W3006: Multistate Agricultural Literacy Research

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active


Statement of Issues and Justification


Agriculture impacts the food, health, economy, environment, and well-being of all. As a nation, we have reaped the benefits of a successful agricultural system that has allowed our society to flourish, engage in leisure activity, and dream about future endeavors. Our successful food and fiber innovations have resulted in fewer agricultural producers and higher productivity. However, this success story has come with a consequence: a society that has little understanding of agricultural production/processing or how this system meets our basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) while remaining sustainable over time. Daily decisions made by individuals, through dollars and voting, affect our agricultural system from soil to spoon. If U.S. agriculture is going to continue to meet the needs of the U.S. population and address growing global needs, agriculture needs to be understood and valued by all.


Currently, the U.S. agricultural sector annually accounts for 1.6% ($278.4 billion) of the $17.4 trillion U.S. GDP (Central Intelligence Agency, 2015). While this percentage appears low, it should be noted that the United States has the largest national economy in the world. The current 1% of the U.S. population working on farms is supported by nearly 21 million agricultural-sector-related U.S. workers, about 15% of the total U.S. workforce (Goecker, Smith, Smith, & Goetz, 2010). A shortage of workers in the agricultural sector affects the labor and technical markets alike. With only 1% of the U.S. population actively engaged on farms and 15% in related careers, the majority of consumers—both youths and adults—may have lost a fundamental understanding of agriculture or how it impacts their lives. In addition, as agriculture has become more specialized, even those engaged in agriculture may know little about the resources and other inputs used to produce food, clothing, and shelter outside of their specialized contexts. Additionally, attitudes, perceptions, and other affective factors drive human decision making by both consumers and elected officials even among informed populations. To meet the challenges of the future, it is imperative that young people and adults become informed, “agriculturally literate” and [supportive of agriculture] consumers, advocates, and policy makers regarding agricultural issues.


In 1988, the National Research Council of the National Academies appointed a committee of agricultural educators and researchers to determine the future direction of agricultural education. The committee published its findings in a report, Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education. In this report, the committee stated that “Agriculture—broadly defined—is too important a topic to be taught only to the relatively small percentage of students considering careers in agriculture” (National Research Council, 1988, p. 8). The committee also published two important findings:


  1. Most Americans know very little about agriculture, its social and economic significance in the United States, and particularly its links to human health and environmental quality.

  2. Few systematic educational efforts are made to teach or otherwise develop agricultural literacy in students of any age. Although children are taught something about agriculture, the material tends to be fragmented, frequently outdated, usually only farm oriented, and often negative or condescending in tone (p. 21).


This committee recommended that “beginning in kindergarten and continuing through twelfth grade, all students should receive some systematic instruction about agriculture” (p. 20). The committee envisioned that “an agriculturally literate person would understand the food and fiber system, and this would include its history and its current economic, social and environmental significance to all Americans” (p. 8).


More recently, the National Research Agenda for Agricultural Education (Roberts, Harder, & Brashears, 2016) established seven priorities to address issues in agricultural education. These priority areas were written by members of the American Association of Agricultural Education. The first priority area was Public and Policy Maker Understanding of Agriculture and Natural Resources, written by three members of the W2006 Multi-State Research Team (Enns, Martin, & Speilmaker, 2016). The following research priority questions were identified as significant in the priority area:


  1. What methods, models, and programs are effective for informing public opinions about agricultural and natural resources issues?

  2. What methods, models, and programs are effective in preparing people to inform policy makers on agriculture and natural resources?


The work outlined in this proposal builds on these objectives with the following ultimate goals:


  1. improve the fundamental agricultural knowledge of U.S. residents, from kindergarteners through adults;

  2. Engage more people in the broader conversation about agricultural policy from local to national and even global decisions, as advocates for sustainable agriculture that feeds our growing population while maintaining or improving our environment;

  3. Design effective agricultural literacy programming to continue work on goals 1 and 2


The second research objective is aligned with the National Agricultural Literacy Logic Model objectives and supports agricultural literacy desired knowledge/behavior/skill outcomes for K–20 youth (“National Agriculture in the Classroom,” 2013):

  • Understand how science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are integrated into agriculture;

  • Identify and understand the connections between academic subjects and agricultural careers including, but not limited to, STEM;

  • Understand the relationships between agriculture, the environment, plants and animals for food, fiber, energy, health, and society and economics;

  • Understand the importance and value of agriculture in their daily life;

  • Practice and apply STEM skills in the context of agriculture;

  • Explore and pursue courses and careers related to agriculture and STEM;

  • Demonstrate or explain relationships between agriculture, the environment, plants and animals for food, fiber, energy, health, and society and economics;

  • Explain the value of agriculture and how it is important in their daily life.


These published academic research priorities and nationally developed outcomes frame agricultural literacy programs. Nationally, the leading agricultural literacy program is Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC), which has a presence in 47 states. AITC is largely supported by stakeholders in the agricultural industry. In a recent survey of states, nearly half (49%) reported their entire budget came from private, agriculture-related organizations or donors, and 41% reported a combination of state and private money (Spielmaker, 2018), signaling financial support for agricultural literacy at a grassroots level. Stakeholders have supported agricultural literacy programs in the hope that people (primarily youth) will understand the necessity of agriculture, value agricultural production, and support agricultural science that ensures an affordable, safe, abundant, high-quality food system.


AITC and similar agricultural literacy efforts have developed and implemented programs over the last 30 years. However, there has been limited research to detect program effectiveness or the effects of interventions on baseline knowledge and perceptions or attitudes concerning agricultural literacy concepts and agriculture’s relationship to the environment, plants and animals for food and fiber use, lifestyle, technology, and the economy. This multi-state research project seeks to measure agricultural literacy knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes and conduct program or intervention evaluations to assess whether programming has made progress toward the goal of an agriculturally literate populace that “understands and can communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects our quality of life” (“National Agriculture in the Classroom,” 2013).


Previous agricultural literacy research has been limited to a particular locale, population, or content area. This multi-state approach will provide a validated instrument for measurement and increase external validity. The research objectives outlined in this proposal require a coordinated, multi-state approach to conduct research that results in generalizable conclusions. The information gathered will provide programming staff and stakeholders with solid data for future program planning to achieve agricultural literacy outcomes.


A coordinated agricultural literacy research effort has been developed and needs to be maintained. Recently, there has been renewed interest in food production and processing practices (i.e., agriculture). In the last decade, there have been notable increases in food production/processing media, including books noted on The New York Times best seller list, several “big-screen” movies, and a variety of social media resources and groups. Exploring the individuals’ motivations to seek information and identifying these individuals and their associated agricultural values will improve our ability to effectively communicate knowledge about agriculture. In addition, while this “Renaissance” indicates that consumers have a greater desire to understand where their food comes from and how our basic needs are met, consumers (reader, viewer, or follower) with limited agricultural knowledge may not be able to distinguish fact from fiction, detect pseudo-science, or weigh risks and benefits. Innovations in science have also caused increased instances in which information has not been interpreted appropriately. For example, chemical levels once measured at parts per million now can be detected at parts per trillion.  The magnitude of difference between parts per million and parts per trillion could cause confusion to someone who is not educated on the difference which could create a false perception is that food is dangerous. Measuring baseline knowledge and correlating this knowledge with attitudes and perceptions provides stakeholders with data for more targeted educational initiatives; more importantly, research-based targeted systemic educational efforts should result in people who make more informed decisions concerning agricultural policies.


If agricultural literacy is not addressed, safe food and food choices may still be available to consumers, but these choices may be overshadowed by shortages or higher costs that potentially affect our ability to meet our dietary needs, a situation with social, economic, and environmental implications. Agricultural products also meet clothing, shelter, and energy needs. Agricultural illiteracy affects these systems in a similar fashion.


Electronic communication and dialog during an annual research meeting make a multi-state research project for agricultural literacy feasible. Participation in the group will be open to researchers, nationwide, interested in agricultural literacy. Research conducted in various states and regions is easily shared electronically and readily available for meta-analyses. A webpage dedicated to agricultural literacy programing and research has already serves as a repository for related research and collaboration. There is no environmental limitation for this type of research. A multi-state effort leverages the capacity of individuals and institutions with on-the-ground local resources that can be easily networked and analyzed as a whole. The data and conclusions, made available to stakeholders, informs national programming to increase agricultural literacy. The objectives in this proposal outline work for 5 years, and the results are necessary as a baseline to initiate decision making that “moves the needle” toward an agriculturally literate society.

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