June 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 3 // Tools of the Trade // 3TOT1

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Use of Public Talk Tools in Integrated Farm System Planning

This article explains how public talk tools can be applied by Extension professionals to assist farm families and communities in critical thinking related to integrated farm system management. The National Issues Forum process developed by Kettering generates farm management decisions that are more sustainable because it encourages choice based on a wide array of variables rather than choices based primarily on single economic variables.

Michael Score
Extension Associate
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
Internet address: Mscore@ca.uky.edu


The cooperative Extension Service is challenged to assist farm communities in managing whole farm systems. In 1994 CES brought together leaders at the national level to develop "Vision for the Future: A strategic Plan For Agriculture"; a document that will nurture Extension efforts supporting integrated farm system management. The report specifies three goals and 18 strategies that could contribute to sustainability of farm systems. Rather than focusing narrowly on production practices, the challenge is to expand to consideration of a wider array of factors in farm system planning including consumer preferences, environmental impacts, and global market trends. This article considers the National Issues Forum process as a public talk tool that can be used to reach new institutional goals and objectives while working with families or communities.

The Extension Professional's Role in Use of Public Talk Tools

Extension educators become neutral facilitators when public talk tools are used in deliberating current issues. The educator facilitates discussion rather than evaluating ideas of others or contributing their own opinions. For example, when considering how to manage a pest problem related to crop production, rather than prescribing a specific choice for producers, agents help identify choices and lead producers through an inductive study to identify actions that respond best to individual and community needs. Extension professionals attempt to involve all key stakeholders in the decision-making process. One task is to help the group stay focused. Without editing ideas, agents use questions to draw out, probe, and clarify so everyone's views are understood.

Case Study of NIF Application

The Kettering Foundation developed the National Issues Forum process (NIF) to assist communities in deliberation of public policy issues. The process is used when three or four major choices can be identified in response to an issue. Clientele are asked to "work through the choices." They are encouraged to explore the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action, as well as values underlying each choice that would attract advocates or give rise to critics. After consideration of all choices, participants take time to identify values guiding them in their decision-making process. Participants are asked to move toward the choice that is most consistent with values of stakeholders.

Within the University of Kentucky CES, NIF has been applied to evaluation of farm management practices. In Harlan County, in eastern Kentucky, efforts were made from 1991 to 1993 to promote use of intensive rotational grazing. Access to production inputs, marketing outlets, and technology are limited in comparison with central and western Kentucky. The agent assumed cattle producers would be motivated primarily by interests in generating net income and eliminating chronic herd health problems. Response to the agent's efforts was very low.

NIF was used to clarify producer resistance to new management approaches. Producers were asked to evaluate cattle production under open grazing, creep grazing, and intensive rotational grazing systems. Results indicated that producers had absorbed the logic and potential benefits of more intensive and productive pasture management practices. It was during the discussion of value comparison that conflicts between intensive systems and local goals became clear. Family tradition and heritage were the strongest motivations for involvement in cattle production. A dominant theme was the significant benefit of feeling connected to the home place. Producers shared how important it was to manage the land as their parents had managed it, and to see cattle in the fields where they had seen them in their childhood. Raising cattle for income was of marginal significance. All of the producers had moderate to high income from off the farm. Income from off-farm jobs subsidized production costs. Given demands of family, off-farm employment, and other community involvement, intensive rotational grazing was considered the least sustainable management option because of labor and time requirements. Local and county officials view agricultural development potentials as marginal so there was no broader community agenda that suffered as a result of producer choices to use less production-oriented management systems.


Application of the NIF process to cattle management alternatives redirected the Extension agent to focus on reinforcement of management plans considered more sustainable by local clientele. Without the critical thinking associated with processes like NIF, a tendency exists to focus mainly on replicating practices aimed at maximizing single variables, like net farm income, without sensitivity to other economic variables. The process results in consideration of choices within integrated systems and therefore generates more sustainable management plans. Admittedly, the Harlan County case generated uncomfortable results by concluding that pasture management requiring subsidy from off-farm income is more sustainable than intensive systems that actually generate net profit. However, the process recognizes local preferences and does not pretend to generate results that create a mandate for other communities or for large geographic regions. Broader use of the NIF process in Extension education, along with applying other tools from the social sciences, would improve agent performance as educators while CES pursues the institutional goal of educating toward a more sustainable agriculture. NIF can be used to evaluate choices faced when farm families consider diversification of their farm enterprises. At the community level, it can help neighbors explore cooperative marketing. ventures. Farmers and non-farmers would benefit from NIF in discussing approaches to dealing with issues like odor control, pesticide application, and ground water protection.


U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1994. Vision for the Future: A Strategic Plan for Agriculture. Washington, D.C. USDA.

The Kettering Foundation. Dayton, Ohio.