are socially constructed by the farmers and others who participate in it. It stands to reason that knowledge jointly constructed by farmers may have particular relevancy to what farmers consider appropriate alternatives for their farm businesses and lifestyles.
    In this study, it was postulated that a common problem in alternative agricultural education lies in the need for farmers to participate in the learning process and to construct knowledge. Since participation and construction of new knowledge are central to Type III teaching and learning, Type III was integrated into an educational experience as an attempt to better serve the needs of farmers investigating alternative agriculture.

    Project objectives:

    The predominant approach to alternative agriculture education is Type I, which offers farmers little opportunity to learn by sharing their experiences. Studies investigating farmers’ perceptions of alternative agricultural education suggest that many farmers prefer a more participatory approach (Murray and Butler, 1994; Kroma and Flora, 2001). The success of some grassroots learning groups provides evidence that Type III approaches can be effective methods of education; however, Type I approaches are also effective in terms of their efficiency in disseminating information to farmers.
    In order to devise a more comprehensive educational system for alternative agriculture, a strategy that took advantage of the benefits of both Type I and Type III teaching and learning was implemented in this study. This program consisted of a group local farmers meeting monthly for a period of one year. In these meetings, practitioners of alternative agriculture were invited as guest speakers to briefly present their alternative enterprise to the farmers (Type I), then join the farmers as the group engaged in dialogue around their presented ideas (Type III).
    The intent of this study was to identify whether participating farmers felt that this combination of Types I and III teaching and learning was an effective approach to alternative agricultural education. This was accomplished by asking farmers to describe their experiences participating in the combined Types I and III teaching and learning structure of the meetings. Due to the importance of the teacher/facilitator role in any educational program, farmers’ perceptions of the researcher’s facilitative efforts in this learning experience were also investigated. The following questions guided this investigation:
    1. How will the participating farmers experience the combined Type I and Type III teaching and learning environment of the meetings?
    2. How will the facilitator’s actions be perceived by farmers participating in the collaborative learning process?
    Dr. Fazio performed the role of both researcher and facilitator in this study. Field research was conducted in Blount County, Tennessee, and data analysis was conducted at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with the assistance of Dr. Peters and others in the Department of Educational Psychology.

    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.