February 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA4

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Farmers' Perspectives of Michigan State University Extension: Trends and Lessons from 1996 and 1999

In 1994, Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) reorganized into Area of Expertise teams (AOE) linking county agents and specialists around specific commodity groups' needs. A statewide survey was conducted in 1996 and 1999 to determine agricultural producers' educational needs and perceptions of MSUE. Participation rates among full-time farmers in MSUE programs are high. The number of part-time farmers is increasing, and these farmers are participating less in MSUE programs. Farmers want one-on-one interaction with Extension agents. Marketing, business management and farm economics were named as important educational needs by significantly more farmers in 1999 than in 1996.

Murari Suvedi
Associate Professor
Internet address: suvedi@msu.edu

Maria Knight Lapinski
Doctoral Candidate
Internet address: lapinsk3@msu.edu

Shelly Campo
Doctoral Candidate
Internet address: campomic@msu.edu

Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan


Previous studies to assess Extension delivery have focused on the adoption of innovations, effectiveness of various media used to disseminate knowledge, and client satisfaction. Habeeb, Birkenholz and Weston (1987) recommended that agricultural Extension workers increase their amount of direct contact with clientele groups, refocus Extension programs, and expand delivery methods to address the needs of innovative farmers. Lavis and Blackburn (1990) also found a positive relationship between client satisfaction and contact with local Extension offices. They concluded that people who use Extension more intensively rate it higher than non-users. Warner and Christenson (1984) state that satisfaction is considerably greater among persons who are regular rather than occasional users of the services.

Previous studies conducted in Oregon, North Dakota, and Florida indicated that agricultural producers and other clients were very satisfied with Extension services (Meadowbrook & Fletcher, 1988; North Dakota State University, 1996; Warnock, 1992). A survey in Ohio showed that the Cooperative Extension Service ranked high as an information source among farmers (Schnitkey, Batte, Jones & Botomogno, 1992).

Not all studies suggest that Extension services are highly ranked. Many farmers view the dominant agricultural research and Extension education model skeptically (Gerber, 1992). Habeeb et al. (1987) reported that persons who were more innovative tended to be less satisfied with Extension's information, specialists, and agricultural education program. Auburn and Baker (1992) suggest that communication between farmers and researchers usually has been one-sided and that researchers have not adequately considered the research priorities of farmers. Various authors suggest changes in the dominant Extension model in which innovations in farming practices are developed by researchers and delivered through an Extension program (Braund, 1995; Gerber, 1992). The importance of effective delivery methods to the impact of Extension programs has also been suggested (Israel, 1991). These studies have not examined the longitudinal impact of modification of Extension delivery.

In order to serve its clients better, Michigan State University Extension modified program planning and delivery by establishing Area of Expertise (AOE) teams (Leholm, Hamm, Suvedi, Gray, & Poston,1999). The AOE teams consist of agents and specialists who plan and deliver educational programs to meet the needs of Michigan farmers and agribusiness. The AOE teams have joint leadership, with at least one co-chair from the MSU campus and one from off-campus Extension. Stakeholder involvement in program planning and evaluation are key elements of the AOE team. County Extension agents on these teams have specialized roles in specific commodity groups and cover multi-county areas. MSU Extension identified 18 initial Area of Expertise teams that were formed between 1995 and 1996.

In this context, a longitudinal study was conducted to find out how agricultural producers view MSUE and how changes in delivery impact perceptions. Surveys were conducted in 1996 and 1999. The 1996 survey served as a baseline and was conducted before AOE teams were fully implemented. In 1999 the same survey served as a follow-up for comparison.

Study Objectives

A statewide baseline and follow-up study were conducted to assess change in farmers' perceptions of MSUE and AOE teams over time. The objectives of both the baseline study and the follow-up were:

  • To determine agricultural producers' awareness of MSUE and the types of Extension education programs used by the agricultural community.
  • To determine the quality of MSUE educational programs as perceived by the agricultural community.
  • To determine farmers' and agribusiness operators' perceptions of AOE teams and specialized Extension agents.
  • To identify major educational needs of agricultural producers.


The population for this study was comprised of cash crop, vegetable, fruit, nursery and greenhouse, beef, dairy and swine farmers in Michigan. A stratified random sample of farmers and agribusiness operators was drawn with the help of the Michigan Agricultural Statistics Service. In 1996, this sample consisted of 1,534 farmers and agribusiness operators. In 1999, the sample consisted of 1,569 members of the same population.

This study used a mail survey for data collection. A seven-page instrument was developed and validated by a panel of experts to assess farmers' perspectives on MSUE agricultural and natural resources programs. It included both closed- and open-ended questions. The instrument was field-tested to ensure usability and reliability. The same instrument was used for both the 1996 and 1999 data collections.

Respondents were asked to indicate their awareness of MSUE, and whether they had participated in Extension programs or received information from Extension. They were asked to rate the quality of educational programs and perceptions of the AOE programs and services on a 1 to 5 Likert-type scale, with 1 representing poor quality and 5 representing excellent quality. Open-ended questions solicited suggestions about how MSU Extension can improve its role in helping Michigan agricultural producers. Similarly, respondents were asked to list the major areas of educational need for Michigan agricultural producers. To determine the overall evaluation of MSU Extension and perceptions of the AOE teams, composite scales were developed. Cronbach's alpha was determined for both 1996 and 1999. Perceptions of the quality of MSU Extension's programs were assessed with six items and exhibited an alpha of .90 for both years; eleven items assessed perceptions of the AOE teams and had alpha values of .72 (1996) and .75 (1999).

The instrument was mailed to the sample in March of both 1996 and 1999. One week after the first mailing, a follow-up postcard was mailed to the sample population. Two weeks later, non-respondents were mailed a second follow-up letter with a replacement questionnaire. In 1996 the survey had a usable response rate of 58% (N = 851). The 1999 survey had a usable response rate of 51% (N = 730). The respondents were found to be representative of the various agricultural enterprises and counties in the state.

Results and Discussion

Analysis indicated that, in both samples, the respondents came from a range of demographic groups. The characteristics assessed included age, formal education, land-holdings and income. The sample for both surveys included respondents from all of the major commodity groups. Types of agricultural producers were categorized as cash crop, vegetable, beef, etc. (see Table 1).

Table 1
Types of Agribusinesses/Farms Operated by Respondents
Type of operation1996
Number (%)
Number (%)
Cash crop422(68.1%)306(61.1%)
Nursery/greenhouse/Xmas tree54(8.7%)71(9.7%)
Other crops38(6.1%)30(6.0%)
Other Livestock74(20.8%)53(18.9%)

Of the farmers surveyed in 1996, about 53% were full-time farmers and 47% were part-time farmers. There were more part-time (51.1%) than full-time farmers (48.9%) in the 1999 survey. Analysis of off-farm employment status showed that in 1996, 40.6% were employed elsewhere. In 1999 the number employed elsewhere had increased to 46.5% of respondents. Analysis showed that the difference in 1996 and 1999 respondents' outside employment was significant (chi-square (1) = 4.9 p =.03), which indicates that in 1999 more farmers were employed outside of farming than in 1996.

Respondents were asked to indicate whether they had heard of MSU Extension. Analysis of the data showed that in 1996, 91.1% of the respondents were familiar with MSUE. In 1999, this increased to 94.5%. Those who indicated awareness were asked more questions about their participation in MSU Extension programs and services. In both years, the most common method of participation was through county Extension newsletters and/or mailers -- 90.6% of those surveyed in 1996 indicated having received these documents and 84.2% in 1999.

Likewise, in 1996 77% of the respondents had acquired Extension bulletins or fact sheets compared with 73.4% in 1999. Visits to a county Extension office were also found to be a common method of participation in MSUE programs -- 74.2% of the 1996 respondents and 73% of the 1999 respondents had visited an office. Mass media (e.g. newspapers, radio, etc.) were also used by 70.9% of the people to gain information from Extension in the 1996 survey. This decreased to 64% in 1999. In both years, more than half of those surveyed had been in contact with an MSUE specialist.

The analysis also indicated that in 1996, 52.8% of those familiar with MSUE had attended Extension farm meetings/workshops; 49.5% reported attending these programs in 1999. A significant change occurred in reports of visiting the MSU campus for educational programs -- from 42% in 1996 to 35.6% in 1999. In 1996 40.9% participated in field days/demonstrations. This percentage decreased to 35.5% in 1999. About 36.4% of the respondents reported in the 1996 survey that a local Extension agriculture agent or team of agents had visited their farms or agribusinesses. This percentage increased slightly in 1999 to 37.7%.

These data indicate that computer-based information is still not a common method of participation in MSUE activities in both years. Only 10% of those surveyed acknowledged having received information via Farm Data Systems(DTN). Approximately 6% of the respondents had used an Extension software package. There was a significant change in the percentage of respondents who gained information about MSU Extension via the World Wide Web. In 1996, only 1.4% had received information via the World Wide Web; this increased to 10% in 1999. Extension videotapes were not seen very frequently -- only 8% of the 1996 respondents familiar with MSUE programs had ever borrowed or purchased an Extension videotape, and this decreased to 5% in 1999.

Results of chi-square analyses showed a difference between full-time and part-time farmers in frequency of participation in MSUE programs. In both 1996 and 1999, full-time farmers indicated greater awareness of MSUE programs than part-time farmers and tended to participate more in MSUE-organized farm meetings, field days and demonstrations. In both 1996 and 1999, full-time farmers reported greater participation in all MSU Extension programs. A significantly higher (P<0.05) proportion of full-time farmers acquire Extension bulletins, fact sheets and newsletters; they also report using electronic information and Extension software packages more than part-time farmers. A significantly higher number of full-time farmers reported that they had been visited by Extension agents, had contacts with MSU Extension specialists and visited the MSU campus to participate in educational events.

Both the 1996 and 1999 results indicate that those farmers who held off-farm employment attended Extension meetings and participated in field days/demonstrations less frequently than those who did not have off-farm employment. Further analysis also revealed that, in both years, farmers who did not have off-farm employment tended to meet Extension agents significantly more than those who had off-farm employment. Similarly, the 1999 data indicated that those who did not have outside employment were more likely to use Extension software packages and gain information about MSU Extension via the mass media. This difference was not apparent in the 1996 data.

The respondents who had heard of MSUE or participated in number of programs offered by MSUE were asked to rate the quality of the programs they attended. These items included questions about the timeliness, relevance, and usefulness of the information provided in these programs. A composite rating of participants' evaluation of the quality of MSU Extension programs was obtained. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1=poor, 2=fair, 3=average, 4=good and 5=excellent), the mean rating of the programs was 3.76 (StDev.= 0.75) in 1996 and 3.81 (StDev.= 0.69) for 1999. T-test analysis indicated that these ratings did not change significantly from 1996 to 1999 (t [1189]= 0.086; p=.93).

Awareness and Perceptions of Area of Expertise (AOE) teams

MSUE developed AOE teams consisting of agents and specialists to plan and deliver educational programs to meet the needs of Michigan agricultural producers. In 1996, half of the respondents (50%) had heard of the AOE teams, one-third (34%) had not heard about these teams and the rest (16%) were not sure. The percentage of people aware of AOE teams was lower in 1999. Approximately 41% of respondents to the 1999 survey said that they were aware of AOE teams, 41% had not heard of the teams and 18% were unsure.

A composite score for ratings of perceptions of AOE teams was created to achieve an overall view of farmers' perceptions. The mean for this scale was exactly the same in both 1996 and 1999 (3.47), which indicates there has been no change in farmers' perceptions of the effectiveness of AOE teams. T-tests on the 1999 data showed a significant difference between the full-time and part-time farmers in their overall perceptions of AOE teams. Full-time farmers had an overall higher rating of AOE teams than part-time farmers [t (508) = 2.45; p = .015]. These differences were not evident in the overall-ratings in 1996. Similarly, t-tests indicated that farmers without outside employment expressed more agreement than those who had outside employment in both 1996 [t (678) =2.10, p = .036] and 1999 [t (572) =1.97; p =.05].

Analyses performed for individual questions also indicated differences. The data from both 1996 and 1999 indicate that full-time farmers are more likely than part-time farmers to believe that MSU Extension agents need to be more specialized. Additionally, in both 1996 and 1999, full-time farmers indicated that they have a greater need than part-time farmers for more research-based information. In both samples the data indicated that significantly more full-time farmers than part-time farmers sought the services of private consultants. In 1996 full-time farmers were more willing to pay for such services than part-time farmers, but in 1999 these two groups did not differ significantly.

Respondents provided specific suggestions for ways in which MSUE could improve its role in helping the agricultural community. These suggestions revealed that many respondents would like more informational and appropriate meetings. For example, in the 1999 responses, several farmers suggested that the timing of meetings could be improved by holding more weekend and winter meetings. The 1996 respondents indicated that they would like more on-site visits by Extension staff members and 1999 respondents made similar suggestions. One fruit farmer suggested that MSUE should "offer farm visits to determine if there is a problem and how to correct it." In both years, some small farmers felt that Extension was not interested in them and indicated that more involved and experienced agents are needed.

In 1996 some of the respondents expressed a need for advanced marketing workshops, more research, and on-site testing. The 1999 data revealed a dramatic increase in the number of respondents mentioning these issues (Table 2). Indeed, marketing of farm products was the most frequently mentioned issue in the 1999 responses. For example, one crop farmer suggested MSUE should "help the small farmer develop and market new crops" and many respondents listed "marketing" in response to several questions on the survey. In 1996 and 1999, advertising of MSUE services available and more information on specific topics related to farm management were also discussed by producers. Also mentioned were needs specific to the agricultural producer's commodity area; these included requests for information on everything from manure management to urban sprawl/farmland management.

Table 2
Most Common Responses to Areas of Educational Need
SuggestionNumber (1996)Number (1999)
Chemical science6665
Federal regulations (chemicals)248
Business management2356
Sustainable Ag/Organic2334
Soil science2011
General farm management1543
No-till practices143
Crop science1222
Fertilizer use and run-off116
Help small farmers compete98
Educate public on farming817
Improved seed varieties89
New technology/research818
Urban sprawl/farmland management819
Pricing strategies813
Manure handling/control65
Farm economics619

Conclusions and Implications

Based on the findings from 1996 and 1999, a number of conclusions can be drawn that may assist Extension services in designing future programs. They include the following:(a) Awareness of MSU Extension has remained consistently high among agricultural producers. (b) Participation among full-farmers in MSUE programs and activities is high across producer groups. The number of part-time farmers is increasing and these farmers are participating less in all MSUE programs. Extension should consider ways to better serve part-time and small, family farmers. (c) Farmers want one-on-one interaction with Extension agents. Many farmers mentioned a strong desire to have agents visit them at their farm or business, or at the least, to be readily available by phone. As Extension plans strategies to reach and teach agricultural operators, it is important to consider that there is no substitute for interpersonal interaction. (d) Marketing, business management and farm economics were named as important issues by 50% more farmers in 1999 than in 1996. Traditional topics such as safe use of pesticides and improved seed varieties remained at consistent levels across time. (e) AOE teams should work across team areas on certain issues to better serve farmers. Cooperation and collaboration between teams can help save time and money, generate more ideas, and in turn, better serve farmers' educational and information needs.


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The authors want to thank the Communications Ad Hoc Review Committee for their hard work, dedication, and foresight in developing the editorial review process. They also thank Ann Senuta and Sydni Gillette for reviewing early drafts of this manuscript.