Participatory Assessment for Strategic Planning in Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education

1992 Annual Report for LS92-050

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1992: $183,550.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1994
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $112,813.00
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
James V. Worstell
Community Farm Alliance

Participatory Assessment for Strategic Planning in Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education


The overall objective of the project is to organize a comprehensive, region-wide description of the “State of the South” in sustainable agriculture. This description will include the key constraints to increased sustainability of Southern agricultural systems and the best opportunities for research and education projects to remove those constraints.

This overall objective is being pursued through four specific objectives:
1.) Determine constraints by means of focus groups in all important Southern agroecoregions.

2.) Determine opportunities through opportunity workshops and associated farmer-researcher networks in the major Southern agroecoregions and around key regional cross-cutting constraints.

3.) Comprehensively survey key agricultural and environmental groups in the South to assemble quantitative data on constraints and opportunities for sustainable agriculture research and education.

4.) Integrate and analyze all available secondary databases analysis related to major constraints to sustainability of Southern agricultural systems and the best opportunities in research and education for removing those constraints.

“State of the South” contains four major components: focus groups for in-depth, qualitative analysis of constraints; GIS/secondary database analysis, a region-wide survey, and opportunity workshops as part of farmer-researcher networks. The survey received responses from 1189 counties of the 1402 counties in the South. In six key agroecoregions, county Farm Bureau Presidents, Sierra Club members and New Farm subscribers were also surveyed. Due to the participation of state extension directors, several states can boast of a 100% return rate from county extension offices. Over 700 farmers have participated in 50 focus groups. Specific methods are discussed in the full report on file in the SARE/ACE office.

The GIS component has progressed less quickly due to lack of easily aggregated county-level data. GIS activities are also summarized in final report and includes 15 maps.

Agencies across the South held opportunity workshops in nine locations this past year. These workshops are detailed in the full report. Five workshops focused on opportunities peculiar to their agroecoregions (including Delta, Coastal Plains, Karst, High Plains, Blacklands). Four others addressed major cross-cutting constraints-in Austin, systems beyond the farm level will be examined (including marketing, commodity programs, rural development approaches and research/education paradigms; in Memphis (rural development, especially catalyzing locally-owned, value-added enterprises); vertical integration; and Williamsburg, VA: local food systems — especially organic and semi-organic systems near urban areas.

One vision for the South is common to the thousands of farmers, researchers and environmentalists who participated in “State of the South” focus groups, surveys and workshops over the past three years: a clean environment, strong family farms and vital rural communities. And nearly all feel, with strong public research support, this vision can be achieved. However, these goals won’t be achieved by a few new production-oriented research and education projects.

Instead, a major restructuring of agricultural research and education system is required in the South. The prerequisite for this restructuring is a unity of farmer and environmentalist perspectives. The polar attitudes of many in these groups thwart progress toward unity. County-level staff can facilitate such unity by learning methods of creative synthesis of ideas. “None of us have all the answers, we all need to learn from each other,” reflects the professional stance which leads to the synthesis of farmer and environmentalist perspectives.

A second conclusion of the 9 farmer-researcher opportunity workshops held from December 1993 to July 1994, is that sustainable production is increasingly impossible without marketing alternatives-especially locally-owned, value-added (LOVA) enterprises. Where success has been achieved on this front, it is with non-traditional agricultural research and education methods. Focus groups, workshops and the survey were unanimous in advocating more research and education into creation of alternative markets.

Progress in marketing will require changing from a commodity focus to a product focus. Southern agricultural research and education staff can best assist by applying methods from entrepreneurship research for innovating production/marketing systems to anticipate and respond to consumer needs. Catalysis of LOVAs would be facilitated by an integration of production and marketing research. New research tools, such as decision cases, will be required.

A third conclusion common to these workshops is: Southern farmers organize hugely complicated systems and increasingly need research/education efforts which take a holistic systems approach. The key for researchers is not to focus on components so narrowly that the emerging properties of the whole farm or enterprise become ignored. Soil biology certainly is a top specific agronomic priority, especially when integrated with work on cover crops and pest control. But a narrow focus on improving soil quality can easily miss the target. Part of the problem is looking for “the key” rather than looking to increase the overall resilience of the system by generating multiple options and thereby flexibility for farmers. Changing the research reward system, especially expanding peer review panels to farmers and other systems managers, will be crucial to accomplishing this objective.

Following are more opinions strongly expressed through the focus groups:

4. To increase sustainability, we must increase farmer resilience. To increase resilience, we must increase flexibility. To increase flexibility, we need to increase options available to farmers. Any limits on sources of options will limit the possibilities for farmers. County-level staff can assist by taking a professional stance of empowerment of their farmer clients. The goal of the empowerment model of technical assistance is to help farmers and other clients become the hubs of multiple information sources. One aspect is encouraging farmer to farmer information exchange. Another is facilitating farmer-researcher networks.

5. The indicator of success most important to Southern farmers is the condition of their assets. If new options lead to increasing assets (including soil, equipment, financial assets, biodiversity and new joint business ventures), they will be likely lead to increased sustainability of Southern farmers.

6. The best route to increasing marketing options for sustainable products lies through strengthened ties between farmers and consumers. Efforts to create more local food systems are one part of this effort, as are efforts to achieve farmer-environmentalist unity on policy issues, and efforts to integrate production and marketing to achieve continual innovation toward consumer satisfaction.

7. In marketing, engendering LOVAs means building technical assistance to farmers around the experiences of those farmers who have established and are running LOVAs themselves. Direct farmer involvement is crucial in any research, especially marketing research, undertaken to support such a technical assistance program.

8. The vast changes occurring in Southern agriculture, especially toward vertical integration, are viewed as a threat to be stopped by some. But to increasing numbers of Southern farmers, vertical integration is an innovation to be learned. The problem of turning these threats into opportunities through research and education is that no standard methods have yet emerged in agriculture for examining such emerging innovative systems holistically. The method of decision cases, long accepted in business and law is beginning to achieve inroads in agriculture. It represents both an educational tool and a potential research method for examining such systems.

Flexible research and education systems willing to explore new and multiple perspectives are essential to creating and taking advantage of evolving opportunities. To assist in opening up new options, the latest report of the State of the South project goes beyond a summary of the set of specific opportunities generated by State of the South focus groups and opportunity workshops. The goal of this report to use these specific results to present a holistic systems approach to innovation. This approach is the product of the three year “State of the South” attempt to base research and education priorities on the decision-making needs of farmers and other systems managers.

Southern agricultural systems are changing rapidly. But within all chaos lies the certainty of creative, powerful new systems. Sustainable agriculture research and education can help farmers organize those systems to provide both a sound rural economy and a clean environment in the South.

December 1994.


James V. Worstell

[email protected]
Delta Land & Community, Inc.
Route 1, Box 57A
Almyra, AR 72003
Office Phone: 8706736346