Messages for Messengers: Growing Conservation Leaders in North Carolina

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2023: $89,314.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2025
Grant Recipients: National Wildlife Federation; North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Jessica Espenshade
National Wildlife Federation
Bryan Evans
NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: technical assistance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: water quality
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    More than ever, it is critical that North Carolina farmers and ranchers work with trusted technical assistance providers, such as North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (NCASWCD) and its partners, to implement conservation practices that protect water quality and enhance soil health. Focused efforts and new approaches to messaging are needed to reach farmers and ranchers who have been reluctant to adopt conservation practices, as well as producers from historically underserved groups. National Wildlife Federation, in partnership with NCASWCD, proposes to significantly bolster outreach capacity in North Carolina through trainings and ongoing support for innovative outreach delivered by agricultural professionals. Our overarching project goal is to improve outreach professionals’ effectiveness by providing strategies to motivate southern farmers to adopt best management practices that benefit soil health and water quality by equipping outreach professionals with improved capacity and confidence to message on soil health and sustainable agriculture practices through the proven Grow More program.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), in partnership with NCASWCD, proposes to build conservation outreach capacity in conservation district staff and partners through training and ongoing support. This project will improve outreach by applying concepts from social science and theories of behavior change to engage previously difficult to reach producers and by delivering this outreach through trusted messengers.

    Objective 1: Increase the capacity of local conservation field staff and partners to conduct effective outreach to non-adopting farmers resulting in increased awareness, positive attitudes, and adoption of soil health practices by North Carolina producers.

    Objective 2: Promote and enhance the collaborative network of producers and conservation organizations in North Carolina by assisting in the creation of shared messaging and outreach approaches for soil health and water quality focused sustainable agriculture practices.

    These objectives will be accomplished through the utilization and customization of NWF’s successful outreach programs. NWF’s Grow More is a training workshop targeted to outreach professionals, including Soil and Water Conservation Districts, state resource agencies, conservation and agriculture NGOs, and private sector consultants. Since 2018, Grow More has trained over 740 outreach professionals across 10 states and 4 Canadian provinces. As technical experts in agronomy and natural resources, outreach staff often have limited training in social science and communications. Grow More training participants will learn strategies, based on current social science and insights gained from NWF’s work with outreach professionals for over a decade, to reach “beyond the choir” of innovative producers who usually show up at soil health events, and to meaningfully engage a broader group. Trainings will also include strategies to increase engagement with women farmers and landowners, socially disadvantaged groups, and beginning farmers and ranchers. An emphasis will be placed on recruiting participants from organizations that represent or serve historically underserved producers including 1890 institutions. NWF will provide 6 trainings (3 per year) across North Carolina to lower barriers to participation and allow smaller group sizes, which encourages learning and engagement. Participants in this program will also have access to NWF’s new outreach toolkit, which is currently in development and will include supplemental tutorials on behavior change and outreach topics, planning and program evaluation resources, and example messaging and outreach strategies. 

    To ensure curricula is relevant and applicable to local farmers and outreach professionals, NWF will convene with North Carolina conservation representatives at the start of the project to frame local challenges and tailor the Grow More program specifically to the interactions conservation field staff have with farmers in the state. Our combined partnership and wide range of experience and expertise in the conduction and assistance of conservation outreach efforts throughout the existing network of mentor farmers, has wide-ranging experience conducting and supporting conservation outreach in the state, and through their existing networks of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural groups, will ensure local buy-in and extensive networks of potential participants to recruit from. NWF along with the in-state partners will provide consultation and continuous support throughout the span of the project by providing feedback, refining activities, promote program opportunities amongst shared networks, and participating in the trainings.

    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.