Learning Pathways of Non-Traditional Farmers in Agricultural Niche Markets
Farmers have turned to the University Extension system since its beginnings in the United States with the establishment of the land-grant institutions and extension services. This study focuses on niche market non-traditional farmers and their information needs. In the course of reviewing literature for this study it became apparent that very little if any study of the learning pathways of non-traditional niche market had been done. The case study approach is the appropriate method for gathering information on such farmers, their learning pathways, and how various educational resources such as extension have or have not helped. The farming niches studied here were bison farming, ornamental wild-type fish farming, bee keeping, and a direct sale pick your own style of apple fruit growing. The farming niches of three of the four participants were not addressed by any formal educational system at the time of this study. The four niche market farmers interviewed for this study provide insight into what worked and what did not work for their information searches. Their educational journeys were complicated and not without significant risk to their success. Non-traditional farmers, at the time of the interviews in 2005 to 2008, profiled in this study had wide ranging approaches and degrees of success in their pursuit of information acquisition. Results of this study showed that the four participants came from a common background of growing up in traditional farming, embarking on other careers, and then engaging in niche market farming. However, they each had quite different methodologies for acquiring necessary information in their non-traditional farming pursuits upon their return to agriculture as a way of life and making a living. Information was acquired thru mentors, university extension, relevant published resources, niche business-oriented organizations, and trial and error research. The outcome of this study highlights the need for a broad range of niche market commodities in need of support by university extension services. It also highlighted the need for a wide variety of information resources and delivery methods that need to be tuned to the needs of the individual more so than the group. After the study time period changes in technology have vastly altered the learning landscape for niche market farmers. The ease of finding information and like-minded farmers to collaborate with combined with vastly improved access to information have transformed niche market access and the odds of individual success.