- Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking
Farmer networks can play a critical role in the sustainability of agriculture by providing a space for peer learning, innovation and collaborative problem solving. In practice, however, these networks remain largely undervalued. Diversified small-scale and organic, sustainable farming operators have been recognized as underserved Extension clients, whose needs and farming systems are so diverse that Extension lacks the capacity to provide all the services and technical support they desire. These farmers tend to rely more on their farm networks than on their local Extension service. Some have organized formal farmer networks but little research has been conducted about their impacts on the viability of their farms.
Understanding how formal farmer networks function, their impacts on farmer membership, and the ways agricultural Extension can support and increase their effectiveness, can be very important for farm viability. A mixed-methods case study design will be used to research three farmer networks in different regions of Florida to compare and understand their impacts and benefits to their members. A combination of participant observation, individual interviews, focus groups and a survey will be utilized to conduct this research.
The main research objectives include: 1) Identify the impacts and influence of small-scale farmer networks on the economic viability of their individual farmer members, 2) Identify the influence of farmer networks in the adoption of sustainable farming practices among their members, and 3) Identify the potential role of Cooperative Extension in the organization, facilitation, and support of these farmer networks.
Project objectives from proposal:
1) Identify the impacts and influence of small-scale farmer networks on the economic viability of their individual farmer members. This study will explore how the farmer networks have influenced and changed individual farmers’ management decisions, created new marketing venues, increased the diversity of crops grown, assisted with technical problems solved, and increased resilience against adversity. This study will identify how farmers perceive the importance of the networks to their operations. Additionally, this research will explore farmers’ social capital and social networking connections. These indicators are important to understand the intangible benefits of belonging to a community of practice.
2) Identify the influence of farmer networks in the adoption of sustainable farming practices among their members. Small-scale farmers tend to incorporate more sustainable farming practices. This study will identify the extent of influence of the farmer networks into the adoption of sustainable farming practices of individual farmers. These practices include the use of cover crops, efficient irrigation management and other soil and water conservation practices.
3) Identify the potential role of Cooperative Extension in the organization, facilitation, and support of small-scale farmer networks. This study will investigate the origin, structure, and organization of these farmer networks as well as Extension’s past, current and potential role in these networks. There is ample recognition that Extension agents are in a good position to facilitate and expand the impact of these networks, however their current role appears to be limited.