Mentoring for Early Career Extension Educators: A Systems Approach to Nutrient Management

Mentoring for Early Career Extension Educators: A Systems Approach to Nutrient Management


Virtual Learning Network


Abstract:

Excess nutrients from agricultural lands have been identified as a major contributor to harmful algal blooms and hypoxic zones around the world and specifically in the Western Lake Erie Basin and Gulf of Mexico (Diaz and Rosenberg, 2008; Carmichael, 2008). Extension Educators at the county level play a critical role as local change agents in the promotion of holistic, systems approaches to farm nutrient management. As new Educators are hired and new research findings released, there is an increasing need for professional development programs to increase knowledge and skills among early career Extension Educators about systems approaches to nutrient management and how to promote these approaches to farmer audiences. This project involved a needs assessment, utilizing a mental models approach, to identify gaps in knowledge and skills among early career Extension Educators related to systems approaches to nutrient management. Findings from the needs assessment were utilized to develop recommendations for creating a learning community of specialists and Extension Educators to enhance and improve extension educational programs around the region targeting farmers and focusing on adoption of systems approaches to nutrient management at the field, farm, and watershed scales.

Need:

The topic addressed with this project was nutrient and manure management. The target audience we attempted to serve with this project was early career Extension Educators (i.e., those with 10 years or less experience as an Extension Educator) in the North Central Region.

Problem:

Excess nutrients from agricultural lands have been identified as a major contributor to eutrophication and associated harmful algal blooms and hypoxic zones around the world and specifically in the Western Lake Erie Basin and Gulf of Mexico (Diaz and Rosenberg, 2008; Carmichael, 2008). Many initiatives are underway to work with the agricultural community in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins to reduce nutrient losses from agricultural land, including a recent effort to forge stronger ties between the federally led Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force and Land Grant Institutions in the Mississippi River basin. In spite of extensive efforts – and much success – at increasing farmer adoption of conservation practices to reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss, agricultural runoff continues to play a dominant role in nutrient enrichment in the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico. Efforts to identify more holistic and integrated approaches to agricultural nutrient management are needed and the Land Grant Institutions can play a key role in the development and dissemination of those approaches.

Extension Educators at the county level play a critical role in the Land Grant universities as local change agents in the promotion of new approaches to farm management. Nutrient management that enhances farm productivity and profitability without impacting water quality is a continually evolving field, requiring Extension Educators to work closely with researchers and private industry in order to provide state-of-the-art, science-based information and recommendations to farmers. Many Extension Educators around the North Central region will be retiring within the next five years and taking with them a wealth of institutional knowledge. Training the next generation of Extension Educators in state-of-the art approaches to nutrient management is critical to filling the gap left behind as the Baby Boomers retire.

Project Goals

1) A team of North Central Region Extension specialists and researchers engaged in professional development for nutrient management commit to engaging in a needs assessment for developing a systems approach to nutrient management mentoring program for educators. Eight Extension Specialists and University researchers participated on our project team.  These individuals participated in either group or individual interviews to create the expert model of a systems approach to nutrient management.  Linked to NRCWN Goal 1: “Strengthen existing or create new collaborations between university researchers and Extension educators.”

2) The PI team learns about developing a systems approach to nutrient management mentoring program for educators.  A webinar was held on Monday, Sept. 21 to present the results of the needs assessment to the PI team and early career Extension Educators.  Linked to NRCWN Goal 2: “Increase multi-state connectivity and learning among university professionals and partners.”

3) Webinar participants (Extension Educators) increase their awareness of a systems approach to nutrient management and who to contact for help with it.  A webinar was held on Monday Sept. 21 to introduce the PI team and their research and Extension efforts in a systems approach to nutrient management as well as the results of the expert model.  Linked to NRCWN Goal 2: Increase multi-state connectivity and learning among university professionals and partners.

4) A sustainable professional development program plan for a systems approach to nutrient management is completed by September 2015.  At the Sept. 21 webinar a discussion was held to get input from the PI team and early career educators on the program plan Link to NRCWN goal: Build capacity of universities to address multi-state water-related issues and opportunities, including: Expanding successful extension programs to additional states; and Generating new funding for extension programming through competitive grants, contracts for services, or fee-based programs.

5) Seed project leads to sustainable future collaboration that uses multiple state resources to reduce overall spending in relation to the development and implementation of programming. Linked to NRCRWN Goal 4: Leverage institutional and financial resources outside of the university in the short and long term.   The current coordinators time will be take from existing funding in Ohio to continue the project.   (See budget reporting form.)

Methods and Activities:

We addressed the need for this project by first convening a PI team of specialists and researchers familiar with a systems approach to nutrient management and who were engaged in professional development for Extension Educators.  This PI team consisted of eight individuals in three states including Rick Koelsch, ANR Program Leader University of Nebraska.  Rick provided information on nutrient efficiency research in Nebraska and models of extension education early career educators need to be familiar with.   Andy Ward, Faculty member OSU FABE, provided information on BMPs and edge of field monitoring as well as foundational information regarding a systems approach to nutrient management.  Jane Frakenberger, Purdue, Ag Engineering faculty member, provided information on BMPs and their applicability at various scales.  Brent Sohngen, OSU Ag and Environmental Econ, contributed information on the costs of BMPs and related policy research.  Robyn Wilson, Decision Sciences faculty member with OSU provided information on her research on farmer engagement and barriers to adoption.   Greg LaBarge, Field Specialist with OSU provided information on scope of nutrient management problems and current strategies used in Ohio to address.  Shelby Bowdin, Manure Specialist with MSU provided experience as an early career professional and her expertise as a manure specialist.

The first activity that we undertook was to identify a team that could speak to what Extension Educators should know or understand about a systems approach to nutrient management.  We invited this group to participate in a 1. 5 webinar interview where we asked them to identify the specific knowledge and skills early career Extension Educators need in order to promote a systems approach to nutrient management at field, farm, and watershed scale.  The answers to the expert panel interview were analyzed and compiled into an outline known as the expert model (appendix 1: Expert model).

The expert model was then used to generate an interview guide for early career educators to understand more about their knowledge and educational needs (Appendix 2: interview guide for early career extension professionals). This method of needs assessment was adapted from the field of Risk Communication, which often designs risk communication pieces using a mental models approach (Morgan et al., 2002). Early career extension educators were identified by members of the expert panel.  The early career Extension interviews were conducted primarily via phone.  The data from the early career Extension educator interviews was analyzed and presented to the entire project team on Sept. 21 in a webinar.  Following the presentation the project team was asked to answer a series of program plan development questions. Their answers were then used to develop a program plan.  The group of early career educators included seven educators from three states (OH, MI, and Ne) the ranged from seven months experience to eleven years.  The majority had less than five years’ experience. All were addressing nutrient management in their Extension field programming.  The educators served a variety of audiences including dairy producers, agronomic crop farmers, and natural resources professionals.

Outcomes:

Goal 1. Strengthen existing or create new collaborations between university researchers and extension educators.

The PI team members deepen their understanding of how they could collaborate to develop a systems approach to nutrient management learning community.   Measurement: PI Team spreadsheet and program plan discussion questions from the Sept. 21 meeting. At the Sept. 21 2015 webinar the PI team discussed several ways in which educators and specialists could collaborate to further understand critical areas of systems approach to nutrient management in the region and then identified some specific actions they could take.

The areas where they felt they need to share information and learn more together included:

  • Farm forensics: The PI team discussed the need to learn more about the farming systems contributing to the to the edge of field water monitoring data currently being conducted in the region and the connections especially on extremes (i.e., what leads to really good water at edge of field and really bad). They discussed working to relate water quality data to farm system regionally.  The problem they discussed was that where farmers are getting good results you never hear about it and the same with bad results we have to learn from edge of field information so we better benefits community as a whole.
  • Scenario analysis: When we talk about BMPs what base line are we starting from and how does it compare it to edge of field water quality data after the BMP has been in place.  We need to identify what the problem is before we apply the BMPs.  We know lots of fields don’t contribute to WQ problems, why would we do BMPs where not needed need…data from Kevin King in Ohio suggesting a narrow set of fields contributing to nutrient runoff problems so a thorough scenario analysis that can help in targeting fields where we need practices would be helpful.

Actions they wanted to work on together included:

  • Create a database of BMPs including their effectiveness, suitability, and limitations as well as an inventory of experts on the practices in the region.
  • Share data from on farm edge of field monitoring across the region in order to compile a more robust database of how what is happening in field and impacts on water quality.
  • Develop an inventory of websites/factsheets/bulletins on a systems approach to nutrient management.
  • Create authentic opportunities/learning experiences for educators to present their work and get feedback.
  • Share strategies tips for interacting with other organizations that address nutrient management and developing an effective role/niche in the field.

Goal 2. Increase multi-state connectivity and learning among university professionals and partners.

Webinar participants expressed an interest in the professional development program that is presented. We asked each of the seven early career educators in the interviews if they thought it would be useful for them to learn about a systems approach to nutrient management and if they would be interested in in such a program.  All seven said they would be interested in such a program.  Their responses included:

  • Sure, it would be beneficial especially in terms of developing a common understanding with my colleagues. If we trained together we could create a common basis for program planning that could have an impact in the field.
  • Very interested. Especially if the subject matter was co-created and participants get a hand in the design.
  • I would be interested. This is a topic I occasionally get asked about…I’d put it high on the list for this region; having a network of people I could learn from would be helpful.
  • I’d like to learn more about nutrient management planning and helping farmers save money and nutrients there a number of topics you could tie in across region such as erosion.
  • I need to see what’s coming from the citizens…it’s valuable for educators to hear from various sectors. Using some of the mentors could be useful since every person is a different level of knowledge and skill
  • I would participate especially if it involves webinars in combination with NACCA convention (i.e., no overnight travel away from my family).
  • Helpful to learn what is at the forefront of what people are talking about. I’d be interested in webinars or a face-to-face education program where we are learning about research from a systems approach but I’m less sure about mentoring as a format.
  • I’m interested in learning about this it’s one of the gaps in my education which was based on farm management not so much agronomy or systems.  We have a lot of CAFO level farms and making sure good nutrient management in this area would be useful.

Project team members increase awareness of people in other states that are doing work with a systems approach to nutrient management. Measurement: End of project survey

The end of project survey asked this question of respondents.  The project response rate was 44% (7/16).  The mean score on this question was 2.6 out of highest possible score of 4.  So the majority of respondents state either that they increased their awareness to a small extent, 2 indicated they increased their awareness a moderate extent.

Core team member and expert panel demographics indicate that team members represent both university researchers and Extension educators. Measurement: End of project survey. We had involvement from 7 Extension Educators, 4 faculty members, 2 Extension specialists, and 2 Program Leaders.

The project team will increase their awareness about gaps in knowledge of early educators about the systems approach to nutrient management. End of project survey. The mean score on this question for respondents was 3.43 on a possible scale of 4.

PI team learns what kind of approaches Extension educators prefer for professional development. The mean score on this was 3.86 on a possible scale of 4.

Extension Educators who participate in the webinar increase their awareness about a systems approach to nutrient management.  End of webinar poll: We did not get good participation on this at the end of webinar poll but three of the webinar participants indicated they would participate; however all seven interviewees stated they would participate.

Webinar participants express an interest in the professional development program that is presented.  See goal 1 above.

Goal 3.  Build capacity of universities to address multi-state water-related issues and opportunities, including: Expanding successful extension programs to additional states; and Generating new funding for extension programming through competitive grants, contracts for services, or fee-based programs.

Extension specialists and educators involved in professional development think the systems approach to nutrient management professional development program would be effective.

Goal 4. Leverage institutional and financial resources outside of the university in the short and long term.  (See budget reporting form.)

Team members are likely to promote the systems approach to nutrient management mentoring program in their state. End of project survey: The PI team members have identified funding sources for the mentoring program. The PI coordinator time for the 2016 professional development web meetings will be leveraged to continue the project, pending final approval from the SENR Director.

Contact:

Anne Baird
Program Director, The Ohio State University
baird.41@osu.edu