W3006: Multistate Agricultural Literacy Research

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active

W3006: Multistate Agricultural Literacy Research

Duration: 10/01/2019 to 09/30/2024

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

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.

Related, Current and Previous Work

Related, Current, and Previous Work


Researchers have formally approached agricultural literacy research for 25 years. Broadly, researchers have sought to define agricultural literacy conceptually (Frick, Kahler, & Miller, 1991), cognitively (Powell, Agnew, & Trexler, 2008), and through engagement (Meischen & Trexler, 2003; Spielmaker, Pastor, & Stewardson, 2014) and evidence-based decision making (Kovar & Ball, 2013). Members of the AES multi-state agricultural literacy research committees have conducted and published many relevant research projects (W1006, WERA207, and W2006). The work of the W2006 committee is cataloged in Appendix 1 (attached). The findings of related, current, and previous work in this area support this proposal’s objectives to formalize an instrument and conduct research for generalization. The following paragraphs outline the findings of related, current, and previous work on effective methods of promoting agricultural literacy, models of agricultural literacy, and programs of agricultural literacy.


Effective methods are typically varied across all types of programs and include the following concepts: personal, relationship-based, well-planned, targeted, interactive, skill-based, and experiential in nature and enhanced through inquiry (Benavente, Jayaratne, & Jones, 2009; Dewell et al., 2015; Lakai, Jayaratne, Moore, & Kistler, 2012; Skelton, Seevers, Dormody, & Hodnett, 2012; Strong, Harder, & Carter, 2010; Thoron & Burleson, 2014). Many of these studies focused on facilitator- or instructor-led programs; however, understanding how the public seeks and values educational programs in self-guided and self-motivated methods of learning was critical as well. In such instances (news media, magazines, periodicals, or social media, for example), trustworthiness, validity of sources, and context related to the content is of primary importance (Charanza & Naile, 2012; Israel et al., 2015; Specht & Rutherford, 2013). Methods of educational effectiveness have been the focus of many research studies in school-based agricultural education (Jenkins & Kitchel, 2009; Jenkins, Kitchel, & Hains, 2010; Judd-Murray & Spielmaker, 2017), extension education (McKim, Lawver, Enns, Smith, & Aschenbrener, 2013), and literacy programs (Kovar & Ball, 2013). The consensus drawn from these studies is that different audiences may maximize learning through specific methods tailored to those audiences.


Educational models are human-constructed systems that explain interactions in the world; thus, educational models can be diverse, and recent studies on these models have varied. Models of agricultural education can and have emerged from theoretical research. Powell et al. (2008) developed a conceptual model for agricultural literacy that exemplifies this type of research. While the model’s message is pragmatic, the model itself is built partially around the outcomes of the theory of cognitive constructive functions. Likewise, some models can be philosophical in nature. Roberts and Ball’s (2009) philosophical article reviewed roles of context and content in secondary agricultural science education. The model that emerged provided a conceptual view of how secondary agricultural science education can develop a skilled agricultural workforce and agriculturally literate citizens. Conversely, some models in agricultural education have been developed by incorporating best practices and evaluations. Conner, Becot, Kolodinsky, Resnicow, & Woodruff (2014) developed a model of teaching agri-food entrepreneurs by incorporating service learning principles and feedback from alumni on the topic. The resulting conceptual model formed the nucleus of a possible class that focused on engaging students in community-based entrepreneurship education. Finally, some models have been developed by incorporating existing models into programming. The review of the extension program Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is one such example of applying the community mobilizing model (Miller, Bruce, Bundy-Fazioli, & Fruhauf, 2010).


The increased popularity of agriculture and agriculture-related topics in social media and through local food movements has led to an increasing number of organizations doing agricultural literacy and education work. A variety of programs in the United States seek to educate or inform youth and future policy makers about agriculture and natural resources. The effectiveness of these programs has been the subject of several publications (Kovar & Ball, 2013; Mercier, 2015; Powell, & Agnew, 2011). Programs and curriculum projects exist in formal academic settings (e.g., Agriculture in the Classroom; Food, Land & People; Farm to School; FoodCorps), formal career and technical education settings (school-based or secondary agricultural education programs/FFA), and some nonformal settings (e.g., 4-H, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts). However, it is estimated that these programs only reach about 2% (in the case of school-based agricultural education programs/FFA) to 12% of the school-age population (in the case of Agriculture in the Classroom) with educational resources and programming (Mercier, 2015). Alternative agricultural literacy approaches have emerged and gained popularity both locally and nationally, including the Agricultural Council of America (Agricultural Council of America, 2015), Slow Food USA (Slow Food USA, 2015), and community gardening associations (American Community Gardening Association, n.d.).  Finally, specific agricultural literacy training programs, such as the Kansas Youth Water Advocates (Hock, Bohnenblust & Roth, 2017), have emerged in an effort to address specific agricultural issues from an advocacy perspective.


Alternative approaches to agricultural literacy was an important concept worth further noting (Mars & Ball, 2016). The work of the multi-state research group will look at the work of groups outside the traditional circle of agricultural literacy and agricultural education (e.g., Widener & Karides, 2014; Wight, 2013; Williams & Dixon, 2014). The studies outlined in this section have framed the future work of this multi-state research group through the objectives.



  1. 1. Assess the agricultural knowledge of diverse population segments related to agriculture, including consumers, students, and producers. Specifically, explore and/or measure: a. points of acquisition of agricultural knowledge; b. decisions made based on assessed knowledge.
    Comments: The following institutions will be working on objective 1: Oregon State University, Colorado State University, Kansas State University, Utah State University, and the University of Florida.
  2. 2. Assess attitudes, perceptions, and motivations of diverse population segments related to agriculture, such as consumers, students, and producers. Specifically, explore and/or measure: a. how perceptions, attitudes and motivations are developed; b. decisions made based on assessed attitudes, perceptions, and motivations; c. behavior changes that have occurred due to changes in attitude, perceptions, and/or motivation.
    Comments: The following institutions will be working on objective 3: Kansas State University, Colorado State University, and the University of Florida.
  3. 3. Evaluate agricultural literacy programs to measure program impact. Specifically: a. measure impacts of agricultural literacy programs related to critical thinking and problem solving; b. explore and evaluate peer and participant-centered agricultural literacy programming methods to determine their effectiveness in addressing defined agricultural literacy outcomes.
    Comments: The following institutions will be working on objective 3: Pennsylvania State University, New Mexico State University and Utah State University.




Quantitative and qualitative research methods will be used to accomplish each of the objectives listed above. Researchers involved in the project will determine the appropriate methods and statistical tools based on specific research questions, design, and population. The agricultural knowledge instruments will be developed for targeted populations with consideration given to reading level, social factors, and locally relevant agricultural topics. These instruments will be adapted to fit various methodologies for data collection, such as paper questionnaires, online surveys, online analytics, and interview protocols. Populations to be assessed will be categorized by factors such as age, education, geographic location and regional populations, career, and affiliation or familiarity with agriculture. The multi-state group will focus on researching the objectives outlined in this proposal using the same or similar research protocols to develop rigor and reliability in these research instruments. Proposals will be drafted by members of the multi-state groups at the annual meeting, and quarterly reports and milestone achievement of the proposals will be communicated through conference calls and/or email distribution. Each member of the multi-state group who has chosen to research an objective will be responsible for recruitment of the targeted populations and charged with collaborating with individuals who are diverse in expertise and educational goals (beyond the traditional stakeholder audience).


Assessing the agricultural knowledge of diverse segments of the population (Objective 1) will be measured using exploratory and existing instruments that will examine both factual knowledge and critical thinking related to agricultural content and/or issues. Questionnaire content will be developed using an established learning outcome framework, the National Agricultural Literacy Outcomes (Spielmaker & Leising, 2013), or theoretical frameworks related to knowledge acquisition and decision making related to food and agriculture. The National Agricultural Literacy Outcomes have been validated by key stakeholders representing agricultural businesses, commodity organizations, public relations firms, government agencies, and educators of both traditional audiences and nontraditional agriculture stakeholders. The topics of these instruments will vary in scope and size to replicate the complexity of agriculture and differences in agricultural knowledge across the nation.  For example, Stofer and Newberry (2017), as part of the previous multi-state research, has examined affective dimensions of adults related to genetically engineered foods as well as consumer background in agriculture as it affects these affective dimensions.


To assess the attitudes, perceptions, and motivations of diverse segments of the population concerning agriculture (Objective 2), both quantitative instruments and qualitative approaches will be employed. The quantitative instruments include semantic differentials and Likert-type scaled response choices. Items for these instruments will be developed by thoroughly reviewing relevant literature and consulting with researchers in agricultural education and agricultural communications. Qualitative methods for this objective include interviews, document analysis, visual analysis, and focus groups. Both the qualitative and quantitative methods need to include the multitude of agricultural viewpoints and values in the United States. The goal of this research is to objectively describe how people perceive agriculture, are motivated to make decisions, and how they change their behaviors. This research informs future research on best practices for communicating with and educating individuals who hold differing perspectives to collectively influence community development through agriculture.  For instance, research falling under the umbrella of the previous agricultural literacy multi-state research group included the works of Martin (2016) as well as Martin and Enns (2017) which explored how different ideologies of agriculture impacted agricultural education. 


The objective to evaluate agricultural literacy programs’ ability to measure program impact (Objective 3) will require multifaceted methods. Programs to be analyzed will include a variety of formal and nonformal agricultural literacy programming efforts (e.g., Agriculture in the Classroom, Seed to Table, after-school programs, farmers’ market organizations, grocery store initiatives, commodity-specific initiatives, or directly marketed online program) with a variety of goals (e.g., instructional or curriculum development, advocacy). The programs and groups to be evaluated will be diverse nature—including rural, urban, and suburban—and areas of investigation will address multiple agricultural topics (e.g., sustainable farming and youth leadership). Evaluation strategies and methods will be developed uniquely with these groups to meet their specific needs and goals. The methods of evaluation will include quantitative analysis of benchmarks developed by each group. Further evaluation strategies could include qualitative and quantitative investigations of specific outcomes identified as significant by each group. At least ten diverse (age, motivation, goals) agriculture literacy programs will be examined for characteristics of effective programming and impact of educational practices. Multi-state participants and their unique stakeholder partners will collaborate to provide varied and diverse information. While the assessments of the individual programs will vary, standard assessment questions will be implemented across all programs to determine similar impacts across locations and programs.


Reaching a more diverse audience (i.e. urban, suburban, under represented populations) is necessary to advance the fulfill the objectives of this proposal. The needs of these segments of the population must be considered and addressed.  Efforts will be made to develop research studies which further investigate the agricultural literacy knowledge, perceptions, attitudes, and motivations in these populations.


We will need to recruit more and diverse researchers to this multi-state team in order to effectively meet our objectives and access the broadest research populations. Frist, we will recruit experts in a variety of agriculture content fields, such as agricultural communications, agricultural leadership, agricultural literacy, Extension, educational valuation, and school-based agricultural education.   Furthermore, we need to recruit researchers representing a variety of different locations in the country, including researchers working in a variety of urban and suburban communities as well as established networks with underrepresented individuals. The importance of this topic crosses all disciplines, state lines, and research agendas.

Measurement of Progress and Results


  • Another output would be the development of a model to investigate the individuals’ decision-making processes regarding key agricultural topics (i.e., Why do consumers choose to purchase organic products? What impact does food labeling have on purchasing decisions?). A better understanding of the actual decisions made after receiving agricultural knowledge is essential to predict and shape behaviors that impact the agriculture industry.
  • The final targeted output of this multi-state project would be an evaluation of agricultural literacy programs in relation to how they impact participants’ critical thinking and problem solving abilities. These evaluations will help identify best practices and sharing those with other agricultural literacy program leaders to make positive changes to their own programs.

Outcomes or Projected Impacts

  • This multi-state project has the potential to positively impact the knowledge acquisition and decision-making processes of consumers, producers, and other agriculture industry professionals. Participants’ resulting behavior changes are also a critical component of this project. Evaluating what is currently happening and working to make programs more successful will benefit the agriculture industry.


(2020):Each member of the committee will select a specific research objective of the three to pursue. Then research teams will form between committee who choose a similar objective. These research teams will identify key research opportunities in the respective research objective they choose. Finally, research teams will begin to develop research plans to ensure that each study undertaken can be conducted in the most sites.

(2021):Research teams will finalize research plans, develop and/or adapt instruments, and conduct the research studies. The goal of each research study will be to replicate it across as many research sites as possible to build credibility in the research methods and data. Research teams will be expected to communicate with each other frequently and regularly during this process.

(2023):Research teams will disseminate their findings into scholarly publications as well as professional development venues for practitioners.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Outreach Plan


The research conducted in this project will be distributed and published through a variety of outreach efforts. Specifically, research initiatives will be submitted and/or presented to various journals and conference settings where agricultural literacy is of interest. Possible peer-reviewed publications include, but are not limited to:

- Journal of Agricultural Education
- North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Journal
- Journal of Extension
- Journal of Human Sciences and Extension
- Association for Career and Technical Education Research
- Journal of Career and Technical Education

Possible non-refereed, but peer-reviewed publications include, but are not limited to:

- The Agricultural Education Magazine
- National Science Teachers Association Magazines (Science & Children, Science Scope, Science Teacher, Journal of College Science Teaching)
- National Agriculture in the Classroom Research and Curriculum Matrix

Possible presentations (non-refereed, but peer-reviewed) include, but are not limited to:

- Stakeholder presentations
- PreK-20 professional development workshops
- Post-secondary professional development

Possible conference presentations at the regional and national level for the following professional organizations, but are not limited to:

- American Association for Agricultural Educators
- National Association of Agricultural Educators
- North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture
- National Agriculture in the Classroom
- Food, Land & People

Possible conference presentations at the regional and national levels for the following professional organizations, but not limited to:

- American Association for Agricultural Education
- National Association of Agricultural Educators
- National Extension Educators
- North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture
- National Agriculture in the Classroom
- Food, Land & People

The following websites will be updated with the work of this committee:

- National Agriculture in the Classroom and each state’s website)
- National Center for Agricultural Literacy



The Multistate Agricultural Literacy Research Committee will use the standard form of committee governance as outlined in the Guidelines for Multistate Research Activities, with the exception of the secretary position; the secretary will serve a two-year term without moving into the chair-elect position. This multistate committee met previous to this proposal writing and elected officers as follows:

Chair: Michael Martin (Colorado State University), two-year term. Responsible for organizing the meeting agenda, conducting the meeting, and assuring that task assignments are completed.

Chair-elect: Debra Speilmaker (Utah State University), two-year term. Supports the chair by carrying out duties assigned by the chair. The chair-elect serves as the chair in the absence of the elected chair.

Secretary: Denise Stewardson (Utah State University), two-year term. Responsible for the distribution of documents prior to the meeting and for keeping records on decisions made at meetings (a.k.a. keeping the minutes).

The complete list of committee members is detailed in the NIMSS Appendix E. In addition to carrying out the agreed research collaboration, research coordination, information exchange, or advisory activities, project members are responsible for reporting progress, contributing to the ongoing progress of the activity, and communicating their accomplishments to the committee’s members and their respective employing institutions.

Literature Cited

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Murray State University, Sul Ross State University
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