By Ann Staudt
Michelle Young, director of Sustainable Farms at Australian National University in Canberra, visited Iowa State University in July to take a closer look at the award-winning Iowa Learning Farms programs. She spent almost two weeks traversing the state, meeting with experts in multiple disciplines, speaking with farmers, and sharing her own knowledge.
Leading the development of the first Extension program for sustainable farming at ANU, she has crossed the globe seeking best practices and programs to aid in maximizing the growth of the program in its early years.
“I am tasked with building an Extension program that will be a practical resource for up to 15,000 farmers in the box gum grassy woodlands of eastern Australia,” Young says. “In researching programs that we could adapt to our needs, I found the content and approaches at ILF to be very intriguing.”
ILF delivers timely value
One of the features of ILF’s program that caught her attention was the strong evaluation process that is built into every outreach effort. “My background is in social research, and I’m delighted to see a program for farmers that is so effective, and yet uses a light touch so as not to overwhelm the farmers,” Young says. “Unfortunately, Australian farmers get surveyed to death, and many seem to feel they never get anything out of their participation. From what I heard and saw in Iowa, the ILF approach not only keeps the demands low, but also delivers frequent and timely value to the participants.”
Sustainable Farms at ANU is a cross-disciplinary research project aiming to create an engaging farm-based outreach program to increase adoption of sustainable farming practices on the southwest slopes of eastern Australia. Similar to the origins of ILF, the program grew out of needs identified through field research and engagement on the farm.
ILF stresses farmer-to-farmer outreach and learning as a fundamental pillar of the Extension effort, and Young wants the same underpinning for sustainable farms.
While the farmers in her region primarily raise sheep and wheat rather than the typical Iowa corn, soybeans, hogs, poultry and cows, Young’s search for Extension programming insights was aimed at creating a structure that is focused on farmers, not the crops or livestock they raise.
Farmers learn from other farmers
Building a program that is farmer-centric is a key goal for Young. She notes, “We need to escape from the didactic, teacher-led model for spreading knowledge about best practices. Adults are much more comfortable and accepting of learning from peers such as other farmers; however, they also want access to the science to be able to test their observations and support their learning, so we are providing that through a field day program modeled on the Iowan example.”
LEARNING MORE: Ann Staudt (left) of Iowa Learning Farms and Michelle Young, an Australian Extension educator, tour examples of sustainable farming and water quality improvement practices.
While Young may not invest heavily in adapting the art and musical facets of ILF for her program, she did mention the importance of creatively translating science and research to make it more consumable and impactful to the target audience. She anticipates applying such creative approaches to bringing science to the fields to answer questions and help farmers address needs, not try to tell them what to do.
The Sustainable Farms initiative has some 20 years of research data collected from farms in the area. Relying on this substantial cache of information, the program hopes to engage one-on-one with farmers to learn more about what they are doing and why, ultimately validating the practices against data to create best practices that can be utilized throughout the region.
Visitor impressed by ILF program
Having seen the ILF team in action, Young was impressed by both their caliber and commitment. She hopes to tap people of equal passion in building the Sustainable Farms program.
“From the interns to the researchers, to the ILF director, the creativity and expertise within the ILF organization it extraordinary,” Young says. “The commitment and passion for learning and sharing shown through in every engagement and piece of material I saw. It’s clear that team puts 100% of its drive and energy back into the community program, constantly striving for improvement and impact, and ultimately making a difference for all. I look forward to continuing to communicate and work with my ISU colleagues to the benefit of both our programs.”
Staudt is manager and content specialist for Iowa Learning Farms.