October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA3

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Beginning Farmer Education in Iowa: Implications to Extension

A needs assessment of beginning farmer education in Iowa with implications to Extension is described in this article. Beginning farmers viewed Extension as a major educational provider. These farmers rated experiential learning, problem solving, and critical thinking as important skills in the future. Using a variety of instructional techniques, including cutting-edge technologies, for program delivery were preferred. Programs related to the "business management of farming rated very high as current and future topics. these results support current and future program efforts by extension in beginning farmer education, particularly for programs delivered at the local

Larry D. Trede
Associate Professor
Internet address: trede@iastate.edu

Scott Whitaker
Graduate Assistant
Internet address: scottw@iastate.edu

Agricultural Education and Studies
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa


Extension is a major educational provider in adult and continuing education, particularly for agricultural audiences. The advent of computers and the information age has caused a knowledge explosion and created a continuing need for unbiased information available through Extension education.

One of the most important clientele for Extension programs is beginning farmers. Education for beginning farmers has become critical in recent years. Recent census data indicates that an increasing number of beginning farmers will be needed to replace those who exit farming. In Iowa, Lasley (1996) reported that approximately 16,000 new farmers will be needed to replace retiring farmers. Extension, therefore, has the challenge of providing education and information to these beginning farmers.

Future Extension program planning and delivery is expected to place more emphasis on the educational outcomes of its clientele and continuing as a facilitator in the teaching/learning process. Meier (1989) concluded, "In the 1990's [Extension's] emphasis will be shifted to discovery learning, problem-solving, and application skills." Jones (1992) argued that one of the essential needs of Extension clientele is critical thinking that will help them solve problems and make decisions, and that for Extension to continue as a viable adult education organization, it must incorporate critical thinking and problem-solving skills into its curriculum.

Changes in agricultural technology have already altered Extension program delivery methods. The Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) make the latest information available via computers and modems. Even though meetings and on-site instruction have been long time favorites of Extension, these face-to-face contacts as a primary delivery method have diminished. However, there will always be a need for personal interaction. New delivery methods will serve as a supplement to, not a replacement for, proven existing methods. Forest (1989) says that "Perhaps the single most difficult challenge facing Extension with its new clientele, needs, and methods, however, is dealing with the transition itself-that is, getting from the past traditions and expectations to the future."

Seevers, Grahm, Gamon & Conklin (1995) concluded that Extension role's in the future will continue to be one of facilitation and education. They predicted that the major program areas (agriculture, family and consumer, youth, and community) will not change.


This study was designed to determine the educational needs of beginning farmers in Iowa. Data were collected by a self- administered mailed questionnaire sent to 286 randomly selected beginning farmers who had received a beginning farmer loan from the Iowa Agricultural Development Authority (IADA) between 1992 and 1996. Established in 1981, the IADA assists Iowa farmers in financing the purchase of agricultural land, depreciable machinery or equipment, breeding livestock, and buildings. Loan applicants must be at least 18 years old, cannot own more than 30 percent of the county's median farm size, and have a net worth of no more than $200,000.

The survey instrument contained sections dealing with the current and future usefulness of educational providers and educational media, perceptions of beginning farmers with respect to the delivery of beginning farmer education, perceptions of general beginning farmer education topics, and current and future usefulness of selected agricultural topics. Responses were received from 138 beginning farmers for a 48% response rate.


All farm operators were male with an average age of 34 years and 14 years of formal education (high school plus 2 years of college). Sixty-four percent of the farmers responding had at least some college education. More than 50% of the beginning farmers were less than 34 years of age while only 6.5% were over 44 years old. Additionally, 97% were raised on a farm, and over 90% of the respondents' parents were farmers. More than 60% of the beginning farmers were farming with their parents, in-laws, or other relatives. The farm operators averaged 51 hours per week working on the farm and 32.5 hours per week working off the farm. Spouses of the farm operators averaged 18 hours and 37 hours per week, respectively. The predominant business arrangement for the farming operation included owning some land and leasing some land and/or facilities from others (57%). Just over two-thirds of the beginning farmers reported having access to a computer. However, less than 30% reported having a fax machine, using electronic mail, or subscribing to an on-line computer service.

Crops, swine, and beef cattle were the predominant farming enterprises. Nearly 50% of the farmers were farming less than 320 acres; approximately one-fourth were farming more than 640 acres. Forty-two percent of the farmers reported gross sales of less than $100,000 as contrasted to 32% with gross sales of more than $200,000. Approximately 28% of the farm operators reported a gross family income of less than $40,000 per year, and nearly three-fourths reported a gross family income of more than $60,000 per year.

Beginning farmers expressed a high level of agreement for experiential learning, production agriculture skill development, and hands-on problem-solving. Respondents also agreed that problem-solving involving mental activities (critical thinking) should be used and that a variety of teaching methods should be incorporated into their education.

Respondents supported lifelong learning and thought that a variety of information sources should be consulted to solve complex farming problems. Regarding the delivery of beginning farmer education, they supported the idea of on-site instruction, single-issue meetings, and consulting public institutions for unbiased information. However, beginning farmers preferred not to travel more than one hour for educational meetings and they did not prefer educational meetings taught by fiber optic, satellite, or similar communications systems.

Several different types of educational providers and media were identified. Table 1 shows the respondents' perceptions regarding the future usefulness of these media and providers. Respondents indicated a strong desire to receive information from parents, siblings, and relatives, followed by Extension. Beginning farmers felt that agricultural consultants, farm organizations and agribusiness and commercial firms would be useful to them in the future.

For educational media, they rated radio as being the most useful in the future, followed by informational services. Marketing services and newspapers were also considered to be important as future educational media.

Table 1 Respondents' Perceptions Regarding the Future Usefulness of Various Educational Providers and Media in Iowa
Educational Provider:
Parents, siblings, and relatives 4.11 0.97
Extension 3.71 1.01
Agricultural consultants 3.57 1.04
Farm organizations 3.56 0.91
Agribusiness and commercial farms 3.50 1.07
Commodity organizations 3.43 1.04
Government agencies (FSA, NRCS) 3.39 1.15
Community colleges 3.37 1.16
High school agricultural programs 3.10 1.27
Iowa State credit courses 3.08 1.10
Iowa State non-credit courses 3.05 0.99
Educational Media:
Radio 3.83 0.89
Informational services (Farm Dayta, Ag Cast) 3.80 1.02
Marketing services 3.68 0.97
Newspaper 3.63 0.99
Television 3.45 1.12
Extension service pamphlets 3.44 1.08
Satellite dish 3.39 0.99
Internet-World Wide Web (WWW) 3.23 1.19
Video Tapes 3.17 1.09
Home study packets 3.14 1.01
Farm packets 3.13 0.99
Fiber optics network (ICN) 3.08 0.99
Audio Tapes 2.80 1.09
Note. Response scale: 1=not useful; 2=limited usefulness; 3=no opinion; 4=useful; 5=extremely useful

Beginning farmers rated forty-seven agricultural program topics as to their current and future importance to them in their farming and agricultural careers (Table 2).

Record-keeping and management systems analysis were rated highest for both current and future importance. Farm markets/marketing strategies also rated highest in future importance. Soil fertility/tillage practices and weed/pest/disease management were ranked second and third in terms of current importance, while farm markets and marketing strategies and soil fertility rated third in future importance. In fact, the top five topics in current importance were also the top five topics in future importance.

It is interesting to note that many of the highly rated current and future important program topics dealt with the "business side" of farming rather than the production technologies. This demonstrates the need for programming in farm business analysis and planning.

Table 2
Respondents' Perceptions Regarding the Current and Future
Importance of Selected Agricultural Program Topics for
Beginning Farmer Education
Mean Rank Mean Rank
Record keeping/management systems analysis 4.43 1 4.52 1
Farm markets/marketing strategies 4.33 5 4.52 1
Soil fertility/tillage systems 4.38 2 4.50 3
Weed/pest/disease management 4.38 3 4.50 3
Financial and credit planning 4.35 4 4.46 5
Retirement planning 4.12 14 4.44 6
Estate planning/transferring assets 4.14 13 4.40 7
Organization and business planning 4.25 6 4.39 8
Machinery selection/calibration/maintenance 4.23 9 4.38 9
Soil and water conservation 4.23 8 4.35 10
Income tax planning 4.24 7 4.34 11
Farm and family goal setting 4.22 10 4.32 12
Technology transfer/new innovations in agriculture 4.09 15 4.28 13
Drying/storage/preservation systems of crops 4.18 11 4.27 14
Water/air/environmental issues 4.09 15 4.24 15
livestock health/disease management 4.18 12 4.24 15
Livestock waste and odor management 4.02 19 4.22 17
Farm asset acquisition 4.05 17 4.20 18
Livestock feeds/feeding/nutrition 4.04 18 4.15 19
Principles of investments 3.98 20 4.15 19
Computer applications in farm/business management 3.90 24 4.14 21
Agricultural power and safety 3.97 21 4.10 22
Agricultural marketing/food trade policies 3.90 24 4.09 23
Government and legal issues in agriculture 3.97 21 4.09 23
Facilities construction and management 3.90 24 4.08 25
Crop systems analysis/precision farming 3.64 34 4.06 26
Enterprise cost analysis 3.97 21 4.06 26
Speciality crop/crop varieties/crop breeding 3.75 30 4.03 28
Computer applications in facilities and equipment 3.71 32 4.02 29
Computer applications in crop production 3.67 33 4.02 29
Teaching and learning in agriculture 3.88 29 4.00 31
Biotechnology in crop production 3.74 31 4.00 31
Meats and meat quality 3.90 24 4.00 31
Communications in a multi-generational farming unit 3.90 24 4.00 31
Note: Only those topics that rated 4.0 or higher in future
importance are reported. Rating scale: l=not important, 2=little
importance, 3=no opinion, 4=important; 5=extremely important

Even though swine and beef cattle were the predominant livestock enterprises on these farms, program topics related to livestock were not rated nearly as high as those related to crops and management. The beginning farmers rated technology transfer and new innovations in agriculture as having some importance to them in the future. Likewise, they felt that soil and water conservation and environmental concerns were important current and future topics.

Conclusions and Implications

From this study, several conclusions and implications for Extension can be made regarding beginning farmer education in Iowa and Extension's role in the delivery of beginning farmer education:

  1. Beginning farmers rely heavily upon parents, siblings, and relatives as a source of information. Extension has an opportunity to provide educational activities involving both groups in one setting.

  2. Beginning farmers looked positively towards Extension as an educational provider; therefore, Extension should consider expanding its educational services to this group.

  3. Beginning farmers rely upon agricultural consultants, farm organizations, and agribusiness firms for information. Extension, traditionally, has collaborated with these providers and should continue to do so since beginning farmers are being reached by these providers.

  4. Radio and informational services were highly rated as future educational media useful to beginning farmers. Up-to-date and timely information has traditionally been provided by Extension using these media and should continue in the future.

  5. Beginning farmers preferred a variety of instructional methods used by educational providers. They also prefer single- issue meetings, and not traveling more than one hour to receive educational information. These preferences stress the importance of strong Extension programs delivered at the local level.

  6. Beginning farmers stressed the importance of experiential learning, hands-on problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. These findings strongly support the conclusions of Jones(1992) and Meir (1989) regarding Extension program planning and delivery.

  7. This study indicates that beginning farmers would rather receive information verbally (radio, TV, and information services) rather than in printed form (pamphlets, study guides, etc.). Allocating more Extension resources to instantaneous information might be more appropriate for many of the agricultural program topics identified by beginning farmers.

  8. Because beginning farmers expressed "no opinion" on the future usefulness of cutting edge instructional technologies, Extension, particularly at the local level, should develop programs that explain and demonstrate the use of the Internet, World Wide Web (WWW), on-line computer services, satellite dishes, and the fiber optics network.

  9. Current research indicates that face-to-face contact and/or on-site instruction has diminished as the primary Extension delivery method. Extension staff members will be challenged in the future on how to deliver agricultural program topics rated as highly important using these new cutting-edge technologies.

  10. Because this study shows the importance of Extension as an educational provider, Extension program planning processes should include the educational needs, as identified by beginning farmers, in that process as programs are being planned.

  11. Marketing services were also important to beginning farmers as an educational source. Extension should explore additional opportunities to work cooperatively with these sources in the delivery of farm marketing and marketing strategies information.

  12. Beginning farmers rated agricultural program topics related to the "business of farming" as being important or highly important. For Extension, this points out the need for strong educational programming in such areas as record-keeping, farm marketing, financial and credit planning, retirement planning, and estate planning.

This research shows that Extension can have a dominant role in the planning and delivery of education for beginning farmers. Working with this clientele presents a challenge to Extension in terms of using cutting edge instructional technologies in the delivery of programs at the local level.


Forest, L. (1989). The Cooperative Extension Service. (In S. Merriam & P. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp.332- 343). Washington, DC: American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

Jones, J. (1992). Teaching clientele what or how to think- Strategies to foster critical thinking in clientele. Journal of Extension, 30(1) 4 pages. [Online]. Available: http://www.joe.org/00/joe/1992spring/a2.

Lasley, P. (1996). Iowa farm and rural life poll. Ames: Iowa State University, Department of Sociology.

Meier, H.A. (1989) Extension trends and directions- Historical patterns with future necessary changes. Journal of Extension, 27(3) 5 pages. [Online]. Available: http://www.joe.org/00/joe/1989fall/a3.

Seevers, B., Graham, D., Gamon, J., and Conklin, N. (1995). Education through Cooperative Extension. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

*Journal paper No. J-17791 of the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, Ames, Iowa, Project No. 3374, and supported by the Hatch Act and State of Iowa funds.