Collaboration that Matters: Unpacking 15 Years of Land-Grant University Research to Mitigate a Devastating Pest in the United States


Damilola Ajayi, University of Florida,

Kathleen D. Kelsey, University of Florida,

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Collaboration among land-grant university faculty, staff, and stakeholders is crucial to addressing complex issues that defy solutions through individual efforts. The need for sustainable management practices that are environmentally friendly to mitigate activities of pests on growers’ farms, as well as enhance agricultural production, in the face of rapidly expanding global population, climate change, and increasing food demand is of utmost importance. Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) emerged in the U.S. as an invasive pest in 2008. It is a daunting pest that destroy berry and cherry crops globally. Marketers have a zero-tolerance policy for SWD in fruit and are declared a total loss at market. Over the past 15 years, a multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary land-grant university team has created and disseminated a variety of mitigation strategies to growers. This study identified factors underpinning the successful outcomes of the collaborative team using single case study design. Eighteen researchers were involved in the project, 12 agreed to participate in the study. Data collected through interviews, participant observations, and documents were inductively and deductively coded to explore the variables responsible for the unusually long-term collaboration. Participants described their experiences as professional, productive, and expertise based. Factors that positively impacted the team’s high production record included their ability to collaborate, the nature of the problem (invasive pest protocols), team expertise, professional relationships, respect for others, openness, effective communication, positive personality, support for one another, division of labor, and choice/flexibility to join various research projects. The use of improved communication tools and data-sharing software were recommended to further improve transparency and productivity.


Land-grant university researchers, Extension specialists, and growers have been collaborating to mitigate agricultural and nutritional challenges in the U.S. for over 160 years with great success using the historical research and Extension model that evolved from the Morrill Act of 1862 (Seevers et al., 1997). The need for environmentally sound practices that promote sustainable, efficient, and enhanced agricultural production and nutritional best practices to meet the increasing demands for food and industrial raw materials globally has continued to benefit from this model and is thriving under the leadership of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), among other sources.

Researchers, Extension specialists, growers, government, and non-profit organizations collaborate to solve complex agricultural and socio-ecological challenges that defy individual efforts (Bodin, 2017). Active collaboration among diverse teams have been a foundational principle for addressing complex problems such as environmental management (Eaton et al., 2022), growers’ health and safety needs (Reed et al., 2021), energy conservation on farms, crop and animal production, and pest control (Macknick et al., 2022; Worley et al., 2021). The emergency response from land-grant university researchers to the destructive activities of Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii) (SWD), a devastating invasive pest of berry and cherry crops (Sial et al., 2020), bolstered the need for scientific collaboration across the U.S. and globally. Limited information exists on social factors responsible for long-term scientific collaborations for tackling invasive pests. Therefore, there is a need to explore the factors responsible for sustaining long-term collaborations that hold the potential to mitigate the SWD infestation in the U.S.

Theoretical Framework

Social constructivism defines learning as a deliberate social practice involving the negotiation of shared knowledge among actors, resulting in a shared understanding of reality. (Bruner, 1966; Dolittle & Camp, 1999; Gasper, 1999; Kant et al., 1934). According to Akpan et al. (2020), social constructivism draws on collaboration for effective learning. In this single case study, we applied Gray’s (1989) theory of collaboration to explore the factors responsible for the long-term collaboration between land-grant university researchers and stakeholders in proffering sustainable management practices for SWD in the U.S. Gray explained that collaboration as “a joint decision-making process among key stakeholders of a problem domain about the future of that domain” (1989, p. 227). Ankrah and Omar (2015) and Bekkers and Bodas (2008) expanded this definition to include cooperation, interaction, and relationships between individuals in social settings or organizations that are targeted at enhancing knowledge sharing or information transfer.

Agriculture by nature faces intricate social, environmental, and agronomic challenges. This has prompted Extension programming and agricultural education to develop collaborative strategies focused on identifying specific issues affecting the environment, conveying such information to land-grant researchers, stimulating the formation of interdisciplinary teams of researchers to address them, and organizing educational programs to reach growers through Extension services (Blanco, 2020; Sulandjari et al., 2022; Coutts et al., 2017; Velten et al., 2021).

Collegiality among researchers has also been identified as a critical factor that enhances scientific research collaborations and productivity (Marlows & Nass-Fukai, 2000) via trustworthy connections as individuals are recognized as equals and for their distinctive contribution to the team (Thorgensen & Mars, 2021). Collegiality facilitates learning and professional development among collaborators (Kelly & Cherkowski, 2015; Rensfeldt et al., 2018). Long-term interdisciplinary collaboration among agricultural researchers from various institutions and Extension professionals has been shown to foster the social construction of agricultural knowledge, solve complex problems, and advance research in dynamic environments beyond the reach of individual efforts. Collaboration extends to growers, facilitating necessary changes in agricultural practices (Díaz, 2021; Pham & Tanner, 2015).

Some of the benefits arising from long-term scientific research collaboration include connecting experts across geographically diverse research communities, who bring differing global perspectives to manage complex challenges, provide problem solving skills to growers and advance agricultural practices and development (Arnal, 2018; Sulandjari et al., 2022). Other desirable social benefits are enhanced understanding, co-innovation, co-authorship, interactive learning, public-private partnerships, public diffusion of results, commercialization of research products, and profit maximization. Individual benefits include self -reflection, increased academic funding and publications, research advancement, reduction in orientation barriers among universities, and trust building among collaborators (Arsenyan et al., 2015; Bekkers & Bodas-Freitas, 2008; Bekkers & Bodas-Freitas, 2011; Brown et al. 2021; Cantner et al., 2017; Cronin et al, 2003; Duta & Martinez-Rivera, 2015; Geissdoerfer et al., 2018; Li, 2015; Skelcher et al., 2013; Storksdieck et al., 2016; Tartari et al., 2012; van der Wal et al., 2021; Wuchty et al., 2007).

Despite wide adoption of collaboration and its significance in various fields, challenges to collaboration include power sharing, consensus building, diverse stakeholder needs, higher trade-offs compared to joint gains (Margerum & Robinson, 2016), deep-seated cultural and regional bias and language (Hill et al., 2012; Schubert & Glanzel, 2006), conflicts (Margerum & Robinson, 2016), non-representativeness of stakeholder views (Purdy, 2012), and legal and regulatory policies among collaborating institutions (Jeong et al., 2011). Regardless of barriers, collaboration among individuals, organizations, and institutions continues to rise as the benefits far outweigh the limitations (Abramo et al., 2013). Dossou-Kpanou et al. (2020) and Paphawasit and Wudhikarn (2022) observed that an important factor that enhanced collaboration was formal and informal communication that engenders trust, familiarity, cooperation, and connectedness. It follows that for an innovation to be developed and adopted, there must be effective communication (Foray & Steinmueller, 2003; Rogers, 2003). Agricultural education and Extension play a crucial role in communicating innovations by incorporating research findings into the literature and developing curricula to reach a broad audience (Ikendi et al., 2023).


The purpose of the single case study was to explore the factors responsible for building an enduring collaborative team by describing participants’ experiences as members of a long-term scientific collaboration focused on mitigating SWD infestation in the U.S. Specifically, this study sought to answer the following research questions:

  1. What were participants’ roles within the collaborative team?
  2. What factors contributed to building collegiality?
  3. What factors contributed to the long-term sustainability of the team?
  4. What were the benefits of the collaboration over time?
  5. What challenges did the participants face in establishing a resilient team?
  6. How did participants experience communication within the team?


We employed a single case study design to answer the research purpose. This approach focuses on gaining an in-depth understanding of a phenomenon under real-life contextual conditions using multiple units of analysis (Yin, 2003). This design is suitable for program evaluation and groups within organizations or agencies (Creswell, 2007). The design was best suited for this study because our case represents a unique long-term collaboration among land-grant universities researchers and was bounded by people, place, and time. Eighteen researchers were involved in the collaboration, 12 agreed to participate in the study, ten of which were entomologists and two were economists. Nine identified as male and three as female. Six worked in the Northeast U.S., three worked in the Southwest, two worked in the Southeast and one worked in the Northwest. The average experience of the researchers was 10 years, and they had at least three junior researchers working in their laboratories. Participants were experts in the fields of economics and entomology and represented 10 states with SWD infestation. In presenting the data we used pseudonyms to ensure participant’s confidentiality (Creswell, 2013) (see Table 1).

Validity was enhanced using multiple sources of data, which also served to triangulate findings and provide rich descriptions (Creswell, 2013; Yin, 2003). We collected data by (a) observing the team through monthly meetings over an eight-year period; (b) analyzing documents and research protocols produced; and (c) conducting in-depth interviews with the participants, which lasted between 55 to 75 minutes (McLeod-Morin et al., 2020). The interview data were recorded, transcribed, cleaned, and then sent to the participants for member checking to ensure validity and trustworthiness (Creswell & Creswell, 2018).

After feedback was received from the participants, we used ATLAS.ti 22® software for Windows® to analyze the data within the context of the case (Lamm & Carter, 2019). Data were inductively and deductively coded to identify phrases that were consistently mentioned as emergent themes and in alignment with theory and emerging themes. Interview data were independently coded by investigators and codes were compared to achieve inter-rater reliability and thematic credibility (Saldaña & Omasta, 2020). These were later triangulated with observation and document data (Wright et al., 2021; Yin, 2003). Observation notes and artifacts were used to triangulate interview findings. Data saturation was achieved when there were no new revelations in the data. Credibility was established through multiple data sources (Yin, 2003) including peer debriefing to ensure our conclusions were consistent with participants’ lived experiences (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008; Merriam, 1988).

To minimize biases (Creswell, 2013), reflexivity was achieved by reporting our background as a Ph.D. student and professor in the department of Agricultural Education and Communication. We engaged monthly with the SWD team and acted as participant observers in the capacity of external evaluators. Memos were kept all through the data collection and analysis process for bracketing purposes to ensure internal reliability and highlighting salient themes (Saldaña & Omasta, 2020). Our findings are part of a larger study conducted over eight years. Due to the qualitative nature of this study and the small population involved, findings may not be generalizable beyond this context. Furthermore, the population is limited to interdisciplinary agricultural researchers from land-grant universities in the U.S. We assumed that the participants gave honest answers to the questions and were actively involved in collaborative efforts for approximately 15 years. Abundant evidence confirms these assertations.


Q1. What Were Participants Roles within the Collaborative Team?

We found that the team consisted of researchers with diverse professional backgrounds, experiences, distinct roles, and responsibilities who intentionally contributed their assets and joined forces to achieve optimal outputs nationwide as displayed in Table 1. Seven participants acted in several research capacities within the collaborative team. They played different and sometimes multiple strategic roles within the team. For example, William and Jason helped to secure permits for field releases of a parasitic wasp from governmental agencies for all the collaborators, bred and raised mass beneficial parasitoids, trained laboratory assistants in other states on the rearing procedures, and distributed parasitoids to five collaborators (Caleb, Daniel, Charles, Anthony and Noah) for field release.

James, the leader of the national research team, explained that “the project was organized by objectives, with at least two researchers leading each objective.” He collaborated with Grace and they both “worked directly with berry and cherry grower/influencers to implement what we know to economic aspects, to behavioral and biological control, chemical control and resistance management aspects of this project.” Grace corroborated James’ explanation stating that she “actively built the research and Extension program in N.E., specifically working blackberry and some blueberry growers and also leading objective one, which was coordinating grower engagement throughout the country.”

According to, William his “role on this project was to investigate natural enemies of SWD and then participate and co-lead the foreign exploration for new natural enemies. This lab was primarily responsible for securing the USDA APHIS permit to get this important beneficial insect through the USDA APHIS and North American Plant Organization to get permits to release Ganaspis brasiliensis as planned releases for states as a form of classic bio control.”

There was clear evidence that the research team was composed of diverse professionals with significant expertise. They were very productive in addressing the complicated challenges imposed by SWD. Furthermore, the team allocated sufficient time to individuals to provide updates on their work, discuss the research protocols, share approval permits, and discuss challenges.

Table 1

Demographic Characteristics of the Population

NameGenderSpecializationRegionYears Collaboration
James, PIMaleEntomologySE12
EvaFemaleMolecular biologistSW10
WilliamMaleEntomology/ BiologistNE6

Note. Southeast (SE), Southwest (SW), Northeast (NE), Northwest (NW).

Q2. Were Team Members Collaborative, If So, What Factors Contributed to Building Collegiality?

This dataset resulted in three themes to explain factors underlying collegiality and productivity. There were (a) nature and distribution of the problem; (b) need for expertise; and (c) quest for knowledge.

Theme 1: Nature and Distribution of the Problem

We found that the research team was exceptionally collaborative and relied on each other’s expertise and social networks to build collegiality. When asked about the factors contributing to team building, James stated “We faced a problem that crosses state boundaries… which no one person or one team could address… we needed to engage as many states, co-principal investigators, and laboratories as possible, to investigate multiple aspects of this project and to develop a program that is appropriate, not only for one region but multiple regions because this is an across the board problem for berry and cherry crops and the pest (SWD) needs different strategies specific to each crop and environment.” This corroborates the response given by Anthony, who stated that “due to the distribution of the pest across the U.S., there was need for concerted efforts which facilitated collegiality.”

Theme 2: Need for Expertise

Each collaborator identified various roles to assume within the greater whole to address the grand challenge. For example, Noah identified the need for testing different technologies in different states under different conditions, Jason and William reported that their focus was on gaining access to biological agents from other collaborators in Europe, South Korea, and Southern China as well as obtaining permits from government authorities for parasitoid rearing and distribution to U.S. laboratories, and its eventual release in the field. Emmanuel and Olivia reported that “the need for economic insight on the implementation of the research technologies in the eastern and western U.S. necessitated their contributions to building the collaboration.” This was also supported by James who stated that “Emmanuel and Olivia were leading economic analysis, and everybody is participating with them to evaluate economic aspects of the different IP strategies that we are developing.” From Eva’s perspective, “the need for genomics analysis to identify insecticide resistance in SWD across the nation” facilitated collegiality among members.

Theme 3: Quest for Knowledge

Leveraging fundamental knowledge from the first academic laboratory where the research began upon the detection of the pest in the U.S. and the need to learn more about what’s going on around the country were cited as major reasons for collegiality in the team. According to Caleb, “our lab was the first academic lab to work with SWD, because it was found here in California originally when it was first found in United States in 2008. And so, we worked with that before we even knew what species SWD was and so the initial work was just trying to control it any way [possible].” This statement was reinforced by Charles, who reported that “working with scientists that started the work plus personal interest in knowing current research trends and needs” facilitated collegiality. Further, Daniel explained that the “need to expand the research beyond high to wild blueberry, which is different from other types of berries produced in other states” was a contributory factor to the team’s collegiality.

Q3. What Factors Contributed to the Long-Term Sustainability of the Team?

Six themes emerged to describe factors associated with the sustained relationships of the team

Theme 1: Collaboration with Good People

Anthony, who worked with the team for 10 years, described the team as a “good, collaborative, and productive team. We support each other. It’s a great team of people to work with and that is why I have continued with this team for so many years.” Emmanuel explained that working with the group was “quite worth it and is excellent. I couldn’t work in a nicer group environment; they are they are wonderful. I have learned a lot from them. I wish I could have more contact with all of them.” William also reported that “we have some good people on board, … they have been very effective and efficient.” Similarly, Olivia stated that “the folks on the grant have been really helpful if, for example, Charles has helped me very intensely in seeking growers’ contacts and pest consultants and Caleb has directed me to the right people to start asking questions for pest consultants.”

Theme 2: Professionalism

Professionalism was demonstrated by the team of researchers. Caleb and Grace stated that integrity, good personality, respect for each other, willingness to learn and researcher expertise were instrumental to the success of the team. In Charles words “They are genuinely invested in solving problems, they share, and all that and I think we’re all for the most part, motivated by that.”Other factors identified by William, Daniel, and Eva included pre-existing student-advisor relationships, which evolved into collegial relationships and support as students moved into faculty roles.

Theme 3: Capacity Development and Networking

Career development was an important factor that contributed to the team’s long sustainability Daniel identified “prospects for career development as a researcher and the opportunity to work with good people as factors that have contributed to the team’s sustainability over the years.” Noah also explained that “one thing that the project does is that it helps you to be involved with a big network of researchers…. Charles and Daniel are coming to visit us …, because they are going to get Ganaspis and they are going to stop by on their way, and I am going to meet them…it is like networking for early career.”  Grace stated that the research and professional relationships that existed had “exposed young researchers to multiple and different research teams around the country. And that’s been really beneficial for them as they move on in their careers” Olivia reported that “the bolus of this project is that I was able to connect with different pesticide consultants in the state of Washington and they were able to collect data on what programs or strategies to control for different pests and diseases for blueberries and sweet cherries in the Pacific Northwest including obviously, Spotted Winged Drosophila.

Theme 4: Communication

Frequent communication was found to be a strong factor for the sustained collaboration in this study. All 12 of the participants reported that good communication among team members and well-structured regular meetings were instrumental to the sustained collaboration. From our observations, a monthly general meeting was held to discuss team progress while sub-teams meet independently to advance their research efforts. In addition, participants communicated through email.

Theme 5: Synergy and Cohesion

Emmanuel and Noah stated that he was motivated by the intelligence of team members, commitment to the work, good understanding of research activities, flow and openness of the team to new research ideas, transparent activities, team spirit, less competition, and freedom to select areas of research interests. This was corroborated with our observations as scientists demonstrated good understanding of their roles and asked for clarifications from other researchers working on a specialized aspect of the research. There was unity within the team with few incidences of tension, conflict or strife. We observed that the team was composed of mature minds who were interested in solving problems rather than pursuing individual interests.

Theme 6: Leadership

Eleven participants reported that strong leadership, excellent team coordination, and regularly scheduled meetings were influential factors contributing to long-term sustainability of the team. According to Charles “I think a lot of that comes from the leadership. The leader has been good at getting us on regular meetings to talk about all the pieces of the project. So, I think just his regular organization of those meetings has really helped. We also have sub-objectives, and objective meetings through the year and that’s been good for keeping in contact with people.”

Q4. What Were the Benefits of the Collaboration Over Time?

To explore the benefits of collaboration, participants were asked to describe the outcomes accruable to the collaboration. Advancing their scientific understanding of the biology and ecology of the pest and its mitigation were the primary benefits of collaboration. This was described as gaining a novel understanding of location specific control strategies for SWD, capacity building in leadership, access to statewide datasets, employment and research opportunities, and expansion of the body of literature through multiple research publications.

Specifically, James reported that, “I now know that SWD needs different strategies specific to each crop and region and we have been able to develop reduced risk insecticides with non-target effects as well as insecticides for multiple modes of action.” Charles stated that he “gained significant knowledge from the discoveries made by the team and that has placed him in a better position to act in an Extension capacity.” While Grace explained that the collaboration provided junior researchers platforms to serve in leadership roles within a national research team, Eva stated that the collaboration provided students the research opportunity to build their technical bio-informatics skills and practically develop genomics sequencing libraries.

Furthermore, Daniel reported that the long-term collaboration resulted in multiple joint publications in different research areas and has also given laboratory staff and graduate students opportunities to lead research, gain experience and promote their careers in academia and industry. According to Anthony, the sustainable collaboration “allowed us to complete, finish, and continue some of the work that we started in the last project and hadn’t really completely finished and achieved our objectives.” Emmanuel stated that the collaborative efforts have enabled his graduate students to secure employment opportunities both locally and internationally.

Other attributes highlighted by the participants include increased knowledge through the practical use of a technology, which was presumed to fail, development of non-chemical-based control solutions needed by clients to manage their crop losses, development of interpersonal relationships, access to statewide integrated pest management data, new research collaborations among participants on other projects, identification and hiring of good researchers and technicians into permanent positions in their laboratories, established partnership with agrochemical firms, expansion of social network on a global scale, and attracting funding opportunities from private organizations.

Q5. What Challenges did the Participants Face in Establishing a Resilient Team?

We identified challenges that were linked to institutional and coordination complexities that are typical of diverse and multi-stakeholder collaborations. However, we found that the COVID-19 pandemic was the major constraint that imposed both laboratory and field restrictions on the collaboration as it halted travel, hiring of staff, acquisition of equipment, and other research materials. This was not surprising as the pandemic impacted all sectors globally.

While not a barrier to success, James and Anthony reported that “having big teams across many states, the number of co-PIs, multiple regions, and a number of institutions involved in the collaboration made coordination and management a bit challenging.”According to Grace, the structure of leadership was a challenge as some leaders were more effective than others. “People who naturally work well together, work together. Those who don’t naturally work well together do their own thing and they generate a lot of their data, and they are productive, but they are not productive in a coordinated approach.” Furthermore, a shift in the roles of participants as they relocated due tocareer advancement was also identified as a challenge as it caused a temporary shortage of expertise and quick implementation of collaborative decisions was impeded. Grace also explained that assumption of roles that required special social science expertise by entomologists was “a bit out of the wheelhouse” for some of the participants which increased their responsibilities.

While Jason and Daniel reported that the bureaucracy involved in securing approvals from regulatory agencies as impediments to the collaboration processes, Caleb and Emmanuel explained that due to the complicated nature of the research, available space for field work, environmental conditions, different types of crops and their production systems, some participants adapted different treatments, which limited standardization of result and availability of economic data across states.

Q6. How Did Participants Experience Communication Within the Team?

All 12 participants described the communication patterns existing among the collaborative team as “good” and “effective” by adopting different communication channels including monthly virtual meetings over Zoom®, emails, phone calls, as well as in-person visits to disseminate information and coordinate activities.

Specifically, Olivia stated that frequent communication regarding research updates reinforced the team’s ability to work closely together. This perspective was corroborated by 11 participants who stated that the regular monthly meetings structured by the team leadership to talk about all the pieces of the project contributed to the effectiveness of communications among members. While Eva explained that, “though the team is spread across the U.S., I don’t think there are necessarily any barriers or problems in terms of communication.” Jason reported that, “unlike other past research collaborations where I was a member, which felt almost secretive, and not knowing what other researchers in the team were doing, the communication here is fantastic, well-coordinated, very open and it feels nice to be a team member.” This view was supported by Caleb who stated, “the communication in this project has been really good, and it is not always like that with a lot of other projects. I am not afraid of saying what I am doing, what I am finding, and I never got the impression that someone is going to take my idea and run with it.”

Although Emmanuel explained that due to the difference in team members’ professional background, “it was initially challenging for me to communicate what my profession could bring as an economist to the project as most of the researchers thought that economists were accountants.” Nevertheless, his communication with the team members improved when they became more receptive to the analytical tools he developed to provide more economic information about their entomology work. In contrast, Grace described the communication as “kind of fragmented as some folks really pay close attention, communicate, and have a pretty strong grasp of everything that’s being done, and then there are some team members again, who are focused on their specific area and may not be super engaged with others.”

Conclusions, Discussion, and Recommendation

In conclusion, participants reported a high degree of esprit décor and low competition that resulted in a sustained long-term successful and highly productive collaboration over 15 years. Our findings have elucidated several key factors that enhanced the long-term collaboration and can be applied to other teams seeking to extend partnerships for enhanced problem solving and productivity. Our participants engaged in (a) leveraging fundamental knowledge (of SWD) from founding researchers to junior faculty, thereby expanding social capital to create a demand for professional expertise within the group; (b) sharing personal interest in knowing current research needs and trends; (c) and extending research findings across crops and regions.

The team created an atmosphere of support for each other including career development and networking for junior researchers. Members were open to sharing research ideas without fear of intellectual theft and were transparent with research activities. Other factors that contributed to success included good communication among members, integrity, collegial personalities, willingness to learn, high intelligence, commitment to hard work, and good leadership. Our findings demonstrate that successful teams are productive, and this group has successfully mitigated the destructive activities of SWD in the U.S. Consistent with the literature, we found similar benefits of collaboration including (a) creating new location and crop specific control strategies for SWD; (b) development of new non-target chemical control technology; (c) leadership capacity building and professional development for students and junior researchers; (d) sharing of information on research and Extension positions; (e) access to statewide datasets; (f) knowledge sharing, and (g) expansion of the body of literature through multiple research publications (Abramo et al., 2013; Baker et al., 2020; Gladman, 2015; Koskenranta et al., 2020; Paphawasit & Wudhikarn, 2022 ).

Nevertheless, a few challenges constrained realizing the full potential of the team including the COVID-19 pandemic, limited funding, bureaucracy in securing governmental approvals and certifications for the parasitoid project, complexity of member coordination, and relocation of members over the life of the project.

This study provides empirical evidence that interdisciplinary and multi-institutional teams serve as a vehicle for research advancement in the agricultural sector. The team used a variety of approaches to create solutions to address a complex agricultural problem that could not have been solved in isolation. Aligning with Bryson and Crosby (2015), Felin and Zenger (2014), Fernandes and O’Sullivan (2021), and Garcia et al. (2020), multi-stakeholder collaborations are often stimulated by a common problem and the decision to collaborate is influenced by competitive relevance, characterized by a diversity of knowledge among team members.

The findings from this study are relevant to principles of agricultural education, communication, and leadership in several meaningful ways. The practice of leveraging fundamental knowledge from founding researchers to junior members exemplifies effective knowledge transfer, a core principle in agricultural education (Roberts et al., 2023; Wright, 2021). Agricultural education and Extension programs can incorporate these practices to foster a supportive learning environment, where emerging professionals are encouraged to develop their careers through mentorship and networking opportunities (Hur et al., 2023). The team’s approach to sharing personal interests in current research needs and trends, as well as extending research findings across crops and regions, highlights the importance of collaborative learning, which is critical for agricultural Extension (Croom et al., 2022; Franz et al., 2010, Narine et al., 2019). The team’s commitment to open communication and transparency in research activities is a cornerstone of effective agricultural communication. By fostering an environment where ideas are freely shared without fear of intellectual theft, agricultural educators can encourage a culture of trust and innovation among students and researchers (Ashfield et al., 2020).

It is recommended that agricultural professionals engage in collaborative research to showcase their expertise, attract visibility to their research, build their social capital and contribute significantly to the body of literature while solving complex problems. With the increasing call for collaboration from funding agencies, practitioners should focus on the use of improved communication tools and data-sharing software such as MS Teams, Slack, or Share point for collaboration purposes. Giving members the liberty to choose from research components of interest, prioritizing integrity and transparency regarding research activities, and demonstration of support for one another are critical factors for successful, productive, and sustainable long-term collaborative teams. Future research could explore how growers’ knowledge and experience of SWD have changed over time and the effect of these innovations on SWD on their farms. The study was limited by the scope, participant non-respondents, and the small sample size, which may impede transferability of the findings to other cases.


This project was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (project number 2020-51181-32140), and facilitated by the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, and 12 other universities. Ajayi, D. and Kelsey, K. co-conceptualized the study, co-developed the methodology, co- collected, and analyzed the data, and co-wrote the manuscript.


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The Challenges of Being an Urban Student of Color in Agricultural Education, Through the Eyes of Their Teachers

Callan Hand, Tift County Schools, Georgia

Ashley M. Yopp, Florida Department of Education

D. Barry Croom, University of Georgia,

James C. Anderson II, University of Georgia

Aaron Golson, University of Georgia

PDF Available


This study explored how agricultural education can increase the retention of non-traditional, urban agriculture students of color by supporting students’ academic and career goals while identifying the motivational factors related to student retention in agriculture. This explored teachers’ perceptions of their students’ motivation to stay in agriculture. The data were collected through interviews. The data were analyzed by qualitative methodology. Teachers expressed concern about students’ futures in agriculture and their hope to push students toward a future in agriculture. This was based on several key factors that either encouraged or thwarted their engagement in agriculture.


Teachers support students of color in Career and Technical Education (CTE) by eliminating barriers, promoting inclusivity, and providing guidance and resources (Warren & Alston, 2007). They advocate for equal opportunities, address biases, and create inclusive classroom environments that encourage collaboration and respect. This is particularly important for students of color in agricultural education, as the job market in this field is strong. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a high demand for graduates in agriculture and natural resources (Goecker et al., 2015), with 22 million jobs related to agriculture and food sectors in 2018 (United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2023). However, students of color pursue agricultural careers at lower rates than their Caucasian counterparts (Silas, 2016).

Despite progress in Black student participation in schools (Levine & Levine, 2014), retaining them in agricultural professions remains challenging (Vincent et al., 2012). Many minority youths perceive agriculture as low-paying, lacking prestige, and demanding excessive work for inadequate wages (Dumas, 2014; Larke & Barr, 1987; Talbert et al., 1999). Historical exclusionary policies and a lack of representation in the agricultural industry contribute to this perception, limiting access to role models and mentors. These experiences have led to a distrust of the field and low interest in pursuing agricultural careers.

Negative stereotypes about farming and agriculture also discourage Black students, who may see it as physically demanding, low-paying, and offering limited growth opportunities, mainly if they

come from urban backgrounds with little exposure to agriculture.

Theoretical Framework: Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT)

Our research was guided by social cognitive career theory (SCCT) developed by Lent and Brown (2002). SCCT provides a comprehensive lens for examining career development and motivation, emphasizing self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, interests, goals, and social influences in shaping career choices. We explored teachers’ views on students’ self-efficacy in agriculture and the factors contributing to or hindering its development. We also examined students’ expectations about benefits and opportunities in agriculture careers. We also investigated students’ interests in agriculture, career-related objectives, and teachers’ influence on their career decisions, including cultural and societal factors. Furthermore, we assessed the unique barriers students of color face in pursuing agricultural careers and their impact on motivation. SCCT guided our analysis of teachers’ perceptions, identifying opportunities for intervention and support to enhance students’ motivation and success in agriculture.

Research Objectives

The research objective was to describe teachers’ perceptions of students’ motivation to enroll in agriculture courses and pursue agricultural careers upon graduation.

Agricultural Education in Urban Schools

For most of the twentieth century, agricultural education has focused its attention on teaching traditional production agriculture (Croom, 2008; Talbert et al., 2022) to students who were usually rural, white males who grew up on a farm (Dyer & Breja, 2003). However, in the last twenty years, agricultural education and career and technical education, in general, have embraced a more diverse student population (Xing et al., 2019). Non-traditional, secondary agricultural education programs are typically urban and diverse in student enrollment and curriculum (Lawrence et al., 2013; Robinson et al., 2013; Yopp et al., 2018). As the student population in the United States continues to diversify, it has become increasingly crucial for agricultural educators to tap into students’ varying backgrounds and cultures to make real-life connections between what they learn in the classroom and a future in agriculture (Esters & Bowen, 2005). This support is accomplished by utilizing student interests, background, and culture in teaching. Barton and Tan (2009) investigated student diversity by studying low-income urban students and their cultural backgrounds. They found that the cultural knowledge and resources that urban youth bring to a classroom are essential elements in student engagement in the classroom. Students are willing to use their funds of knowledge openly in the classroom because the teacher invited them to do so in the classroom lessons and activities (Kenny & Bledsoe, 2005; Westbrook & Alston, 2007).


This study employed a phenomenological approach involving interviews with two agriculture teachers at a model urban agricultural education program.

Demographic Data and Descriptions of Participants

The researchers met with the school’s lead administrator to identify suitable teachers for the study. Teacher One was a white female biotechnology teacher, coded as Teacher One. Teacher Two was an African-American female horticulture teacher, coded as Teacher Two.

Data Collection

We used a semi-structured interview with teachers. Pre-determined questions guided the first discussion; however, we used probing questions to encourage the participants to elicit deeper thinking about their responses. These questions were designed to elicit thoughts and opinions about the students’ lived experiences in the classroom from a teacher’s perspective to learn more about students’ support systems within the school setting. We made observational notes throughout the study, using techniques recommended by Leatherman and Niemeyer (2005).

Data Analysis

We utilized template analysis, a method of thematically analyzing qualitative data (King, 2023). Template analysis was chosen as the method of data analysis for this study because the researchers sought to understand participants’ lived experiences, thoughts, and behaviors with common and shared meanings through semi-structured interviews and a questionnaire (Braun & Clarke, 2012). This method often begins with a priori codes to help identify themes potentially relevant to the analysis (King, 2023). Once a priori themes were defined, we read through the data, marking segments that appeared to tell us something of relevance to the research question. New themes were defined to include the relevant material and organized into an initial template. We transcribed the teacher interviews and became familiar with the entire data set against relevant segments of previous data found on the research topic. We coded each response and divided the codes into themes. After the themes were developed, we included quotes from study participants that best supported the themes. We used informal member checking, a standard method to maintain validity and establish trustworthiness in qualitative research (Candela, 2019; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This was achieved by following up with the two teachers in the study. We sent emails to both teachers with quotes made by each one to ensure that what they said in the interview was accurate. The researchers also employed reflexivity related to the researcher’s perceptions and opinions on the research topic— the internal and external values that impact non-traditional, urban agriculture students’ intent to stay in agriculture.


Description of School Site

The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences is a specialized public high school located on the southwest side of a major midwestern city. It was established in 1985 to provide urban students with agricultural education opportunities. It serves around 700 students in grades 9-12, offering a rigorous college preparatory curriculum emphasizing science, math, and technology. The school provides hands-on learning experiences in agriculture and environmental science, including access to a campus farm with a greenhouse, livestock barns, and crop fields. Students can engage in extracurricular activities such as FFA, 4-H, and environmental clubs, and [The School] has received recognition for its innovative educational program.

Unique to the Midwest, this school offers urban students interested in science and math the chance to expand their agricultural knowledge through various pathways, including Agricultural Finance, Agricultural Mechanics, Animal Science, Food Science and Technology, Horticulture, and Biotechnology in Agriculture. The student population comprises a diverse mix, with approximately 48% African American, 31% White, 19% Hispanic, and 0.1% Asian, totaling 804 students during the data collection year. The school’s mission is to prepare and engage students in urban agriculture careers (Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, 2021).

Teacher Perceptions of Student Interest in Agricultural Education

Participants in the study identified several themes affecting student engagement in agriculture, including (1) inclusion and representation, (2) overcoming challenges, (3) urban-rural divide, (4) fostering connections, (5) recognizing student achievements and skills, (6) providing a supportive learning environment, and (7) creating relevant, relatable curriculum.

During interviews, teachers mentioned two agricultural youth organizations: The National FFA Organization (FFA) and Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS). FFA, founded in 1928, is the largest U.S. student-led organization, boasting over 700,000 members from all states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (National FFA Organization, 2022). MANRRS, established in 1986, promotes diversity and inclusion in agriculture and related fields, advocating for underrepresented minority groups (MANRRS, 2023).

A Seat at the Table

When discussing whether or not urban students had a disadvantage in agriculture, Teacher One said that her students indeed have a disadvantage. Industry professionals and fellow educators have told her that urban agriculture students have nothing to offer to the field. As Teacher One expressed:

It’s very disheartening when you hear some of the things that have been said or spoken to [students] or questions that were asked, like within the same organization, in the same state, everyone studying agriculture. And a lot of it is just the lack of knowledge or ignorance of youth. But I feel that the students that I teach have a double whammy. So, they have cultural differences when they are put into different groups, and then they have the urban stereotype.

To Teacher One, the most significant barrier between urban and rural students was the lack of camaraderie between the two groups. Teacher Two discussed how her students constantly have to fight the city stereotype of being from a large Midwestern city when they travel to other places for ag-related events. On top of this, students have to fight the cultural differences between students at these events. Because of these two things, she said her students have the added barrier of being both an urban agriculture student and an agriculture student of color. One teacher discussed how agricultural youth organizations seek to improve diversity at events and programs with cultural diversity and inclusion training. However, there is a long way to go. When discussing FFA, Teacher Two discussed how she believes FFA has been ineffective at making their organization relatable to students of color. She explained that, in her opinion, FFA needs to take more action and shift how it reaches urban students so that students can see that they are wanted, seen, and heard and ultimately become more invested in agriculture. As Teacher Two described it,

MANRRS is a little bit smaller on the scale aspect, but they provide the same things, but it feels more like home with them versus, like I said, being a stranger in a familiar place… you don’t want to be in a room where you feel uncomfortable, you feel unwanted, or you can’t relate. And I think FFA has done a poor job at making it relatable to people of color…They need to stop talking and [take] more action, shifting how they’re reaching the urban dynamic, and maybe we’ll have more people invested in it if they show that they’re wanted.

Teachers of students of color feel that their students are “outsiders looking in” because they feel they cannot contribute anything to the field of agriculture. Urban agriculture students are not treated respectfully in agricultural organizations, even though students of color want recognition and a seat at the table.

Genuine Inclusiveness

Regarding inclusiveness and the importance of ensuring students feel safe in agriculture, Teacher Two felt that teachers are not making students feel comfortable in agriculture. Because if students of color do not feel safe, they will not see how agriculture relates to their lives. Teacher One stated:

And so it’s generally when we go to different state-wide events when we open it up to where they’re interacting with kids outside of the city limits. It’s gotten to a point where things are looking at getting changed to have like cultural diversity training and inclusion training and looking at how we can change the organization both at a national level and at a state level, because we talk about diversity and how important that is, and this is for all kids involved in agriculture. But is it accepting of all? How comfortable do the students feel?

One teacher emphasized the importance of educating the next generation about agriculture’s role in feeding the world and nurturing future agriculture leaders. Both teachers strive to make their curriculum relatable and highlight the interconnectedness of everything with agriculture. However, students often fail to see these connections and lack exposure to genuine inclusion efforts, leading to discomfort in agricultural environments and reduced interest in the field. Teacher Two succinctly summarized this issue:

We’re in the era of truth. And the point is, no, we’re not doing our due diligence when it comes to making our kids feel comfortable and safe in ag. And if they don’t feel safe, they don’t see how it’s relatable. They don’t see the benefit other than ‘Oh I get to eat and I have some clothes on my back, maybe a house.’ The students ask, ‘Why would I get invested in these programs? Why would I stick with these organizations? Why would I support these organizations? They’ve done nothing for me.

Ag is a Hard Sell

When discussing prior negative experiences with students at FFA events, Teacher Two discussed how she had noticed more and more of her students going to MANRRS over FFA. She explained that agriculture is a “hard sell” culturally for her African-American students because her students correlate agriculture to slavery. As Teacher Two reported:

But it’s a hard sell, and especially culturally, black people believe that you know, you’re taking me back to the cotton fields kind of thing when they’re farming… like slave labor. I hear that so much. It’s very distressing to hear.

Because of this, she expressed that her students are not interested in pursuing agriculture. Teacher Two added that from her perspective, students are not interested in agriculture and would rather be doctors, lawyers, or pursue prestigious professions. She explained that no one is telling students to pursue careers in soil science and how this bothers her because students think it does not pay well.

No one’s telling kids to be in soil science…Why?? There are so many jobs in soil…And they pay a lot of money and the kids don’t even know…They say no, that’s not fun, I don’t want to do that. I want to be a doctor. So…when we get them there, we can sway a good group of kids to stay in it (Teacher One ).

She further explained that if students are recruited to this field, they can sway a good group of kids to remain in the field long-term. However, before this can happen, students need to feel comfortable and safe and see positive change within their agriculture organizations. When students feel safe, they will be more likely to become interested in pursuing future agriculture opportunities.

Formative Experiences

Teacher One stressed the need to cultivate students’ early appreciation for agriculture outside the classroom. Her own experiences showed how early exposure enriches understanding and sustains interest. She cited an example of a student aspiring to a production agriculture career, underscoring the importance of early exposure in nurturing students’ agricultural interests.

We’re in the era of truth. And the point is, no, we’re not doing our due diligence when it comes to making our kids feel comfortable and safe in ag. And if they don’t feel safe, they don’t see how it’s relatable. They don’t see the benefit other than ‘oh I get to eat and I have some clothes on my back, maybe a house.’ The students ask, ‘why would I get invested in these programs? Why would I stick with these organizations? Why would I support these organizations? They’ve done nothing for me. (Teacher One)

Outside the City Limits

Both Teacher One and Teacher Two talked about how important it is to expose their students to the outside world and give them opportunities to experience agriculture outside of the city where they live. Teacher One discussed how many of her students fear being in an environment without street lights or the comforts they grew up in the city. Therefore, she has found that many students do not have many interactions with the environment outside of the city limits, so they are struggling to make the connections between what they learn in the classroom and the greater aspect of agriculture.

To be in an environment without streetlights or without the standard city parts that they grew up with…the comfort…the students don’t have as much interaction with that. So…with the school, that’s one of the things that we try to give them…those types of experiences…so that they can see what else is out there (Teacher One).

Overall, the teachers found that urban students lack exposure to agriculture outside the classroom. They are not connecting with agriculture on a larger scale because it is not relatable to them in this stage of life. These students are not concerned with the more significant problems they will eventually face once they are out of the classroom. Therefore, students need more meaningful and unique experiences that expose them to the outside world beyond their urban dynamic. In doing so, students will more likely see the value of agriculture and its impact on their lives.

Making the Connection

In discussing the urban students’ barriers in agriculture, Teacher One explained that students could not see the production process and make the farm-to-table connection.

…there’s a disconnect between the food and the production side and understanding how those products get to the market. I also think that [students] are at a slight disadvantage as well, because if they don’t follow through with what is actually happening, once the products leave the farm or whatever step they are in, they’re there in retail and they’re sold then [so students don’t see the connection] (Teacher One).

On this same topic, Teacher Two explained how she grew up in the urban dynamic. Because of this, she works hard to make her agriculture curriculum relatable to her students’ lives whenever possible. Furthermore, she discussed how she shows her students that everything they touch deals with agriculture, and that helps students connect the food on their plates and their own lives. When students can connect agriculture with their own lives, they are more likely to be interested in agriculture and what it offers.

So, since I come from the urban dynamic, I think I try to make it as relatable as possible, and especially when we’re developing this urban ag curriculum for our students. I try to show them that everything that you do and everything that you touch and everything that is around you is dealing with agriculture. And they don’t get it because it’s just like, ‘well, how do I relate this back’? (Teacher Two).

Conclusions and Discussion

The findings of this study reveal the complexities and challenges urban students face in engaging with agricultural education, particularly within the unique context of [The School]. This specialized public high school aims to bridge the urban-rural divide by offering a curriculum focused on science, math, and technology through the lens of agriculture. Despite the school’s innovative approach and the diverse student population, several significant barriers hinder students’ full engagement and interest in agriculture.

Inclusiveness and Representation

One of the predominant themes identified was the need for greater inclusiveness and representation in agricultural education and related organizations. Teachers reported that students often feel like “outsiders looking in,” particularly in organizations like FFA, which have not effectively addressed these students’ cultural and urban backgrounds. This lack of representation contributes to alienation and disinterest in pursuing agricultural careers. Organizations must prioritize genuine inclusiveness to address this, ensuring all students feel seen, heard, and valued.

Overcoming Cultural and Urban-Rural Challenges

The study highlights urban students’ cultural and urban-rural challenges in agricultural settings. Teachers emphasized that their students often combat stereotypes and biases, both from within the industry and from their peers in rural areas. This dual disadvantage can discourage students from engaging deeply with agricultural education. Programs like MANRRS have shown promise in creating a more welcoming environment, but broader efforts are needed to change perceptions and increase cultural competence within the field.

Fostering Connections and Relevance

Another critical finding is that teachers believe in making agricultural education relatable to urban students. Teachers stressed connecting classroom learning with students’ experiences and the broader agricultural context. This includes helping students see the farm-to-table process and understand the relevance of agriculture in their daily lives. Educators can foster a more profound interest and appreciation for the field by contextualizing agriculture within an urban framework.

Supportive Learning Environments

Creating supportive and safe learning environments is crucial for encouraging student engagement. Teachers reported that students need to feel comfortable and secure to see agriculture as a viable and appealing career path. This involves physical safety and emotional and cultural safety, where students’ backgrounds and experiences are respected and valued. Efforts to improve diversity training and inclusion practices at both state and national levels are steps in the right direction but require sustained commitment and action.

The Role of Early Exposure and Extracurricular Activities

Early exposure to agriculture and involvement in extracurricular activities like FFA and MANRRS play significant roles in shaping students’ perceptions and interests. Teachers noted that students who engage with agriculture outside the classroom develop a stronger connection to the field through hands-on experiences and exposure to rural environments. This early engagement is vital for nurturing long-term interest and commitment to agricultural careers.

Addressing Negative Perceptions and Enhancing Recruitment

African American students who associate farming with slavery and labor-intensive work are less likely to see agriculture in a positive light. Educators must work to dispel these myths and highlight the diverse and lucrative career opportunities within agriculture, such as soil science, biotechnology, and agricultural finance. Effective communication about the benefits and possibilities of agriculture is essential to attract and retain students.


The study underscores the need for a multifaceted approach to improving urban students’ engagement with agricultural education. Key strategies include enhancing inclusiveness and representation, overcoming cultural and urban-rural challenges, making curriculum relevant, creating supportive environments, providing early exposure, and addressing negative perceptions. By implementing these strategies, [The School] and similar institutions can better prepare and inspire urban students to pursue fulfilling careers in agriculture, contributing to a more diverse and dynamic agricultural industry.

Future research should explore the long-term impacts of these interventions and identify additional methods to support urban students in agricultural education. Moreover, continued collaboration between educational institutions, agricultural organizations, and communities is essential to create a more inclusive and engaging agricultural education system for all students.


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Perceived Challenges Facing Arkansas Agricultural Education Over the Next Decade

Christopher M. Estepp, University of Arkansas,

Bryan D. Rank, Arkansas Tech University,

Alyssa Johnson, Arkansas Department of Agriculture,

Trent Wells, Murray State University,

PDF Available


Public school teachers face many challenges, which can lead to stress, burnout, and potential attrition from the profession. Scholars have proffered that due to the unique nature of the profession, school-based agricultural education (SBAE) teachers might struggle with more challenges than their non-agricultural counterparts. Previous research has revealed many of the challenges faced by SBAE teachers; however, many of these challenges have focused on professional development or other teacher-centric issues. To ensure the viability and the future of SBAE, we must determine not only the current challenges facing teachers but those on the horizon for the overall profession as well. Therefore, the purpose of our study was to examine the perceived challenges facing Arkansas Agricultural Education over the next decade. Using Chapman’s model of teacher retention, we posited that the challenges faced by SBAE teachers could align with one of five factors in the model leading to teacher attrition. Focus groups were used to solicit data from current SBAE teachers in Arkansas regarding the challenges they perceive facing Arkansas over the next decade. Results showed that SBAE teachers currently face a wide range of perceived personal and professional challenges, and further, the Arkansas SBAE profession will face varying challenges in the coming years. Recommendations include agricultural teacher educators and Arkansas Department of Education staff working together to find practical solutions to mitigate some of the challenges facing Arkansas SBAE. Additionally, further research should be conducted to determine how these perceived challenges relate to teacher attrition.  

Public education in the United States has faced countless challenges including a nationwide shortage of teachers, which has been a persistent, critical issue (Guffey & Young, 2020). School-based agricultural education (SBAE) has not been invulnerable to this shortage and has experienced a lack of qualified educators for many years (Boone & Boone, 2009; Camp, 2000; Eck & Edwards, 2019; Smith et al., 2022). Smith et al.’s (2022) most recent SBAE teacher supply and demand study revealed that between the 2020-2021 and the 2021-2022 academic years, 29 states reported losing SBAE programs or positions; specifically, 60 teaching positions were lost and 30 programs closed. Accordingly, Eck and colleagues (Eck & Edwards, 2019; Eck et al., 2021) voiced concern that the greatest threat facing SBAE will be the lack of quality teachers.

Conversations around this issue have centered on the recruitment, retention, and effectiveness of SBAE teachers. As a result of teacher shortages, many school administrators have been forced to close programs or look to alternatively-certified teachers as a means to help fill positions (Bowling & Ball, 2018). According to Smith et al. (2022), nearly one-third of new SBAE teachers hired for the 2021-2022 academic year (a) possessed an alternative teaching certification, (b) were non-licensed, or (c) their licensure status was unknown. Although alternatively-certified SBAE teachers have been found to possess high levels of skill in technical content, Bowling and Ball (2018) suggested that these teachers struggle with pedagogical effectiveness. The sustainability of SBAE programs is affected by teacher recruitment (Gates et al., 2020; Guffey & Young; 2020), retention (Lemons et al., 2015), and effectiveness (Eck et al., 2019, 2021; Roberts & Dyer, 2004), which are all influenced by the myriad challenges faced by SBAE teachers (Eck et al., 2019).

Many of the challenges faced by SBAE teachers are similar to those faced by teachers in other disciplines. However, due to the unique nature of the three-circle model of Agricultural Education (Croom, 2008), SBAE teachers tend to experience greater challenges resulting from the added responsibilities of FFA advisement and Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAE; Eck et al., 2021). Boone and Boone (2009) conducted a modified Delphi study to determine challenges faced by beginning and veteran SBAE teachers in West Virginia. They concluded that financial compensation, paperwork, time management, and work/life balance were all issues. Work/life balance and time commitments have been perennial challenges faced by SBAE teachers. Torres et al. (2008) argued that SBAE teachers’ time commitments exceed that of core subject teachers leading to work/life balance struggles, high levels of stress, and burnout. These challenges among SBAE teachers have been well-noted (Smith & Smalley, 2018; Touchstone, 2014) and examined as contributors to teacher shortages (Graham et al., 2016; Smith & Smalley, 2018).

Beyond the aforementioned challenges, others have been prevalent as well. McKim and Sorensen (2020) noted that the recent COVID-19 global pandemic resulted in teachers “completely changing their work role while simultaneously adapting to completely restructured life roles” (p. 222), resulting in a considerable decline in job satisfaction. Recent literature described additional challenges related lack of effective boundary-setting (Haddad et al., 2023), juggling multiple professional and personal responsibilities (Traini et al., 2021), and dealing with limited self-efficacy when teaching (or preparing to teach) technical agriculture subject matter (Granberry et al., 2022; Whitehair et al., 2020).

Considering the previous literature, SBAE teachers clearly face a variety of challenges. Much of this literature has focused on the issues facing SBAE teachers at the classroom and personal level; however, little research has examined SBAE teachers’ perceptions of the challenges facing the larger SBAE profession. Thus, this presents an opportunity to examine the topic within the borders of Arkansas. No recent studies focusing on the challenges facing SBAE teachers and the broader SBAE system in Arkansas have been conducted. Doing so will help better inform the state’s SBAE stakeholders about the nature of the challenges facing Arkansas SBAE while concomitantly allowing researchers and state FFA staff to proactively tackle both the current and forthcoming challenges ahead.

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

The theoretical lens for this qualitative study was social constructivism, which is the belief that through social interactions, consensus can be formed among a group about what constitutes knowledge (Ormrod, 2008). Hirtle (1996) posited that within the social context, individuals can reflect with others and create meaning-making in a democratic manner. In the context of this study, Arkansas SBAE teachers were asked to determine the perceived challenges they see facing SBAE in the state over the next ten years. This activity was conducted in a focus group setting allowing teachers to collectively reach consensus regarding the question.

Chapman’s (1983) model of teacher retention (Figure 1) was utilized as the conceptual framework, guiding the categorization of emergent themes. Chapman proposed several factors influence a teacher’s decision whether to stay or leave the profession. These factors were identified as: (a) personal characteristics of the teachers, (b) the nature of teacher training and early teaching experiences, (c) the degree to which the teacher is socially and professionally integrated into the teaching profession, (d) the satisfaction teachers derive from their careers, and (e) the external environmental influences impinging on the teacher’s career (Chapman, 1983).

In alignment with Chapman’s (1983) model, the factors pertaining to the challenges that teachers see facing the SBAE profession in Arkansas, should relate to external influences impinging upon the teacher’s career; however, these challenges can be multifaceted and touch multiple areas of teachers’ personal and professional lives. Internal and external challenges faced by teachers can have a direct impact on teacher attrition (Chapman, 1983) and examining the challenges teachers see facing the profession in the context of Chapman’s model can help build an understanding of why they might leave the classroom. According to Chapman (1983), discerning the characteristics of teacher attrition can influence policies set forth by administrators and how teacher preparation programs prepare their students. Ultimately, this study focused on SBAE teachers’ perceived challenges in hopes to better understand SBAE teacher attrition.

Figure 1

A Model of the Influences on Teacher Retention (Chapman, 1983)


SBAE teacher recruitment, retention, and effectiveness are important factors in the sustainability of SBAE. Many studies have revealed the challenges faced by SBAE teachers, which can affect teacher recruitment, retention, and effectiveness; however, much of the research is dated and has focused on professional development needs and other teacher-centric issues. To ensure the viability and the future of SBAE, we must determine not only the current challenges facing teachers but those on the horizon for the overall profession as well. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the perceived challenges facing Arkansas Agricultural Education over the next decade. The research question guiding this study was: What issues do Arkansas SBAE teachers perceive as being prominent in Agricultural Education in Arkansas over the next ten years?


The available population for this study was all in-service SBAE teachers in the State of Arkansas. E-mail invitations were sent via the Arkansas SBAE teacher email listserv to recruit focus group participants, and each teacher who responded was asked to select the focus group timeslot best aligning with their schedule; no incentives were offered to teachers. Ten SBAE teachers who had all taught for at least one academic year, represented different regions of the state and varying program, school, and community sizes and orientations. One limitation of the study was that only one SBAE teacher from the Eastern District participated; characteristics of participants are shown in Table 1. Three focus groups were conducted during the Spring 2022 semester to engage participants in an open-ended discussion about challenges they perceived affecting the SBAE profession. Additionally, participants were provided the opportunity to propose possible solutions to their concerns.

Table 1

Characteristics of Focus Group Participants

ParticipantGenderYears TeachingSize of SBAE programDistrict
Participant 1Female11Single-teacherNorthwest
Participant 2Male4Multi-teacherNorthwest
Participant 3Female15Single-teacherNorthwest
Participant 4Male23Multi-teacherNorthwest
Participant 5Male13Single-teacherSouthern
Participant 6Female10Single-teacherSouthern
Participant 7Female6Single-teacherSouthern
Participant 8Female3Multi-teacherSouthern
Participant 9Male1Multi-teacherSouthern
Participant 10Female6Single-teacherEastern

The theoretical lens of social constructivism allowed for the use of a focus group approach to collect data (Flick, 2006) enabling participants to socially construct their knowledge regarding the challenges facing Arkansas SBAE over the next decade. Focus groups were conducted using Zoom™ video-conferencing software and the software’s internal transcription feature was used to create a verbatim transcript. A semi-structured interview format was used for each focus group, during which the initial question, “What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Arkansas Agricultural Education over the next 10 years?” was asked. Follow-up probing questions were utilized to encourage conversation and increase the richness of the data (Merriam, 2009; Seidman, 2006). As the conversation evolved, a second question pertaining to how state staff, agricultural teacher educators, and SBAE teachers could collectively help mitigate these challenges was posed. Upon the conclusion of all focus groups, the transcripts were checked and compiled and sent to participants for member checking to ensure the participants’ statements were accurately represented.

Data were independently organized and categorized thematically using two distinct methods of data analysis. First, data were inductively analyzed and coded using the constant-comparative method (Glaser & Straus, 1967) whereby data were grouped into codes and emergent themes and labels were assigned to each. Subsequently, the deductive a priori template of codes method recommended by Crabtree and Miller (1999) was used to compare the emergent themes to Chapman’s (1983) model of teacher retention. Themes congruent with Chapman’s (1983) model were aligned under the applicable model component, while newly emergent themes were presented as potential new components. Once themes were assigned by each individual researcher, the group met to determine the consensus for the final themes.

Each researcher has been involved in agricultural education in various capacities; three of the researchers are agricultural teacher educators with over 25 years of combined experience between secondary and postsecondary agricultural education and one researcher was, at the time of our study, a graduate student involved in agricultural teacher education at the University of Arkansas. To minimize threats to trustworthiness, personal biases were bracketed through conversations, and self-identification of biases was made prior to independent coding. Member checking was used throughout to ensure the participants’ original intent was communicated through the data and subsequent themes.


Initial use of inductive coding (Glaser & Straus, 1967) revealed eleven emergent themes from the transcripts of the three focus groups. These themes were: (1) Changing Demographics; (2) Community and Administrative Support; (3) Content Knowledge; (4) Interpersonal Relationships; (5) Pandemic Recovery; (6) Professional Development/Resources; (7) Nature of SBAE Programs; (8) Recruiting New Teachers; (9) Retaining Teachers; (10) Stress; and (11) Teacher Recognition/Appreciation. These emergent themes were then categorized deductively (Crabtree & Miller, 1999) within the components of Chapman’s (1983) model. The themes fit within Personal Characteristics, Educational Preparation, External Influences, Integration into Teaching and Career Satisfaction components. Additionally, the theme of Recruiting New Teachers emerged from the focus groups and was included as a stand-alone theme.

Personal Characteristics

Changing Demographics

The changing demographics theme included a discussion of the shift from a male-dominated profession to an increasingly female profession. In particular, participants indicated that early- and mid-career teachers are increasingly female and a smaller number of males are choosing to enter preservice teacher education programs. Nonetheless, participants indicated that good teachers are needed and that gender identity was not an indicator of one’s ability to teach. Considering the changing demographic, one participant said, “We are starting to be more female dominated… I feel like we’ve worked really, really, really hard to recruit women into our profession, so we can be more diverse, so we had women representing us I feel like we hardly have any males pursuing the degree,” whereas another participant stated, “I think good teachers are good teachers, whether they’re female or male.” Another participant added, “I don’t think it matters if it’s male or female, like that’s a very good point that a good teacher is good teacher, so I don’t know.” However, there was a concern expressed by Participant 8, who commented, “I worry that we’re not recruiting males as much as we should be now.”

Educational Preparation

Content Knowledge

The content knowledge of preservice and early-career teachers was a concern among the focus group participants. They cited young teachers’ lack of experience and preservice teacher programs’ lack of coursework in certain agricultural content areas. Specifically, knowledge in the agricultural mechanics pathway was described as an area lacking in agricultural teacher education programs. Participant 3 stated, “Ag[ricultural] mechanics has been a huge thing that has changed in the last 10 years. Interns coming out of college lack just the basic knowledge of things in the shop.” A female participant related the gender issue to content knowledge; “So when we think about that typically males are more ag[rigultural] mechanics-heavy, and now all I teach is [agricultural] mechanics, and so I’m worried.”

Professional Development/Resources

Professional development/resources was a theme that included continuing education, as well as sharing of curriculum resources. The participants indicated a need for continuing education from the Arkansas Department of Education, as well as the agricultural teacher education programs in the state. A representative statement from one participant was, “But the things like [TEACHER’S] ladies-only ag[ricultural] mech[anics] workshop, I love that. Or, what I would have loved was Dr. Wells’s Briggs and Stratton workshop, but I got COVID… Giving us more opportunities to break off into those areas where we’re not as strong as far as Team AgEd on the state level, making more of those opportunities known, and, as far as administrative level just supporting us and more PD funds.”

Nature of SBAE Programs

The nature of SBAE programs was a theme which described the multitude of activities occurring within local SBAE programs. This theme included an expression of the need for preservice and early-career teachers to be prepared for the non-academic responsibilities of a SBAE teacher. Fundraising, in particular, was mentioned as one area needing to be addressed in more detail in agricultural teacher education programs. One participant stated, “So fundraising and working with it, that’s gotta be more than just bringing in somebody and saying, you know, ‘sell my product’.” Additionally, participants suggested ways to help preservice teachers learn these types of activities. When working with prospective SBAE teachers, one participant said, “And then I started thinking about it in a different light and showing them the behind the scenes of it; taking those kids along with me on the Lowe’s runs when I have to buy way too much stuff; taking a student who wants to be an ag[riculture] teacher to the fair even though she’s not showing animals. Just grabbing onto those students and giving them as many opportunities as possible even if they’re not necessarily involved in what’s going on.”

External Influences

Community and Administrative Support

Community and administrative support was described as an essential part of a successful program. Building relationships with stakeholders in the community was described as a way to overcome barriers with school structure and administration. However, teachers discussed challenges overcoming administrators’ traditional perceptions of SBAE and FFA, which make it difficult to implement more progressive components in some of their programs. One participant said, “I don’t know how to solve that problem, but selling our programs and getting our programs supported administratively at the local level can have as much of an impact as anything, in my opinion.” While Participant 5 added, “. . .[T]ake [SCHOOL]. . .They’ve had issues in the past with bad administration, or I shouldn’t say bad, but you know, not as supportive, and they’ve pulled the Alumni card, the supporter card, and got the community involved. Even though, they’re really a small group that supports their program.” Participants indicated that they have seen a large turnover in administrators in the past few years. They described cultivating support from administrators as an ongoing challenge. However, they said that supportive administrators also can make the job of teaching more enjoyable and rewarding. Participant 3 mentioned, “The changeover in administrators in Arkansas has been a big shift. . . I feel like in all these years, 15 years of teaching, I’ve seen the switchover of administrators from barely coming into your classroom and barely worrying about what your students are doing. And, the whole teaching bell-to-bell at some schools has not really been a thing, and then I come to a school like I’ve been at the last, you know, six to 10 years and that is a big deal.”


Stress was cited as a consistent challenge among the participants. When discussing stress, participants mentioned the frequency with which change happens in school districts and the lack of training when changes occur. While pandemic-related change was discussed with this challenge, participants mentioned already being stressed by changes at the district, state, and national levels. As Participant 1 explained, “Okay, don’t change things; it’s changing too much already, you know. Don’t! If anything, you know, give us a chance to learn how to deal with what we’re already dealing with. . . Okay, let me get adjusted to where I’m at and what I’m doing, and let me think for a while. You know, if anything, we just need more knowledge on how to get through what we’re going through right now.”

Integration into Teaching

Interpersonal Relationships

Interpersonal relationships were discussed as a challenge in the focus groups. Participants indicated that interpersonal relationships are important in the Agricultural Education profession; however, the pandemic limited teachers’ ability to meet in-person and foster these relationships. Participants included suggestions for formal and informal opportunities allowing teachers to meet and share ideas. Formal mentoring of early career teachers was discussed, as well as, mentoring that grows organically through informal interactions between experienced and inexperienced teachers. An additional suggestion was that experienced SBAE teachers conduct panel discussions where young teachers could get to know them. Essentially, the focus group participants indicated a desire to simply reconnect with one another and build professional relationships. One participant said, “It builds that camaraderie as well, and bringing in the young ones, and letting them build those relationships.” Another participant added, “That hanging-out conversation at lunch and then from 5:00 P.M. until we all finally go to bed. Those for me, are the most beneficial times, because then we can talk, we discuss what’s going on in class, we share ideas. I think it’s one of the most beneficial times we have, because for a lot of schools, like you know me I’m a one teacher, I have nobody… Because I’m a face-to-face conversation kind of person. I can post things in that Facebook group and ask for help. But it’s not the same as when you sit down in a room with somebody or at a picnic table at 10:00 at night at in-service and just talk about what works and what doesn’t work.”

Teacher Recognition/Appreciation

The second theme regarding Integration into Teaching was lack of teacher recognition/appreciation. While it was mentioned that many teachers do a good job promoting their students’ activities, the need exists to promote teachers in order to showcase the profession and recognize the contributions of effective teachers, who might otherwise go unnoticed. Social media was mentioned as one tool that could be used to highlight the exceptional activities teachers are doing in their local programs. One participant linked this lack of recognition to lack of community support and teachers’ self-esteem; “So, I think one of the biggest struggles and biggest challenges is getting our programs to be supported in our own communities, in our own school, because that builds our esteem, as our, as a profession, that makes us want to be at work or not, makes us want to do better with our kids, and be able to do better with our kids.” Another participant suggested using FFA as a mechanism to help recognize teachers. “When we think about National FFA, we think about the state FFA organization, and social media sites, and that sort of stuff, that’s focused and geared towards kids. I think students just need to see a different perspective.” The participants agreed that a broader perspective of the profession should be showcased. 

Career Satisfaction

Retaining Teachers

Retaining teachers was a theme that described challenges faced by teachers in all phases of their careers. While specific challenges were identified that could lead to teacher attrition, love of teaching and helping students was cited as the reason the participants remained in the profession. Interestingly, it was mentioned that teachers who do not love students and teaching should leave the profession. As one participant opined, “I think retention is a big deal. You see teachers getting out anywhere from the beginning, to, you know, not even finishing the full retirement. It’s crossed, I think a lot of our minds, that I could be doing something else at any point time when we have a bad day; that we could do this and make a lot more money and not have to deal with near the headache.”

Recruiting New Teachers

Recruiting new teachers was a major concern among the participants. They pointed to teacher shortages in Arkansas and suggested the need to better utilize programs such as the National Teach Ag Campaign and Career Development Events as mechanisms to recruit students into agricultural teacher preparation programs. The participants recommended that teacher preparation programs use every opportunity to host prospective students on campus and highlight their Agricultural Education programs. They mentioned that welding schools have done a great job recruiting and have poached many students who may have been potential SBAE teachers. Beyond university recruiting, the participants also spoke about modeling the job of teaching. They mentioned taking students with them to purchase supplies and other routine tasks to give students a fuller picture of the job. Participant 2 said, “Number one, welding schools are killing our kids, not, and I don’t mean that literally, but they’re stealing away all of the good ones. And, why and how; and I’ve wondered that… But, I think those individuals [welding school recruiters] come into our classrooms and they are so passionate and so driven to say you need to be in this because we need you, we need you in this profession.” Participant 4 added, “I feel like every one of our major colleges in our state: [UNIVERSITIES], even [UNIVERSITY] now is doing CDEs on campus, but I don’t know if any of them are taking the time to turn it into a legitimate recruitment opportunity that it could and should be.” The Recruiting New Teachers theme did not fit neatly into Chapman’s (1983) components, so after consideration a new category linking Personal Characteristics with Initial Commitment to Teaching was created.

Conclusions, Discussion, and Recommendations

The purpose of this study was to examine the perceived challenges facing Arkansas Agricultural Education over the next decade. Findings indicated that participants foresee a wide range of perceived personal and professional challenges, and further, the Arkansas SBAE profession will likely face varying challenges in the coming years. These findings were not unexpected, as other scholars (i.e., McKim & Sorensen, 2020; Smith & Smalley, 2018; Touchstone, 2014) have also reported that SBAE teachers face a multitude of challenges. However, the alignment of perceived challenges with all five factors of Chapman’s (1983) model was interesting. Accordingly, agricultural teacher educators and Arkansas Department of Education staff should be equipped to address many of the challenges, particularly those pertaining to the nature of teacher training, early-career teaching experiences, and some external challenges (Chapman, 1983). Providing opportunities to better support teachers and recognize their efforts is crucial to the sustainability of SBAE both as a career path and as a profession.

Regarding specific technical agricultural subject matter knowledge, agricultural mechanics was frequently identified as a point of difficulty for many of the participants. Successfully teaching agricultural mechanics requires a range of expertise in numerous content areas and can often be a challenge for many SBAE teachers (Wells et al., 2021), so this finding was not completely unexpected. This finding was especially interesting, though, as agricultural mechanics coursework is required within all four active agricultural teacher education programs in Arkansas. However, the quality and scope of agricultural mechanics coursework likely varies between each university’s program based on faculty expertise, course offerings, and resource availability.

Participants also indicated a desire for: (1) improved preparation to teach agricultural mechanics via preservice level coursework and (2) additional in-service level professional development in agricultural mechanics. Confidence to teach their curricula, particularly technical agriculture subject matter, has been a top factor influencing SBAE teachers’ decisions to remain in the profession (Solomonson et al., 2021). While SBAE teachers need a range of knowledge and skills in various technical agriculture areas, such as animal science (Wells et al., 2023) and plant science (Solomonson et al., 2022), preparing SBAE teachers to teach agricultural mechanics has been a high priority (Granberry et al., 2023). Consequently, SBAE stakeholders in Arkansas should give attention to improving SBAE teachers’ confidence and competence to teach agricultural mechanics. Doing so may help to combat, at the minimum, some underlying issues facing Agricultural Education in Arkansas.

Our findings suggest perhaps Chapman’s (1983) model might be revisited. The SBAE teachers who participated in this study indicated the recruitment of new SBAE teachers is directly impacted by personal characteristics (e.g., family dynamics, familial support of career path decisions, etc.) and certain external influences. Specific external influences noted by participants related to the employment climate, including the current reputation of the teaching profession, and alternative employment opportunities, such as skilled trades-focused careers for prospective SBAE teachers. Personal characteristics were also identified as consequential to prospective SBAE teachers’ initial commitment to teaching. Further, the recruitment of prospective SBAE teachers was noted as directly influencing the individuals’ initial commitment to teaching and their personal characteristics. Consequently, we revised a portion of Chapman’s (1983) original model to account for this new and impactful information (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Revised Portion of the Model of the Influences on Teacher Retention

In light of these conclusions, we recommend: (1) conducting additional research in Arkansas to identify pragmatic ways to address the identified challenges, (2) engaging with Arkansas SBAE stakeholders at all levels to confront the challenges within our control, and, (3) examining the relationship of these perceived challenges to SBAE teacher attrition. Additional research may yield greater insight into the complexities and nuances of confronting the identified challenges. In particular, replication of this study at regular intervals may be useful in determining how the identified challenges evolve over time. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer an international public health emergency (World Health Organization, 2023), some of the challenges identified (i.e., pandemic recovery and stress) may evolve or even become nonexistent in future replications. An additional recommendation was that other agricultural teacher educators outside Arkansas consider replicating this study. Doing so may help identify current and forthcoming challenges related to SBAE teachers and the SBAE profession in their respective states.

While Arkansas SBAE stakeholders may not be able to meaningfully address all the challenges identified in this study, there are certain practical steps that can be taken by these individuals to help mitigate some challenges identified by participants (e.g., reducing the frequency of changes to FFA-related activities, improving the quantity of agricultural mechanics-related PD offered to Arkansas teachers, etc.). Consequently, working closely with Arkansas SBAE teachers may help to stimulate discussion and impactful action. These findings will be shared with Arkansas Department of Education staff and the other agricultural teacher educators in Arkansas who were not directly involved with this study to help bring about awareness of the identified challenges and allow them to begin strategizing solutions.

While we acknowledge the findings of this study cannot be generalized beyond the teachers who participated, Johnson and Shoulders (2017) posited that, “Studies yielding valid results of interest to the profession from a specific groups [sic] of respondents, regardless of their generalizability, can add to the body of knowledge and assist researchers as they design and conduct research” (p. 310-311). Accordingly, these data hold practical implications for Arkansas SBAE stakeholders, particularly in the context of helping anticipate and tackle the present and future challenges faced by the SBAE profession. Considering long-term trends in public education and in SBAE, teacher attrition is a factor too important to ignore (Chapman, 1983; Eck & Edwards, 2019; Solomonson et al., 2021); the long-term sustainability of Arkansas SBAE depends upon the actions taken today.


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Using Body Mapping to Assess Doctoral Students’ Preparedness to Serve as Science Communicators

Fally Masambuka-Kanchewa, Iowa State University,

Millicent A. Oyugi, Texas A and M University,

Alexa J. Lamm, University of Georgia,

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Land Grant Universities (LGUs) are pivotal in equipping the future agricultural workforce with the skills to effectively communicate agricultural and environmental science. This study utilized body mapping to assess graduate students’ readiness to become science communicators following a science communication theories course. Initially, doctoral students viewed communication merely as a tool, showing a need for more awareness about its significance in science. Deliberate efforts were exerted throughout the course to foster a classroom environment that empowered students as science communicators. By the end of the course, students had not only grasped the difference between ‘communication’ and ‘communications’ but also expressed a keen interest in tackling science communication-related issues. The evolution of communication technologies significantly influences public access to scientific information and the acceptance of science and related policies. Challenges such as these, augmented by urgent concerns like climate change and the Coronavirus pandemic, underscore the need for agricultural and environmental science graduates adept at communicating science upon entering the workforce. However, achieving this level of preparedness requires not only the provision of relevant courses but also innovative assessment methods that foster metacognitive and soft skills, thereby facilitating social, academic, and political empowerment.


Communication is a complex process that involves the exchange of meanings, information, and messages among individuals, whereas communications refer to the array of tools and technologies to facilitate this exchange (Alder et al., 2016). In most cases there is increased focus on communications as opposed to communication. Such perceptions stem from the deficit model of communication which emphasizes the need for increased dissemination about scientific issues to shift public opinion towards a scientific consensus (Hart & Nisbet, 2012, p. 701). The deficit model primarily sees science communication as a tool for educating the public about scientific topics, often overlooking the essential element of encouraging dialogue (Trench & Miller, 2012). The rapid evolution of communication technologies and the rise of social media platforms have led to a significant increase in the spread of information (Masambuka et al., 2018).

Although science communication aims to educate and inform, it should equally promote open and meaningful interactions between scientists, experts, and the public. The emergence of agricultural communication as a distinct branch of communication is evidence of the need to share practical agricultural and domestic innovations with rural communities (Tucker et al., 2003). Over time, agricultural communication has seen considerable changes (Cannon et al., 2016). The focus has shifted from traditional print and broadcast news to science journalism and now includes communications related to advocacy and public relations, moving beyond mere technology transfer (Bonnen, 1986; Irani & Doerfert, 2013). In the United States, despite these changes, programs in this field are still widely known as agricultural communications programs (Akers & Akers, 2000; Cannon et al., 2016; Doerfert & Miller, 2006; Kurtzo et al., 2016; Miller et al., 2015; Telg & Irani, 2011; Tucker et al., 2003). These programs mainly focus on equipping students with technical communication skills, such as writing and graphic design, at the undergraduate level (Cannon et al., 2016).

The emerging challenges of the 21st Century, including the Coronavirus pandemic and the expanding array of information sources, underscore the necessity for educational courses to approach communication as a scientific discipline, not merely as a tool for public education. To adapt to these swiftly changing conditions, it is imperative that postsecondary and agricultural communication programs sufficiently prepare graduates for the evolving job market (Doerfert & Miller, 2006). This perspective is supported by the notion that higher education, particularly at land-grant universities (LGUs), should not only facilitate students’ ability to connect academic knowledge with the practical world but also foster critical thinking about the influence of existing societal structures (Roth & Desaultels, 2002; Schultz, 2008). Active learning and project-based activities are recommended as effective strategies to develop essential 21st-century skills (Gavazi, 2020). However, it is crucial to distinguish that increasing student engagement in the educational process does not automatically equate to empowerment, a concept that often needs to be understood (Dimick, 2012).

The body mapping technique is a valuable method for enhancing educational experiences. It explores individuals’ perceptions of control and power within specific contexts (Martinez, 2017), making participants more conscious of their embodied experiences and uncovering otherwise inaccessible insights (de-Jager, 2016). As a qualitative research tool, body mapping facilitates the collection of personal stories, offering insights into individuals’ identities (Coetzee et al., 2017) and providing scientists with a novel, visually and sensory-rich research methodology (Ball & Gilligan, 2010). Thus, body mapping is an effective way for students to evaluate their learning, expanding assessment perspectives beyond the teacher’s perspective to include the students’ viewpoints.

Traditional course content selection and assessment methods have been criticized for their top-down approach, as they tend to overlook student perspectives in the educational process. Huba and Freed (2000) highlight that instructors typically maintain complete control over educational content, limiting student input opportunities. Recent scholarly debates advocate for outcome-driven learning, emphasizing the enhancement of metacognitive and soft skills, such as communication, now sought after by employers for well-rounded graduates (Mitsea et al., 2021). These skills are vital for engaging in various domains, including personal, academic, and professional arenas (Mitsea et al., 2021).

While research activities at LGUs are crucial for addressing societal issues, concerns arise that de-emphasizing teaching and community engagement may affect the quality of education and reduce graduates’ employability (Gavazi, 2020). A notable concern is the need for more preparation of graduates for science communication careers, despite LGUs’ focus on training in this area. Incorporating student-led assessments, such as body mapping, has been scientifically validated to bridge this gap. This approach respects teacher authority while empowering students to evaluate their learning experiences (Biesta et al., 2015). As Fielding (1996) described, empowerment involves transferring some authority from those in power to those with less. Granting students, the agency to evaluate their learning can significantly enhance their knowledge and self-efficacy in communicating scientific or agricultural innovations in response to market demands (see Bandura, 1997). According to Bandura (1997), self-efficacy is a powerful motivator for action, fostering a sense of conviction and confidence in individuals’ abilities to complete assigned tasks.

In summary, body mapping in science communication teaching enriches the learning assessment spectrum, enhancing the quality of education by incorporating student perspectives. Research indicates that active learning strategies can significantly improve critical thinking, self-efficacy, and preparedness for science communication careers, equipping graduates to navigate complex challenges (Clem, 2013).

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of this study was to use a body mapping strategy to assess graduate students’ perceived level of preparedness to serve as science communicators after taking an agricultural communications theories class.

The study used two research objectives to address the purpose:

  1. To describe participants’ visualization of their knowledge and experiences of science communication before and after taking an agricultural communications theory class.
  2. To describe participants’ science communication knowledge and experience before and after taking the class.


The study utilized a qualitative research approach to collect data through mapping data. “Body mapping draws from the tenet that ‘mind influences the body based on how socio-cultural context influences the mind,’ and acknowledges that by identifying how and where perception is experienced in the body, one can collect information beyond what traditional face-to-face interviewing offers” (Martinez, 2017, p. 2). This methodology effectively captures participants’ perspectives (Coetzee et al., 2017). In this study, participants used body mapping to articulate their understanding and interpretation of a communications theory class (Duby et al., 2016).

The research focused on first-year doctoral students enrolled in an agricultural communication theory class at the University of Georgia’s Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication. The study used purposive sampling to recruit participants, seven students (three males and four females) were involved in the study. All participants were doctoral candidates in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communication, with two students majoring in agricultural communication, two in agricultural leadership, and three in agricultural education. However, three students also served as agricultural extension educators during the time that they enrolled in the course.

Course Content and Administration

The course was delivered synchronously in Fall of 2020, both in-person and online via Zoom. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students opted to take the class online or in person. Three students attended in-person, while the rest did so online. To curb the spread of the virus, the university further mandated all classes to go online after the Thanksgiving holiday. As a result, the remainder of the course occurred online.

The course material covered communication theory, agricultural communication history, crisis, and risk communication, the importance of agricultural and science communication, and current issues in agriculture and science communication concerning communication theories. The class design was to be a discussion-based setting. During the first few days of class, the instructor requested students to participate in the discussions about the readings using shared reflection papers. Students were to critically analyze each class’s readings and present summaries to the rest of the class to help guide the discussions. However, during the first three weeks of class, students expressed their concerns via an anonymous questionnaire distributed as part of the feedback collection process. The student expressed difficulty understanding the material because most of them had never taken a communication theory course before, and they requested additional lectures. The instructor incorporated lectures into each class in response to students’ needs. In addition to lectures, students utilized case studies and mind maps to increase their engagement.

Data Collection

Data collection occurred during the last week of class. The instructor first requested participants to draw two body maps in response to prompts. Participants started by drawing a body map that represented their knowledge level about science communication, awareness of science communication issues and challenges, and their role as communicators before taking the class. On the second body map, they drew body maps based on the previous prompts with an additional prompt on preparedness to serve as a science communicator after taking the class. Participants also indicated notes on the body maps based on the prompts. Since the class was online, the students could use any technology of their choice to draw the body maps and submit them to the instructor. Since the topic for this study was not sensitive, body mapping activity ensured participants could express themselves freely without following a standard template. Participants were entirely in control of drawing their images based on their understanding.

Data Analysis

A content analysis of the body maps and their associated descriptions was conducted. In addition, content analysis of participants’ reflections and researchers’ observation notes made it possible to clearly describe the participants’ stories (Gastaldo et al., 2018) and triangulate the data (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Due to the absence of a standardized data coding and analysis tool for body maps, the researcher used a modified evaluation tool based on the indicators of a standard scientist (see Chambers, 1983). Codes were developed based on body map structure (size, shape, and colors). In addition, codes for all the descriptions of the body maps were developed, which included types of description and issues addressed in line with the prompts, namely: awareness of challenges and issues in science communication, role as a communicator, knowledge, and skills in science communication and knowledge of communication theories. Each researcher coded the data independently based on the codebook.

Once coding was completed, images corresponding to each code were grouped and themes were developed by comparing each code with the descriptions that were provided by the participants’ reflection papers. The content analysis of the notes and reflection papers assisted in further triangulation and ensured the trustworthiness of the results (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Mikhaeil & Baskerville, 2019).

Subjectivity Statement

A postdoctoral research associate whose research primarily focuses on the use of communication as a science for amplifying voices of marginalized and vulnerable groups served as the lead course instructor. She provided academic oversight and infused the curriculum with innovative pedagogical strategies. These strategies included the introduction of mind and body mapping exercises alongside creating tailored prompts to facilitate these activities. Her approach was underpinned by a conscientious effort to mitigate the influence of her research bias, especially regarding identifying potential gaps in science communication and their implications for data analysis and the literature review. To this end, she undertook a thorough literature review to ensure that the development and application of coding schemes were aligned with established research paradigms.

The team also included a professor specializing in science communication. She shared the instructional responsibilities, bringing to the course a firm belief in the scientific nature of communication and the necessity of grounding scientific inquiry in solid theoretical foundations. Her contributions were instrumental in shaping the course content, and she was the architect behind a pivotal learning activity that generated the images and texts serving as the primary data for the study. Conscious of her bias towards emphasizing the need for improved communication within agricultural and environmental science, she opted out of the initial stages of data coding to safeguard the research’s objectivity.

A third key figure was another postdoctoral research associate, who brought a wealth of experience in agricultural education and communication. Her expertise is valuable in articulating and disseminating impactful messages tailored to meet clientele’s needs. This bias towards client-centric messaging was intertwined with her dedication to fostering innovative teaching and learning methodologies within agricultural communication curricula. Her overarching goal was to arm prospective agricultural communicators with a blend of theoretical understanding and 21st-century skills essential for navigating the multifaceted challenges of modern agriculture. She recused herself from the coding process to preclude and, thus, any biases that could skew the study’s findings.

These diverse perspectives and methodological rigor enhanced the research process, ensuring a credible approach to evaluating the effectiveness of the science communication course in improving the career readiness of the study participants as future agricultural communicators.

Results and Discussion

Participants’ Visualization of their Knowledge and Experiences Regarding Science Communication Before and After the Class

When the students drew body maps presenting their science communication experiences and knowledge in science communication, one theme emerged: Body maps not restricted to human bodies. Six participants represented their knowledge and experiences using the actual human body, while one participant drew an animal to represent his/her knowledge and experiences (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 depicts bodymaps presentation before and after taking the class. A subtheme, namely: variation in body map presentation, emerged when analyzing the images of the participants’ presentation of the body maps regardless of whether human or animal. Changes were observed in the colors, size, and features provided between and among participants to reflect the changes before and after taking the class. Different parts of the human were also presented, with four of the students presenting an entire human body form (Figures 1. 2, 1.3, 1.4 and 1.6) while one person presented the head (Figure 1.7 a and b) and another presented the face only (1.5 a and b). In addition, variations in the use of colors were also observed. For example, while the color green represented a positive change in knowledge (Figure 1.4) the same color was used to represent awareness of science communication (Figure 1.3 a and b).

Figure 1

Body Maps Presentation Before and After Taking the Class

Participants’ Opinions Regarding their Knowledge and Experiences Regarding Science Communication Before and After the Class

Almost all participants had limited knowledge and experience in agricultural communication. Two themes emerged: the nature of agricultural communication and knowledge of agricultural communication and theories.

Nature of Agricultural Communication

The participants understood communication as delivering agricultural information using different communication channels. As an illustration, one of the participants stated, “My previous thinking was that Agcom was about writing articles about important events.” The nature of agricultural communication was evidenced in the body maps of two other participants (see Figure 1.7a and 1.7b). The content analysis of the reflection papers also indicated frequent use of the word communications as opposed to communication among all participants.

Knowledge of Agricultural Communication and Associated Theories

Participants indicated they had limited knowledge of agricultural communication and associated theories, as evidenced by the following quotes. “I had no formal knowledge of communication theories.” This was echoed by another quote, “My knowledge as a science communicator was very lacking…with no formal knowledge or background. I was unaware of any possible theories.” Another participant also raised similar sentiments as evidenced by the following quote: “Mediocre level of knowledge- struggled with specifics of communication.” To emphasize the point, the participant explained how the knowledge level was represented in the body map (see Figure 1.4a and b). In addition, another participant also provided a key that explained the colors on the body map, with yellow representing knowledge of communication theories (see Figures 1.4a and 1.4b).

Apart from these sentiments, the participants provided feedback to the instructor to change the administration focus of the class from student discussion of the content to more lectures. The lectures were proposed to ensure the students were taught about agricultural communication and associated communication theories due to limited knowledge.

Awareness of communication challenges and issues

Almost all the participants indicated having limited knowledge of the challenges and issues in agricultural communication, as evidenced by one participant who said, “I was not aware of challenges/issues in science communication.” Another participant stated that “I was not super aware of the many issues and challenges that are present.” Such sentiments were also vivid in the body map by one of the participants who presented a key where the green color implied awareness of challenges and issues in science communication (see Figure 1.3a and b).

The participants also provided opinions regarding their knowledge and experience in science communication, and the students reported an increase in knowledge of agricultural or science communication. Two themes emerged, namely: type of change and impact of change.

Type of Change

Three sub-themes emerged regarding the type of changes reported by participants: knowledge and skills about science communication and communication, perceptions about science communication, and role as a science communicator.

Knowledge and skills in science communication and communication

Most of the students’ body maps depicted a general increase in knowledge and skills in communication theories and their applications. (see Figures 1.4a and 1.4b; 1.2a and 1.2b as well as 1.1a and 1.1b). However, one participant reported the changes in knowledge and skills in general. They used different colors to represent each change and provided a key for each color where orange = knowledge of communication theories; Pink = assumptions about science; Purple = knowledge and skills in science communication; Blue = role as a science communicator, and green awareness of challenges (Figures 1.3a and 1.3b).

Perceptions about communication

Participants generally indicated developing an understanding of communication as illustrated in the following quote “communication is a HUGE world. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, but I am able to understand and apply the theories.” Another participant affirmed prior sentiments saying that, “… communication is an ever-changing and challenging field due to changes in technologies and the world faces more issues.” Content analysis of the reflection papers and observation notes also indicated that all the students appreciated the complexity of communication during the class. This was evidenced by a statement made by one of the participants during class which implied that communication is often considered an easy task, however, it is more complicated than it appears. In addition, another participant’s reflection indicated a change of perspective regarding the role of science communication from a one-way communication model to a two-way communication model (figure 1.7a and 1.7b).

Preparedness to serve as a science communicator.

Participants’ statements indicated they felt empowered and more confident to serve as science communicators after taking the class. One participant said, “I feel more prepared to perform as a science communicator although there are still some things I may be lacking.” Another stated, “I feel more prepared to continue my program after taking this course and to work as a science communicator. I feel confident in my ability to address science communication.” Another participant added, “After class, I am confident in carrying conversations about communication methods and purposes. I am also familiar with theories, channels, organizational strategies, and much more.”

Conclusion/ Implications/ Recommendations

The qualitative nature of this study limits generalization to a broader audience but vails an opportunity for replication with a broader sample of students or across diverse contexts. The data revealed a discernible trend: Students exhibited an enhanced readiness to take on roles as science communicators post-course completion. Intriguingly, the results unveiled a transformative shift in perception—a transition from viewing communication merely as a tool to a broader understanding of it as communications. This transformation of outlook resonates with the narrative woven by the proliferation of agricultural communication programs across the United States (Akers & Akers, 2000; Cannon et al., 2016; Doerfert & Miller, 2006; Kurtzo et al., 2016; Miller et al., 2015; Telg & Irani, 2011; Tucker et al., 2003), suggesting a reevaluation of the subject matter itself. This raises the question: Is it opportune to reshape the teaching and evaluation of agricultural communication, pivoting it from a mere tool to an assimilation of scientific principles?

A resonant implication surfaces—educators are encouraged to embrace participatory methodologies, as the study’s findings underscored. Concepts like concept mapping have previously revealed students’ grasp of core ideas and their interconnections (Akinsanya & Williams, 2004). In parallel, body mapping stands out as a dynamic tool for assessing learning and as a catalyst for learning itself. The study underscores the necessity to shift from a predominant focus on technical communication within agricultural communication programs, particularly at the graduate level (Bray et al., 2012), urging for a broader scope of scientific awareness.

The spotlight extends to the gap in research concerning the effectiveness of graduate-level agricultural communication courses, a void highlighted by this study amidst the predominantly undergraduate program evaluations (Cannon et al., 2014; Clem, 2013; Corder & Irlbeck, 2018; Morgan, 2010). In a rapidly evolving landscape shaped by ICT advancements and the emergence of phenomena like the Coronavirus pandemic, the necessity for comprehensive science communication training transcends mere technical prowess. Nevertheless, the authors recognize that content inclusion alone falls short; the core lies in fostering empowering classroom environments that encompass social, political, and academic dimensions. Empowerment, as a focal point, necessitates instructors to go beyond mere participation assessments, steering students toward multifaceted opportunities for self-directed learning (Dimick, 2012).

Evident in the results is the profound empowerment students experienced—socially, politically, and academically. For instance, instructors introduced early autonomy, granting students the choice of in-person or online attendance, thereby inducing a sense of political empowerment (Dimick, 2012; Oyler & Becker, 1997; Schultz, 2008). This empowerment further materialized through the students’ willingness to confront science communication challenges—a testament to Breiting’s (2009) findings on political empowerment manifesting through a desire to address societal issues. Simultaneously, hints of social empowerment surfaced through students’ input into content delivery (Dimick, 2012). Academically, some students proactively addressed potential hindrances to implementing science communication interventions, revealing their empowerment (Roth & Desaultels, 2002; Schultz, 2008). Students’ readiness was not a mere byproduct of course content; instead, it emanated from the power and control they experienced throughout the learning journey.

The findings offer insights into how instructors can cultivate a classroom atmosphere that empowers students, fostering their confidence in applying their knowledge and skills to real-world challenges. Moreover, the research introduces an innovative dimension by pioneering the utilization of body mapping as a tool for capturing sensory experiences. These outcomes align with earlier research (Ball & Gilligan, 2010; Jager et al., 2016), underscoring the significance of visual data collection tools in capturing intricate perceptions that are otherwise elusive. For instance, participants demonstrated shifts in their understanding and abilities by manipulating the forms, colors, and dimensions within their body maps. Remarkably, these body maps unveiled emotions and insights that conventional research methods could not uncover, offering a fresh layer of depth to our understanding. Diversities in the types, styles, and hues employed in these body maps also furnished invaluable insights into how perceptions of different individuals are shaped.

In contrast to studies where participants adhered to pre-designed body map templates (Duby et al., 2016; Naidoo et al., 2020), the present study encouraged participants to sketch body maps based on their comprehension, granting them the autonomy to express their perspectives candidly. While body maps are frequently employed in health inquiries, a lack of standardized evaluation criteria exists, thus highlighting the need for further research to establish consistent methodologies for image analysis. This calls for cross-sectional studies that utilize body mapping to gauge students’ preparedness as science communicators at the commencement and culmination of their graduate journeys. The inherent potential of body mapping in empowering participants to voice their perceptions positions it as a promising technique for probing into students’ grasp of knowledge and the broader public’s perception of science communication. This genre of research aids in identifying gaps, ensuring that communication institutions equip graduates to disseminate scientific knowledge to the masses effectively. Interestingly, the findings also revealed disparities in individuals’ visual representations of their body maps. This prompts a suggestion for future researchers to incorporate interview questions that prompt participants to elaborate on the rationale behind their chosen images, forms, sizes, and hues.  


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Effectiveness of Online Program Engagement for 4-H Members during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Lauren B. Hood, Clemson University,

Christopher J. Eck, Oklahoma State University,

K. Dale Layfield, Clemson University,

Joseph L. Donaldson, North Carolina State University,

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Since 1902, 4-H Youth Development programs have been implemented by Cooperative Extension Agents or Educators for teaching, influencing, and leading youth to new life skills that can shape and influence their futures through hands-on learning methods. Fast forward to 2020 when 4-H programs shifted to virtual methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of this study and the overarching research question was to identify the perceptions of participants and their parent/guardian related to the virtual 4-H programming opportunities available to youth in South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic. This qualitative inquiry was undergirded by the need for achievement theory. Focus group interviews of South Carolina 4-H participants revealed two overarching themes, including communication (before and during COVID-19) and impacts on involvement and retention. Overall, the majority of families interviewed for this study were pleased with their 4-H agent and volunteer’s impact and levels of communication during and post-COVID-19. State 4-H leaders are not only recommended, but highly encouraged, to establish best practices for virtual 4-H programming.


Cooperative Extension Services across the United States serve their respective states by offering unbiased, research-based education to audiences young and old (Monks et al., 2017). Cooperative Extension serves as the essential connection between the land-grant university and the public, requiring extension professionals to localize programs and adapt to the needs of their constituents (Cooper & Graham, 2001). “In the last decade, Cooperative Extension has rapidly diversified its portfolio in many ways to respond to the needs of people in our rapidly changing society, including adapting to online learning environments and ‘the cloud’” (Gould et al., 2014, para. 7). One of the most important needs to date was navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before COVID-19-related closures, 4-H groups and clubs were led by volunteers or 4-H professionals and met in various locations, at varying times to engage, study and practice, or for fellowship and celebration (Burnett et al., 2000). With the COVID-19 pandemic shut down of schools, educators and parents were not prepared to quickly provide hands-on learning activities to complete at home (Loose & Ryan, 2020). Cooperative Extension services nationwide quickly and efficiently created virtual solutions and alternatives to offset the lack of in-person programming (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). Cooperative Extension has been challenged to deliver relevant programs with measurable end-results to its audiences (Gould et al., 2014), but how can this be accomplished during a pandemic?  The pandemic created unique challenges and obstacles for all 4-H professionals and volunteers. These dedicated adults were required to be intrinsically and extrinsically motivated (Calvert & Fabregas Janeiro, 2020) to overcome said challenges and obstacles. Grégoire (2004) noted dedicated 4-H professionals and volunteers can quickly adjust to changing needs. These quick-thinking professionals and volunteers were put to the test during the pandemic. Non-parental adults, or adults who serve in volunteer leader capacities described by McNeill (2010), helped provide 4-H programming opportunities to youth via virtual platforms and take-home kits once local Extension offices closed due to the pandemic.

These programming opportunities were meant to aid at-home learning with hands-on activities that, in most cases, were aligned with school standards and to promote positive youth development (PYD); Extension professionals had to learn how to integrate new technologies (e.g., “Zoom”) to engage their stakeholders and provide purposeful educational opportunities (Eck et al., 2022). COVID-19 impacted PYD, including trauma, isolation, the loss of relationships, daily routines, and social outlets to name a few (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). With the knowledge of these impacts, Extension professionals strived to remain “consistent with [the] mission of positive youth development, [as] the 4-H program is uniquely positioned to address and mitigate COVID-19 impacts on youths by focusing on building youth assets and providing supportive contexts” (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020, para. 10). 

It has been recommended that additional research is essential “to gather feedback from parents and members on their perceptions of their own states’ programming efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic” (Hood, 2021, p. 15). Therefore, this study aimed to uncover the perceptions of those participating, specifically, 4-H youth and parents/guardians, in virtual 4-H programming opportunities in South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study also yields recommended best practices for future virtual programming. In Gordon and Curlee’s (2011) book, The Virtual Project Management Office: Best Practices, Proven Methods, the authors state, “all organizations must have processes and procedures based on best practices to enhance their chances of success” (p. 109). Several of the best practices recommended revolve around communication with and without Internet access.

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

McClelland’s (1987) need for achievement theory undergirded this study. This theory of motivation (McClelland, 1987) is associated with learning concepts, where needs are learned through coping environments (Pardee, 1990). The theory outlines three motivating factors; the need for achievement, the need for affiliation, and the need for power (Gill et al., 2010). The need for achievement is associated with personality characteristics such as strong goal setting, taking calculated risks, appreciating feedback, and preferring to work alone (McClelland, 1987). On the other hand, the need for affiliation corresponds with someone who wants to be part of the larger group, is often considered a follower, prefers collaboration, and avoids risk (McClelland, 1987). Finally, someone who likes to win, wants to control situations, enjoys competition, and thrives on recognition aligns with the need for power (McClelland, 1987). These motivating factors associated with McClelland’s (1987) work stem from the theory of needs established by Maslow in the 1940s.

According to McClelland (1987), the three motivating factors exist inherently regardless of gender, age, or culture, but the dominating factor is often one’s life experiences. The need for achievement theory has been implemented in 4-H studies addressing the participation and retention of members (Baney & Jones, 2013; Gill et al., 2010). Based on previous use of the theory, it aligns with this study to explore 4-H member participation and engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


This study explored if virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic provided vital engagement opportunities for 4-H youth. Realizing that Extension professionals received just-in-time training to learn new technologies to overcome communication challenges (Eck et al., 2022), their efforts to provide those engagement opportunities for 4-H members were investigated.


This exploratory qualitative research study (Price, et. al, 2018) implemented a case study design using focus groups to further evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on 4-H youth in South Carolina. This qualitative inquiry was developed based on previous survey research recommending a deeper dive into the perceptions of 4-H youth and families during the COVID-19 pandemic (Hood, 2021). Therefore, the research team constructed a flexible qualitative interview protocol, consisting of a series of seven overarching questions and talking points to discuss with participants to provide deep, rich information related to participant perceptions of the virtual 4-H programing in South Carolina. Focus groups were held during July 2021 online via Zoom.

The interview protocol was evaluated for face and content validity (Salkind, 2012) by three faculty members in agricultural and extension education across two universities who have all completed coursework and previous research in qualitative inquiry. An email invitation was sent to families of youth who participated in virtual 4-H programming during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Carolina and provided a follow-up email address. The sampling frame consisted of 1,669 individuals (adults and youth). Four families, which included four adults and seven children, (n = 11) across South Carolina responded to the invitation and were willing to participate in a Zoom focus group interview. These four families represented three of the four regions in South Carolina and had youth enrolled across the three 4-H age brackets (i.e., Cloverbud, Junior, and Senior). Zoom was used to conduct the focus groups, while also allowing for the interviews to be recorded and interview transcriptions to be developed through the platform. Each family was provided a family number to allow proper tracking and triangulation across sources, while also providing anonymity.

After the focus group interviews, the lead researcher reviewed the interview transcripts against the audio/video recording to verify accuracy. The research team then analyzed the data using the constant comparative method (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). The research team used the video recording of each focus group, interview transcripts, and interviewer notes to allow codes, themes, and categories to emerge describing the family’s reality (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Glesne, 2016). In addition to multiple descriptions of data, the research team corroborated to develop the emerging themes, following the recommendations of Creswell and Poth (2018) to improve the accuracy of data analysis through coding checks, establishing reliability of the coding process. Specifically, the constant comparative method was implemented, which allows the data, including the participants voice, to speak for itself (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). Three rounds of coding were implemented starting with open-source coding (Creswell & Poth, 2018). The codes from the first round were then analyzed using axial coding, where the relationships of codes were used to establish categories (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Glasser & Strauss, 1967). The final round implemented selective coding, allowing the overarching themes to emerge as core themes and variables linking back to the conceptual framework established by Gill et al. (2010) which connected to the factors established within McClelland’s (1987) motivational needs theory.

Within a qualitative inquiry it is imperative that the research team aim to address the four criteria provided by Privitera (2017) to ensure trustworthiness (i.e., credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability). Using interview transcripts, audio/video recordings, and interviewer field notes allowed the true opinions of the 4-H families to be reflected in the study, which addresses credibility (Privitera, 2017). Although this qualitative inquiry was limited to four families, all families participating in virtual 4-H programming during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Carolina had the opportunity to participate and the families who did participate represented different parts of the state, different 4-H age classifications of the youth (i.e., Cloverbud, Junior, and Senior), and participation in the different virtual programs offered, allowing this data to have transferability across the state. Implementing the focus group style interview with a flexible interview protocol and the varying characteristics of participants allows for consistent data collection (Privitera, 2017). Allowing the perspectives of the families to be represented in the findings and not the researchers bias speaks to the confirmability of this study (Privitera, 2017), which was addressed through the established interview protocol, three round coding process, member checks, and interpretation of data sources.

Reflexivity Statement

Palaganas et al. (2017) suggested that researchers acknowledge their inherent bias related to their study and disclose their identity to offer reflexivity. The research team for this study consisted of a graduate student in agricultural education, who was also an active 4-H youth development educator, along with three faculty members in agricultural and extension education at Clemson University and North Carolina State University. The graduate student had worked in Extension for eight years and was completing a degree in agricultural education at Clemson University. The three faculty members have more than 40 years of experience combined in agricultural and extension education. Overall, the research team recognized their bias toward Extension because of their professional roles and felt they addressed the biases through the established procedures and trustworthiness of the study.


The focus group interviews were analyzed allowing categories to emerge related to the youth and parents’ perceptions of the virtual 4-H programming offered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The emerging codes and themes resulted in two overarching categories, including communication and 4-H agent/volunteer leader impact.

Category 1: Communication

The first category to emerge throughout was communication. Communication was then divided into two themes: pre-COVID-19 and during-COVID-19 to represent the participants’ perceptions. Family #1 [mom] mentioned they were impressed with the level of communication and the amount of programming offered. They said that it seemed like there were more newsletters sent out and that there was more information within those newsletters compared to before COVID-19. Family #1’s mom wrapped up the conversation with, “you guys have done an off the charts, valiant job with communication when it’s just been such a difficult year.” Family #2 [the parents] detailed how there has been little to no communication on the county level. “Well, it’s been zero communication from the county level, and we have a child serving as a county club officer,” said Family #2’s mom. She also said, “we just feel very really sad because there are so many possibilities under 4-H that are so incredible, so I feel like not only did we lose, and not just because of the pandemic, we didn’t feel like we were part of it anymore.” The few details they had about 4-H activities offered during COVID-19-related closures they found on their own through the state social media pages or the state 4-H website.

Family #2 reported no communication from both their local agent and their local club’s volunteer leader. The family also commented that they had just recruited a new family to join their local group, so it was especially frustrating that this new family joined and received zero information. This was not an issue prior to COVID-19. Family #3 [mom] complimented the marketing strategies and graphics used for marketing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon seeing a ‘random Facebook ad’ for South Carolina 4-H@Home, Family #3’s mom signed up to begin receiving the daily emails. Family #3’s mom said that her sorority sister was a part of 4-H growing up, so she had heard of 4-H before. She also stated, “all of the advertising led me to contact our local county 4-H agent to get my son signed up.” Prior to COVID-19-related closures, Family #3 was not aware of local 4-H programming. Family #4 commented that their 4-H agent does a “good job” of communicating. Family #4’s youth were very active in county and statewide projects and held leadership positions locally. Family #4’s local 4-H agent was known for publicly advertising 4-H programming through various methods pre- and during-COVID-19. The facial expressions and non-verbal cues demonstrated in the Zoom recordings and documented in the interviewer notes furthered the emotions documented in the comments above. For example, Family #2 was obviously frustrated by the lack of communication, you could clearly see they had higher expectations from previous experiences with 4-H and really wanted the experience to continue to be a positive one for their family and others they recruited.

Category 2: 4-H Agent/Volunteer Leader Impact

The second category from the focus group was 4-H agent/volunteer leader impact. All four families had something to say regarding the leadership within the county where they participated. 4-H agent/volunteer leader impact can further be divided into positive and negative impact themes. Family #1 described the positive impact of their local 4-H agent: “our local agent is so gifted in matching the child with what will both be interesting to them and what will grow them and push them just a little bit at just the right time.” Family #1’s mom went on to compliment the other local agents the family works with, as well as the state staff. Family #2’s parents described the negative impact of their local 4-H agent/volunteer leader regarding an issue with the local organization before COVID-19 closures, but it seemed to be “explained away enough” and that they would let it slide after eventual communication. Family #2’s parents also mentioned that they were not “on the same standing as others” because they were not originally from their county, like their local leadership. Family #2 described their local 4-H agent as normally being a good agent, but “they [agent] just did not really step up during the pandemic.”

The disappointment and frustrations continued to build from Family #2, but the other families did not let the negative perceptions of one’s experience impact their overall perception of the impact of their 4-H agent/volunteer leader. Family #3’s mom said due to their participation in 4-H@Home, they were able to connect with their local agent. She said it was the best thing they could have done because the local agent is “wonderful.” Family #3’s local agent was complimented on their skills to work with younger children and that they are so welcoming. Family #3’s mom stated “[our agent] always provides a plethora of information for any activity and it helps so much since we are a brand new 4-H family.” Family #4’s 4-H member conveyed they like working with their local agent and that they do a “good job.” Family #4’s 4-H member also does a lot of projects that aligned with the expertise of the local 4-H agents and the excitement of the common interest was obvious in the videos and noted in the interviewer notes.

Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations

Based on the focus group participants’ interviews, their 4-H agents should be commended for the programming made available during the Covid-19 pandemic, underscoring the fact that Extension professionals and volunteers were able to successfully pivot 4-H programming from predominately in-person to predominately virtual (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). “Virtual Programming did not eliminate the need for a local connection – it only highlighted the importance of a local connection who was a broker of education among: (a) networked programs, (b) local audiences, and (c) the land-grant institution” (J. L. Donaldson, personal communication, July 6, 2021).

McClelland’s (1987) need for achievement theory was useful for understanding 4-H retention among participating families. This theory warrants additional research, as we do not know the extent to which the needs of youth and families may have changed due to the pandemic and the associated fear and loss. The pandemic created substantial trauma, isolation, and loss of relationships (Arnold & Rennekamp, 2020). 4-H youth development programs may need to respond with discrete programs to promote mental and emotional health.

Family #1’s virtual experience and the local 4-H agent’s efforts met all three of McClelland’s (1987) needs: (1) achievement, (2) affiliation, and (3) power. Family #1’s mom reflected on how her older children became stronger leaders in 4-H through the local ambassador program and helped their younger siblings participate through 4-H kits. She [mom] said, “I really appreciated the Journey to Mars kit because my [age] year old was able to use it as a leadership opportunity on her resume for our local STEAM club.” Unfortunately, due to Family #2’s experience, none of McClelland’s Needs were met. The family recalled no communication from the local agent or volunteer, which was especially troubling to them since their two children were local club officers. Family #3’s experience allowed for two of McClelland’s (1987) needs to be met: achievement and affiliation. Because the 4-H member interviewed was very young and brand new to the program, they did not serve in any leadership roles. Family #3’s agent made opportunities available for youth to experience all of McClelland’s (1987) needs, despite this participating member’s young age. Family #4’s positive experience allowed for all three of McClelland’s needs to be met. Also, because of the opportunities Family #4’s local agent provided; McClelland’s (1987) needs were easily met.

Regarding communications, families appreciated the more frequent and detailed communication from county programs, as well as the improved marketing efforts. Despite this success, some areas for improvement were noteworthy. One family recalled not knowing if 4-H still existed in their county or in South Carolina due to the lack of communication. Communication is one of the most important skills within Cooperative Extension, especially 4-H. Ultimately, this related to the need for affiliation and the need for achievement (Gill et al., 2010; McClelland, 1987) for success, as it is essential for 4-H youth to feel connected to the youth organization (i.e., 4-H), the organization leader, and their friends, while perceiving the availability of engagement opportunities. Unfortunately, a lack of communication and limited opportunities (with the agent and programming) to engage hindered some families’ perceptions related to their members’ ability to be affiliated and obtain a sense of achievement.

Another category from this study was 4-H agent and volunteer impact. Families interviewed were asked about their relationship with the local 4-H agent or volunteer they worked with the most. Families #1, #3 and #4 described a positive relationship and praised their agent. Family #2 stated they have been working with a local volunteer and their 4-H agent and ever since COVID-19 pandemic closures, the impacts have been negative. From this focus group, it was clear that 4-H agents and volunteers can make or break the decision to join or re-enroll in a county program. If the need for affiliation is not met (McClelland, 1987), the retention of 4-H can be negatively impacted, ultimately affecting program quality (Gill et al., 2010). This became evident with the focus group interviews as families were either planning to remain or leave 4-H based on their perception of impact of the agent/volunteer leader.

While it is easy to implicate county 4-H agents for a lack of communications and a lack of programming during COVID-19-related closures, it is imperative to understand the challenges faced by Extension 4-H professionals and volunteers. Israel et al. (2020) described how COVID-19 affected Extension agents with having to manage work-life balance with multiple interruptions that could have affected programming efforts and communication with clientele. Extension agents and volunteers could have been dealing with the virus themselves or caring for an infected family member; caring for an elderly parent, family member, or neighbor; and/or may have needed resources to conduct regular work while quarantined at home. The pandemic took a toll on people in many different ways, but perhaps this was exacerbated with Extension Professionals in South Carolina as they were trying to learn a new platform (i.e., Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meets) that they were not entirely comfortable with while simultaneously engaging with their clientele (Eck et al., 2022).

It should be noted that this study was limited to four families who participated in virtual programing during the pandemic is South Carolina and agreed to attend the focus group interviews for this study. Extension programming, especially youth programming, varied state by state and educator by educator, therefore the findings of this study were restricted to the views of the participating families’ experiences. Although limitations existed within the study, the findings, conclusions, and recommendations provided an opportunity for transferable results and best practices for those with similar needs and/or responsibilities within Extension programming. It was the responsibility of the research team to carry out the study based on the intended purpose, but it is up to the reader and potential applier of the results to make a judgement on the transferability of the study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).  

State 4-H leaders are not only recommended, but highly encouraged, to create a best practices list for virtual 4-H programming. Designed by the researchers’ reactions to the data and their personal experiences, Table 1 outlines best practices to guide agents and volunteers in communicating with their clientele. Several of the best practices listed in Table 1 revolve around technology and Internet deficits experienced by many youth and their families (Evans et al., 2021). Gordon and Curlee (2011) remind us that good communication is essential in organizations and it is not productive for people to become quiet. They also state, “often, people ignore issues they shouldn’t” (Gordon and Curlee, 2011, p. 137) which can cause a snowball effect of issues building and success within the organization jeopardized. “Organizations can no longer rely on one-way communication methods to interact with stakeholders” (Holthausen et al., 2021, para. 31). Therefore, 4-H programs should be advertised via multiple methods such as online, hardcopy, television, or radio media. A list of best practices may be especially valuable for newly hired 4-H professionals who may or may not have the opportunity to be part of on-boarding procedures.

Table 1

Best Practices for 4-H agents, educators, specialists, and volunteers in Virtual Programming

Best Practice
Establish multiple methods of communication with county participants.
Create a contact list of people on the local, regional, and state level who can provide more information on virtual programming.
Advertise programs via online, hardcopy (mail/newspapers), television, or radio media.
Establish if 4-H participants will need to print materials used in virtual program.
Complete midway and end of the activity/program check-ins with the participants.
Offer to schedule (in-person or at-a-distance/Zoom) visits with participants to stay updated on them throughout the program year.

Future research should be explored using more families for interviews to gain a better understanding of 4-H leader impact. It is also recommended that in-person focus groups are held, with the option of virtual meetings via video conference. Based on the interviews conducted, it was evident the parents dominated the conversations as if the parents were vicariously giving accounts for the children. Based on this knowledge, it is recommended that the interviews be split into a conversation with parents only, and a separate conversation with just youth. Additionally, the questions and topics discussed within future research should be expanded to include use of the life skills learned in 4-H among 4-H members.

Overall, three of the four families interviewed for this study were pleased with their 4-H agent and volunteer’s impact and levels of communication during and post-COVID-19. There is room for improvement in both categories. 4-H agents and volunteers should continuously work on ways to improve their communication and teaching styles. These same caring adult leaders should not only think of youth, but also themselves when striving to “make the best better.”


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Perceived Readiness of First Year Agriculture Teachers to Teach Low Socioeconomic Students

Rachelle Staehr, York High School,

Nathan Conner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,

Bryan Reiling, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,

Taylor Ruth, University of Tennessee,

Jacob Goldfuss, Summerland Public School,

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Approximately10.5% of children in Nebraska live in poverty. Poverty in a child’s life impacts both physical and cognitive development. This qualitative case study explored agricultural education teachers perceived confidence when teaching students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Eight high school agriculture teachers were interviewed, and the following themes emerged from the data: (a) teacher emotions, (b) observations, and (c) accommodations. The teachers felt prepared to teach students that are impacted by poverty. It is recommended that teacher preparation programs select courses that specifically address working with students that are living in poverty. Additionally, exposure to students from low SES backgrounds early in their teacher preparation program will help them to learn how to build positive relationships with students and how to accommodate this population.


Children were the highest likely group of individuals to be living in poverty (Dornan, 2017). Talk Poverty (2020) identified that 10.5% of children in Nebraska public schools live in poverty. This correlates directly with Dornan’s (2017) identification of children being the highest likely group to live in poverty, as Talk Poverty (2021) ranked children at a higher rate of poverty than any other surveyed group. This growing issue was evident within Nebraska public schools and educators need to be prepared for it.

Throughout preservice teachers’ educational experiences, professors have utilized a variety of different methods to educate their students on this phenomenon. Cho et al. (2015) explored the option of educating teachers to be anthropologists in future encounters of student poverty, while Baggerly (2006) focused on the power of service-learning experiences. With a growing need for teacher confidence in the identification and accommodation of students of low socioeconomic status (SES), teacher educators must ensure they have prepared their students to effectively accommodate classroom instruction for students living in poverty.

Child poverty has reared its head as multidimensional poverty within American schools as students lack basic resources due to availability, location, and family structures (Dornan, 2017). Roelen (2017) discussed differences between children of monetary poverty and children of multidimensional poverty. Monetary poverty is described as strictly a measurement of household income and expenses and was also defined as indirect poverty because it is did not directly impact the resources of a family (Roelen, 2017). Roelen (2017) explained this concept by pointing out that not all financial funds accumulated by the household were used properly for the basic needs of all individuals within the household. Improper use of funds or lack of availability of basic needs within a community can create multidimensional poverty (Roelen, 2017). Multidimensional poverty was defined as the lack of and depletion of basic needs and resources (Roelen, 2017). This term was also referred to as direct poverty (Roelen, 2017). Each type of poverty is unique but not necessarily linked to each other depending on the economic status of the country inhabited (Roelen, 2017). 

Gupta (2017) gave readers a glimpse of a family’s life within poverty by providing a view of the assumptions and realities of their lives. America’s social work system has been known to sometimes forget to account for poverty when visiting families (Gupta, 2017). Gupta (2017) illustrated a situation in which individuals living in poverty were surrounded with assumptions of drug use and had parenting rights removed with little to no evidence. Thiede and Brooks (2018) outlined the correlation between immigration, family history, and poverty. This quantitative analysis identified that individuals of first and second generations who had two foreign born parents had a higher likelihood than other foreign individuals of living in poverty in America (Thiede & Brooks, 2018). This unfortunate relationship has been reality for many children in public schools and should be recognized by American school systems.

The direct relationship of poverty and its impacts on a child’s cognitive development was illustrated by Dolean et al., (2019) in a study done on the relation of socioeconomic status (SES) and development of reading and linguistic skills. SES was the likely root cause for many children’s inability to academically excel in the classroom (Dolean et al., 2019). Research identified frequent school absences, phonetic awareness, and bilingual homes to be largely impactful on the slow development of basic academic skills (Dolean et al., 2019). SES was directly linked to poor linguistic, phonetics, reading, letter knowledge, and nonverbal IQ (Dolean et al., 2019). Li et al. (2020) hypothesized that poverty and mental health have been negatively correlated. Li et al. (2020) survey asked school aged children about their access to common educational resources relative to their current mental health state. Anxiety and depression were common themes that manifested among students with lower SES, and poverty levels were associated with increased mental health issues in children (Li et al., 2020).

Over the past few years, school systems have subscribed to the ideas of Ruby Payne and her framework for understanding poverty (Osei-Kofi, 2005). These ideas were presented to communicate social norms and commonalities amongst those living in poverty (Osei-Kofi, 2005). Although these theories outlined positive things teachers can do for students, Osei-Kofi’s (2005) review identified its flaws of the framework in today’s world. Being a teacher himself, Osei-Kofi had a direct point of view on the impacts of Payne’s framework on his own school. He observed that the framework created biases around certain groups of people and the framework’s influence on the No Child Left Behind Act gave teachers almost impossible standards to reach (Osei-Kofi, 2005). The No Child Left Behind Act created a system in which standardized tests blamed teachers for any student failure (Osei-Kofi, 2005). Although much of Payne’s research was valid, she made assumptions that stretch teacher’s limits and impose unfair assumptions on students (Osei-Kofi, 2005). One example from Osei-Kofi’s (2005) review indicated  that Payne outlined children in poverty as inadequate and in need of repair from a teacher. The responsibility of the student’s so-called repair was placed solely on the teacher (Osei-Kofi, 2005).

An article by Payne and Ortiz (2007) outlined multiple factors such as socioeconomic status of a household and the talent of teachers as huge impacts on the success of students in the classroom. Many of those students who have struggled with standardized tests may also be victims of multidimensional poverty (Payne & Ortiz, 2007). Educators cannot solve child poverty; they do not have the responsibility of child poverty, but they have been  doing everything they can to help children living in poverty (Payne & Ortiz, 2007).

The exploration of child poverty, cognitive development, and educator limits lead us toward identification of applicable solutions for how America’s educational system can help children in poverty. Jackson (2014) explored the emotions of educators and students surrounding children living in poverty and found that there was a shocking overall acceptance of poverty by our society. Educators have a duty to promote proper emotional response to social injustices (Jackson, 2014). There was no shortage of sympathy amongst students and teachers, but empathy will be  needed to impact society (Jackson, 2014). Empathy is the initial step in the emotional process and is needed to enact change within society (Jackson, 2014).

Sato and Lensmire (2009) pointed out that teachers should be culturally responsive. While teachers may already do this, it needs to be an intentional effort to really assist students in poverty. For example, teachers need to recognize that not all students, based on factors such as SES, have the same prior knowledge or commonalities that were often assumed within the classroom (Sato & Lensmire, 2009). Students of poverty may not have these shared experiences (Sato & Lensmire, 2009). An empathetic and involving teacher is one who is also culturally aware throughout their curriculum (Sato & Lensmire, 2009).

The Poverty Simulation was a program utilized in the education of college students entering social work and health care fields (Vandsburger et al., 2010). This case study utilized three common scales used in diversity education: (1) the Critical Thinking Scale, (2) Understanding of Others Scale, and the (3) Active Learning Scale are used to measure the effectiveness of this simulation (Vandsburger et al., 2010). The simulation consisted of daily tasks and navigation through life for a given amount of time as an individual of poverty (Vandsburger et al., 2010). While 82.2% of individuals who participated in this simulation experienced further contemplation of poverty’s effects, only 58.4% of participants were moved to take social action (Vandsburger et al., 2010). Results of this study showed that the simulation was impactful in the education of college individuals, but true empathy was not always reached (Vandsburger et al., 2010).

Community connections and service learning are powerful educational tools that were explored by Baggerly (2006) in the setting of the education of preservice teachers. Service learning was outlined as a symbiotic relationship between urban communities and universities within them (Baggerly, 2006). A lot of students attending universities have minimal experience with poverty themselves, so properly designed service-learning projects can provide them exposure to the impacts of poverty (Baggerly, 2006). This experience was valuable for preservice teachers because it helped them understand the background of future students in poverty (Baggerly, 2006). Major goals of service learning should be for students to experience different cultures and to encourage students to take social action (Baggerly, 2006). These impactful projects can create knowledge that preservice teachers can draw from in their teaching careers (Baggerly, 2006). This experience was recognized as impactful in educating students about the realities of poverty (Baggerly, 2006).


The purpose of this case study was to explore the perceived preparedness of first year agricultural teachers from the University of Nebraska to educate an increasing population of children of low socioeconomic status (SES) in Nebraska public schools. The preparedness of first year agriculture  teachers to educate students of poverty was defined as their feelings toward the accommodations they are able to make. The overarching research question was, do first year agricultural teachers who graduated from University of Nebraska feel prepared to educate students who are impacted by childhood poverty?


Qualitative research was conducted because it allows researchers to create a vivid interpretation of the world around them (Creswell & Poth, 2018). This qualitative study was working on the assumption that there was a growing need for first year agricultural teachers to be holistically educated on child poverty to increase their confidence in the identification and accommodation techniques for these students. A case study methodology was used in this study. As defined by Creswell and Poth (2018), a case study is the study of an actual, real life, case within a real context. A case study also takes place within a system that is bounded by a place and time (Crestwell & Poth, 2018). The bounded system recognized in this study, and hence the participation criteria for this study, was first year agricultural teachers from University of Nebraska who were employed by Nebraska public schools.

This study utilized purposeful sampling to select the individuals who provided experiences and information that were consistent to this bounded system. An initial recruitment email was sent to 28 agricultural teachers who met the participation criteria. There were only eight first year agriculture teachers from University of Nebraska that agreed to participate in the study. Creswell and Poth (2018) posited that five participants are adequate for a case study, however, we used eight participants to help achieve data saturation.

Participant/School Description

Teacher one came from a school in northeastern Nebraska and was the only agricultural teacher at this school. Student diversity included about a 69% population of white individuals and around a 22% population of American Indian individuals (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). Teacher two was one of two agricultural teachers at a large high school in eastern Nebraska. This diverse school had a population of about 68% Hispanic students with 13% white as the next highest race within the population (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). Teacher three came from a one teacher agricultural education program at a school in southeastern Nebraska with a high majority white student population (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). The fourth, fifth and sixth teachers interviewed were also in one teacher programs at schools in the central (T4), northern (T5), and southern (T6) parts of Nebraska with high majority white student populations (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021). The seventh and eighth teachers came from small, one teacher program schools, while being located in western (T7) and central (T8) Nebraska schools. Both T7 and T8 were located at schools with a high majority white student population as well (Nebraska Department of Education, 2021).

Data Collection and Analysis

This qualitative case study used semi-structured interviews to collect data during September 2021. The semi-structured interviews took place over Zoom and lasted approximately 20 minutes. The interview questions allowed for open-ended answers that encouraged storytelling and real-life examples. The interviews were recorded and transcribed through Zoom. Data was analyzed for the emergence of themes. The transcripts were read three times and reoccurring words, phrases, and ideas were categorized together and used to identify the themes that emerged. Creswell and Poth (2018) stated, “themes are broad units of information that consist of several codes aggregated to form a common idea.” (p. 186). Codes were organized into themes using tables to help conceptualize the overarching concepts.


Trustworthiness measures were used to determine the truth, value, credibility, and reliability of the research study (Dooley, 2007; Erlandson, et al., 1993; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Triangulation was achieved in this study by use of multiple researchers (Dooley, 2007; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Peer debriefing was used and allowed a researcher that was not associated with the study to review the data and give insight on how the data was analyzed(Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Dooley, 2007).

Subjectivity Statement

As an agricultural education teacher at a public school and the lead researcher on this article, I have encountered a higher rate of students living in poverty or of low SES than I expected. This study was completed during my third-year teaching and I found myself still having to adapt to many new and shocking situations. For example, many of my students lack funds available to supply their own jeans and boots for welding classes and other students have told me about nights they spend in their cars. The reason why I wanted to select my sample specifically from agricultural teachers because in my personal experience, many disadvantaged students are ‘dumped’ in agricultural courses to explore careers. Even though school counselors have good intentions, students in poverty can easily fall behind in these hands-on classes. These students may have a difficult time purchasing or providing the extra supplies that are typically needed. As a teacher, I would like to be better prepared to help these students and to identify tools to help support them as an empathetic, positive role model in their lives.


The following themes emerged from the data: (a) teacher emotions, (b) observations of poverty, and (c) accommodations. Within these themes, various codes were identified to help sort and categorize data and commonalities throughout the interviews.

Theme #1: Teacher Emotions

The theme of teacher emotions was defined by the internal feelings’ teachers have as they navigate difficult decisions when working to accommodate students of poverty. During interviews, many emotions were discussed. Teachers identified common emotions of empathy, concern, and compassion. Empathy was expressed by T1, T2, T4, T5, and T8 when acknowledging that many students were in poverty situations through no fault of their own. T1 indicated that students were usually helpless in their own availability of resources. T2 explained that many students living in poverty missed out on opportunities teachers try to provide, this leaves teachers feeling heartbroken. T2 continued to explain their feelings on this issue by saying, “I know they’re going to have these struggles in life because they are already behind the eight-ball compared to many other peers, and for no reason than being born into the circumstances.” T2 and T4 also expressed an interest in breaking the cycle of poverty experienced by many of their students.

When the concerns of participants were addressed, the collective consensus of T1, T3, T6, and T7 was that all teachers feel the stress and difficulty of helping these students. T3 illustrated their own worry over the physical conditions these students live in each day and how the physical conditions impacted their abilities within the classroom. T3 and T7 both expressed a feeling of helplessness in many of the situations they encountered. Emotions of grace and compassion were also identified with T2 and T8. Prioritizing what was best for students and having a forgiving attitude was emphasized by T2. T8 described a deep respect for students who juggled the complications of a life in poverty yet maintain a positive influence within school.

Theme #2: Observations of Poverty

Observations of poverty was defined by the identifying factors of poverty teachers have witnessed within their first couple of months teaching. These observations were broken down into the following sub themes: physical observations, impacts of poverty, and lack of resources.

Physical Observations

Location of observations made by educators who participated in these interviews ranged from the general community to inside the school building. T1 reported their own physical observations of poverty by simply driving around town and seeing where students were living. Behaviors observed inside the schools by T1, T2, T5, T6, T7, and T8 included students missing school due to babysitting responsibilities, wearing old clothes every day, lack of hygiene, taking home school lunch to share with family, difficulties focusing, and a lack of engagement whenever money was mentioned in class. T6 stated, “As I discussed details for a fieldtrip, I watched a student physically slump in their chair when I requested students bring money for lunches.”

Impacts of Poverty

Many teacher observations were made individually through strong personal relationships built with students in poverty. Through relationships, students can reveal details about their lives that identify themselves as children of poverty. These conversations created observable information for teachers. T4 and T5 discussed being shocked at the sheer lack of confidence many students express during conversations with students of poverty. T2 described one situation by saying, “I’ve got one student, I know, that works until 11 o’clock every night to help her family pay the bills, so they have a lot of missing assignments.” T3 and T7 also could identify students in similar situations. T2’s students also expressed interests in being the first generation in their families to attend college or trade school. T1 theorized that many students living in poverty were highly motivated by simply wanting to break their own cycle. T4 expressed their observations of high levels of hard work and determination from students living in poverty. T3, T4, and T8 identified lack of sleep and emotional stress as two consequences of poverty. T3, T4, and T8 reported students helplessly falling asleep in class after working a long night shift. T3 also reported having students act distant and emotional due to the stresses of their everyday life. These two impacts had a severe negative toll on the student’s abilities to learn and participate in class. Through personal conversations with students T3 and T8 concluded students who were consistently overly tired in class usually spent time working to pay bills. Students could easily be overscheduled, and some employers may not recognize the demands on their time. T3 said, “Our school actually reached out and said, hey, just be aware that these are high school students and we know that they’re working a lot. First and foremost, they need to be students.” T3 and T4 pointed out that poverty may not allow children to experience as many opportunities.

Lack of Resources

All teachers interviewed identified examples of actual lack of resources from students in poverty. During the shutdown of many schools, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were expected to learn from home using technology and the internet. However, T1, T2, and T4 identified the lack of reliable internet and technology was problematic for many students in poverty. T4 indicated that students living in poverty had issues sourcing these necessary resources and sharing them with siblings in the same situations. This lack of resources could include a lack of equipment within a household, lack of bandwidth, or lack of reliable internet. All teachers interviewed also indicated that transportation and financial support impact students’ school experiences. Although public education is free, extracurricular activities that compliment classroom learning are not. T2, T4 and T8 explained different situations in which students could not afford opportunities that FFA provides. However, these teachers made their own accommodations for these students.

Theme #3: Accommodations

The theme of teacher accommodations was defined as any adaptations or changes teachers made to help students of poverty. The different accommodations teachers made all fell into the following sub themes: (a) advocacy, (b) relationships, and (c) monetary support.


Some great points brought up through discussion with T3 included strong intentions to advocate for students. T3 stated: “I will do whatever I can to make sure that you’re (students are) supplemented with whatever you (students) need.” T1 stated that agricultural educators, have a unique advantage compared to other teachers because of their preparation to mentor a student to explore certain careers and trades. Agricultural educators teach classes directly tied to real life careers. Students who have taken agricultural classes were taught basic skills needed for entry level positions out of high school within agricultural careers or the trades. T1 also expressed focusing class content on trades that all students could explore. All teachers interviewed believed it was their job to advocate for their own students.


Relationships, built through classroom experiences, were a huge asset when working with students. Through strong student relationships, T1, T2, T3, T4 and T6 provided examples of simple accommodations provided. Based on student suggestions, accommodations made by T1, T2, and T6 included virtualizing assignments for accessibility, providing class work time, and allowing retakes. These simple steps provided a more stress-free environment for students. T3, T4, T7, and T8 also accommodated students by providing all materials needed for class and creating an open line of communication where teachers can easily check in on students.

Monetary Support

T1 and T4 mentioned that FFA provided help to support students who cannot afford opportunities that exist within the organization. T5, T6, and T7 also discussed how they discretely provided extra cash to students who cannot afford lunches on trips and hold fundraisers for all students to provide free opportunities within FFA. These young teachers were already expressing the importance of finding a way to include all students in all activities to create a strong organization and environment.

Conclusions, Discussion, and Recommendations

Educators of today are almost certain to encounter a significant percentage of students living in poverty. America’s public school system has not clearly set the expectations of educator’s role in these student’s lives. Child poverty is a phenomenon that increasingly plagues our world and is currently being addressed through policy changes. These policy changes in our nation as well as others have the intent of bringing children out of poverty through economic focuses (Dornan, 2017). Nations are working to assist the growing population of children in poverty.

Teachers interviewed in this study were able to convey how they have felt while accommodating students of poverty. Emotional stress of teachers is a real issue and relating it to their education of students of poverty may be an indicator of their preparation to deal with this issue. Feelings of helplessness was a key concept identified through these interviews that could indicate deficiency in the preservice teacher’s education. When looking at the emotions reported by teachers interviewed, concern was likely stemming from the level of care they have for students. Most teachers interviewed appeared to genuinely care about their student’s wellbeing and little to no emphasis was placed on the teachers’ own feelings about their own abilities. Empathy was a concept utilized by all teachers interviewed. As Jackson (2009) mentioned, empathy is critically important in creating a learning environment that accompanies all students. The fact that all teachers interviewed were aware of and practicing empathy was a clear indication that they know what they need to do to help their students in poverty. However, teachers need to be taught how to take care of their own mental health needs. Agricultural teacher preparation programs should incorporate stress management techniques into their programing and develop units or workshops on how to take care of your mental health. A focus on taking of your mental health should be embedded into the entire agricultural teacher education program. Preservice agriculture teachers need to see positive examples of self-care and they also need structured opportunities throughout their program to practice self-care.

Although these young teachers were only a couple of months into their teaching career, they have been able to report a wide array of observations that can be used to identify students in poverty. Signs of poor health, both mental and physical, were used as identified by the teachers, which aligns with Li et al. (2020) assertion that students living in poverty struggle with maintaining their mental and physical health. All teachers interviewed had some sort of observation or story to report in which they identified poverty. These young teachers were able to see poverty in front of them; therefore, something in their education has prepared them for this issue. All of the teachers that participated in this study completed a 20-hour service learning project that required them to work with after school programs in a city. The service learning projects during their agricultural teacher education preparation program exposed the teachers to students of various social economic statuses. The incorporation of a service-learning project at after school programs is recommend for agricultural education teacher preparation programs to help expose the future teachers to a diverse group of students.

The accommodations explained by the teachers interviewed were both effective and creative in their nature. Financial, emotional, and health focused support was given by all teachers interviewed through simple accommodations they made in their classrooms and organizations. Teachers interviewed explained how they listen to student’s needs and communicate with them to create great relationships and effectively help students. This use of relationships to benefit students was a major sign of competency amongst these teachers. Similarly, this could be attributed to the service learning project that exposed the preservice agriculture teachers to students from diverse backgrounds.

Many children living in poverty not only lack financial resources, but also emotional resources, role models, and a general support system (Cuthrell et al., 2007). All of the teachers interviewed identified experiences they had in which positive relationships with students helped them provide individualized support to students in need. Positive relationships not only help students emotionally but will likely lead to higher academic achievement. It is recommended that agriculture teacher preparation programs emphasize the power of positive student teacher relationship and give the preservice teachers multiple opportunities to work with high school students so they can practice building relationships.

The young teachers interviewed demonstrated that they felt adequately prepared to deal with the realities of educating students of poverty. Although some indications of helplessness were communicated through interviews and many creative and adapting accommodations were discussed by each teacher. There were great solutions that already exist amongst this group of young agricultural teachers. Agricultural education is unique because it is so closely related to careers and hands-on opportunities. Because counselors push students of poverty towards career focused opportunities, many are enrolled in agricultural classes. These interviews revealed the young agricultural teachers were aware of this poverty issue, and they are up to the challenge of bettering student lives. We recommend that teacher preparation programs select courses that specifically address working with students living in poverty. Additionally, exposure to students from low SES backgrounds early in their teacher preparation program will help them to learn how to build positive relationships with students and how to accommodate them. The development of a sustained mentorship relationship between a preservice agriculture teacher and a low socioeconomic high school student is recommended. This mentor/mentee relation should be sustained over a long period of time so that the high school student and the preservice agriculture teacher can both experience growth and development. Ideally, the mentor/mentee relationship would start when the preservice teacher is in the first year of their program and the high school student is a freshman. If possible, the mentor/mentee relationship could last between two to four years depending on the duration of the agricultural teacher preparation program.

Future research that should follow up this study to include identifying what specific education methods for poverty education are the most impactful. A phenomenological case study should be conducted to better understand the feelings, perspectives, and needs of low socio-economic agriculture students.  An analysis of current poverty educational methods used may give teacher educators a better idea on how to create the most impactful experience for their students.


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Agricultural Entrepreneur Involvement of Eight Botswana Women: A Qualitative Study

Carrie Stephens, Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Haley Kelso, Graduate Assistant, The University of Tennessee,

Sharon Jean-Philippe, Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Jennifer Richards, Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Natalie Bumgarner, Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Liz Eckelkamp, Associate Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Shelli Rampold, Assistant Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Neal Eash, Professor, The University of Tennessee,

Brent Lamons, Assistant Professor of Practice, The University of Tennessee,

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The dynamics of agriculture in Botswana have been deeply rooted in traditional cultural values and have been shaped by the close connection between men and agriculture. Specifically, the dominance hierarchies that existed are those related to realities and relationships between those of humans and animals and their interconnectedness. The purpose of this study was to explore the leadership journeys of eight women in Botswana who have been involved in production agriculture. The central research questions asked were: (1) What lived experiences helped you obtain your agricultural position; and (2) What leadership characteristics do you identify as essential in your success? The participants for this study consisted of eight women in agriculture from Gaborone and Mabalane, Botswana. The methods employed to collect data in this study included three to four hour in-depth, audio-taped interviews. The researchers then discussed each individual’s coding schematic and emerged seven themes: (1) journey in agriculture; (2) networking and mentoring learning initiatives; (3) leadership and management; (4) family structure; (5) Botswana culture and agriculture; (6) awareness and shift of agriculture in Botswana; and (7) perspectives on values and motivations. Women who seek leadership opportunities, specifically those in the agricultural industry, would benefit from understanding how the participants of this study first became inspired and how they were encouraged to seek out advancement in their chosen career path. These shared experiences can communicate a framework for women who are inspired to lead in the agricultural industry – particularly in international settings.


The past few decades saw the emergence of many female leaders in agricultural professions (Brawner et. al, 2020; Kleihauer et al, 2012; Stephens et al., 2018). These leaders have overcome numerous obstacles, yet their tenacity and persistence yielded success within their industry. However, the published literature was nearly devoid of case studies outlining the barriers that they overcame, and the leadership skills needed to obviate the roadblocks (Carroll et al., 2021; Cline et al, 2019; Frankel et al, 2023; Kleihaur et. al, 2013). Our heuristic approach evaluated successful Batswana female entrepreneurs through lengthy face-to-face interviews and observations in their workplaces. Documentation of their successes and leadership skillsets could provide groundwork for assisting females in leadership development in an emerging African nation.

In Botswana, the dominance hierarchies that existed were those related to realities and relationships between those of humans and animals. (Hovorka, 2012). Historically, Batswana women were perceived socially as housewives and expected to bear children, and those who could not bear children held a lesser societal status (Ntseane, 2004). This value system also existed in the agricultural sector. While women were historically seen as rural caretakers, Botswana men were offered the luxury of raising cattle — as more or less a sole occupation —because they were seen as suitable to raise the prominent commodity associated with wealth —cattle (Horvorka, 2012). Recently, new urban and commercial agriculture spaces have emerged, empowering women as poultry producers, albeit in varying ways and with varying outcomes, relative to their initial positionalities and relative to men and cattle respectively. Therefore, “gender and species status, roles, places and use values in Botswana are inherently dynamic and offer avenues for symbolic and material re-positioning” (Hovorka, 2012, p. 879).

The empowerment of women in Botswana has led to increased interest and presence of women in the agricultural labor force in Botswana, specifically in urban agriculture (Crush et al., 2011). From 1990 to 2019, the percentage of women involved in Botswana’s labor force increased from 49.8% to 68.5% (The World Bank, 2020). Despite these labor force changes, women in Botswana were considered poor, as a higher proportion of female-headed households were considered poor or very poor (Government of Botswana, 2020).

While the Botswana Government has expressed commitment to gender equality, they are still experiencing difficulty implementing appropriate initiatives (Botlhale, 2020). Further, institutional-level initiatives have been found insufficient in changing deeply rooted ideologies pertaining to the roles of women (Botlhale, 2020). As such, initiatives at the village level may hold promise for enhancing women’s empowerment in Botswana (Must & Horvorka, 2019). The results of this study can assist policy moves that can further raise status of women in Botswana.

Currently, the overall governmental economic initiatives in Botswana revolve around diamonds, but more efforts are being made to increase access to technical education and initiatives in tourism and agriculture (Reuters Staff, 2018). However, the overall decision-making in Botswana has been influenced by males, which has hindered the ability of women to advance or have significant influence on national decisions (Government of Botswana, 2020). Therefore, this study was undertaken to provide insight into a workforce that displays diversity, productivity, and quality by describing women’s experiences on each of their journeys, and how they are aspiring to reach their leadership goals within the agricultural industry in Botswana.

Theoretical Framework

Situational and authentic leadership theories guided this study. Situational leadership was derived from the idea by Hersey and Blanchard (1972). The model is constructed to focus on the maturity of the individual who is being supervised. Maturity is defined as “the capacity to set high but attainable goals, willingness and ability to take responsibility, and education and/or experience of an individual or a group” (p. 161). The model is divided into quadrants and represents an individual’s personality and how the individual progresses as he/she matures. The first quadrant, high task/low relationship, represents an individual that is more concerned with the tasks to be accomplished, and is not concerned with the personal feelings of their cohorts. An individual that is concerned with the task of a project but also takes into consideration the feelings of their cohorts represents the second quadrant, high task and relationship. An individual who is concerned with their cohort’s personal feelings rather than completing the task represents the third quadrant, low task and high relationship. An individual who is not concerned with the task of the project or the personal feelings of their cohorts represents the last quadrant, low task and relationship. Supervisors need to adjust their leadership style as the individual matures. In the context of this study, situational leadership is an applicable lens because every participant derived their leadership experience from a unique situation. Situational leadership theory can thus provide further insight into how participants’ unique backgrounds and positions explain their actions and interactions as leaders.

Authentic leaders are those “who are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by other as being aware of their own and others’ values/morals perspectives knowledge and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character” (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 321). The key components of an authentic leader are positive psychological capital, positive moral perspective, leader self-awareness, leader self-regulation, leadership process/behaviors (positive modeling, support self-determination, personal and social identification), follow self-awareness, follower self-regulation, follower development, organizational context, and performance (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). Researchers believed the women had evolved into authentic leaders through their life experiences; thus, the reason for utilizing the authentic leadership framework.

Purpose and Central Research Questions

The purpose of this study was to explore the leadership journeys of eight women in Botswana who are involved in production agriculture. The central research questions asked were: (1) What lived experiences helped you obtain your agricultural position; and (2) What leadership characteristics do you identify as essential in your success?

Methods and Procedures

To fully comprehend the experiences participants shared, the current study was performed using the qualitative mode of inquiry (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The qualitative approach is justified in that it seeks to understand the phenomenon (Flick, 2014) of women’s experiences of their leadership journeys. A phenomenological approach was utilized to gain entry into the conceptual world of the women in order to understand how and what meaning they construct from their childhood, adulthood, personal, work, and leadership experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This approach is appropriate because the researchers explored a phenomenon and what the Botswana women experienced in agriculture.

The participants for this study consisted of eight women in agriculture from Gaborone and Mabalane, Botswana, two contrasting population settings. Mabalane is a small village (population~1,000); Gaborone is the capital city (population ~250,000). The reason only eight women were selected was due to researchers limited duration in country and we wanted ample face-to-face interaction with each participant. These women were individually identified from an international non-profit (Dream Academy) and consultation with the Botswana University of Agricultural and Natural Resources faculty who worked in community outreach. These women were considered leaders amongst their peers in their selected agriculture venue and had received recognition for their innovation in commercial agriculture sector. The women were middle-aged, urban and rural backgrounds, and they were all engaged in production agriculture. In an effort to protect the identity of the women, there will be limited background information given about the participants and participant numbers were assigned (Woman 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8).

The methods employed to collect data in this study included: (a) interviews, (b) field observations, and (c) documents and pictures. Gathering information in this manner provided the researchers with a bank of data from which themes could be created, interpretations made, and a “rich, full picture of a research situation” painted (Wright 2003, p. 8). Interviews were three hour in-depth, audio-taped interviews, in which the primary researchers asked open-ended, non-leading questions (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The central research questions focused on having each woman explain her journey (past and present) to her current leadership role. Based on each interview, follow-up questions were asked but based on the flow of the interview, some follow-up questions were unique to each individual. The interviews focused on revealing the influences and experiences that helped to develop each woman into the leader she is today. This open-ended approach enabled the researchers to gain an understanding related to each woman’s unique lived experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Observations were conducted before, during, and after the interview sessions by individuals involved with the research project and included taking detailed notes on body language, word descriptions and analysis, and behavior related to the interview and discussions opportunities (eating supper with participant, guided tours, etc.). Additionally, the researchers were participant observers for one to five days in each woman’s environment; the number of days spent with each participant was dependent upon that participant’s personal schedule. A participant observer interacts with the participants in the environment, so they can experience the environment like the participant (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Lastly, documents (articles, accolades, etc.) that were collected by researchers were related to each woman’s lived experiences. These included pictures of the participants accomplishments, family photos, work experiences, and so forth.

Data were analyzed and coded by five researchers independently. The interview transcriptions were open-coded to discover the main concepts and categories (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The researchers analyzed the in-depth interviews, along with the researchers’ field notes, which captured the thoughts related to the women agriculturists and their environment. These field notes were used in the data analyses to assist the researchers in recalling what had occurred during the field experience. Furthermore, data were examined using several methods including: identifying significant statements and elements of meaning; creating textural and structural descriptions; and recognizing descriptions which revealed commonalities among the participants’ experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The researchers then discussed each individual’s coding schematic and agreed upon seven themes: (1) journey in agriculture; (2) networking and mentoring learning initiatives; (3) leadership and management, (4) family structure; (5) Botswana culture and agriculture; (6) awareness and shift of agriculture in Botswana; and (7) perspectives values and motivations. The journey in agriculture was further divided into two sub-themes: (a) significant family experience and how they were raised; and (b) initial agricultural entrepreneurship. The networking and mentoring learning initiatives included two sub-themes: (a) social media; and (b) mentors. Leadership and management was further divided into three sub-themes: (a) leadership style; (b) employee relations; and (c) values and trust. Botswana culture and agriculture had two sub-themes: (a) personal challenges with being a female in the industry and (b) successes. Awareness and shift of agriculture in Botswana was divided into three sub-themes: (a) culture; (b) how Botswana views women in agriculture; and (c) how women in Botswana view agriculture.

In an effort to reduce the impact of bias on the data collected, several validation strategies were employed to document the accuracy of this phenomenological research study. Credibility was established through prolonged engagement in the field and the triangulation of data sources, methods, and investigators (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). From the researchers’ observations, thick descriptions of the women’s life experiences and environments were constructed to help readers determine the transferability of the research. Dependability of the study was established through peer-review by another researcher trained in qualitative analysis who had not conducted the interviews. Additionally, member checks from participants related to data, analyses, interpretations, and conclusions were conducted to confirm credibility of the study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Subjectivity Statement

Prior to launching the study, the eight female researchers reflected on qualities possessed which may have impacted the relationship with women in the study. The researchers hold a strong passion for agriculture and women in the agricultural field, which may result in a more focused analysis on each woman’s journey to their current leadership position. The researchers consist of three full professors, two associate professors, two assistant professors, and one graduate student who are all involved in the agriculture field. Each female involved in the research of this study analyzed the data and have moderate feminist beliefs. To keep a neutral viewpoint and impartial position, the researchers reflected on their biases of the research topic, assumptions of the outcomes of the study, and each occasion of contact with the women agriculturists. In addition, the researchers structured main and probing questions in a way that did not lead the women in their responses.


Theme One: Journey in Agriculture

The women interviewed were immersed in agriculture learning experiences through their family, which later shaped views and perceptions of the world in which they live and launching them as leaders in their chosen industry. The following results are divided into two sub-themes: (1) significant family experience and upbringing, and (2) initial agriculture entrepreneurship.

Women 1, 2, 7 and 8 explained it was normal for children in their culture to be involved in farming, whether it was milking cows, rearing pigs, or growing a garden. For example, Woman 7 expressed that her love for horticulture came from her mother, because they always had a garden, would plant any fruits or vegetables they could get, and lived by the saying, “anything that you plant, grows.” While it is normal for those currently involved in agriculture to have been raised in a farm setting, three of the eight women interviewed had not been directly exposed to the agricultural industry through their childhood. Instead, their passion for agriculture evolved in adulthood. Woman 3 explained:

I am 28 years old. I grew up in the city, so farming was sort of a luxury to me. I used to live in a flat growing up, so we mostly just seen (sic) vegetables and meat in stores. Then on some holidays my Mom would take us to our grandparents’ house, and then we would go to the farm, which was a surreal experience for me because of growing up in the city.

Not only did some of these women grow up in the city which hindered their exposure to agriculture, but Woman 8 revealed:

I am the first born of four kids, raised by a single mother. I grew up, my whole life in Gaborone, so normally and culturally the farm was always put on the father. Since we had a single mother, we found that we did not get to have a lot of that experience. Because I had a grandfather who had a farm, we would go there and then just come back home because it was right outside of Gaborone. So, I never really got to experience that farm life because I more or less grew up as a city girl. I was fine with it, but when I had my own kids, they did not know anything about animals, and my husband and I discussed that we did not want to live the farm life because of our educational backgrounds.

Although some of these women did not experience agriculture throughout their upbringing, each had an internal passion to pursue a career in agriculture. Four out of the eight women interviewed explained they started their careers not actively involved in the agricultural industry, but began in the agriculture industry due to outside influences who emphasized the importance of agriculture. Woman 5 explained:

I did not see a reason of going to school to do what is already in me, so I did not go to school to do agriculture because we do agriculture ourselves. That is our everyday life. I am beginning to develop a big interest, and in fact the reason why I was invited here is because I asked help (sic) to start a farm. I want a farm and I want to do small stock, like goats, sheep and possibly chickens. It has been in me and I do not know why, but it has been in me and I want to do it. I am determined to do it and to keep small stock, and that is my interest. The plowing part of it is vegetables.

However, some women interviewed initially pursued careers in agriculture. Women 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 have become successful agriculturists in their specific fields, including poultry, crops and even a petting farm. For example, Woman 8 revealed she wanted to have her own orchard because her grandmother was involved in the agricultural industry and enjoyed it. However, she soon realized her passion for impacting youth through building a petting farm and expressed she “loved what she saw” when she dug deeper into the petting zoo agricultural field.

Theme Two: Networking and Mentoring Learning Initiatives

There are developing networking and mentoring initiatives in Botswana. The eight women interviewed described their networking initiatives mainly existed through WhatsApp and social media sites. However, forming support groups is often difficult due to competitive environments. Woman 3 elaborates:

I have it on social media. The only problem with that is, I am going to group us all into this problem as Botswana we do not like sharing, so we have a problem with that. We have a problem with getting an association together because one farmer may have more chickens than all of us, so if we had to get supply, he would get the supply first. Another problem is getting together, not necessarily stealing ideas, but we are all feeding our chicks the same thing..

Mentoring others in the field of agriculture is slightly new in Botswana. The interpretation from the women interviewed was agriculturists mainly did their own thing. Woman 1:

This (mentoring) is something that is quite new to us because we have been very fragmented as a community in terms of the farming thing. But just recently realized that there are farmers that I did not know were out there that are coming on board and sharing ideas, it is really great. But we did not have that at all. And I think that’s been one of the downfalls of Botswana agriculture, was that   there was not this cohesive group of people, everybody was doing their own thing.

Woman 1 also described that agriculture is on the rise due to agricultural specialists and the mentoring they provide. “There is a chain of agricultural shops here in the country that have some agricultural specialists, which is something we have not had, and they have started a group and there is loads of information coming through on that. “So agriculture is really on the rise here.” However, if you are new to the agricultural industry some women may find it difficult to be accepted into the agricultural circles. Woman 2 explained:

In each and every district, there is an agricultural office. So on our side, there is an agricultural office, but we are supposed to have an association. We will often times find that within an association, those people that have been there before, they make it difficult for other people to join. They often say, ‘Oh I do not know how you are supposed to join’, but it is often the head of the association who is saying that. They say this because they do not want other outside people to join because they want to sell within their own farms and not against contenders (Woman 2).

All eight women believed mentoring was important and needed, especially for young people. However, most agreed mentoring may cause competition within the industry. Woman 8 explained, “mentoring is good, we are just not sure if it will create competition that we are just not looking for.”

Theme Three: Leadership and Management

All eight of these women have seized a leadership role within the agricultural industry. Each woman has a unique leadership style they have developed throughout their journey, and from their experiences as leaders, they also have gained a better understanding of their values. The following results are divided into three sub-themes: (a) leadership style, (b) employee relations, and (c) values and trust.

When asked to describe their leadership style, the women’s responses were diverse. For example, Women 4 stated:

I would say that I am born leader. Yes, I was born a leader. I’ve always been showing          that, even at home. As a first born, you are a leader. You are just a born leader because                         you are leading a family. I ended up developing the leadership skills not at school, but at home because I had to lead my family and lead my siblings. I am just a born leader, and        apart from that, I think the Lord has also just given me that leadership role. Even at     church, the Lord has given me that leadership role.

Whereas, Women 1 expressed she believes in trained leadership.

I feel like I train them and then I give them space, but I show them the value of the customer. Teaching them how to talk with them and interact with them, especially being patient with the children. We have a Facebook page where we receive a lot of comments and questions, so I motivate them to interact with the customers and realize that when they get comments about the staff being amazing, they are not talking about me they are talking about you…Train them, give them space, and tell them that I trust them. If they have challenges, I let them know that I am here.

However, their answers were similar in terms of outlook on leadership and their positional power in the agricultural industry. Woman 2:

I would say my approach is effective. I would call myself a good leader becausebefore, I was working under other people, so I started to tell myself that I wanted to do something different. So, the people that I am above, I am going to make sure I listen to them, and that is what made the difference… I always say to them “I want you to be yourself when you do your job.” I only advise if I feel that is not going to work, but what I normally do is that I lay everything out on the table and then from there, I say “do it the way that you can do it.” After that, I just add what needs to be added

These eight women also have to be effective leaders of those with whom they work and interact, such as their employees or customers. For example, Woman 5 further explained how she cannot serve as a true leader to others until she defines her own leadership abilities:

I lead not because I am at the top; leadership is not about being at the top. You can lead from there, but you can also lead from the bottom. You can lead this and any organization even if you are not the secretary or the president, but you lead from the bottom up. You make sure you are leading others properly because you are leading from the bottom. You do not have to have a title to be a leader. Also, if you cannot lead your own life, then you cannot lead other people. You have to start with your own life and lead your life. Once you start leading in your own life, that is when you can lead other people and help other people.

Most of the women exhibited strong relationships with their employees, as they depend on employee support and work ethic in order to have a successful business. Woman 1 further explained she did not attend college and study agriculture, but her staff has been helpful about positively growing the business. However, some of the women explained difficulties in recruiting and retaining reliable and effective staff members. For example, Woman 3 expressed “we are not your friend nor your parent, you are here to work…It is often difficult to train and keep some of the employees.”

Not only did these eight women have the passion to strive to be successful at what they do, but they valued and put trust into their employees. Some of these women have a weakness when it comes to putting their full trust into their staff while staying loyal to their values, such as Woman 2 who stated she can be too forgiving and lenient at times because she is afraid to get rid of staff who have an unfortunate homelife. Woman 1, however, has customer values in mind when she explained how she strived to keep her business open 365 days a year to make it more appealing and beneficial. Woman 8 revealed being able to depend on and trust your staff, ultimately impacts the customers and the outcome of the business.

I think that one of the things, especially when you own a business, that you will always not be there. I have to trust that things will go, and we have to communicate. If we have young people, staff need to go on their level, talk their language and be with them. We are also very hands-on. It is also special to receive ideas from my staff as well, and I make sure I show my appreciation.

Theme Four: Batswana Family Structure

Woman 3 stated:Agriculture for these eight women involves family and/or is a family operation. “I was excited because I got time to spend with my mother, a lot of time, and it is just very peaceful when you are in an agricultural environment opposed to the hustle and bustle of the city. So that is where I found my new love and passion. I have moved to the farm and I am raising my son there” . In addition, the women spoke highly of their children’s love for agriculture. “I have four kids, three girls and one boy. My boy is someone who is active. We have got chickens at home right now and he is feeding them, and tomorrow he is going to the land to help my mother (Woman 6). Woman 8 expressed that she has two children and “They are really hands-on and they love it [agriculture]…They are always out here helping and getting to know things, and it is really like a family business.”

Some of the women were married and the others were not. However, of the married women, spousal support was crucial to their success in agriculture. Woman 2 stated:

I will say, he is supportive because he knows I do not like driving. When my kids were still in school, and they were in school while I was working, he use(d) to drive me to the farm. Even now sometimes, he will drive me out to the chicken house and even though he does not get out, he still drives me because he knows I do not like to drive.

Woman 1 even commented how she could not operate her agricultural business without her spouse. “I was just saying we could not operate without him. There is a lot of mechanical stuff that does go on, and obviously he is a mechanic at trade and is extremely hands-on. He has his own business, but he is very hands-on with what is going on here.” Woman 8 classified herself as a lucky girl due to her spouse’s support and commitment to her agricultural initiatives.

Theme Five: Botswana Culture and Agriculture

Women agriculturists in Botswana recognized the culture in which they were raised was different than the current cultural climate. These changes have greatly impacted them personally and professionally as challenges and successes have surfaced. The following results were divided into two sub-themes: (a) personal challenges and (2) successes by being a female in the industry.

Most of the women interviewed described Botswana as a difficult country in which to reside because of how they are viewed and treated as agriculturists. Although these women were striving to make a change for other women and youth seeking to be successful agriculturists within the industry, Botswana was making it difficult for them. Woman 3 explained how each part of the industry was viewed differently in Botswana depending on their gender and capability. Woman 3:

Well in the poultry industry, they have made it deserving for women and for the other industries, we can penetrate them but they are mainly for men, like the cows, pork and goats, and yes women can get into them, but we are always put on the backburner. “No women cannot do that.” ‘It’s too much work.’ ‘It’s tough and dangerous.’ ‘You can go try chickens.’ Well they say that it is easier. It is less labor intensive.

Woman 4 also revealed her thoughts on how Botswana was influencing women and the agricultural industry. Woman 4:

Yes, it is men driven. However, women are still going to trade shows and exhibitions where we get to meet with different people from different areas and at different angles. We are also trying to show to other women and youth that they should also come up to these events, and show them how it can help them …The problem is that the government and the associations are not supporting these grants, even though that is where it all starts.

These women have overcome most of the challenges that being a female agriculturist in Botswana presents, and they often achieve great success as women leaders within the agricultural industry. Woman 1 illuminated how food outlets and large customers have helped her business and has brought her successful cash flow. Woman 1 now has the ability to produce and distribute more agricultural products. In addition, Woman 4 expressed advancing her agriculture practice:

There was this occasion that had come up from the government about granting land for tomatoes, so I sort of was juggling and fate just helped me decide to grow tomatoes for about 10 months. Because it was really hard work, I learned that if you can plant a tomato you can do anything. I am actually thinking of doing dairy, but for beginners I want to do chickens, eggs and then broilers.

Theme Six: Awareness and Shift of Agriculture in Botswana

The eight women interviewed have been influenced and impacted by the agricultural industry. The following results are divided into the sub-themes culture, how Botswana views women in agriculture, and how women in Botswana view agriculture.

Botswana’s culture and the women involved in agriculture also have a significant impact on the industry and how the country utilizes its agricultural services. There are some difficulties women in Botswana have faced regarding financial support for their operations, specifically with government funding. Woman 3 further highlighted the problems she has faced trying to request funds from the government to bolster her facility in the agricultural industry.

Yes, it is men driven. However, women are still going to trade shows and exhibitions where we get to meet with different people from different areas and at different angles. We are also trying to show to other women and youth that they should also come up to these events, and show them how it can help them.

She explains bank loans are considered excessively competitive as the government searches for certain criteria the women must meet, and because it is a competition for funds, women can only apply every four years around election season when they have completed the voting process.

There seems to be an alignment of similarities between how Botswana views women in agriculture and how women in Botswana view agriculture, such as overcoming gender stereotypes and cultural differences. However, the women interviewed for this study reported progress in starting to receive the recognition they deserve. Amongst the women interviewed, most of them agreed that it can be difficult working in the industry as gender specifications seem to be a priority in production agriculture, but women were beginning to overcome these assumptions. Woman 7 explained her thoughts on men versus women in the industry.

Back in the olden days, to me men had always been at the forefront as pertaining to farming. What has changed now is the fact that we now live in a world where men are dominating especially in the work environment, finances, and opportunities to obtain resources. Now that farming has become commercial and a lot of money is being made, a lot more men are becoming more interested because they are in better positions. They are in better positions when it comes to getting financing and buying resources needed, it’s definitely changing. Unlike before when it was the women who were not going into the field in order to take care of the children, women are now starting to milk the cows and the goats, go harvest wheat and more.

In Botswana, women were beginning to initiate leadership roles in the agricultural industry as they inspired those around them through impacting the younger generations. Woman 8 revealed her positive outlook on how women in Botswana view agriculture, and how they are starting to overcome obstacles that once held women back in the industry.

I want to believe there is a positive outlook on it, mainly because it is something that is part of our culture. In our cultural background, we have roles for men and women. You will find that with the rise of single mothers, the balancing is done in everything they do. Women are now fulfilling both roles. In Botswana, anybody can do anything. For example, I know a single girl who is a cattle farmer. You can find the opportunities here for women are open.

Theme Seven: Perspectives on Values and Motivations

Most of the women interviewed overcame obstacles from the industry, government, and other businesses to achieve their leadership positions. They had done so by staying faithful to who they were in terms of values and beliefs. Each participant expressed how difficult it can be to face the agricultural industry as a woman. They also shared how relying on their faith and following through with practices they value had the power to keep them motivated to spread knowledge and positivity to those who can make the industry successful in the future.

The values and motivations the of women interviewed also align with their faith perspectives. Most of these women valued trust amongst those with whom they work, their customers, and both the economy and agricultural industry in Botswana. Woman 4 explained how she is preparing for a successful future for not only her business, but as well as herself as she prepares to retire. Woman 4:

Because I was raising these broilers, I want to help with food security and the economy of the county. I am helping by supplying to others, and by being able to do this business management, I have become very proud of myself. And I am starting to build my business back up, for now just to get by, but also for when I retire.

In order to have a successful future in the industry, these women also have motivational desires that will help them grow personally and professionally. Not only do their families and businesses motivate them to do better, but they have achieved individual goals that have pushed them to take on new challenges that have eventually made them successful. Woman 5 explained how you must be the motivator in all aspects of your life in order to build up yourself and those around you. Woman 5:

As a leader, you are the strength of people and because you are their strength… you cannot crash. When you have crashed or when your strength has crashed, where now do others look? Who do they look up to? What is left? Knowing that people are looking up to you, it gives you that energy.

Another great example is Woman 3, who is hoping and working toward taking over for mother when she steps down. She said, “Well, hoping that my mother steps down and that I can take it… When she steps down and when she cannot do it, I will ready to take over.” 


The findings and conclusions from this study were supported by interviews, observations, artifacts collected by the research team while in Botswana. The women developed a niche within their agricultural commodity group and this drove each woman, once established within her field, to be passionate and authentic leaders (Avolio & Gardner, 2004). Also, the eight women highlighted unique views of leadership which include being a positive contributor to the industry; searching for inspiration; encouragement to others; passion about the industry; leading by example; and providing motivation to others. These findings were supported by previous research related to women in agriculture (Brawner et. al, 2020; Kleihauer et al, 2012; Stephens et al., 2018).  Furthermore, these women have cultivated personal leadership tactics through lived experiences and time spent in the agricultural industry, similar to the previous research by Brawner et al., 2020.

The women represented a broad range of production agricultural industries (e.g., animal husbandry and horticultural practices) in Botswana. These findings emphasize participants shared lived experiences of leadership, personal and professional challenges, awareness and shifts in Botswana agriculture, and perspectives on faith and values. Other additional values that influence one’s lived situational experiences were environmental conditions and events and influences of learning experiences contribute to career decision making (Hersey & Blanchard, 1976). Moreover, the situational leadership experience and environment in which a woman is raised can influence and shape her career journey, as well as impact leadership aspirations, similar to previous research studies (Brawner et. al, 2020; Kleihauer et al, 2012; Kleihauer et al., 2013; Stephens et al., 2018).

Women who seek leadership opportunities, specifically those in the agricultural industry, would benefit from understanding how the participants of this study first became inspired and how they were encouraged to seek out advancement in their chosen career path. These shared experiences can communicate a framework for woman who are inspired to lead in the agricultural industry – particularly in international settings. Understanding one’s own journey provides the opportunity for reflection on self-value, and recognition of how to work with and lead others. Furthermore, acknowledgement of women in agriculture as leaders can provide a pipeline to expose and foster other women’s pursuit of agricultural careers.

The eight women in this study strived to accumulate and utilize their unique and desired traits and were faced with the difficult decisions of balancing family roles and fighting for success in the industry. As expressed by Woman 8, “You will find that with the rise of single mothers, the balancing is done in everything they do. Women are now fulfilling both roles.” These eight women had not only faced challenges within their leadership roles, but dealt with interpersonal struggles within the industry. They strived to engage with community partners to form shared networks, inspire other women, and organize knowledge acquisition.

Study participants expressed concern with the opportunities for improved knowledge and resources acquired for present and future women agriculturists. Woman 4 detailed, “Nowadays, I think women should just go out there and try new things because we are capable and we can do it.” Their faith, values, and culture, propel them to encourage, engage, and energize others to develop and enhance their leadership potential in agriculture across Botswana. Last, new leadership initiatives must understand the cultural context of gender roles within agriculture and its intersection with faith and family values. It is obvious from these interviews that (1) leadership training for female headed enterprises is needed; (2) government programs should ensure that women leaders are equally qualified; and (3) that more agricultural extension programs should be developed that support women in agriculture.

Recommendations for Future Research

Future research questions to explore include (1) What are high school initiatives in Botswana related to recruiting females into non-traditional career fields? And (2) What are current youth programming initiatives for mentoring young females in agricultural fields in Botswana? and (3) What mentoring strategies are being effectively utilized to recruit and retain women in agriculture industry fields in Botswana?


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