How farmers learn: improving sustainable agriculture education

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2007: $205,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Nancy Franz
Virginia Tech

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, focus group, participatory research, workshop


    How Farmers Learn: Lessons for Agriculture Education

    Change for farmers is sometimes difficult and Extension educators are often frustrated that farmers don’t internalize, apply, or use practices they recommend. Some of the disconnect between educator teaching and farmers learning may be due to educational delivery methods. This project explores how farmers prefer to learn and what that means for agricultural education, especially Extension education.

    A Southern SARE grant secured for three years studies how farmers learn in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana. This third year, data from fifteen focus groups with 94 farmers and 21 Extension agents and specialists was analyzed and disseminated through multiple methods.

    All focus group participants discussed ways farmers prefer to learn and how specific situations or events lead the farmer to learn which in turn motivates the farmer to “gather information” over time from many sources (see the figure below). During the “gather information” stage the farmer seeks evidence to support their decision, ensures the costs and savings of the decision are sound, discovers any pitfalls of the decision, and then applies it to their situation. The “gathering information” stage can lead to making
    change or not making change to save time and/or money, to adopting cutting edge research, or to simply enjoy socializing with and learning from others.

    Eighty-six of 94 farmer focus group participants completed a survey and discussed the ways they prefer to learn. The top six preferred learning methods by participating farmers were hands-on (99%), demonstration (96%), farm visit (94%), field day (88%), discussion (87%), and one-on-one (85%). Farmers had mixed preference for online-web, newsletters, books/manuals, on-farm tests, meetings, and lectures. Finally, four ways these farmers do not prefer to learn were games (80%), comics (78%), role playing (77%), and radio (63 %). Differences between men and women and farmer groups were discovered.

    Completed projects from this project include six journal articles, one popular press article, five conference presentations, five inservice presentations, five Extension fact sheets, one literature review, one logic model, five formal poster presentations, one voice over Powerpoint presentation, and six reports. Several of these items can be found at:

    Faculty comments:
    •I enjoyed the presentation. I need to make time to bolster my internet stuff. With this information I will try even harder to get this done. It becomes a higher priority knowing farmers might actually access the system.
    •Thanks for your feedback on how farmers learn. I’ve been using it to focus some ideas for developing producer panels. The approach is new enough that I’ve stepped back from a major grant submission and I’m looking at trying a small group to see how to work out some of the logistics first.
    •Excellent summary! Extension is facing a challenge to deliver learning opportunities in the manner that growers wan to receive it.

    Collaborators: Fred Piercy, VT CLAHS; Joseph Donaldson, UT Extension; Robert Richard, LSU Extension; Johnnie Westbrook, VT CALS; Brad Jarvis, VCE

    Contact: Nancy Franz, Professor/Extension Specialist Program Development, Dept. of AEE at VT

    Project objectives:

    1. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff, as a group, designed and carried out an assessment of how Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia farmers prefered to learn.
    2. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff assessed Extension agent perceptions of how farmers in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Virginia prefered to learn and determined how these perceptions were similar to or different from farmer’s stated learning preferences.
    3. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff recommended how Extension educators should change or reinforce teaching methods and educational experiences to align with farmers
    learning preferences for more successful educational programming.
    4. Farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and project staff analyzed and interpreted the data with stakeholders, wrote summary reports, and disseminated findings to farmers, Extension agents and specialists, and secondary audiences.

    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.