October 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB2

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The Use of Focus Group Interviews to Evaluate Agriculture Educational Materials for Students, Teachers, and Consumers

In Pennsylvania, surveys were used to identify and rank public concerns regarding animal agriculture. Educational materials were developed to address the identified concerns, primarily food safety and environmental issues. To evaluate the materials developed, focus group discussions were conducted. The objectives were to determine if these materials adequately address the concerns, to identify target audiences, and to assess possible methods of dissemination. Participants included members of the public, teachers, and livestock producers. The discussions resulted in data that more than adequately met the stated objectives. They also provided valuable insight into the perceptions and attitudes of both livestock producers and non-farming participants.

Patricia A. Nordstrom
Project Assistant
Dairy and Animal Science Department
Internet address: pxn105@psu.edu

Lowell L. Wilson
Professor Emeritus of Animal Science

Timothy W. Kelsey
Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics

Audrey N. Maretzki
Professor of Food Science

Charles W. Pitts
Professor of Entomology
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


Only a small percentage of today's population is involved in production agriculture. This is possible because of the advances made in the fields of biology, genetics, and chemistry, and the practical application of these advances by agricultural scientists. However, as a result of the smaller agricultural population, the agricultural literacy of the general public is at a very low level.

This, in turn, leads to the public's questioning of agricultural production methods, animal well-being in farm animal systems, the environmental impact of agriculture, the utilization efficiency of resources in agriculture, and the safety of the food supply. It also possibly contributes to agriculture's poor image (Coulter, 1985; Guither & Curtis, 1983; Jamison & Lunch, 1992; Mallory & Summer, 1986).

Many rural areas are experiencing population growths, and many of these new rural residents are unfamiliar with agriculture and do not know what to expect in farming communities. At the same time, agricultural production is becoming more concentrated. This increases the amount of manure and the potential for problems with such things as odors, flies, and groundwater contamination. The combination of these two trends has led to conflicts (Jones, et al., 2000).

Primary concerns the public has about animal agriculture are food safety and environmental issues (Nordstrom, et al., 1999). To address these concerns, educational materials were developed. According to Mawby (1984), "by educating Americans in the wise management of food supplies and related renewable resources, we can anticipate more knowledgeable decision-making about agriculture in the future."

Purposes and Objectives

The purpose of conducting the focus group discussions was to evaluate educational materials about animal agriculture. The objectives were to:

  • Ascertain if the materials developed adequately addressed the identified concerns of the public regarding animal agriculture;
  • Determine the audiences most suitable for the materials; and
  • Identify effective methods of dissemination.

Methods and Procedures

Using focus groups to evaluate publications, slide shows, and videos allows participants to view and react to materials, making it possible to obtain insights that would not have surfaced in other forms of research (Sevier, 1989). Five focus group discussions were conducted in the current study. Calder (1977) recommends that when "trying to get someone's perspective" and there is a high degree of moderator-imposed structure, only a few groups (three to four) are necessary.

Random purposive sampling was used to choose the individuals to participate in the focus groups. According to Lincoln & Guba (1985), the intent is not to generalize to a broad audience. Individuals who had previously been involved (completed a survey in an early part of the study) in the project were invited to participate in the focus groups. Individuals were randomly chosen from those who had responded to the invitation.

Participants were given the option of meeting during the day or in the evenings and were assigned to groups based on those preferences. The discussions were held at restaurants, and either lunch or dessert and coffee were provided, depending on the time of the discussion. The materials were mailed to the participants 2 weeks prior to the discussion to allow them to read the materials and formulate comments.

The focus groups were conducted by a moderator and assistant moderator. To preclude the introduction of bias into the discussion, the moderator had no formal association with the project (Erlander, et al., 1993). The materials to be evaluated and the list of discussion questions were provided to the moderator 2 weeks prior to the scheduled discussions. To allow first-hand knowledge of the discussion, the assistant moderator was one of the project researchers who subsequently would be involved with the data analysis.

The focus group discussions were audio-recorded, with notes also taken by the assistant moderator. At the conclusion of each discussion, the moderator and assistant moderator reviewed the discussion and notes.

Analysis of focus group data follows a prescribed, sequential process that is verifiable and that permits researchers to arrive at similar conclusions (Krueger, 1988). Analysis begins with considering the original intent of the study. If the study is narrow, then elaborate analysis may not be necessary. Krueger (1988) suggests considering analysis as a continuum consisting of raw data (statements made by the participants), descriptives (summary statements of the respondents' comments), and interpretation (building on the summary statements and presenting the meaning of the data).

After the tapes and notes were transcribed, the transcripts were reviewed for similar ideas and themes. Morgan (1988) feels a theme is verified when two or more groups include it in their discussion. A summary report was complied from the review of the transcripts.


Adequacy of Materials

Did the materials adequately address the concerns of the individuals? Food safety was identified as a primary concern, and the educational materials addressed these issues by discussing the recent Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) legislation enacted by the federal government; the farm-to-table continuum of animal-based food products; and the steps that consumers can take to ensure they are not causing contamination by improper handling. The consensus among the groups was that the materials did address their concerns, but that there was too much information provided at one time.

Suggestions included dividing the information into modules and adding additional graphics to increase readability. Livestock producers felt that more information was needed to explain the steps they take to ensure they are providing a safe, high-quality, wholesome product to the consumer. Producers also suggested more emphasis be placed on the various intermediate steps food products go through after leaving the farm and before reaching the consumer. Producers maintained that the public was generally unaware of the logistics of moving food from the farm to consumers.

Availability of Materials

There was agreement among the groups that the educational materials should be available to all sectors of society. The focus groups felt the materials presented to them were suitable, but strongly recommended the above-mentioned revisions. The suggestion was to make the information available not only as stand-alone material for older students and adults, but also as a study guide for elementary and middle school science teachers.

As a reflection of the strong feelings that everyone should have access to this information, it was mentioned that elementary and middle school students were being left out, thereby creating a void of science-based information about agriculture. Several of the producers expressed their concern that younger students were not knowledgeable about agriculture. Further, participants felt that placing an emphasis on educating students in their early stages of education (elementary and middle school) could reduce the efforts necessary to educate adult members of the public.

Dissemination of Materials

The focus groups were asked how to make this material available. For school-age children, natural channels of dissemination, such as schools, in-school 4-H programs, and county Extension offices, were discussed. Because there are no mandatory educational requirements for adults, providing them with information would require different dissemination methods. Use of the media (television, radio, newspapers) was recommended as a dissemination tool. Suggestions included distribution at supermarkets, agricultural fairs, and county Extension offices, as well as through news releases, articles in local newspapers, and inclusion with animal-based food products.


The use of focus groups proved to be a valuable tool in this project. Not only were the objectives met through the data collected during the discussion, but insight was also gained about (1) how livestock producers feel they are perceived by the public and (2) how the public perceives the agricultural industry.

This study demonstrated that livestock producers and non-farm individuals feel very strongly about the need for science-based information about agriculture. It also underscored the point that the materials must not be biased, or they will be deemed "propaganda" and discounted by the target audience.

Further, if an increase in agriculture literacy and awareness is the objective, the study revealed that educational materials should be developed for all sectors of society, though targeting youth should be a goal. Middle-school-age children appear to have already shaped their perceptions of agriculture (Holtz-Claus & Jost, 1995), making it important for agricultural education programs to start in elementary schools. This can be achieved by wider use and enhancement of the in-school 4-H programs. A continuing effort should be made by Extension personnel to include in-school 4-H programs in the science curricula of elementary schools.

Though the project was identified to the participants as a study being conducted with partial funding by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, several of the non-farm participants indicated that their first impression of the project was that it was anti-agriculture. These non-farm participants defended agriculture as an industry, maintained that livestock producers are valuable members of society, and expressed admiration for the dedication it took for livestock producers to continue to work in an area as uncertain as agriculture. This was in contrast to the opinion of many of the producers, who felt that the public did not appreciate what they were doing and the difficulties they face.

Though differences in perceptions between farm and non-farm populations were not specifically examined in this phase of the project, the researchers found this phenomenon significant and believe it would be an interesting area to study in the future.


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