Farm Improvement Club Network for Sustainable Agriculture
1. Build a statewide network of at least 20 farm improvement clubs, made up of local groups of farm and ranch families, that will undertake scientifically based on-farm field trials and demonstration projects to meet their need for information on sustainable farming systems.
2. Increase the level of technical support from local agricultural professionals and institutions for farm improvement club project design, implementation and monitoring.
3. Disseminate the results of these on-farm field trials and demonstrations in at least the semi-arid region of the Inland Northwest: eastern Oregon and Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Abstract of Results
AERO's farm improvement club program is increasing producers' interest in and adoption of sustainable agriculture farming systems, and is re-building economic vitality and a sense of community in many rural Montana communities. The farm improvement clubs are providing a vehicle for cooperation within rural communities to solve common problems. The specific stories we are hearing from club members about the club's role in coalescing people around issues of agricultural sustainability and healthy communities is an exciting development.
AERO's annual survey of farm improvement club members shows dramatic progress resulting from the program:
•Forty-seven percent of members reported direct economic benefits resulting from their project.
•The purpose of the clubs has broadened to include new enterprise and market development.
•The response from cooperating public agency and technical assistance providers has shifted from a simple growing interest in sustainable agriculture to a desire for more support from their institutions for the work they are doing with clubs. They like working with the clubs, have a better understanding of farmers' needs related to sustainable agriculture, and want to provide better service.
•The amount of information shared between clubs with similar, and even disparate, activities and interests is increasing. For example, the marketing cooperative started by an established horticulture club is serving as a model for a new club. The clubs that are experimenting with various legumes in their small-grains rotations and vegetable production have found a common interest, despite operating in very different enterprises, markets and agro-climatic regions.
The results clearly show 1) direct benefit to producers from their club participation; 2) an evolution of club interest from on-farm research to marketing and broader economic and community concerns; 3) an increase in information sharing; and 4) greater public agency commitment to the program; and 5) an increase in networking initiated directly by and among clubs.
Club members report a wide range of direct and indirect economic benefits due to the activities of the clubs. Over the course of the program, 47 percent of club members reported direct economic benefits resulting from their project. Other economic benefits result from social support and interdependence. Some clubs have gone beyond a group that experiments with new agricultural practices and crops, to a group that is economically interdependent. Some examples include forming a producers co-op and coordinating their crop production; setting up a marketing program; collaborating on seed buying; developing value-added enterprises. Several clubs have helped each other out economically by sharing financial planning concerns and assisting club members during illness. The number of clubs organized around building markets for and commercial development of sustainable agriculture products is growing each year, recognizing that this is a key to their long term economic success.
In a survey administered by AERO with help from Montana State University, club participants identified over fifty crops and livestock products with commercial potential that could be raised in Montana. Peas and lentils were the most frequently mentioned, followed closely by specialty small grains, oilseed crops and products, a variety of vegetables and livestock products. Garlic, herbs, forage and feed products, and several types of plants for the seed trade were also mentioned several times. Another 10 to 15 crops were also suggested.
Barriers to commercialization identified include: a lack of processing facilities; transportation difficulties; the absence of reliable markets for alternative crops and specialty markets; a lack of vision; marketing and distribution systems that do not function well; unwillingness of growers to take risks; and government programs that run contrary to sustainable agriculture practices. Rounding out the top ten were consumer disinterest; lack of capital, and a poorly organized sustainable agriculture industry.
The program is changing institutional roles and relationships. The traditional centralized, top-down relationship between land grant institutions and farmers is shifting so that, increasingly, the clubs are recognized as a source of innovation and information across the statenot simply recipients of the institutions' superior expertise. The agency technical assistance providers are turning out to be a valuable conduit of club information, as well, and have their own developing network among themselves and their agency peers.
The club program is bringing concrete change in how people farm. Many club members have adopted the practices or marketing tools they experimented with as part of their club project.
The club program is building community. Club members report that their participation is fun, and a source of support.
The club program is building leadership in rural communities. Club members are developing leadership skills as they learn how to create group projects that meet their own needs and interface with the public to share what they have learned. For many producers, leading a farm tour, reporting on their club at the annual meeting, facilitating a club meeting, and serving as a trainer at a workshop or orientation meeting is a new experience. Many have reported that these experiences boost their confidence in sharing what they learn with others and that their work is valuable. The group-oriented nature of the program provides an opportunity for participants to improve their skills in working and communicating with people, an essential skill for any leader.
The club program builds communication and connection between producers from seemingly disparate regions and enterprise types of agriculture across Montana. The state-wide network that clubs have access to includes a rich diversity of resources (human, knowledge, technical, biological). By tapping the network, participants are realizing that they are not isolated in trying something new, that cooperation can strengthen their economic and social positions, and that their efforts are part of a larger movement to change modern agriculture.
The farm improvement club program is serving as a national model. Programs borrowing from the AERO model are currently being developed in Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, Kansas, Ontario, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
The program has attracted the support of public agencies in Montana, an important step toward institutionalization. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (NRCS) began sponsoring clubs in 1993, and the Montana NRCS is contributing significant in-kind resources.
We are not finished with the programwe are still learning and changing to meet the needs of this growing and maturing network of rural citizens.
Farmer Adoption and Comments
Almost all farmers and ranchers involved in the farm & ranch improvement clubs are doing something different than before their involvement. Change on the part of the participants practically goes hand-in-hand with their participation.
"We'd have never started our group if it wasn't for this AERO project, and because of this we've acquired some fairly useful data that we've collected ourselves. We know how it actually works on our own farm, rather than how it works at the university or at the experiment station. We have direct hands-on experience with the data so we have more confidence in it... I'm real happy we've been able to share and learn from everyone else, too."
- Bud Barta, Dryland Cereal-Legume Group
Reported in 1995