Enhancing on-farm decision making and building community among Adirondack farmers

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,910.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2017
Grant Recipient: SUNY Plattsburgh
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Curt Gervich
SUNY Plattsburgh

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: decision support system, farmer to farmer, networking, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, feasibility study, market study, risk management, value added
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, leadership development, public policy, analysis of personal/family life, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Without a structured approach to planning and decision making, farm management can become hasty, haphazard and arbitrary. Indeed, in many cases of farm closure, farmers blame the multifarious and interrelated complexities of farming, rather than single dilemmas with clear solutions, for their challenges. Our team of farmers from Essex and Clinton Counties in northern New York, and professors and students from SUNY Plattsburgh, proposes to host three decision support workshops and provide personal decision support training for at least 20 sustainable farmers in the Adirondack region of New York. Our trainings will provide participants the opportunity to LEARN, PRACTICE, APPLY and INSTITUTIONALIZE Structured Decision Making (SDM), a planning approach that offers a standardized and effective method for making complex choices regarding farm management. The key tasks of SDM include: identifying root problems and choices;constructing objectives and performance measures;collecting performance-based data; developing actionable management alternatives and making evidence-based choices; and, monitoring results and adapting farm management for continual improvement. Our workshops and ongoing support will give individual farmers the time and space to perform these tasks as they relate to an on-farm management dilemma. At the conclusion of our project, 20 farmers will have applied the SDM process to at least one on-farm management challenge and will have gained the skills to apply the approach to future management problems. We will disseminate our results through case studies and presentations provided to agricultural organizations and community members, local media outlets and a scholarly journal article and conference.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Farming is a profession fraught with difficult decisions. Each and every day farmers are faced with choices concerning what crops to plant or livestock to raise; whether to purchase new equipment or increase their labor force; or build infrastructure and enroll land in conservation programs, among dozens of others. Many of these choices fit into a class of dilemmas termed “wicked problems (Conklin, 2006; Rittell and Weber, 1984).” Wicked problems are choices that do not have clear “right” or “wrong” answers, include multiple possible solutions, force unsatisfactory compromises among a variety of people, and for which outcomes are unpredictable.

    Decisions about purchasing new equipment for example, require weighing the productivity rates of new technologies against the costs of the equipment in order to understand the timing of one’s return on investment. If the same job could be performed by hiring an additional employee, yet another level of cost analysis is needed. New equipment may also bring maintenance risks, interactions with unknown and untrusted sales personnel, and a host of unforeseeable side effects. Furthermore, this decision includes many emotional features, such as the stress of taking out additional loans or training a new employee.The wicked problems embedded in farming pose a threat to farm sustainability.

    Without a method for resolving the uncertainties that accompany wicked problems, these challenges may push farmers to make risky decisions that, over time and in aggregate, force them out of business. Consequently, in many cases of farm closure, farmers blame the multifarious and interrelated complexities of farming, rather than single dilemmas with clear and specific solutions, for failure (PBR Hazell, 2005).

    In order to assist farmers in managing the wicked problems they face, we propose a series of three decision support workshops and ongoing individualized support to train farmers in the use of SDM. The purposes of our workshops and ongoing support are to enable participants to LEARN, PRACTICE, APPLY and INSTITUTIONALIZE SDM into farm management. Our workshops will enhance farmers’ abilities to meet performance measures and make deliberate decisions that align with their core objectives.  

    LEARN. PRACTICE. APPLY. INSTITUTIONALIZE.  These are the foundations of our SDM workshops and ongoing decision making support.

    Our workplan is tailored to achieve the following objectives: A) Enable 20 farmers from Clinton and Essex Counties to LEARN the steps of SDM and support tools for implementing the process; B) Allow participants to PRACTICE SDM through energizing activities that allow farmers to address a specific challenge at their farm; C) Give participants the opportunity to APPLY SDM as they address their decision; and, D) Facilitate the INSTITUTIONALIZATION of SDM into farm management so that the technique becomes a standard operating procedure.

    More specifically, Workshop I (January, 2014) will provide an overview of the SDM process by helping farmers identify a current decision to which they may apply SDM, and assist them in developing an SDM-based plan to address that choice over the 2014 growing season.  Workshop II (October, 2014) will focus on analyzing and reflecting on the SDM process carried out over the previous season, and adapting the process for customized implementation.  Workshop III (January, 2015) will assist farmers in implementing SDM as a broader planning and management tool for the 2015 growing season and beyond.

    Workshops I, II and III are the centerpiece of our plan.  These workshops will take place in January and October 2014, and January 2015, respectively (Workshop I will not be funded by this proposal).  Each workshop will include a combination of panel discussions, facilitated dialogues and activities, peer support and problem solving sessions, and instructor-led presentations.  These activities will focus on the key tasks of the SDM process: Task 1) identifying and defining root problems and choices; Task 2) constructing meaningful objectives and performance measures; Task 3) collecting and integrating performance-based data; Task 4) developing actionable management alternatives and making evidence-based choices; Task 5) monitoring results and adapting farm management for continual improvement.

    Examples of some of the specific decision support tools in which participants will receive training are: Means-Ends Diagramming (a method for outlining end goals, and the steps and resources required to meet them); Consequence Analysis (a method of identifying the consequences of management decisions so that side-effects can be visualized); Systems Mapping (a process for graphically mapping the interrelationships and feedback loops that accompany various decisions); Cluster Analysis (a technique for exploring multiple management alternatives against two or more performance measures); SWOT Analysis (allows farmers to explore the advantages of possible choices through comparison of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats); Prioritization Planning (analytical method for determining priority actions among a list of possible activities); Risk Analysis (a method for identifying and reducing the uncertainties associated with various management actions); and, Heuristic Ideation (a technique for developing creative, out-of-the-box solutions to difficult problems while fulfilling predefined performance measures).

    We will tailor training in these tools to a farming context and use peer-to-peer support to enhance information transfer and meet individuals’ specific needs.  While all participants will receive training in these decision making tools and others, the specific techniques that individual farmers employ in their problem solving will depend on the challenges they face.  For example, a farmer making a decision about whether to sell produce at the regional farmers’ market or to local restaurants may find SWOT Analysis an effective tool, while a participant deciding whether to invest in new equipment or labor may find Prioritization Planning appropriate.  Our intent is to give participants a foundation in each tool so that they can determine which are appropriate in different circumstances on their own—- and implement them with minimal support—- by the time our project concludes.

    Throughout the summer of 2014 we will provide individual support to farmers that participated in Workshop I. Our services will focus on helping farmers carry out the SDM plans developed at that workshop. We will collect records of the plans each farmer develops at Workshop I, so that our follow-up support is a continuation of the momentum developed at that event.  We plan to visit each participating farmer at least twice over the summer of 2014.  All participating farmers will be invited to the individual site visits so that the full cohort has the opportunity to learn from one another.  This will escalate the development of community and information sharing among participants.

    We will also conduct research interviews during site visits or via telephone over the summer. We plan to interview participating farmers to uncover common decision-making strategies used by growers in northern New York and the relative levels of effectiveness of these strategies.  Our interviews will ask the following questions: 1) What was the first major decision you made as you launched your farm? 2) What is the most challenging decision you have made while operating your farm? 3) What is a current decision with which you are wrestling? We will then ask follow-up questions to fully understand farmers’ decision making processes and outcomes.  Our goals are to construct a theory of on-farm decision making, develop a typology of choice types, identify tools and tactics that farmers use to make decisions and understand the effectiveness of these strategies.  Our conclusions will be incorporated into Workshops II and III as well as other outreach materials.
    We will document our process and success through the creation of eight case studies highlighting farmers that successfully implement SDM in farm management, in addition to the following measures:

    Metric 1: Workshop Attendance. Target: 20 Farmers from Essex and Clinton Counties attend workshops.

    Metric 2: Ongoing support through Summer, 2014. Target: Two visits per farm (40 visits).

    Metric 3: Participant satisfaction with workshops and support. Target: 90% satisfaction rate on evaluations at workshops.

    Metric 4: Case Study Dissemination. Target: Distribute at least 200 case study packets and give 10 oral presentations to agricultural organizations by Summer, 2015.

    Metric 5: Media Outreach. Target: At least three media stories (radio, newspaper, magazine or television) by Summer, 2015.

    Metric 6: Publication of journal article and conference presentation. Target: One article in relevant journal and one conference presentation by Fall, 2015.


    October 2013-January 2014*: Plan Workshop I (reserve space for workshop; develop training materials; outreach/invitations to Clinton and Essex County farmers). Contact media.

    January 2014*: Workshop I- introduce and provide training in SDM. Participants identify personal on-farm management challenge and apply SDM to this issue.  Workshop includes peer-to-peer support, trainer presentations, panel discussion and other activities. Train farmers in specific decision making tools and techniques. Workshop evaluation.

    February 2014*: Workshop I debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing).

    February-September 2014: Ongoing individual SDM support and training; visit each participant at least twice; all participants invited to site visits. Research interviews in conjunction with site visits or via telephone.

    August-October 2014: Workshop II planning (reserve space for workshop; develop training materials; outreach/invitations to participants). Analyze/integrate research data. Contact media.

    October 2014: Workshop II- reflect on SDM process and application to on-farm management problems; Identify strengths and weaknesses of SDM and specific decision making techniques; list lessons learned and modification of approach to farming context; identify success stories for use in case studies; ongoing individual SDM support and training. Workshop evaluation.

    November 2014: Workshop II debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing).

    November 2014-January 2015: Workshop III planning (reserve space for workshop; develop training materials; outreach/invitations to participants). Ongoing individual SDM support and training. Contact media.

    January 2015: Workshop III- Apply SDM to 2015 season planning. Participants aim to apply SDM to all major management decisions regarding 2015 season.   Workshop evaluation.

    December 2014-January 2015: Case study development and distribution; Workshop III debrief (evaluation analysis; follow-up report writing).

    January-September 2015: Write and publish research paper. Continue case study distribution and provide oral presentations to regional agricultural organizations and community. Attend conference.

    *Funding for the January, 2014 workshop is done as prelimnary work in anticipation of SARE award.

    Our workshops will give individual farmers the time and space to perform SDM tasks as they relate to an individual on-farm management challenge. Each participant will address a problem that has meaning and urgency to their farm operation, and we will assist them in tailoring SDM to fit their needs. Between and following each workshop we will provide individualized support to participating farmers. Support will focus on assisting farmers to carry out the plans developed during the workshops as well as promote information transfer and the development of community among growers in the region. We will conduct our ongoing support through site visits to participants’ farms.   We plan to make two site visits to each participating grower (total of 40 visits). 

    At the conclusion of our project, 20 farmers will have applied the SDM process to at least one major on-farm management challenge and will have gained the skills to apply the approach to future management issues. Furthermore, our workshops will construct a platform for collaborative learning among farmers that will enhance information and resource sharing. We are reaching out to a diverse group of producers that includes a broad range of experience levels, techniques and products so that we maximize information transfer and innovation (we include letters of support from several of these farmers). These ancillary benefits will help grow a stronger and more resilient farming community in the Adirondacks. We will publicize the results of our workshops and individualized support through case studies and oral presentations presented to agricultural organizations, and newspaper, radio and television articles. Finally, we will explore the decision making strategies employed by farmers for publication in a scholarly research journal.

    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.