October 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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A Model for Coalition Building in Urbanizing Areas

Increasingly complex and controversial issues are emerging for Extension educators and decision makers as urbanization of rural and agricultural lands expands. To help address those issues, the present study provides a model for coalition building. The model adopts a focus group approach bringing together farmers, environmentalists, policy makers and the non-farm public. The results suggest that coalition building is best facilitated when views are properly communicated and understood. In addition, participants involved in controversial issues can be brought together most effectively after common agenda items have been identified, and the information generated used to establish a positive mind-set.

Edmund M. Tavernier
Agricultural and Environmental Policy
Internet address: tavernier@aesop.rutgers.edu

Maurice P. Hartley

Department of Agricultural Economics and Marketing
Cook College
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Increasingly complex and controversial issues are emerging for Extension educators, local leaders, and decision makers as the urbanization of rural and agricultural land expands (Adelaja, Derr & Rose-Tank, 1989). These issues center on the impact of agricultural land conversion on the environment, aesthetics, and quality of life. When the issues are "cut-and-dried," the alternatives and consequences model, a staple in public policy education, proves a useful and effective way to bring stakeholders together. The contrasting viewpoints approach proposed by Goodwin (1993), though capable of dealing with controversial issues, does not present a model for Extension educators to follow in attempting to build consensus or form coalitions around controversial issues. What is needed instead, is a model that identifies consensus areas and provides a forum for achieving a particular educational activity. The coalition building model described in this article contains those elements.

Coalition Building

Coalition building is needed when one organization or group acting alone does not have the technical ability or people power to achieve real impact on an issue. In agriculture and open space in urbanizing areas, inclusion of all parties is very important because of the potential for conflict arising from the competition for farmland and the public goods (uncompensated benefits) that it provides. Moreover, while many people view farmers and other agriculturalists as "stewards of the land," some individuals and groups fail to see agriculture's positive link to the economy and raise penetrating questions about its impact on the environment.

The potential for understanding, conflict resolution, and coalition building in groups and between groups is greatest when opinions are identified, communicated, understood, and respected (Chess, Hance & Sandman, 1990; Hartley, 1985). In many cases, however, interest groups often hold a variety of views about agriculture, its importance, its impact on the environment, aesthetics and quality of life, and how problems related to the suburban-rural interface should be addressed. In some cases consensus may exist on certain issues.

Because coalitions assist in setting priorities for action and provide information to policy makers, the importance of addressing disagreements and misunderstandings should not be understated (Stevens, 1990). This is extremely important in light of erosion of political clout in the farm sector and the growing importance of activities related to urbanization (McGranahan, 1992). Further, many decision-makers and the citizens they represent have little knowledge or appreciation for the contributions which agriculture makes to states' economies, rural infrastructure, the environment, and the quality of life of all residents.

The above problems accentuate the need for improved models and strategies to facilitate Extension education, improve resource management, and strengthen the planning processes which address the environmental challenges and at the same time sustain the long-term viability of agriculture.

The Cook Study

The project was named the Cook Study because it took place on the campus of Cook College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. It was made possible in part by a grant from the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. The purpose of the study was to (a) document and analyze focus group differences in perceptions regarding agriculture, its impacts upon the environment and quality of life, and related socioeconomic and political issues in urbanizing areas; (b) facilitate the education of participants (and the broader community) regarding the concerns and multiple objectives of the respective groups; (c) help in the identification of issues where consensus exists or might be reached; and (d) provide a forum to encourage greater understanding, consensus building, the resolution of conflicts, and the establishment of coalition efforts in areas of mutual interest and agreement.

To ensure that the model developed and issues examined were as relevant and generalizable as possible to the state and region, New Jersey was used as a case study. The choice is justified because New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S. with an advanced case of rural-urban interplay. It includes enough variation in the level and intensity of rural-urban interplay to cover all relevant dimensions of the issue. Some of these dimensions are the growing demands for housing, utility easements, transportation, and the development of other infrastructure in areas previously devoted to agriculture. The perception that these demands have a negative impact on the environment, aesthetics, and the quality of life in New Jersey are also dimensions of the issue.

Coalition Building Model

The Coalition Building Model uses a focus group approach. The model consists of three phases. Phase one centered on ensuring broad support. Key leaders from agricultural, environmental, policy making, and the non-farm public communities were asked to help identify participants, from their respective constituents, for four focus groups. The criteria for identifying participants for the groups included (a) individuals associated with these groups who held an office or recognized position of leadership within the last four years, (b) nomination by current officers/leaders, and/or (c) record of public involvement.

In the second phase, focus groups were conducted with each of the four constituent groups. Each group had an average of eight participants. The groups were provided with a facilitator and chose a chair and recorder from among themselves. The groups were charged with identifying the major contributions of agriculture, the magnitude of its environmental and quality of life contributions, the degree of public commitment agriculture deserves, and other relevant socioeconomic and political issues. The groups then focused on the negative impacts of some farming practices. They were also asked to identify potential areas of mutual interest that could lead to beneficial results if farmers, environmentalists, policy makers, and the non-farm public worked together.

In phase three, one session was held with four heterogeneously structured sub-groups, to discuss, refine, and reach consensus on the common agenda issues that had been identified during phase two. Twenty-three "common agenda" areas were identified. Following a quasi-Delphi technique, these were submitted to 125 participants in a state-wide conference entitled, "Farmers and Environmentalists: Partners With the Land" in March 1994, (Office of Continued Professional Education) for priority ranking. Eight priorities emerged and were re-submitted to respondents for final prioritization to determine the relative degrees of agreement with the statements among the stakeholders.


Analysis of the coalition building model and study took two forms: evaluation of the process and a content and statistical analysis of the groups' perceptions and opinions.

Ninety-six percent of the participants thought the objectives of the project and focus group sessions were clearly communicated. Ninety percent thought that overall the process was informative and worthwhile. Ninety-six percent said that the focus group discussions broadened their understanding of the major contributions of agriculture as well as the ways agriculture is perceived to have a negative impact. Eighty-six percent of the participants agreed the discussion broadened their thinking about the areas and issues on which the "stakeholders" might work together for their mutual benefit.

Content analysis was used to identify issues where consensus existed or might be reached, based on focus group transcriptions using the "cut-and-paste" technique (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990). Frequency analysis was performed to determine potential consensus areas among the four groups as revealed in responses to questionnaires (n = 90 useable returns).

The results revealed that the potential for consensus building existed in seven of the top eight statements. These included developing mechanisms for conflict resolution, educating the non-farm public about the benefits of farmland and agriculture, strengthening and promoting right-to-farm laws and regulation among others. The one statement in the top eight that was not identified as a potential for consensus was, "Ease the burden of doing business in New Jersey to increase profitability and competitiveness of farm operations." Only 33% of policy makers agreed with that statement in contrast to 97% and 71% of agriculturalists and environmentalists, respectively.

Conclusions and Implications

An important contribution of this study is the provision of a model for coalition building around controversial issues. As a result of the insights derived from the study, the stakeholder groups held a regional conference in March 1995, and formulated action plans to sustain continued coalition efforts.

The study holds several implications for Extension education. First the model demonstrates that when views are properly communicated and understood, and opinions are identified, coalition building can be facilitated. Second, participants involved in controversial issues can be brought together most effectively after common agenda items have been identified and when the information generated can be used to establish a positive mind-set. Third, in order to keep the coalition momentum, an agenda for action should be developed.


Adelaja, A., Derr, D., & Rose-Tank, K. (1989). Economic and equity implications of land-use zoning in suburban agriculture. Journal of Agricultural Ethics, 2, 97-122.

Chess, C., Hance, B. J., & Sandman, P. M. (1990). Improving dialogue with communities: A short guide for government risk communication. A report submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection, Trenton.

Goodwin, J. (1993). Contrasting viewpoints about controversial issues. Journal of Extension, XXXI, 25-27.

Hartley, M. (1985). Leadership style and conflict resolution: No (man)ager is an island. The Journal of Cooperative Education, XXI(Winter), 6-23.

McGranahan, D. (1992, January/February). Thriving rural economy in the 1990's? Agricultural Outlook, pp. 35-37.

Stevens, G. (1990). A process for building coalitions (NebGuide G90-988). Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Cooperative Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Stewart, D. W., & Shamdasani, P. M. (1990). Focus groups: Theory and practice. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.