If you’ve been paying attention to the latest trends in farmer outreach and engagement, you’ve probably seen a lot of noise about “farmer networks,” “producer groups” or “farmer peer networks.” Conservation nonprofits, state and federal government agencies, academia, even agribusinesses are standing up these groups. In not a few cases, farmers have established their own group in the absence of any formal support.
But what exactly are these groups? How do they function, and to what end? I’ll try and explain that, as well as offer some additional context.
The idea that people learn best from their peers isn’t new. Peer learning networks exist in every industry: C-suite media executives have their own communities, as do sales and business strategy leaders, and even cryptocurrency developers. Every group differs in its structure and value propositions. Some are free and others charge a membership fee. Some are formal and others are informal. Some are held in person and others are remote. Yet all are centered around the notion that people learn best from people who are similar to them. Agriculture is no exception to this rule. In fact, it might be among the best industries for this kind of routine knowledge transfer. Research led by Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative and the division where I serve as manager of farmer outreach and engagement, has found that farmers routinely report that some of the information they trust most comes from other producers.
For the past year, my role has been to study industry best practices, ideate and develop what we have come to call farmer learning communities. This work is nested within America’s Conservation Ag Movement, a public-private partnership organized by Trust In Food in collaboration with Farm Journal Foundation, with technical and financial support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation and a coalition of leading private sector organizations dedicated to helping producers take the next step in their conservation ag journey.
In no particular order, here are three insights I’ve arrived at based on our work
- There is no industry consensus on what farmer learning communities should look like, how they should function and to what end they should be directed. Each farmer learning community I have studied has significantly different foundational elements. One group for farmers operating 5,000-plus acres required a significant annual membership fee and came with a professional, paid moderator. The group functioned mostly in a virtual environment, meeting and sharing information over email and text exchanges. Another group didn’t require paid membership but rather a written commitment to the group. Once a farmer became a member of the group, they could access funding from state ag agencies and set up systems to provide financial incentives to neighboring farmers for the adoption of locally beneficial conservation ag practices. I see this breadth of differences not as a weakness nor as a drawback to farmer learning communities but rather as a strength. Each can be adapted to the regional context and local needs.
- Farmers don’t want another group that will lecture them on how to run their operation. There is no doubt in my mind the vast majority of organizations that intersect with farmers wish good for the producer, even if they want producers to operate in different ways. But in their pursuit to change producer behavior, organizations might find themselves valuing farmer input and direction less, and prioritizing their own goals and objectives. Once this happens, a divide between the farm community and the organizations begins to develop. This often hinders the work that the organization had hoped to accomplish. Producers frequently are wary of joining farmer learning communities for predictable reasons: They want to know who is supporting the work (whether with staff time or money) and what the organizer wants farmers to do after participating? A more farmer-centered approach puts producers in the driver’s seat from the beginning, allowing the farmer learning community to develop into something that the producers themselves believe in. This isn’t to say that an organization can’t still try to influence or nudge the group in a specific direction. But it is best to do so from a position of power equity than from a position of authority.
- Setting up farmer learning communities is less similar to business development and more similar to community development. Although farmers must be great business people to navigate the many challenges of the ag economy, the purpose of a learning community is not to sell a farmer on a product, a practice or a theory. Certainly, many farmer learning communities spend a good amount of time talking about the economics of this conservation ag intervention versus that intervention. But they primarily should operate as a safe space for producers to share their concerns, excitement, tribulations and successes with other farmers. By approaching farmer learning communities as one would approach other relationship-building–with an attitude of humility and openness–organizations can enjoy more success in helping producers curate a space for sharing and learning.
We are all still learning how to help farmers create space for conservation ag growth and community risk-taking. Thanks to the farmer leaders who are paving the way (we call these leaders Conservation Stewards in the ACAM program), producers are starting to experience successes through these farmer learning communities. I personally want to thank the farmers with whom I work–Angela, Debbie, Brian D., Craig, Brian S., and Keith–for their support and encouragement. Without farmers like you who are willing to champion a movement, conservation ag wouldn’t be what it is today.
If you work in conservation and are interested in exploring how a farmer learning community might be helpful in your local area, reach out to me at email@example.com. I’d love to explore how Trust In Food might help you achieve your goals in collaboration with farmers.