Increasing farmer participation in local government
The project has four phases: Issues and Outreach, which is the research phase; Program Development, which involves research analysis and creation of educational content; Program Delivery, in which the educational workshop will be presented at sessions hosted by the collaborating agricultural organizations in conjunction with annual meetings or other membership events; and Evaluation and Wrap-up. Anticipated outcomes:
• Increase the number of farmer candidates for elected local government offices
• Increase farmer civic participation on local government boards and committees
• Increase farmer participation in legislative advocacy and activities on behalf of their professional associations
• Create better understanding and support for the agriculture community at the local government level through farmer involvement
A focus group research instrument was developed with input from cooperating farmers and submitted to the Penn State University Institutional Research Board (IRB) for review. A research exemption was granted on July 31, 2015. Focus group research was conducted with three of the original six agricultural organizations identified in the grant proposal, plus an additional group identified by one of the cooperating farmers — the Young Farmers and Ranchers Association of the PA Farm Bureau. Research to date:
• Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, State Legislative Policy Development Committee. 65 participants, October 29, 2015
• Young Farmers and Ranchers Association, 20 participants, November 17, 2015
• Young Growers Alliance, 36 participants, November 17, 2015
• PA State Council of Farm Organizations, 23 participants, November 19, 2015
A slight modification to the original methodology involved bringing in an additional person to assist with three of the four focus groups. A second set of ‘ears’ and notes has proven beneficial in capturing all of the opinions expressed by focus group participants. This has not resulted in any additional costs for the project.
Focus group research will be conducted with the remaining three organizations originally identified: PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture, February 6 2016; State Horticultural Association of PA, date to be determined in March 2016; and PA Women’s Agricultural Network, February 27, 2016. Additional focus groups may be scheduled as time allows: current plans include the PA Cattlemen’s Association February 17, 2016.
The focus group research accomplished to date has been rich in identification of barriers to public service. For instance time constraints are often cited (as was expected), but the focus group method has allowed us to examine time considerations in more detail. Participants have expressed concern about time away from family, the opportunity cost of time away from farming, the challenge of meeting local government meeting schedules which do not accommodate seasonal time demands, and the fact that many farmers are already involved in service to professional agricultural organizations. (To be sure, this latter observation is skewed by the fact that the focus group participants were all identified through their participation in such organizations). The curriculum to be developed and delivered in this project will need to address all of these nuances.
Another motif running through all the focus groups is the lack of civility in local government, which apparently has become extreme in some communities, particularly in those portions of Pennsylvania affected by the Marcellus Shale natural gas play. Farmers are often eager to sign leases with drilling companies as a way to leverage additional revenue from their land – but focus group participants reported that relationships with those opposed to the drilling have become polarized, making public service an undesirable exposure to community conflict.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Although the focus group research is still underway, one of the striking results observed thus far is the differing levels of awareness of the impact of local government policy on farming. Two of the focus groups comprised young farmers in their twenties and thirties, while the other two were largely older working farmers and some retirees. It appeared to the researchers that the younger generations of farmers had much less appreciation for the role of local government and its potential impact on their livelihoods. With few exceptions, the participants in the Young Farmers and Ranchers group and the Young Growers Alliance group did not seem to have a good understanding of the function of local government, nor had it apparently occurred to them to be involved. Public service simply isn’t on their radar screens. While this is a gross generalization, it may have implications for the development of educational materials that clearly explain the structure of local government and identify specific impacts on agriculture enterprises.
Another observation of interest is that simply discussing the project has created interest among some of the collaborating organizations to become more deeply involved. The PA Women’s Agricultural Network added a panel on community involvement to its annual Symposium December 7, 2015, and asked the PI for this project to serve as a panelist. The PA Farm Bureau is interested in discussing methods for obtaining data to quantify its member involvement in local government. And the Project PI is in discussion with a Penn State University Professor of Ag Economics in the Department of Ag Economics, Sociology and Education concerning a student research project focusing on the number of vacant elective offices in Pennsylvania.
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