MARSHALL - Though farming is as old as civilization, like everything else these days, it is changing at a rate that is hard for farmers to keep up with.
To keep up, farmers need continuing education, yet according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD), eight in 10 Minnesota farmers are not participating in education programs, and a third of them aren't even aware of the availability of educational resources in the state higher education system.
To determine what farmers want and how they want it, the CRPD conducted a wide-ranging study in cooperation with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).
"This started about a year-and-a-half ago in regards to the changing business of agriculture," said Brad Finstad, president and CEO of CRPD. "Through a conversation with MnSCU about farm policy and how it's changed through the years, we decided we really needed to dig deep and ask farmers what their educational needs are. What they want and how they want it delivered."
What they did was to formulate a detailed questionnaire and brought the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on board.
NASS sent it to a random sample of more than 1,000 Minnesota farmers distributed across all income levels and collated the data.
"The broad purpose was, 'let's find out what the farmers want to learn,'" said Richard Joerger, an agriculture and education consultant who was lead researcher on the project. "The broadest thing we found was there is a large number of farmers at all income levels who desire education in business management."
High on farmers' list were a need for production management education for crops and livestock and education for farm employees in areas such as timeliness, job safety decision making, teamwork and mechanical skills, according to Joerger.
In regards to marketing, three things stood out, Finstad said: tax planning, estate planning and marketing commodities.
"Research shows in the absence of marketing education, farmers go to equipment, fertilizer and seed dealers," Finstad said. "This shows farmers are seeking this out and the private sector is filling the gap."
Finstad said he welcomes the participation of the private sector but feels MnSCU can be a non-biased source of education and information.
"And farmers are picky," Finstad said. "They want it in their backyard, on their timeframe and in a very hands-on method. They want to apply their education in their real-life situation. I think this shows a tremendous opportunity for MnSCU and suppliers to work together."
To date though, MnSCU hasn't focused enough on advertising to farmers what they have to offer.
And research also points to cost as a factor. One of the things the study questionnaire asked was what farmers would be willing to pay for workshops of various lengths.
"What holds us back is the stated amount they're willing to pay for their education needs is limited," Joerger said. "Farmers at all income levels need to be more aware of the realistic cost to provide quality education. Not huge amounts, but let's be realistic. If you get one idea out of a half-day seminar, was it worth it?"
An approach Finstad and Joerger are thinking deeply about is how to package information and deliver it by means of DVDs, online courses and apps for iPad and Droid-type technology, so farmers can access highly specific packets of information in real time, as needed. High-tech media can be combined with local seminars to give farmers face time with experts.
"I'm excited by the potential because the study indicates the market is out there, but it needs to be tended," Joerger said.