6. o I
REPORT NO. 372
INFORMATION NEEDS AND SOURCES FOR
MICHIGAN SMALL FARM OPERATORS
Ralph E. Hepp
Thomas M. Olson
MSU is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Institution
INFORMATION NEEDS AND SOURCES FOR
MICHIGAN SMALL FARM OPERATORS
Ralph E. Hepp and Thomas M. Olson*
Farmers have many needs for information in the management of their
farm and home. The problem solving or management process assumes that
information is gathered to further define and develop alternative solu-
tions to problems. The analysis of these alternatives leads to better
decision making choices for farm managers to achieve income and other goals
established by the family.
Providing information to farm families is one function of the
Michigan Cooperative Extension. It conducts educational programs for
farmers oriented toward helping people solve current problems and future
challenges. If high quality, effective Extension programs are to be
offered, the farm audiences need to be differentiated and specific pro-
grams tailored to each audience's need. Small farm operators are one
Extension audience for agricultural programs that need programs designed
for their unique problems and challenges. This study of the information
needs and sources for Michigan small farm operators is one attempt to
improve the educational programs for all farmers, especially small farm
*Professor and former Research Assistant, Department of Agricultural
Economics, Michigan State University.
Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station Journal Article No. 9338.
Importance of Small Farms in Michigan Agriculture
The 1974 Census of Agriculture defines a farm as any operation gross-
ing over $1,000 in agricultural products sales. In 1974, 85 percent or
54,437 Michigan farms were small while 6,848 or 11 percent were medium and
4 percent or 2,809 were large. Farm size is defined by agricultural
products sales with small farms grossing under $40,000, medium farms
grossing between $40,000 and $100,000, and large farms grossing over
Small farm operators are farm owners, operate on a small scale, are
usually debt free, and depend partially upon farm income for their liveli-
hood. The objectives for the farm are more diverse than larger farmers
since most medium and large farm operators are farming full-time and obtain
the majority of the family income from the farm. In a previous research
study, interviews with Michigan small farm operators resulted in catego-
rizing farmers to better understand the motivation for the small farm.
Three groups were identified: 1) part-time farmers, 2) part-retired farm-
ers, and 3) full-time small farm operators. Forty-eight percent of the
Michigan small farm operators are part-time farmers, nineteen percent are
part-retired farmers, and thirty-three percent are small full-time farm
Small farm operations are significant contributors to Michigan's
agricultural production. Farmers on small farms cultivate almost two-
thirds of the agricultural land and harvest over 60 percent of the hay,
soybeans and wheat crops; one-half of the corn; and one-third of the fruits
Description and Analysis of Michigan Small Farms, Research Report
296, Agricultural Experiment Station, Michigan State University, East
and vegetables. They produce over one-half of the beef feeder calves and
sheep and lambs, over one-third of the milk and pork, and 10 percent of the
Objective for the Study
The purpose of the study was an examination of one aspect of the farm
management process relevant to farmers in relation to the education and
information distribution systems of the Cooperative Extension Service.
More specifically, this study examined that part of the decision making
process of farm management which involves observation, or information
gathering, and the role of the Cooperative Extension Service in distribut-
ing information, providing educational programs and initiating change
among farmers. Specific objectives are:
1. To examine the sources of information used by small farm opera-
tors in Michigan;
2. To examine the importance of various types of information as
perceived by small farm operators and County Extension Agents;
3. To examine alternative informational delivery systems that the
Cooperative Extension Service could utilize in reaching small
SURVEY DESIGN AND DATA COLLECTION
In view of the objectives of this research and the lack of available
secondary data, it was decided to develop a questionnaire and sample a
portion of farmers through a mail survey. This was complemented with
personal interviews with six county Cooperative Extension Directors.
Since there was no list of small farmers in the state, and some comparisons
were to be made with larger farms, the target population for the survey was
all farm operators. The most complete listing of the farm population was
maintained by the Agricultural Conservation and Stabilization Service of
the United States Department of Agriculture, but only at the county level.
Special permission was obtained at both the state and federal levels to use
the county ASCS lists of farmers.
A stratified two-stage random sample was chosen with the state divid-
ed into six regions based on the current supervisory districts of the
Cooperative Extension Service. One county was randomly chosen from each
region and a sample of farmers chosen from the county. The farm numbers by
district and the county selected for surveying are shown in Table 1. A
sample size of 800 was decided upon based on financial resources available,
the types of statistical tests to be used (mainly chi squares), and an
estimated return rate of 40 percent. The number of farms chosen per county
was based on the percentage of farms in the region.
Table 1. Michigan Cooperative Extension Service Districts, Number of
Farms* and County Selected
Michigan Cooperative Number of i
Upper Peninsula 2,355
West Central 10,675
East Central 17,326
*The number of farms was taken from
arms County farms in the
the 1974 Census of Agriculture, Michigan.
Of the 800 questionnaires mailed, 468 were returned, or 58.5%. How-
ever, 238 of these were from people who did not operate a farm, had
recently retired, rented out the farm, or had sold the farm. Since these
were not farm operators and not part of the target population, their
numbers were subtracted from the original sample size for a reduced sample
size of 562 (800 less 238). Of the remaining responses, twelve were not
usable (2%) and 218 were usable for a response rate of 39 percent. Usable
questionnaires by size of operation were 168 small farms, 33 medium farms,
and 17 large farms.
Comparison of the Survey Respondents and the 1974 Census of Agriculture
The survey results closely represented the Census when the Census and
the survey data were divided by income groups (Table 2). Large farms were
slightly overrepresented in the sample; however, a statistical test indi-
cated no significant difference between the Census and the survey percent-
ages at the 5 percent confidence level.
Table 2. Comparison of Research Sample with 1974 Census of Agriculture by
Gross Farm Income
Gross Farm Sales
Number Percent Number Percent
of of of of
farms farms farms farms
over $100,000 2,809 4 17 8
$40,000 to $99,000 6,848 11 30 14
$20,000 to $39,999 7,828 12 29 14
$10,000 to $19,999 9,393 15 25 12
$ 5,000 to $ 9,999 10,412 16 25 12
$ 2,500 to $ 4,999 8,420 13 34 16
under $2,500 18,360 29 51 24
64,070 100 211 100
aDoes not include farms reporting sales less
having the potential resources on hand to produce
(see p. A-5, 1974 Census of Agriculture).
than $1,000 and not
$1,000 or more in sales
Seven respondents did not answer this question.
Information Needs and Sources Reported by
the Sample of Farmers
The problem solving decision model shows a close connection between
problem definition and the search for information. The type of information
being searched and the source of information depends upon the problem or
decision being considered. Farmers were asked different types of ques-
tions to ascertain their information needs and sources. The responses to
these questions are analyzed in this section of the report.
Important Farm Problems
One part of the questionnaire included statements about specific
problems. Forty-four farm and home problems were presented and the respon-
dents were asked to indicate how important each particular problem had been
in terms of their experience.2 A rating scale from one (not important at
all) to five (very important) was used in measuring the degree of impor-
tance the respondent attached to the problems.
Table 3 gives a ranking of the ten most important problems as per-
ceived by farmers in various farm size categories based on the mean rating
of the respondents. The problem which farmers in all groups seemed to
consider most important was prices of farm products. The rankings varied,
but six of the ten most important problems were common to each farm group.
Besides farm prices, the common problems include record keeping, fertili-
zer use, tax, insects and disease and marketing farm products.
Importance of Information
One of the objectives of this study was to examine the importance of
various types of information as perceived by small farm operators. As
stated earlier, the type of information being searched by a farmer depends
upon the problem or problems being considered. It follows that the impor-
tance that a farmer attaches to certain types of information also depends
upon the importance he attaches to the problem for which the information is
needed. Thus, by looking at the perceived importance of various types of
problems, inferences can be made regarding the perceived importance of
various types of information.
2he questions are listed in Appendix A.
The questions are listed in Appendix A.
Table 3. Ranking of Ten Most Important Problems as Perceived
of Different Size Categories by Mean Rating
Rank Question Mean
1 How to get better prices for your 4.94 94
2 Keeping up-to-date with records and 4.81 94
3 Figuring costs and returns on a busi- 4.48 100
4 Finding the best place to borrow 4.24 100
money for the farm
5 Whether or not to buy a new piece 4.18 100
5 Figuring out how much fertilizer to 4.18 100
5 How to figure out income tax 4.18 100
8 Problems with insects or disease 4.12 100
9 Not knowing when to sell your farm 3.94 100
9 Finding a good farm employee 3.94 100
1 How to get better prices for your farm 4.58 87
2 How to figure out income tax 4.20 83
3 Finding the best place to borrow money 4.19 87
from the farm
4 Problems with insects and disease 4.18 93
5 Not knowing when to sell your farm 4.04 90
6 Whether or not to buy a new piece of 4.00 93
6 Figuring out how much fertilizer to 4.00 90
6 How to cut down on the heating bill? 4.00 90
9 What crops to plant next year 3.96 87
9 Keeping up-to-date with the records 3.96 83
and farm accounts
Table 3. (continued)
Rank Question Ratinga Percent
1 How to get better prices for your farm 4.48 83
2 How to cut down on the heating bill? 4.01 86
3 Keeping up-to-date with the records 3.99 84
and farm accounts
4 Personal or family health concerns 3.95 85
5 Figuring out how much fertilizer to 3.90 87
6 How to figure out income tax 3.88 83
7 Not knowing when to sell your farm 3.87 85
8 Problems with insects and disease 3.76 87
9 Political issues (school bonds,
highways, etc.) 3.73 84
10 How to raise children properly? 3.71 78
aRatings range from 1 (not important at all) to 5 (very important).
Farm management research reveals that there are three broad areas of
information; technical, institutional and human. Production information
is a part of the technical type and differs from new technology only in the
time dimension. While it is true that real-world problems typically
require all types of information, certain problems seem to require more of
one type of information than other types of information. This is true of
most of the problems listed. The problems were designed so that they could
be classified as technical, institutional, and human so that analysis
could be performed. In addition, there were a number of problems which
could not be easily classified (Appendix A).
Table 4 shows the aggregate responses to the technical questions in
terms of perceived importance with a positive relationship shown by farm
size. In general, large farmers tend to perceive of technical information
as being very important more frequently than small farmers. Likewise,
small farmers tended to respond that technical problems are "not important
at all" more frequently than large farmers.
Table 4. Perceived Importance of Technical Information by Farm Size
Important 2 3 4 Very Total
at All Important
Large No. 62 13 30 37 105 247
% 25.1 5.3 12.1 15.0 42.5 100
Medium No. 89 12 69 62 157 389
% 22.9 3.1 17.7 15.9 40.4 100
Small No. 622 91 302 233 799 2,047
% 30.4 4.4 14.8 11.4 39.0 100
Total 773 116 401 332 1,061 2,683
Table 5 presents a similar breakdown for institutional information.
Chi square tests again indicate that a relationship exists at the one
percent level of significance. A considerable amount of polarity exists
for the small farmers with nearly 70 percent of the responses divided
between the extreme categories. This is true to a lesser degree for the
medium and larger farms too. However, small farmers tended to check "not
important at all" more frequently than the other farm groups and their
cumulative percentage for items 3, 4 and 5 (very important) was smaller
than that of the large and medium farmers. Thus, while there is polarity
regarding institutional questions within each group of farmers, small
farmers tend to perceive of these questions as "not important at all" more
frequently than the other farm groups.
Table 5. Perceived Importance of Institutional Information by Farm Size
Important 2 3 4 Very Total
at All Important
Large No. 32 5 48 21 61 167
% 19.2 3.0 28.7 12.6 36.5 100
Medium No. 58 15 42 34 95 244
% 23.8 6.1 17.2 13.9 38.9 100
Small No. 413 71 204 130 506 1,324
% 31.2 5.4 15.4 9.8 38.2 100
Total 503 91 294 185 662 1,735
Perceived importance of human information by farm size does not show
any relationship (Table 6). There was a great deal of polarity in respon-
ses of not important and very important, but there was no difference
between farm groups.
Table 6. Perceived Importance of Human Information by Farm Size Category
Important 2 3 4 Very Total
at All Important
Large No. 63 12 28 14 71 188
% 33.5 6.4 14.9 7.4 37.8 100
Medium No. 86 18 43 32 108 287
% 30.0 6.3 15.0 11.1 37.6 100
Small No. 531 76 245 137 593 1,582
% 33.6 4.8 15.5 8.7 37.5 100
Total 680 106 316 183 772 2,057
The respondents were asked to name sources of information used in
relation to the 44 problems. The responses were aggregated by farm size
and sources cited and the data presented in Table 7. A statistical test of
independence of classification indicates that there is a relationship
between size of farm and sources of information (significant at the one
percent level of confidence). The largest difference between the large and
small farm operators concerned item "never had this problem." Small farm
operators tended to respond with this answer more frequently than others.
Larger farm operators tend to recognize these problems or experience these
problems more readily than small farm operators.
Table 7. Sources of Information for 44 Common Problems
Categorized by Farm Size
Faced by Farmers
Source of Information
Small Medium Large
radio and TV 21.9 23.0 20.2
Cooperative Extension 20.8 20.9 22.2
Dealers, salesman and buyers 7.1 8.0 9.9
Neighbors, friends and
relatives 11.0 10.6 8.6
Lenders, government agencies
and farm organizations 5.6 7.5 6.9
Never had this problem 16.4 12.6 11.3
Did not seek information on
this problem 11.3 10.0 10.7
Other 3.2 1.6 2.2
The operators on large farms tend to seek information more frequently
from dealers, salesmen or buyers than do operators on small farms. The
same is true with regard to lending institutions, government agencies and
the Cooperative Extension Service. Small farm operators tend to seek
information more frequently from neighbors, friends or relatives and mass
media sources. It should be noted that the percentage distribution for all
categories does not vary by more than a few percentage points between farm
sizes and all farmers use a wide variety of information sources.
Contact with the Cooperative Extension Service
The information survey of Michigan farmers asked specific questions
about farmers' contacts with the Cooperative Extension Service. Since
there are a number of ways contact may be made between the Extension staff
and the farm clientele, an index was adopted which combined information
about various types of contacts into a single measure.3
Small farm operators with gross incomes of $20,000 to $39,999 had the
greatest amount of contact with Extension, followed by the medium-size
farms ($40,000 to $99,999) and the large farms (over $100,000), respec-
tively (Table 8). Further analysis of various control variables shows that
16 of the 21 farmers in the $20,000 to $39,999 category were full-time
farmers and 12 of these had more than 25 years of experience in farming.
Nine were in the 50-59 age group.
Farmers in the $10,000 to $19,000 category have the least contact with
Cooperative Extension. Again, further analysis of the control variables
showed eight of the eighteen were full-time farmers. The two high-contact
farmers were full-time, but there was no trend regarding age or years of
experience in farming.
There is a marked difference between part-retired farmers and younger
farmers in their contact with Extension. Seventy percent of the part-
retired farmers had no or low contact with Extension while only 22 percent
of the farmers who were not retired had low or no contact. On the other
hand, nearly 40 percent of the farmers who were not retired had high
contact with Extension and only 20 percent of the part-retired farmers had
high contact with Extension. Cooperative Extension is not reaching the
3The index is presented in Appendix B.
part-retired farmers as effectively as others. These older farmers may
have some tried and true production methods which could be useful to other
small farmers, but which are not being communicated for various reasons.
Table 8. Number and Percent of Farmers
Contacting Extension by Gross Farm
Gross Farm No or Low Medium High Total
Income Contact Contact Contact
Over $100,000 4 4 5 13
(30.8%) (30.8%) (38.5%) (100%)
$40,000 to $99,999 3 6 10 19
(15.8%) (31.6%) (52.6%) (100%)
$20,000 to $39,999 3 5 13 21
(14.3%) (23.8%) (61.9%) (100%)
$10,000 to $19,999 8 8 2 18
(44.4%) (44.4%) (11.1%) (100%)
$ 5,000 to $ 9,999 4 9 6 19
(21.1%) (47.4%) (31.6%) (100%)
$ 2,500 to $ 4,999 6 10 7 23
(26.1%) (43.5%) (30.4%) (100%)
Under $2,500 11 7 8 26
(42.3%) (26.9%) (30.8%) (100%)
Total 39 49 51 139
(28.1%) (35.3%) (36.7%) (100%)
When the small farm operators are divided by occupation, full-time or
part-time, a higher percentage of full-time than part-time farmers have
high contact with Extension. Likewise, a much greater percentage of part-
time than full-time farmers have no or low contact with Extension. Since
the part-time farmers have other jobs, they may not be able to attend
meetings or go to other Extension activities as often as the full-time
farmers. This suggests that other alternatives may need to be tried in
order to reach this farmer.
FARMERS' INFORMATION NEEDS AS PERCEIVED
BY COUNTY AGENTS
The County Extension Directors of the six counties selected for sam-
pling were interviewed. This is not a representative sample and the data
are not subject to statistical sampling, but it does give an indication of
small farm information needs at the county level.
The agents generally agreed that the larger farmers demand more of
county agents' time than the smaller farmers, and ask more complicated
questions. But agents thought that there was more of a difference among
farmers by stage of farm development than by size of operation in the kinds
of questions asked. Newer farmers ask more basic questions while more
established farmers ask complicated questions.
Some farmers involve the Extension Service from the beginning of a
decision and others call after their goals and production plans are set and
then ask for information. An example of the second type is the farmer who
calls the Extension office and says "I planted ten acres of squash; where
can I market it?" On the other hand, some farmers try to get the agent into
making decisions for them.
A major difference was seen between large and small farmers with
regard to their requests for process skills versus the "right informa-
tion." Most of the agents felt that the larger farmer required more
complicated responses which took them through a thinking process while the
smaller farmers were more interested in a specific recommendation: "How
many pounds per acre," or "How many bales do I feed." They pointed out
that the time of year is an important factor. During the summer, farmers
are busy and most questions are the "brush fire" type. Army worms were a
problem common to each of the counties, and the questions asked by farmers
were the same no matter what the size of the farm.
When asked about their perception of the major problems facing the
small farmer the county agents gave a variety of responses: the cost of
capital, low net returns, overinvestment or underinvestment in capital,
and timeliness. Some small farmers have trouble adapting technology to fit
their operation and need more "how-to" types of information. Other farmers
have a lack of managerial ability as a main problem. Small farmers need to
be more realistic as to what they plan to do. Some can be helped. Others
must learn. Extension should point out what can and can't be done.
The County Agents felt that they should be helping all farmers without
discriminating. They clearly felt that their jobs were to work with
commercial farmers since they provide the food and fiber for the nation.
The agents recognized that they were doing the poorest job with the small
farmer because of the large number of small farms, the difficulty in
identifying them and the fuzziness of their problem areas. The county
needs to identify what the office can do and is doing and assist farmers,
regardless of size, in any way possible.
Commonly used methods of distributing information varied by subject
and by time of year, but all the traditional methods were mentioned. The
importance of the telephone was stressed by all the agents. In addition,
each agent mentioned some special programs ranging from a spray guide radio
program every morning during the growing season, to newsletters or columns
in the local weekly newspapers to a cafeteria style day-long meeting on a
wide variety of subjects.
One subject area which came up during several of the interviews was
that of the counseling aspect of Extension. The agents emphasized that
Extension is not just an answering service. Much of the work involves
dealing with people on a one-to-one basis which is much more complex than
merely providing an answer. Personality, amiability, style, poise and
character are all important. Agents emphasized the importance of listen-
ing to their clients to find out the problems and what type of information
is needed. This involves gaining the respect and confidence of the cli-
ents, and "being willing to listen." It also involves "trying not to be an
all knowing authority" and trying to "take time with people." This coun-
seling aspect of Extension is an important component in affecting change.
IMPLICATIONS FOR EXTENSION EDUCATION PROGRAMMING
The third objective of this research was to examine alternative
informational delivery systems that the Cooperative Extension Service
could utilize in reaching small farm operators. The remainder of this
section addresses the information delivery process and offers suggestions
for Extension education programs.
The sources for most of the agricultural information which the Coop-
erative Extension Service uses in educational programs are the universi-
ties and agricultural experiment stations of the land grant system, of
which the Cooperative Extension Service is a part. However, the land grant
system is not the only source of technological information available to
farmers. There is also the private sector, which not only gets information
from the land grant system, but also develops innovations and technology
for farmers. Private machinery, seed, fertilizer and chemical companies
have contributed to the technological revolution. One needs only to page
through some of the established popular farm magazines to see that much
that these private companies have to offer is aimed at the larger commer-
What are some alternative sources for technical information appropri-
ate for small farms? In the private sector, companies do exist which
produce production inputs and implements designed for small farms. In the
public sector the major sources are the land grant university and the USDA
agencies. There is another source, however, which remains largely
untapped. This is the small farmer himself.
Ideally the Cooperative Extension Service is a two-way street,
involved both in disseminating information through various programs and in
acquiring information about the farmers' situations, their problems and
needs, and their ideas and innovations which could be passed on to other
farmers. Some of the technical practices which have been developed at the
university level were refined at the farm level. Much could be learned
from small farmers which could be shared with other small farmers. This is
especially true with part-retired farmers, but feedback and suggestions
from them are limited because less contact is made with these farmers. The
feedback may not be important in terms of new technology for large commer-
cial farms, but it may be very beneficial in terms of production techniques
for small and part-time farmers. Part-retired farmers have a lifetime of
experience which could be tapped for the benefit of modern small farmers.
This idea of utilizing farmers as resource people for other farmers
was suggested by some of the County Agents. Part of the problem, however,
is the organization, training and persuading part-retired or other small
farmers to participate in workshops or counseling with another farmer on an
individual basis. Resource farmers could also be telephone references for
other small farmers who have particular problems.
The universities and experiment stations of the land grant system
have produced new technologies in the form of improved fertilizers, seeds,
irrigation techniques, and chemicals to control insects, weeds, and plant
diseases. It was assumed that these technologies were neutral with regard
to size of farm, and that they would be useful to all groups of farmers.
This was also the belief of the County Agents who were interviewed. Thus,
the messages coming from these sources were assumed to be of value to
farmers regardless of size.
This assumption has come under attack in recent years, and the fact
that many of the land grant universities are developing bulletins for small
and part-time farm operators and are sponsoring research on small farms is
tacit acknowledgement that this criticism is, at least in part, justified.
The content of the messages which are conveyed to farmers is of critical
importance in determining the effect of the communication. If it is not
applicable to small farm situations, if it requires capital or credit
resources beyond the means of small farms, if it requires management skills
not possessed by small farmers, then that message is likely to be ignored
by small farmers. It is apparent that high priority needs to be placed on
developing information which is of immediate benefit to small farmers. The
channel of communication matters not if the content of the messages being
delivered is useless. This need for the development of materials specifi-
cally applicable to small farms was recognized in some earlier legislation
and particularly in the 1977 Food and Agricultural Bill and presents a
challenge to the land grant system.
Michigan State University has developed bulletins designed for small
farm operations. In addition, the Ottawa County Cooperative Extension
Service produces The Backyard Farmer on a monthly basis which deals with
subjects of interest to small and part-time farmers, and the U.S. Depart-
ment of Agriculture has fact sheets for part-time farmers and gardeners.
There are also publications from other states which pertain specifically
to small and part-time farms.
Another aspect of the content of messages is the level of the message.
The County Agents interviewed agreed that small farmers tend to ask more
basic "how to" types of questions. Agents indicated that some Extension
programs sometimes start at too high a level for some farmers and programs
should be developed for these farmers' educational needs.
"How to" Topics and General
Small Farm Topics
Small farmers suggested some 43 topics for meetings and schools
(Table 9). The responses are broken down into small farm categories based
on small full-time and small part-time farmers. However, very few of the
part-retired farmers suggested any topics and none have been included.
A number of topics could form the base for educational programs or
meetings. This includes fertilizer use, castration and dehorning live-
stock, sprayer calibration, selecting good used farm equipment, shearing
sheep, artificial breeding, bookkeeping and weed and pest control.
Besides these "how to" topics, some of the other topics pertain particular-
ly to small farms, including livestock techniques for beginners, the
Table 9. Topics Suggested for Meetings by Small Farm Category
Number of "Mentions"
Small Small ta
General 3 2 5
Grain varieties to grow 1 1
Reduced tillage 1 1
Fertilizer use 2 2 4
Insects 3 3
Pruning 2 2
Chemicals to use 1 1 2
Sprayer calibration 1 1
General 2 3 5
Nutrition 2 2
Cattle and sheep 3 3
Castration and dehorning 1 1
Raising pigs 1 1
Techniques for beginners 1 1
Expanding hog operation 1 1
Dairy management 1 1
Retirement 1 1
Estate Planning 2 2
Government Sponsored Programs
General 1 1
Government intervention 1 1
Imports 1 1
Cost sharing projects 1 1
Taxes 1 2 3
Forest protection 1 1
Pollution 1 1
Table 9. (continued)
Number of "Mentions"
Small Small To
General 1 1
Bookkeeping 1 1
Investment and returns 1 1
Financing 1 1
Farm expansion 1 1
Future of small time farming 2 4 6
Small farm management 1 1
Going into full-time farming 1 1
General 2 4 6
Better prices 2 2 4
When to sell 1 1
Sale of fruits and vegetables 1 1
General 1 1 2
Selecting good used farm
equipment 1 1
Knowing what implements to
get for a small farm 1 1
Farming in General 2 2
Cost Cutting on Household
Expenses 1 1
future of small-time farming, small farm management, knowing what imple-
ments to get for small farms, small beef cow operations, livestock for
small farms, basic living from your land and getting started in farming.
This shows a general interest in small farm subjects and implies that
Cooperative Extension should continue developing programs in these areas.
Some differences exist between categories of small farms, but both small
full-time and small part-time farmers expressed interest in crop manage-
ment, livestock, the future of small-time farming, and marketing. The fact
that small part-retired farmers did not respond implies that this may be a
difficult group to reach through conventional means and special efforts to
reach them may be required.
Suggestions for Extension
Table 10 is a list by small farm category of the most important
decisions farmers have made about the farm or home. This list complements
the meeting topics in that some of the same subjects are mentioned, but
also some additional subjects are listed. Partly because of the greater
number of responses and the reference to an actual decision, the list of
decisions is more discriminatory in suggesting programs for different
categories of small farmers. For example, a greater percentage of small
part-time farmers listed the purchase or rental of machinery than small
full-time farmers, and none of the part-retired farmers listed the sub-
ject. This would suggest development of a program on the purchase or
rental of machinery for small part-time farmers.
Table 10. List of Most Important Decisions About Farm or Home by Subject
and by Small Farm Category
Number of "Mentions"
Full- Part- Small
Time Time Retired Tal
Buildings, Machinery and
Purchase/rent machinery or
equipment 13 23 36
Repair old or build new
buildings 9 16 1 26
Sale of equipment 1 1 2
Building fences 1 1
To change crop practices 2 4 6
Which herbicide to use 1 1 2
What to plant 18 17 1 36
Soil samples 1 1
Lime 1 1
Fertilizer 3 2 5
Livestock mix 7 13 1 21
To change from livestock
to crops 2 1 3
Purchase of land 4 7 11
Whether or not to rent out
land 3 11 2 16
Sale of land 3 4 2 9
Irrigation and drainage 3 3 6
To clear land 1 3 4
To rent more land 1 1
To subdivide or not 1 1
To buy or rent more land 1 1
Table 10. (continued)
Number of "Mentions"
Subject Small Small
Full- Part- Small Total
Time Time Retired
Whether or not to expand 7 5 1 13
Whether or not to quit farming 5 7 2 14
Credit and finance 2 3 5
Storage 3 3 6
To reduce farming operations 1 2 3
Hired labor 1 1 2
Should son take over farm 1 1
Taxes 2 2
How to buy a farm 1 1
To ask help of Agricultural
Department 1 1
Home and Family
Remodel old or build new
home 2 5 2 9
Insulating home 5 3 1 9
Off-farm employment 3 3
To sell house 1 1
To move to new area 1 1
To make a will 1 1
Prices and Marketing 7 7 14
Total -- 37 topics
Small part-time farmers are interested in building construction and
repair, livestock, purchasing land or renting out land. Small full-time
farmers indicated that planting decisions are important, as well as wheth-
er or not to expand and the purchase or rental of machinery. Some programs
may be combined, but some of these may be aimed specifically at one cate-
gory (though not excluding the other categories) if there is more interest
by a certain category.
Table 11 shows the ranking of the ten most important problems from a
list of 44 problems as perceived by farmers of different small farm cate-
gories. This list is more restrictive because it was not based upon
responses to open-ended questions, but to a choice of 44 specific problems.
However, this table reinforces the previous educational program suggestion
in the overlap of some of the subjects mentioned. For example, pricing of
farm products, or more generally, marketing, was ranked as most important
by all farm categories, and was also listed as an important decision and a
suggested topic for meetings and schools. Fertilizer application and
income tax preparation were also common. This implies that Cooperative
Extension should prepare programs on these subjects for small farmers in
general, whether full-time, part-time, or part-retired.
Communication theory divides channels into two broad categories:
(1) mass media and (2) interpersonal, and the interpersonal category can
be further divided into group activities and individual activities. Each
of these categories has implications for alternative informational
delivery systems for reaching small farm operators.
Table 11. Ranking of Ten Most Important Problems as Perceived by Small
Farmers of Different Categories by Mean Rating
Rank Question Mean a Percent
1 How to get better prices for your
farm products 4.509 78
2 Keeping up-to-date with records and
farm accounts 4.263 78
3 How to cut down on the heating bill 4.167 82
4 Knowing when to sell your farm
products 4.119 81
5 Figuring out how much fertilizer
to use 4.089 85
6 Personal and family health concerns 4.050 82
7 Political issues (school bonds, high-
ways, etc.) 4.034 79
8 How to figure out income tax 3.911 77
9 Planning your estate 3.893 77
10 How to improve the public schools in
the area 3.796 74
1 How to get better prices for your
farm products 4.449 90
2 How to cut down on the heating bill 4.056 92
3 Problems with insects and diseases 3.890 95
4 Personal and family health concerns 3.871 91
4 Keeping up-to-date with records and
farm accounts 3.871 91
Table 11. (continued)
Rank Question Mean Percent
6 Planning for children's education 3.868 88
7 How to figure out income tax 3.843 91
8 Knowing when to sell your farm
products 3.803 92
9 Figure out how much fertilizer to
use 3.789 92
10 How to raise children properly 3.761 87
1 How to get better prices for your
farm products 4.429 64
2 Planning your estate 3.857 64
2 How to figure out income tax 3.857 64
4 How to raise children properly 3.667 55
5 How to cut down on the heating bill 3.571 64
5 Personal and family health concerns 3.571 64
7 Planning meals for nutrition 3.286 64
7 Figuring out how much fertilizer
to use 3.286 64
7 Figuring out how much insurance to
buy 3.286 64
7 Political issues (school bonds, high-
ways, etc.) 3.286 64
aRating ranges from 1 (not important at all) to 5 (very important).
bBased on 100 percent = 73
CBased on 100 percent = 77
Based on 100 percent = 11
Mass media channels are most effective in creating an awareness about
a program or an idea. Large farmers tend already to be aware of Coopera-
tive Extension programs, while small farmers sometimes do not even know the
service exists. Small farmers tended to cite radio or television as
sources of information more frequently than large farmers and thus are more
likely to respond to these methods of communication. If programs for small
farmers are developed, the mass media could be very important in creating
an awareness of these programs among the small farm population. Mass media
can also point out the other services and programs which Cooperative Exten-
sion has to offer.
Successful communication often depends upon a cumulative effect.
Thus, one of the County Agents said that if he sends a notice of a meeting
along with a reminder again shortly before the meeting, he gets a much
better response than if he just sends out a notice. Also, if a number of
different channels are used to get across a message, the cumulative effect
has been demonstrated to be much greater than the sum of the individual
In addition to being used for awareness of meetings and programs,
various forms of mass media are used for more substantive communication.
Most of the Agents interviewed had newsletters or columns in the local
weekly newspapers. These newsletters or columns could be focused partic-
ularly on some of the subjects of interest to small farmers mentioned
above, and perhaps a forum could be developed at the county level for an
exchange of ideas concerning small farms. Many of the basic fundamentals
of agriculture could be presented in very brief columns which would not
only be informative and educational to the small farmer or beginner, but
would serve to refresh the thinking of more established farmers. One Agent
said that he has had success with a newsletter dealing with insects.
Beginning in May this newsletter described what insects had been seen in
the area, how to identify them, and what to expect with regard to crop
damage, etc. Now farmers are beginning to look for worms and insects
rather than waiting until it is too late.
For more timely information, Agents often use short radio or televi-
sion spots. One Agent had a daily sprayer guide program in which advice
was given on spraying practices considering recent growing conditions, the
weather forecast, and the presence of insects or disease in the area.
Mass media may also be useful in pointing out problem situations to
small farmers. In analyzing their perceived importance of various types of
information this research showed that small farmers tended to perceive of
technical and institutional information as not important more frequently
than larger farmers. They also responded that they "never had this prob-
lem" more frequently than medium or large farmers. This means that either
the small farmers do not recognize various problems, or that they do not
feel that these problems are important in terms of their own goals and
objectives. Mass media can be used to explore the problems and their
The Cooperative Extension Service currently uses several mass media
channels for their regular programs on the assumption that the information
is useful to all farmers regardless of size. In many cases this may be
true. In order to reach the small farmer; however, these programs must be
specifically addressed to small farmers and must be concerned with sub-
jects of interest to small farmers. Mass media can be used to create an
awareness of small farm programs, meetings on small farm topics, or other
activities for small farmers. Mass media can also be used to present basic
fundamentals of agriculture, such as some basic tillage practices, ele-
ments of animal husbandry, or basics of farm record keeping. Mass media
can also be used to create an awareness of problem areas. An example of
this was the series of newsletters concerning insects mentioned earlier.
This created an awareness of possible problems with insects, explained
what to look for and how to identify the harmful insects, and finally made
recommendations for getting rid of the pests.
Mass media channels can be very effective in reaching a wide audience,
but often more interpersonal channels are necessary to reach specific
audiences. One division of interpersonal channels is group activities.
Probably the most common group activity in Extension work is the meeting.
Meetings have long been used by Cooperative Extension, but some County
Agents have been unable to get small farmers to attend meetings. However,
this research indicates that 61 percent of the small farmers would be
willing to attend a meeting concerning one of their farm or home decisions.
This means that there must be other reasons for the lack of attendance by
small farmers besides lack of interest. One reason may be the appropriate-
ness of the subject matter of the group activities to small farm problems.
Another reason may be the mixing of farm operators by size. Some small
farmers may be less willing to attend meetings which also attract larger
Meetings designed especially for small farmers or part-time farmers
would likely attract more people because topics covered and the discussion
would center around interests and problems of the small farm operators.
Meetings designed to teach "how to" subjects would be unlikely to attract
people who already know the subject, but would attract people interested in
learning "how to." Since small farmers suggested several "how to" subjects
as topics for meetings or schools, the implication is that Cooperative
Extension should develop materials on these subjects which are appropriate
for use on small farms, and present these materials at a series of meetings
for small farmers in counties throughout the state.
Farm tours have been used by Cooperative Extension to demonstrate the
latest technology and give examples of successful farmers. These have
traditionally included only large, commercial farms. To reach the small
farmer, however, a farm tour could be organized which included only small
farms. This may not be a statewide tour but could be organized by region.
It could include various types of small farm machinery and implements,
buildings, appropriate technology for small farms, livestock for small
farms, and demonstrations of some basic fundamentals of farming.
The above group activities included meetings, workshops, seminars,
demonstrations, farm tours, and nearly any activity where County Agents
get together with groups of farmers for educational purposes. Individual
activities involve one-to-one contact. This may be personal contact, or it
may be over the telephone. The Agents found the phone particularly useful
for putting out "brush fires." These are immediate, short-term problems
which pop up from time to time, particularly during the growing season.
These can usually be taken care of with a quick answer or a brochure in the
mail the next day.
Alternative points for individual contact with the small farmers
could be developed. At the local level, the feed and seed dealers, machin-
ery dealers and elevators are important points of personal contact for
farmers. Farmers visit these places frequently in the course of their
daily business and although they may not consider these establishments as
important sources of information, they nevertheless pick up information at
these places. A rack of brochures and pamphlets could be put in the
elevators and maintained by Extension.
The use of paraprofessionals, volunteers, and program aids has been
tried in various states and to some extent in some of the counties in
Michigan. In all cases the key to success has been the selection and
training of the individual paraprofessionals, volunteers, or program aids.
They must be competent in their work as well as in their ability to work
with people in identifying problems and offering alternatives. County
Agents who were interviewed mentioned the counseling aspect of their jobs.
This included a willingness to listen, to try to learn the farmer's goals
and objectives, and to try to identify the problem as the farmer sees it.
Paraprofessionals, volunteers, or anyone who is going to work on a personal
basis with small farmers will need to have these skills of listening and
counseling and working with people, and Cooperative Extension should pro-
vide training in these areas.
SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Small farms have been basic to the structure of American agriculture.
They represent some of the values which this nation was founded upon, such
as freedom, independence, self-reliance and the right to own property. A
land grant system was established to promote agricultural research and
education, and the Cooperative Extension Service was established as part
of this system to help "rural families help themselves by applying science,
whether physical or social, to the daily routines of farming, homemaking
and family and community living."
Partly because of the technology developed at the land grant univer-
sities, agricultural productivity has increased greatly over the past
several decades. This has resulted in a changing structure of agriculture
to fewer, larger and more commercially oriented farms. However, small
farms still hold an important position in American agriculture, especially
In response to this change, among other things, increased concern for
the future of small farms has been demonstrated in various publications and
pieces of legislation. This has led to increased research into the prob-
lems of small farms and the ways Cooperative Extension programs can be
aimed at small farmers.
The primary purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding
of the information gathering process of small farmers in relation to the
education and information distribution systems of the Cooperative Exten-
sion Service. Information gathering is just one step in a rational
decision-making process, but for this study it was isolated and looked at
separately. However, information gathering is tied too closely to problem
definition to be completely separated so it was necessary, and helpful, to
look first at the conceptual framework of the problem-solving model and
other knowledge utilization models as well.
The first objective of this research was to examine the sources of
information used by small farmers in Michigan. This was done through a
mail questionnaire and through interviews with the County Agents. It was
concluded that all farmers use a wide variety of sources for information,
but that some differences exist between size categories of farms with
regard to the frequency of sources cited. In terms of the first hypothe-
sis, there is a relationship between farm size and sources of information
used. In general, large farmers tend to seek information more frequently
from dealers, salesmen or buyers, banks and lending institutions and the
Cooperative Extension Service than do small farmers. Small farmers seek
information more frequently from neighbors, friends and relatives and
radio or television than do larger farmers. Small farmers tended to
respond that they "never had this problem" more frequently than medium or
There is a relationship between farm size category and contact with
Cooperative Extension. The relationship did not confirm the alternative
hypothesis that the larger the farm the greater the amount of contact with
Extension. Instead, the $20,000 to $39,999 gross farm income category had
the greatest amount of contact, followed by the medium and then the large
The second objective of this research was to examine the importance of
various types of information as perceived by small farmers and as perceived
by County Agents. Since information is tied closely to the problem at
hand, the importance of information is tied closely to the importance of
the problem. By asking about the importance of particular problems, infer-
ences could be made concerning the importance of certain kinds of
There are three broad categories of information: 1) technical,
2) institutional, and 3) human. Analysis showed that in general small
farmers place less importance on technical information and institutional
information than do larger farmers, while there was no significant
difference between farm size categories regarding human information.
The fact that small farm categories tended to place less importance on
technical or institutional information could lead to one of two conclu-
sions: 1) small farmers differ in problem awareness or problem definition
(i.e., they do not perceive the problem) or 2) small farmers differ in
goals and objectives from larger farmers and thus problems perceived as
important by larger farmers may not be perceived as important in terms of
the goals of small farmers. Further research may be helpful in clarifying
In interviewing the County Agents, the general conclusion regarding
the various farm size categories and their needs for information was that
they all needed the same kinds of information. The difference was in the
solutions to their problems and in the sizes of operations involved. The
agents felt that large farm operators generally ask more complex, compli-
cated questions while small farmers looked for the "bottom line." Although
they felt the informational needs of the various farm categories would be
the same, they indicated that the level would be different. They also
indicated that large farmers were more likely to involve the Extension
Service from the beginning of the decision-making process while small
farmers tend to wait until later in the process. Often this leads to
problems which could have been avoided. This indicates that the Agents
feel that small farmers have more trouble with the goal or objective
setting function of farm management than larger farmers.
The County Agents generally felt that they were helping all farmers
without regard to size. However, they indicated that the greatest demand
on their time was from the larger farmers and also that their major respon-
sibility was to help the commercial farmers who provide the food and fiber
for the state and nation.
The third objective of this research was to examine alternative
informational delivery systems that the Cooperative Extension Service
could utilize in reaching small farm operators.
The communications model was used because it identified the impor-
tance of the source and the message in relation to the channels used. If
alternative informational delivery systems are to be investigated, it fol-
lows that alternative sources of information should also be investigated.
A major source of information for farmers has been the land grant system.
The private sector provides some new technology in the form of machinery,
seeds, fertilizer and chemicals, etc. which is appropriate for small
A third source which should be explored is the small farmer himself.
Part-retired farmers could be valuable resource people for other small
farmers or for people who are just getting started in farming.
The communications model also emphasizes the importance of the mes-
sage in the communication system. One criticism of the land grant system
and the private sector is that the messages which they have developed in
the form of new technology have not been relevant to the situations of
small farms. The present research has shown that there is a demand for
information by small farmers and an expressed willingness to attend meet-
ings or educational programs related to important farm or home decisions.
Small farmers use a wide variety of sources for information and suggested a
number of specific and general topics which they would like to have dis-
cussed at a meeting or school.
In relation to the content of the messages to be delivered to small
farmers, one conclusion of this research is that small farmers need basic
"how to" types of information. The small farmers themselves suggested
several "how to" topics, such as fertilizer use, sheep shearing or dehorn-
ing livestock. In addition, several general topics relevant to small farms
The Cooperative Extension Service already uses a wide variety of
channels of communication, but to reach the small farmer the messages must
be appropriate and addressed specifically to small farm situations. Typi-
cally a number of channels are used to achieve a cumulative effect.
Suggestions were made concerning the use of various channels for
reaching small farmers. Mass media is effective in creating awareness.
News columns and newsletters, etc., can be used to present basic fundamen-
tal information. Other forms of mass media can also be used to point out
problem situations which may not be recognized as such by small farmers.
Interpersonal channels were divided into group and individual activities.
Group activities can be used to involve small farmers in "how to" types of
programs and fundamental agricultural practices.
Individual contact consists of phone calls and personal visits.
Alternative points of personal contact were suggested which involved
catching people in their normal daily paths of activity. This included
elevators, machinery dealers, feed mills, and other agribusiness points.
Recommendations for Further Research
In the course of a research project such as this, one inevitably comes
across more questions than answers. This is both frustrating and hopeful;
frustrating because the answers are not apparent, and hopeful because
these at least offer guidelines for finding the answers. The remainder of
this chapter will present some of these research questions.
In the review of the literature it became apparent that relatively
little research in agricultural economics has been devoted to Extension
programs. On the other hand, there is a need for program evaluation and
cost effectiveness studies of existing and potential programs. This will
be particularly true of small farmer programs if funding is to be estab-
lished and maintained in the future.
Along with cost effectiveness, the various programs and channels of
information need to be examined in terms of the effectiveness in changing
the behavior of the farmers. The change may not have economic conse-
quences, but may provide other benefits which can be identified and eval-
uated. This means that clear, written objectives need to be written into
the program along with the performance criteria.
The present research identified some differences in the effectiveness
of various channels of communication in reaching given audiences, but this
area could be examined much more thoroughly. What gets the best
response--a newsletter or a newspaper column? What subjects should be
covered in weekly newspaper columns to get the largest number of readers?
Along with the channels, research could be done on the effectiveness
of various kinds of treatment of the messages. The size, shape, and bulk
of a publication may affect the number of readers and the kind of reader.
One of the results of this research indicated that small farmers
perceive of technical and institutional information as not important more
frequently than larger farmers. One possible reason for this may be
problem awareness and definition. This is another area for research. The
question of how small farmers define or recognize problems is important in
terms of farm management and decision analysis.
Another possible reason for the above finding is that the small farm-
ers' goals and objectives differ from those of larger farmers. Research on
the goal setting process of small farmers would be helpful in understanding
many things about their decision-making process.
The term small farm no longer means a combination of 25 chickens, 4
cows, 6 hogs, 20 acres of alfalfa and several other enterprises. Small
farms are also becoming more specialized. Research is needed, however, on
which enterprises can be the most profitable on a small scale. In other
words, where does the comparative advantage lie for small farms in terms of
crop and livestock enterprises?
Small farmers also face marketing problems if their output is in small
units. Research needs to be conducted on alternative marketing systems for
various enterprises for small farms. This may include alternatives such as
roadside stands, farmers' markets, direct marketing, marketing through
producer cooperatives or others.
In addition to the above, many of the topics which the small farmers
suggested for meetings or schools can also be fertile areas for research.
For example, the economics of fertilizer alternatives for small farms
could be studied. This may include the use of green manure or organic
waste when it is not economical to buy small amounts of fertilizer. An-
other example may be livestock for small farms. One County Agent mentioned
the possibility of more small farmers raising sheep or goats. Rabbits
could also be a profitable enterprise for small farms. The possibilities
are limited only by the imagination.
QUESTIONS CLASSIFIED BY TYPES OF INFORMATION
Whether or not to buy a new piece of machinery.
Problems with insects or disease.
Knowing when to sell your farm products.
Figuring out how much fertilizer to use.
What crops to plant next year.
How to remodel the kitchen.
How to cut down on the heating bill.
How to set up a family budget.
Figuring costs and returns on business investment.
Keeping up-to-date with records and farm accounts.
How to compute the best feed ration for livestock.
Whether or not to expand your livestock enterprise.
Conflict with the neighbor.
Finding good farm employees.
Personal and family health concerns.
Planning meals for nutrition.
Planning for children's education.
Figuring out how much insurance to buy.
Planning your estate.
How to raise children properly.
Which clothes to buy on a tight budget.
Whether or not to raise a garden.
Trying to understand today's teenagers.
How to figure out income tax.
Finding the best place to borrow money for the farm.
Complaints that you are causing pollution (smell, runoff, etc.).
Political issues (school bonds, highways, etc.).
How to improve the public schools in the area.
How to get better prices for your farm products.
When to hedge in the futures market.
Inadequate medical care and facilities in the area.
How to compete with larger farms.
Where to go with consumer complaints (damaged products, etc.).
Whether or not to buy more land.
Whether or not to continue farming.
Whether or not to look for a part-time job.
Not knowing when to change production plans.
Difficulty in being able to define family objectives.
Not knowing when you are on the "wrong track" in your attempt to reach
a desired goal.
Not being able to "put your finger" on the difficulty when you know
there is something wrong.
Not being able to keep up with all the new information (technology)
relating to farming that always comes along.
Having trouble organizing and understanding information made avail-
able to you so that you can use it on your farm.
Not knowing how or when to make a decision when the information does
not lead to a clear-cut course of action.
INDEX OF CONTACT WITH THE COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE
The following weights were used:
Type of Contact Weight
1. An agent visited your farm or home 15
2. You or your family visited the Cooperative
Extension Office 10
3. You or your spouse talked on the phone with a
County Agent 10
4. You or your spouse attended a farm tour sponsored
by the Cooperative Extension Service 10
5. You or your spouse attended a meeting organized
by the Cooperative Extension Service 10
6. You or your family listened to a radio or TV
program sponsored by the Cooperative Extension
7. You or your spouse received a circular letter or
pamphlet from the Cooperative Extension Service 1
The reported frequency was multiplied by the appropriate weight and
the results added to yield a weighted score for each farm. Four categories
of contact with Extension were established:
1. No Contact
2. Low Contact: 1-14 (those who had less than the equivalent of one
farm or home visit during 1977)
3. Medium Contact: 15-90 (those who had the equivalent of at least
one farm or home visit during the year, but not more than one
every two months)
4. High Contact: over 90 (those who had the equivalent of a farm or
home visit every second month, or more frequently)