Bridging the communication gap: toward a more informed public understanding of sustainable farming

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $348,841.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2024
Host Institution Award ID: G242-22-W8612
Grant Recipients: Oregon State University; Red Tomato; FrameWorks Institute
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Clare Sullivan
Oregon State University
Julie Sweetland
FrameWorks Institute

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: other

    Proposal abstract:

    Diverse Western agricultural stakeholders have identified the need to increase public understanding of why sustainable agriculture matters, how it works, what the challenges are, and how society can support sustainable approaches. For example, improving consumer education is a stated priority in at least seven Pest Management Strategic Plans for western crops. Likewise, the California Alternatives to Chlorpyrifos Work Group identified a need to develop shared language around agriculture, environmental protection, and community health.

    Our project will help meet these needs. We approach communications dilemmas by analyzing the deeply embedded mindsets that shape public thinking, rather than relying on surface-level messaging techniques. Over the last four years, our project has developed a social science research base that sheds new light on why long-standing communications challenges in sustainable agriculture persist, and how to resolve them. With support from WSARE, we seek to extend this research, answering the following questions:

    • What conversational strategies or arguments do ordinary people in the Western region use to resist new information or scientifically-informed perspectives? 
    • What communication tools and strategies effectively work to overcome such resistance? 

    To ensure that findings are optimally useful in the western U.S., our project’s outreach and dissemination design depends on close collaboration with stakeholders. Project leaders will engage with Western growers and practitioners to pinpoint current needs and challenges in explaining and elevating sustainable agriculture. Communications strategists and educators will use what we learn to design communication trainings and build a toolkit of communication resources. 

    Research findings will be reported in a highly-accessible strategic brief that highlights the key communications shifts that will elevate public understanding and support. This brief, and the related toolkit, will be made publicly available and will be disseminated widely through the Farming & Food Narrative’s distribution list and other digital venues.

     By supporting research that confirms and adapts national recommendations for use in the West, this project leverages more than $600,000 in investments from previous funders and aligns it with the goals of WSARE. Expected outputs include: 

    • A research-based set of effective communications recommendations, including new narrative elements, that work to explain and elevate sustainable agriculture in the West;
    • Refined training modules that equip a variety of agricultural stakeholders to communicate more effectively with multiple audiences;
    • A digital toolkit that translates project recommendations into formats requested by sustainable agriculture stakeholders in the West.

     We expect this project to have both immediate outcomes and long-term impacts. During the short-term, we expect to see changes in participants’ communications knowledge and practices. In the medium-term, we expect those changes in communication practices to be shared among participant's networks, which over the long-term, will build public support for policies that support sustainable agriculture, and will increase consumer demand for sustainably-grown products. Fresh policy approaches will enhance economic, environmental, and social outcomes by providing farmers with more operational capacity to adopt sustainable practices.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1 (Research): Complete Qualitative Frame Testing by conducting four peer review sessions in the West (2021).

    This objective involves the final efficacy testing of new narrative elements in an interactive group setting, including the testing for “stickiness” during person-to-person transmission. We will conduct four separate peer discourse sessions (similar to focus groups) in western states during 2021, including two with rural-leaning audiences, and two with urban-leaning audiences. These sessions aim to answer the following questions:

    • What conversational strategies or arguments do ordinary people in the western region use to resist new information or scientifically-informed perspectives? 
    • What communication tools and strategies effectively work to overcome such resistance?

    Objective 2 (Research): Develop a Reframing Toolkit including new narrative elements, guidelines for their use, a variety of digital support materials/tools, and a series of trainings, both virtual and in-person (2021-2022). 

    During 2021-2022, for use in 2022-2024, FrameWorks and the project team will develop a “Reframing Toolkit," a combination of FrameWorks-designed digital resources plus FFNP training tools and events. This toolkit will include: guidelines for communicators; new narrative elements for organizational websites and written materials; an introductory webinar; an interactive, curated list-serve/community of practice focused around real-time communication challenges; a 3-hour Re-framing workshop; and a one-day intensive training for "influencers." 

    Objective 3 (Education): Conduct three in-depth, 1-day train-the-trainer sessions in Oregon and California (2023-2024) with thought leaders (farmers, university professionals, and organizational communicators) who will then influence their own stakeholder networks.

    We will co-design a 1-day intensive workshop in the form of a “train-the-trainers seminar” to train 50-60 “thought leaders,” who are well positioned to train other communicators in utilizing the framing recommendations that come out of the Reframing Toolkit (Objective 2). We will deliver three of these workshops, hopefully in person, in Oregon and in California, in the third and final year of this project. 

    Objective 4 (Education): Disseminate research results and communication tools to a diverse audience of farming and food practitioners--growers, university professionals and organizational communicators in NGOs, government agencies, and businesses-- in the western region during 2023-2024, via a mix of on-line, hard copy, and in-person strategies, trainings, and events.

    This objective will transform research conclusions and learnings into a variety of training tools and guides that will be useful to the field of farming and food communicators. A series of web-based, hard copy, and in-person guides and trainings will be developed and disseminated.

    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.