Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA5

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Expert Panels in Participatory Education

The "expert panel" is a less costly method of developing budget information than on-farm collection of data. It provides more detail on the particular technology and inputs used than is typically found when budgets are developed from financial records programs. It acquires more practical validity than budgets based on experimental farm research and economic engineering.

Robert L. Christensen
Extension Farm Management Specialist
Department of Resource Economics
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Internet address:

John Howell
Extension Vegetable Specialist-Western Region
Cooperative Extension
University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Alden Miller
Vegetable and Marketing Specialist-Eastern Region,
Cooperative Extension
University of Massachusetts-Waltham.

The "expert panel" is one variation of the "participatory research and education model" described by Gerber.1 The participatory approach draws on farmers' knowledge and experience in problem definition, conduct, and evaluation as a means of enhancing the process of knowledge discovery and application. This article focuses on using the expert panel in developing enterprise budgets for farm planning. The technique may, however, have broad application in a variety of subject-matter areas.

Enterprise Budgets

Enterprise budgets are basic elements of farm planning. They can be used to assess profitability of different enterprise combinations, examine effects of varying the scale of individual enterprises, and estimate the impact on costs and efficiency of alternative production technologies.

Farm management specialists always counsel the use of data from the particular farm under study. It represents most accurately the costs, efficiency in use of the production resources, the quality of the farm's resources, and the manager's own attitudes toward innovation and risk taking. However, if only data from the specific farm were to be used, the scope of possible enterprise combinations and technologies would be limited to the historical experience on that farm. Obviously, to use the full power of this analytical approach to profitable farm planning, data from other sources must be obtained and modified to the individual farm situation.

Consequently, farm management specialists develop crop and livestock enterprise budgets for use in farm planning. These budgets provide a "standardized" set of costs and returns associated with a particular enterprise. They provide a systematic itemization of costs and returns to guide farmers in developing their budgets and give farmers some sense of input requirements and profitability for new enterprises not within their experience.

Traditional Approaches

Enterprise budgets are developed using several data sources. One source is farm records systems.2 The purpose of most record systems is to generate operating statements, cash flows, and balance sheets needed for tax and credit purposes. Analysis and summaries of these records provide data for enterprise budgets. A major problem with data derived from farm records systems is they represent averages from aggregations of farms with the same enterprise. Thus, specifics of scale, technology, inputs, and management are often unknown.

A somewhat similar approach involves surveys of farmers to obtain the data needed for an enterprise budget.3 The survey elicits from farmers all relevant information about capital investment items, variable inputs and their costs, technology and production practices, yields, and crop prices. The larger the number of farmers responding, the more likely key characteristics will become evident that can be used to stratify the sample into more homogeneous grouping for analysis. Such surveys, if done by mail, typically result in low response rates (often no more than 10%-15%). Higher response rates result from face-to-face interviews, are considerably more costly, and irritate some farmers because of the time required. And, the accuracy of responses which come off "the top of the head" is often questioned.

A third approach is based on applied research results. Applied research conducted on university farms or with cooperating farmers generates data on input-output relationships.4 These data are used to develop a "model" enterprise budget. Such budgets are sometimes implied to represent the most efficient/profitable scale, technology, and combination of inputs for growing the crop. However, many question whether the results from controlled experiments reflect conditions on commercial farms. In addition, applied research typically doesn't include rigorous economic analysis to determine profit maximizing levels of inputs and optimum output.

Departing from traditional approaches, Extension vegetable specialists at the University of Massachusetts have used the expert panel technique to involve farmers in developing process/enterprise budgets for vegetable crops.5 The expert panel consisted of 10-12 vegetable growers together with the four members of the Extension vegetable program team. These growers were selected based on their experience in growing the particular vegetable(s) for which budgets were to be developed. All the growers were judged to be above average with respect to their technical knowledge of the crop and its culture and attention to costs and returns.

In using the expert panel approach, no claims are made with respect to economic optimization. Instead, the resulting budgets are best described as being representative of the production practices, input combinations, costs, and production levels for experienced growers.


Four hours seems to be enough time for instruction and development of the major elements of a process budget.

About 10 minutes is devoted to introductions and a short explanation of the usefulness and need for enterprise budgets. An example process/enterprise budget is distributed and briefly described in terms of its content and the information needed.

Participants are then led through a group exercise to develop a process budget for a specific crop, preferably one that all the farmers grow or have grown. They're asked to define every step taken in growing the crop from the soil test early in the Spring, to the point when the harvested crop leaves the farm gate. The particular equipment complement that would be used is identified along with a description of the cultural practices. Quantities of purchased inputs, labor, and machine time are identified.

In the group exercise, a process of consensus evolves. Even though individual growers may have different equipment, they seem to have little difficulty in agreeing on a representative complement. More difficult are the particular cultural and pest management practices, but this is often solved by agreeing to develop two different budgets-ones for a production system using chemicals and another for non-chemical practices. We try to do this group budgeting exercise in about 1-1 1/2 hours.

Following a break, the producers are divided into smaller groups. Each group develops a process budget for a specific vegetable crop. An Extension vegetable program team member works with each group to provide technical input, give guidance in the budgeting exercise, record the group's work, and keep it on track so that the exercise is completed on time. This phase can usually be accomplished in the final hour of the work session.

After this session, the farm management specialist organizes the information on different crops into a common format, obtains and/or verifies variable input costs, and provides standardized values for machine operation and ownership. The "draft budgets" are then reviewed by the Extension educators involved and selected growers to discover errors and ensure that all processes and input requirements have been included. The "next-to-final- draft" versions are given back to the expert panel members for review.

The final version represents panel members' agreement that the specific process/enterprise budget is a fair description of the inputs, costs, and returns associated with growing the crop. The set of budgets is then made available on computer floppy disk to Extension educators, who may print out copies of the budgets as needed. The Extension educator can now use this computer template to alter the budget to fit individual farm situations (partial budgeting).


The "expert panel" is a less costly method of developing budget information than on-farm collection of data. It provides more detail on the particular technology and inputs used than is typically found when budgets are developed from financial records programs. It acquires more practical validity than budgets based on experimental farm research and economic engineering. When farmers understand the method used in development of the budgets and see the detail provided, they seem to be more understanding of the result even though they may use a different technology and set of production processes.

Expert panel participants have said they learned a great deal and felt it was useful to them personally. Extension educators have similarly found the technique useful. It's given them an opportunity to focus with growers on economic assessments of alternative production practices and technologies. As with any enterprise budgets, those developed with the help of the expert panel provide a systematic method for organizing costs and returns, can give a grower information about crops not currently grown, and serve as a benchmark against which to test the impacts of changes in production practices or technology. We believe farmer participation greatly enhances both the quality and acceptance of the economic information generated. Application of the expert panel technique to building enterprise budgets or in other subject areas can enhance learning and knowledge application by Extension clientele.


1. John M. Gerber, "Farmer Participation in Research: A Model for Adaptive Research and Education." American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, VII (No. 3, 1992), 21-24.

2. Kent D. Olson and others, "1989 Annual Report of the Southwestern Minnesota Farm Business Management Association." Economic Report ER90-4 (St. Paul, Minnesota: Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Institute of Agriculture, May 1990) and Stuart F. Smith and others, "Dairy Farm Management Business Summary, New York State-1991" (Ithaca, New York: Department of Agricultural Economics, Cornell University, August 1992).

3. See, for example, Kathleen Painter and others, "1991 Crop Enterprise Budgets, Eastern Whitman County, Washington State" (Pullman: Washington State University, Cooperative Extension, Farm Business Management, 1991).

4. Darwin P. Snyder, "Field Crop Enterprise Budget Update, 1990 Cost and Return Projections and Grower Worksheets, New York State" (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, Department of Agricultural Economics, May 1990).

5. A "process budget" is defined here as containing a detailed description of the operations involved in growing and harvesting the crop together with the quantities of inputs and the directly associated costs. The enterprise budget may be derived from the process budget and contains additional cost computations related to land ownership, interest on investment, management returns, etc.