Developing a Qualitative Needs Assessment Tool to be Used by the Cooperative Extension Professional Working with Beef Producers

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Virginia Tech


Cooperative Extension professionals have long relied heavily on a needs assessment approach to lay the foundation for the creation of educational opportunities that are both applicable and pertinent in meeting the historically assumed goals of increased profitability and sustainability in agriculture production. Utilization of a formalized needs assessment approach has the proven potential to be utilized by the Extension agent in the development of understanding with clientele; along with ultimately serving to assist in the identification of needs that are specific to the individual communities in which agents serve. Educational programming and resource allocation plans can then be developed, post needs assessment, with mind to the specific needs identified as a result of the process. Traditional needs assessments can be carried out through a multitude of mediums; to include surveying, interviews, advisory committees, focus groups, community forums, the use of existing data, and any multitude of mixing and matching of the aforementioned. Regardless of the chosen medium, the true value of needs assessment for Extension programming relies on its ability to successfully identify stakeholder needs, and to be empowered with the necessary information to design programs, products, and services to ultimately meet those needs (Garst & McCawley, 2015). Through the identification of agricultural producers’ goals and production limitations, the Extension agent is armed and empowered with information that is necessary in the creation of successful agriculture education program design and the further development of services provided within their communities. It remains important for Extension agents to be able to “meet clients where they are at.” Feelings, goals, and production limitations have significant potential to stand as limiting factors to educational uptake, if not addressed, in programming that has been historically centered around increased profitability and sustainability. Without identifying producer goals, motivation, and addressing limiting factors to production within education, the Extension professional may face challenges in terms of programmatic impact and buy-in. An educator must exhibit considerable objectivity in working with public and they sometimes tend to assume they know what is best for their clientele (Boone et al., 2002). Increased profitability and sustainability seem to be the low-hanging, easily identifiable need of agriculture education; however, this historical belief may not be the case for the majority of contemporary program participants. If nothing else, this assumption is worth investigation by the contemporary Extension professional who has the ultimate goal of meeting current needs within a contemporary clientele base. The ever-changing agricultural climate and an aging agriculture producer pool make it all the more important for contemporary Extension professionals to be proficient at identifying the current needs of agriculture producers in the geographic area that they serve. The purpose of this project is to create a replicable, easily applied methodology that can be used to assess the educational needs of beef producers throughout Central Virginia. Locality based needs will primarily be determined by the identification of producer identified operational goals and the limitations that producers face in meeting those personal operational goals via interview. The information collected during the producer centered interviews will then be evaluated for key, repeatable themes and eventually have the capability to be applied by local Extension professionals to determine educational focus; ultimately determining and affecting local, available Extension resource application. This project successfully identified both beef producer goals and the specific production limitations faced within a set locality and programmatic focus of Extension service. The project also served to produce a roadmap of determined importance for addressing both goals and limitations within educational programming, based upon the frequency of response within the saturated sample of project participants. The interview protocol and needs assessment approach developed through this specific project shows the potential to benefit both beginning career Extension agents, as well as long term career agents, in the tasks of identification and prioritization of addressed educational topics, resource allocation, and relationship building within a community. The project shed light on the importance of providing specialized educational resources and how Extension can better serve a contemporary clientele base moving forward.