February 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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Reaching A New Audience

The challenges of reaching a new audience can be met by creating a flexible program with a many-pronged approach, including a variety of teaching techniques. The Small Ranch Water Quality Program, to teach suburban residents how to manage their property to decrease non-point source pollution, is presented as an example of a successful attempt to reach a diverse audience. Key elements include identification of the idiosyncrasies, needs and desires of the new audience, development of curriculum to meet those specific needs, using the audience to help develop the program, and providing many different types of learning opportunities.

John Cobourn
Water Resource Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Incline Village, Nevada
Internet address: jcobourn@fs.scs.unr.edu

Sue Donaldson
Water Quality Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Reno, Nevada


A major challenge for Extension personnel in the 90s is to respond to changing community needs. In western Nevada, the need to protect limited water resources has spurred faculty to seek out new target audiences for water quality education. One such audience who is responding well is the growing number of people who own and operate small non-commercial ranches in the suburbs.

It can be difficult to get people to participate in new, voluntary educational programs without immediate personal or financial benefit. The job is to create an array of approaches to induce "buy in." By creating a flexible program with a many- pronged approach, including a variety of teaching techniques, it is possible to accommodate the diversity of most new audiences. Creative application of needs-assessment, curriculum development, program delivery, and evaluation principles can lead to rewarding outcomes, including broader ties to the community.

Identifying a New Target Audience

In 1992, a regional needs-assessment was conducted to help Nevada's water specialists determine major water problems. Geographic areas of concern and various land uses thought to be potential sources of water pollution were identified by knowledgable community leaders and agency representatives in 54 individual interviews. Steamboat Creek in particular was singled out as a water body in need of better nonpoint source (NPS) pollution control. Published data confirmed this sub-watershed to be the most polluted tributary of the area's most important surface water resource, the Truckee River.

In 1993, the Washoe County Department of Comprehensive Planning requested that Extension begin a public education program in non-point source pollution in the Dry Creek watershed, a tributary of Steamboat Creek. The county master plan had zoned over 3 square miles on the outskirts of Reno for 2-to-10-acre ranches in sub-divisions on old, large-scale agricultural ranches. New owners were often inexperienced in small ranch management. The planning department recommended a voluntary educational program to encourage implementation of best management practices (BMPs) on small ranches to help reduce NPS water pollution.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension joined the Washoe-Storey Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and U.S. Geological Survey in forming a coalition to create a voluntary education program.

Researching the New Audience

A basic rule of writing, and of education, is "know your audience." What are obstacles to participation in the program? For this particular audience, obstacles could include a fear of regulatory requirements or of the "environmentalist label". At a more pragmatic level, how much time does the audience have to devote to educational activities? Are most employed during weekday, daylight hours, and does the programming thus need to be flexible? For example, Ritter & Welch (1988) found that it was necessary to design a home child care course to fit into the student's free time in an unstructured, self-study manner.

Research about the audience began with interviews with the Extension agronomist, Extension horse specialist, members of the Conservation District Board, and the local executive director of the Nevada Farm Bureau, who were acquainted with members of the new audience. They advised on topics that might be of interest, including flood irrigation, animal waste management, and pasture management. It was also learned that many residents were either urban professionals or retired urbanites who had moved to a rural setting to enjoy living on the land, raising a garden, and keeping a horse or two in their small pasture.

Reaching Out to the New Audience

The county planning department provided a list of all property owners owning more than one acre in the Dry Creek watershed. A letter was sent to all 450 addresses, inviting residents to attend a public meeting where they could sign up for and learn more about a new volunteer/education program. It was emphasized that this was a free program sponsored by the university. Free well water tests were offered to the first ten people to sign-up as an added incentive. A room in a public school in the target neighborhood was reserved for the initial meeting.

The first meeting was attended by 50 interested property owners. Slides of local creeks and ponds were shown with an explanation of how best management practices or BMPs were designed as methods to reduce water pollution, and questions answered. The intention to offer free workshops within 6 weeks was announced and their suggestions for topics were sought. One way to create audience buy-in is to involve the public in the development of the program and its materials (Coffman and Watkins, 1991). About half of the attendees at this meeting became regular program participants.

Developing the Curriculum

A literature search failed to locate any published curriculum designed to reach this particular audience. While there was literature on best management practices for large commercial farms, it was either too general in scope or too technical in terminology to be useful to a group of suburban ranchers with little training or experience in ranch management. In a study of program delivery methods for farmers, Obahayujie and Hillison (1988) had found that part time farmers (similar to our "small ranchers") preferred on-farm demonstrations, newsletters and publications, workshops, and home visits as a method of disseminating Extension information. These elements were included in the program.

Coalition members helped rough out a series of 6 topics that could be covered in a series of free Saturday morning pasture workshops during the spring and summer. While agriculture experts would teach each class, the water specialists would weave in principles of pollution prevention as secondary or indirect messages. Using lecture notes and information from other written sources, a curriculum was started that grew into a 96-page book, "The Small Ranch Manual."

Before the book was completed, key elements were incorporated into a monthly newsletter sent to neighborhood addresses. Each issue contained a "BMP of the Month," along with background information about how to solve common ranch problems. A basic theme soon developed that became a central tenet of the curriculum: Use of best management practices is not only good for water quality, but also for the health of animals and the appearance and value of ranch property. Written materials normally emphasized practical, "how-to" ranch management information.

In the newsletters, in the book, and in presentations, technical language was translated into easy-to-read, interesting, information. The goal was to use clear examples and to explain each concept, practice and technique. Extensive use was made of photographs, drawings, and diagrams in all written material, and most presentations occurred on a ranch, so people could see for themselves. On occasion, students participated in a "work party" where all learned "by doing" as they completed a project for a rancher such as building a compost bin or planting trees to shade a creek.

Building in an Evaluation Tool

Evaluation of the program was two-pronged. To measure knowledge gain, a 25-question water quality pre-test was administered to each participant when he or she first attended a workshop or presentation. It was explained that the test would allow evaluation of teaching effectiveness and would be a guide for future educational efforts. The same test was given to participants at the end of the second year of the program to document the increase in knowledge.

A second evaluation method consisted of documenting actual changes in behavior. An overall goal of the program was to teach and motivate people to implement best management practices for reducing nonpoint source water pollution. After two summers of the program, there was photographic documentation of 22 demonstration projects on sixteen properties, and verbal descriptions of projects on at least 60 other properties in the neighborhood. Such results indicate that a significant portion of the target audience has been reached.

Making it Fun

The key to success in this program has been the friendly, engaging way people were treated. From the start, it was realized that to attract and hold the audience's attention, the events and social interactions had to be fun. Pasture "workshops" were casual question-and-answer sessions conducted during a leisurely stroll around a neighborhood ranch, with refreshments provided.

The intention was to create, if possible, a sense of a community effort and even of neighborhood pride. It was felt that this would increase audience participation and build a program that would virtually run itself, allowing Extension educators to move on to new audiences in other neighborhoods.

To cement a sense that volunteers were working together for the good of their shared water resource, the creek, a free barbecue was held each summer at the ranch of a participant. This informal, enjoyable afternoon emphasized that people were important, not just the creek. At each of these social events, the group and certain outstanding individuals were recognized for their good work and for their commitment to "doing the right thing." Certificates of Appreciation were given to these individuals.

Helping People, One to One

In addition to the popular group sessions, special attention was given to individuals requesting a visit to their ranch. These site visits allowed participants to ask questions about specific problems and allowed Extension educators to evaluate the property and suggest potential changes in practices. Sometimes this would be as simple as suggesting that pastures be mowed just before weed seeds matured to prevent further infestation. At other times the rancher might be receptive to a more technical fix such as upgrading an irrigation system. In such cases, the education coordinator would offer to schedule another visit and to bring a specialist who could offer specific suggestions or sketches for design of the new system.

By visiting ranches and helping participants design actual management improvements, the program again went beyond mere teaching of facts to serve people's needs. While it was up to each property owner to finance his improvement and to either hire a contractor or do it himself, Extension agents would call or stop by every week or two to see how the work was going and offer tips and encouragement.

The Tasks of Volunteers

In this program there was no sharp distinction drawn between volunteers and participants. To a degree, all participants were volunteers, because the whole program was indeed voluntary. On the other hand, all participants were encouraged to help Extension agents and to help each other as much as they cared to. They were asked to spread news of the program by word-of-mouth and to bring their neighbors to an event or to a barbecue. Neighbors were encouraged to try an informal buddy system, so they could ask for a helping hand or a bit of advice on occasion.

During the first summer, it became obvious that some of participants were eager to do more to help. As fall progressed and outdoor activities became limited, a series of nine indoor classes were offered for the winter as a way to train a core of volunteers.

The students had two agreements to fulfill. One was to design at least one BMP demonstration project for their ranch by the end of the course. The other was to perform 10 hours of volunteer service during the following spring and summer. Volunteers were given a list of possible jobs from which they choose activities they would enjoy. While expectations were made clear, class members also knew that they were trusted to fulfill their obligation in ways that suited their individual schedules and educational interests.


The number of small farms and ranches surrounding America's cities is, by all accounts, increasing. Since many owners of small tracts are not experienced in agricultural land management, there is a need to reach this new audience and educate them about soil conservation and water pollution prevention. This program has addressed that need in western Nevada. It may serve as a model for similar programs throughout the west.

The success of the program stems from a number of crucial factors:

  • Close collaboration between members of the inter-agency coalition group. This group helped Extension understand the needs and idiosyncrasies of the new audience.

  • Using an array of teaching methods, including workshops, classes, individual home visits, and numerous printed materials. The many-pronged approach provided a variety of appropriate educational media for a diverse audience.

  • Keeping the audience interested, motivated and encouraged through day to day assistance and feedback from the education coordinator.

Most important, the target audience was approached with respect, and given sound reasons for joining the program. They were not accused of polluting the water (after all, nonpoint source pollution comes from everyone). It was assumed that the polls were right when they said that 75% of Americans would help clean up our environment if they knew how. The volunteer participants enjoyed meeting their neighbors, they appreciated the technical assistance of our experts, and they took pride in doing the right thing for their community. By recognizing their individual differences, listening to their interests and needs, and responding with a variety of educational approaches, it has been possible to educate a significant portion of this new audience.


Coffman, C.W., & Watkins, S. M., (1991) "Getting the right stuff into the right hands", Journal of Extension, 29 (Spring),.23-25

Obahayujie, J., & and Hillison, J. (1988) "Now hear this!", Journal of Extension, 26 (Spring), 21-22.

Ritter, E.M., & Welch, D. T., (1988) Reaching and teaching: A study in audience targeting", Journal of Extension, 26 (Fall), 5 - 7.