Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) Delphi Survey on Sustainable Agriculture and On-Farm Research

Nancy Grudens-Schuck and Elena Polush, Faculty and P&S, Ag Education & Studies


Over the last 15 years, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) has helped farmers conduct more than 650 on-farm research trials on various topics ranging from crops to livestock to horticulture. This research shared the goal of making farming more profitable and more ecologically sound by involving farmers more directly in the agricultural research process. The leaders of the organization were interested in learning about and prioritizing on-farm research needs, ideas, and topic areas that the members and non-members had. In a situation of finite resources and continued interest in diversification of the agricultural producers, the leaders of the organization have to pay careful attention to operational priorities and make wise choices in regard to funding opportunities, funds allocation, and partnership building. There has been a long history of working relationships between PFI and the College of Agriculture. Both organizations shared the interest to improve on-farm operation, diversify agricultural production, and sustain rural communities. To strengthen the established partnership was viewed as critical to a continued and mutually beneficial collaboration between the two organizations. The faculty involved graduate students to gain research experience and learn application skills by working on the project conceptualization, design, and implementation and engaging in dialogical relationships with the stakeholders. The study was proposed at the inaugural meeting of the ISU-PFI Advisory Group.


The goal of the study was to provide the leadership of the Practical Farmer of Iowa (PFI) with a basis to guide the members' decisions in regard to how and where to focus on- farm research efforts. The specific objective of the survey was to generate and prioritize high quality ideas for on-farm research for sustainable agricultural production.


The nature of the study was a needs assessment. The research was grounded on a participatory action methodology that emphasized (1) the value of stakeholders' inclusion; (2) the construction of collaboration between a research team and the PFI representatives through the processes of defining goals, choosing methods, analyzing data, and using findings, (3) the power of knowledge production and use; (4) the importance of meaningful construction through shared beliefs and experiences; and (5) the significance of empowering people through the process of shared power and ownership. The study utilized a survey method. The survey employed the Delphi technique, which required the participants to respond to two different types of questionnaires. The two-step process first asked respondents to provide ideas for on-farm research. These ideas became the basis for the second questionnaire. The same respondents ranked the ideas in the second survey. Both rounds of survey were mailed. Individuals responded individually, independently, and confidentially, as per the Delphi survey methodology and the ISU Committee on Human Subjects. The study was conducted from February to August 2004. The first round of the survey generated over 132 research ideas related to on-farm research related to sustainable agriculture. The first survey was sent to 43 individuals in Iowa, all of them deeply committed to, and engaged in, thinking about or practicing agricultural research. Most were actively farming at the time. The sample included 31 regular (farming) members of PFI, six ISU researchers, and six farmers who were not members of PFI. The sample from PFI included crops-only, livestock-only, and combined crop and livestock operations; horticulture (market garden or vegetable); and operations that produced some agroforestry products. Non PFI members represented different regions of the state and of unknown commodity. Twenty-four usable surveys from the first round were returned, yielding a return rate of 56%. Livestock-only farmers (7) did not respond to the first round of the survey. The second questionnaire was sent to 24 first-round respondents. The second asked respondents to rank 77 research topics in six categories. The rate of return for the second was 92%. The second round asked respondents to identify the top 4-6 research ideas (depending on the size of the category). The collaborative team of researchers and PFI representatives analyzed the data generated in both rounds of the survey. The findings were shared with the participants of the survey. The survey results were presented at the farmer-researcher collaborative learning meeting of Advisory Group that included a representative of PFI leadership, the College of Agriculture administration, and faculty with research and extension appointments. A press release memo was prepared by the researchers to be used by PFI to broadly communicate the results of the study by posting the information on the organization website and sharing the document with the PFI Board. The findings were shared at the PFI Cooperators meeting that employed a focus group approach to structuring group interaction, generating collective feedback, and constructing the organizational meaning of the findings to stimulate further actions.


The study contributed to PFI organizational capacity building by providing the members and leaders of the organization with concrete and prioritized ideas organized in distinct categories that were reflective of on-farm specializations and represented the needs of various producers that comprise the organization. It served as a model of building partnership between researchers, extension specialists, and practitioners (farmers) in the state of Iowa. It engaged administrators, researchers, and members in a dialogue in relation to on-farm research needs and priorities. It allowed the members of organization to have their voices heard and jointly co-construct the meaning of the study. This participatory-action research will lead to shared value and utilization of the findings guiding the PFI and Iowa State University collaborative processes of on-farm research priority setting and decision making. PFI leaders will make informed decisions pertaining to allocating organizational resources. In seeking extramural funding, the PFI members will be able to better link their needs with the specific objectives of potential funding sources. Utilization of the study results by: 1. 44 participants of the study, that included PFI members and non-members; 2. Estimated 10 members of the PFI Board of Directors; 3. Over 600 members of PFI; 4. 40 participants of the PFI Cooperators Meeting; 5. 4 administrators of the College of Agriculture; 6. 8 members- participants in the farmer-researcher collaborative learning meeting of the Advisory Board; 7. 4 departments in the college of agriculture; 8. Approximately 10 participants in Agricultural Research Service planning team of the Soil Resource Management Workshop; 9. 10 graduate students in AGEDS 660 class; 10. 20 participants (estimate) in the round-table discussion at the 2005 American Evaluation Association annual meeting.

101 - Agricultural Strategic Management

Page last updated: July 2, 2006
Page maintained by Linda Schultz,