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Farmer Outreach Needed to Increase Adoption of Research Innovations

July 29, 2019


Farmer and Extension Agent on farm. Photo credit: KY State University.
Farmer and Extension Agent on farm. Photo credit: KY State University.

U.S. agriculture relies on innovations and new technology to support not continued productivity and to increase resilience within our farm and food systems. Investment in publicly funded agriculture research, however, has stagnated over the several decades, even though the need to equip farmers with new tools to address new challenges is increasingly dire.

Support for outreach and dissemination of research findings is as critical as the research itself – after all, innovations are much less useful if nobody knows about them. Cooperative extension and non-profit organizations often fill this outreach role by leveraging federal funds. Just like investments in public research, however, support for outreach and extension has also waned over the last few decades. A new report released last week by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation (RMF) highlights the critical function that outreach plays in the adoption of new practices within farming communities.

Report Overview

In 2014, RMF first began their effort to create a unified public message on the need to increase support for food, agriculture, and natural resources research. After the release of their first report, Pursuing a Unifying Message: Elevating Food, Agriculture and National Resources Research as a National Priority, it became clear that concrete examples were needed to showcase the impacts of public investments in underpinning a food system most of us take for granted.

RMF’s new report, Cooperative Extension and Public Outreach: Advancing Agriculture and Improving Lives, features 22 success stories illustrating the important role Cooperative Extension, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other institutions serve in providing critical outreach to farmers. Several National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) member organizations who work on the ground conducting both research and outreach to farmers, are featured in this report.

These organizations, with the help of grants from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), create innovative training and education programs for farmers and processors that assist beginning farmers, small and medium-sized farms, as well as underserved and socially disadvantaged communities. The report highlights the remarkable work these NGOs are doing for farmers and farming communities across the U.S.

Practical Farmers of Iowa – Cover Cropping Systems for Corn and Soybeans

Using a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) worked with two transitioning organic corn and soybean farmers in north-central Iowa on an on-farm research trial that sought to optimize no-till cover cropping via crimping. Their results, which showed adequate weed suppression and identified the best times to terminate cover crops, led to the local adoption of the technique, and farmer education on the results through field days, webinars and published newsletters. This farmer-led project is just one example of how useful on-farm research can be when farmers are involved and can educate other farmers on what they have learned and the impact on their bottom line.                              

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association – Small Farms and Food Safety

With their Local Produce Safety Initiative (LPSI) program, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) is at the forefront of delivering research-based food safety training, education and outreach to small and financially constrained, beginning growers throughout North and South Carolina. With a grant from NIFA’s Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) program, CFSA was able to train more than 600 farmers in water management and soil conservation, assist more than 140 farms in writing food safety plans, and mentor more than 100 farms to pass good agricultural practices (GAP) audits.

There is a strong demand from farmers for food safety training and technical assistance given new GAP requirements and new federal food safety regulations. LPSI gives producers and buyers confidence in a small or beginning farm’s ability to manage food safety risk, thus expanding farmer access to local, regional and national markets. These trainings also go hand-in-hand with workshops on food safety principles and the creation of the Good Agricultural Practices for Small Diversified Farms: Tips and Strategies to Reduce Risk and Pass an Audit manual. 

Land Stewardship Project – Training Beginning Farmers

Farm Beginnings, a farmer-led, community-based model for training the next generation of farmers was created by the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) over two decades ago. Supported by NIFA’s  Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Farm Beginnings has trained more than 1,000 farmers in how to overcome barriers to entry and be successful in agriculture. Targeted to those with less than two years of farming experience, the program helps build on basic skills and foster greater community connection. 70 percent of farmers who have taken the structured course continue to farm five years later, with 98 percent of graduates following sustainable practices, 75 percent owning or managing their own farms, and 69 percent exceeding their farm income goals.

The program’s popularity and success can be attributed to many factors. These include the way it addresses different stages of farmer development with a farmer-to-farmer focus where the instructors are other farmers, guiding the development of curriculum and provide mentoring. Overall, the goal of Farm Beginnings is to strengthen farmer networks and establish sustainable practices to allow communities to grow their local food economies, giving small farms a better chance of success. This program was recently also featured in NSAC’s evaluation of BFRDP as a successful model to train new farmers.

Organic Farming Research Foundation – Educating Farmers about Soil Health

As a champion of organic farmers, fostering the widespread adoption of organic farming, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), developed a series of educational guidebooks and webinars that teach organic farmers how to enhance both soil health and the overall resilience of their operations. Seven guidebooks were published in 2017, covering topics from weed management and cover cropping to plant breeding and water management. Thousands of guidebooks have been downloaded and hundreds of people registered for the webinars. Webinars covered conservation tillage, ecological approaches to weed management and organic practices for climate mitigation, to name a few. With university partners, OFRF has also created free, online courses on organic production in California specialty crops. The courses include on-farm demonstration videos illustrating the implementation of a variety of organic practices, like growing cover crops for weed management and soil fertility, and methods for composting using a variety of feedstocks.

Translating Research Through Outreach

NGO outreach plays an important role in advancing agricultural research and education to farmers across the country. But, according to the report released last week, there are opportunities for better supporting these essential functions moving forward. This includes the need for more outcome-based reporting to better understand how funded research projects are reaching farmers, how research is being communicated, and whether this helps to create more sustainable farming opportunities. Focusing on research that prioritizes partnerships between NGOs and other community-based organizations with expertise in training and outreach especially benefits farming communities and can help deliver more targeted results and on the ground impacts.

The report also highlights the role of Cooperative Extension and the evolution of its relationship with research and public outreach. Extension’s education programs rely on science and evidence-based research. This is also practiced in the field, with many states having university relationships and co-funded faculty at research stations, where connections between the campus-based faculty with county/regional Extension remains a key component of the Extension network.      

Towards a Unifying Message                            

Reflecting on the importance of extension and outreach in developing a unifying message to increase support for agricultural research, the report suggests some themes and next steps for advancing this agenda. These include:

  • Securing the economic, environmental and social sustainability of agriculture, with regard to helping farmers make production decisions in evolving environmental and social contexts
  • Respecting the differing needs and capacity of U.S. agriculture by tailoring programs to benefit large-scale operations, small-scale operations, urban and rural, and socioeconomically disadvantaged and underserved farmers, ranchers and communities
  • Motivating the next generation of the food and agriculture workforce relative to agriculture and food literacy, urban agriculture, and health and nutrition, along with the many 4-H programs that educate consumers about how food, fiber and fuel are produced
  • Initiating a comprehensive urban agriculture effortthat educates Americans about where, how and by whom their food was produced in conjunction with support of new local and regional food production systems in rural and urban communities in an effort to expand the workforce beyond the traditional farms in rural communities                 

With partnerships around research, education, and extension, there is opportunity to address critical societal issues and engage more stakeholders in the process to move agriculture forward.

NSAC was a contributor to this latest RMF report along with Purdue University, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Cooperative Extension, University of Tennessee at Martin, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University, among others.

Read the full report at www.rileymemorial.org 


Categories: Research, Education & Extension


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