Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE)

Reading the Farm: Ag Agents Learn About Sustainability as a System


Farmers and ranchers know that sustainable agriculture is defined by a system of connected parts rather than individual practices. Last month, the SARE/NACAA Fellows visited two diversified New Hampshire farms where this principle was reinforced through the Reading the Farm program.

Reading the Farm encouraged Fellows to look at the farms as a sum of many parts. 'Slowly taking an in-depth look at two farming operations with the guidance of extension specialists was the best model of professional development I have partaken in. Training in holistic farm assessment is incredibly valuable,' says Fellow and Oregon State Extension agent Maud Powell.

Reading the Farm offers a rich, flexible training model for Extension educators to improve their knowledge and skills in whole-farm analysis and interdisciplinary problem-solving, skills essential for helping farmers improve sustainability. Originally developed through a 2006 Northeast SARE grant in Connecticut, the program has been successfully conducted 11 times in six Northeastern states. It can be conducted with any farm in any context because each farm is a system that presents an open-ended case for study.

The SARE/NACAA Fellowship is a two-year professional development program on sustainable agriculture for Extension specialists who are members of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA). Each of the eight Fellows comes from a different area of the country, bringing diverse backgrounds and skill sets to the learning environment.

'Reading the Farm showcased the value that comes from interdisciplinary collaboration—we could explore sustainability while benefiting from each participant's area of expertise,' noted Fellow and University of Florida Extension agent Laura Warner. 'Spending a few days with farmers, their families and their businesses led us to an understanding of the challenges and dynamics that contribute to site-specific sustainability.'

Fellows plan to apply this perspective to their own programming back home. 'The training I received is going to make me a better educator—I will look at the whole-farm systems and change the way I develop educational events and programs,' says Fellow Nathan Winter of University of Minnesota Extension.

To learn more about the Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program, including program highlights and how to apply, visit

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