Creating a Virtual Learning Network for Early Career Educators Working on Nutrient Management

Project Background

Local land-grant university Extension educators play a critical role 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 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. They will take a wealth of institutional knowledge with them. Training the next generation of Extension Educators in state-of-the- art approaches to nutrient management is critical.

To help combat this issue, a needs assessment and professional development program plan were developed in 2015 by a team of eight early Extension educators, state specialists, faculty, and Extension administrators in the North Central Region.

Methods and Activities

The team assembled a group of experienced Extension educators and interviewed them to better identify the specific knowledge and skills early career Extension educators need in order to promote a systems approach to nutrient management at the field, farm and watershed scale. The answers to the expert panel interview were analyzed and compiled into an outline known as the 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. This method of needs assessment was adapted from the field of risk communication and the mental models approach.

Early career extension educators were identified by members of the expert panel and interviewed primarily via phone. The data from the early career Extension educator interviews was analyzed and presented to the  team where a program plan was developed.

The 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.

Project Outcomes and Impacts

Analysis of the interviews demonstrated several key trends outlined below.

What experts said early career educators need to know:

  • How to manage nutrients across multiple spatial (e.g., field, farm, watershed) and time scales, considering both short and long term consequences.
  • Understand the upstream/downstream effects of various nutrient management decisions and the range of nutrient inputs, cycles, and entry points in a watershed.
  • Current approaches for reducing nutrient losses using a systems approach (e.g., nutrient use efficiency and related metrics for measuring farm sustainability) that promote economic and environmental benefits.
  • Awareness of the full costs of nutrient management decisions such as the actual cost of Best Management Practices (BMPs) including and understanding of their limitations, cost vs. benefits, effectiveness, and suitability.
  • Familiarity with research, Extension Education programs, and related efforts being implemented in the North Central Region that incorporate a systems approach to nutrient management.
  • Knowledge of multi-scale systems of practices/BMPs that can address nutrient runoff and incorporate watershed structures such as wetlands.
  • Familiarity with research findings on nutrient decision making and their implications including creating effective messages that engage farmers and address barriers to adoption.

What early career educators want a better understanding of:

  • What other educators are working on in terms of nutrient management (e.g., those conducting programs primarily for non-agricultural audiences were interested in what their colleagues conducting programs with agricultural audiences were working on)
  • Specific practices (e.g., strip till) and nutrient regulations in their area
  • How and why farmers make the nutrient management decisions that they do (more important for educators with natural resource audiences)
  • Nutrient benefit and uptake of various plant species

These trends were used to create a program plan discussed jointly between project team members and early Extension educators. As a result of the program plan, a virtual learning network was created in early 2016 with their first meeting held in the summer of 2016. The network allows early career educators to increase their understanding of a systems approach to nutrient management, including nutrient cycles, causes of nutrient losses, and strategies for addressing these losses at the farm, field, and watershed scale while allowing experienced educators to share their knowledge.


Anne Baird
Program Director, The Ohio State University

The Virtual Learning Network factsheet can be found here.