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Sustainable Agriculture

Living on the Land: Improving Education for Small-Acreage Farmers

Over the past several decades, agricultural land use patterns in the West have changed dramatically. For example, in Nevada, most ranches were larger than 100 acres in the early 1900s; today, more than half of the state's farms are fewer than 10 acres. Increasingly, those small-acreage landowners seek help in managing their livestock and natural resources.

To respond, Sue Donaldson, a University of Nevada water quality education specialist, used a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) professional development grant to develop a wide-reaching curriculum for agricultural educators focusing on growing plants and animals on small properties in environmentally sensitive areas.

“People acquire properties, but they've never managed 2 1/2 acres with flood irrigation before,” Donaldson said. “People leave horses on pasture 365 days a year, and the grass never has an opportunity to recover its vigor. They don't understand how grass grows or how much they're damaging it.”

The curriculum, dubbed “Living on the Land: Teaching Small Acreage Owners to Conserve Their Natural Resources” (co-developed with extension educators in California, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana), covers the basics of goal-setting, soils, water, vegetation, and animals and answers such questions as how to maintain healthy pastures and protect household drinking water.

Initially, the project trained close to 50 educators in 8 western states, including representatives from extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and local conservation districts. Since then, Donaldson has distributed about 900 copies of the program on CD-ROM across the country.

In Idaho, educators are in their second year of teaching “Living on the Land” to a group of eager students.

“No one offers anything similar to this,” said Kevin Laughlin, an extension educator who adapted the program to a hands-on Idaho focus. “They want to be better stewards of the land, and they have a stewardship ethic, but they just don't know how.”

After 18 lessons, the first group emerged with a better understanding of managing natural resources on their ranches, said Laughlin, who has seen new fences and pastures springing up across the seven-county area.

“I have been doing small-acreage programs since 1981, and this is the first program where we're seeing the actual outcomes within a year's time,” he said.


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