Surveys that assess preferred information delivery methods and topics for meetings and workshops are critical tools to provide current and relevant content to one of Clemson Cooperative Extension Service’s major clientele groups, family forest landowners. A forest owner survey was conducted in Fall 2017 that sought to identify key thematic needs and preferred delivery formats for South Carolina’s family forest landowners. In addition, a review of interest by South Carolina forest landowners for a short course on forest management was explored. The top three thematic needs were forest health, economics/marketing, and tax/policy. Preferred delivery formats were field tours, thematic meetings, and one-day workshops. Short course programs such as a ‘master series’ were popular. Results of our study provide Extension foresters relevant information to design educational program delivery techniques for family forest landowners in South Carolina.
The Cooperative Extension Service has long been a primary source of non-formal education for family forest landowners in the South. Family forest landowners account for 58% of the forestland in the region, considering only holdings of ten acres or more.1 Land-grant universities often design, develop and deliver non-formal programs to family forest landowners, supplementing their knowledge of forest management, which has been proven to contribute to improved forest health and economic vitality of forests and other natural resources. The success of the Cooperative Extension Service is related to the extent to which they attract participants, satisfy identified educational needs and reach individual landowners with useful information within program limits of funding and staff.2 Therefore, meeting landowner educational and training needs with relevant and useful information in a preferred format is a major challenge for Extension Agents and professionals.
Furthermore, changing forestland ownership patterns, the political environment, and dynamic market conditions complicate the job of Extension educators, requiring a constant effort to remain relevant to the major clientele needs. Finite resources limit the opportunity for one-on-one attention to individual Extension clientele, necessitating adjustments in programming content, delivery method, and format. One of the most common tools to maintain this applicability in Extension programming is the needs assessment.
Surveys of client preferences for information delivery method and topics for workshops and meetings are an important and often used tool utilized by Extension professionals to make informed decisions about the use of their limited resources to design, develop, and deliver Extension programs, products, and services. Through a survey, Bardon et al. found that regular postal mailing was a preferred format for receiving information when compared with the internet delivery among North Carolina forest landowners.3 Similarly, Radhakrishna et al. found that newsletters, publications, and field tours were preferred educational delivery methods among private forest landowners in South Carolina.4 In both studies, few landowners identified the Internet as their preferred delivery format for receiving forestry information. However, the use of a web delivery format could be expected to increase in the future as the wireless technology becomes more affordable and accessible. Access to technology is one reason that Extension professionals should regularly examine content and information delivery options.
This study presents the results of a recent study conducted among South Carolina family forest landowners, with the objective of understanding their preferences in terms of topic themes, delivery method, and formats.
A six-question survey of South Carolina’s family forest landowners was conducted in Fall 2017 to assess thematic needs and preferred delivery formats. A cover letter and link to a SurveyMonkey® online survey was emailed to a statewide Clemson Cooperative Extension Service family forest landowner database. We did not include forest owners not already in the database; their inclusion would have expanded the usefulness of the results. The database included email contacts of landowners who have participated in previous educational programs. The cover letter addressed privacy and anonymity issues, while the survey instrument avoided sociodemographic questions to reduce the size of the survey and to focus only on topical needs and preferred delivery formats. After two weeks, fifty-five completed responses were received with an adjusted response rate of 87.2%.
Preferred Thematic Needs for the Family Forest Landowners
The top three themes of interest to family forest landowners in South Carolina include: forest health issues (71%), economics/marketing issues (66%), and tax/policy/law issues (58%) (table 1). An open-ended option, ‘Other’, allowed landowners to write additional themes if necessary, which allowed about 27% of the landowners to identify fire management, managing contracts, best management practices, and water quality as the other important themes of interest. Our results are very similar to those obtained in North Carolina by Bardon et al.3
Table 1. Preferred thematic needs for South Carolina family forest landowners.
|Highest Priority Thematic in Extension Programming||Response (%)|
|Forest health, invasive species, insects, and diseases||71|
|Economics, marketing, and harvesting||66|
|Taxes, policy, laws, and regulations||58|
|Forest management alternatives||56|
|Nontimber (i.e., pellet, pine straw, etc.)||44|
|Risk and risk management (damages)||38|
Preferred Information Delivery Formats for the Forest Landowners
Respondents indicated that, in terms of suitable, convenient, and effective programming, the top three preferred delivery formats were field tours, one-day workshops, and thematic or topical meetings (table 2). We defined thematic or topical meeting as those that concentrate on a single topic of high current interest. Table 2 allowed for multiple selections of preferred topics. In the open-ended category, “Others,” landowners suggested four-hour classes, night and weekend meetings, and one-day or field classes followed by online study sessions.
Over 60% of the respondents preferred field tours and one-day workshops, over half indicated thematic meetings as their preferred formats, and over 40% preferred online tools. Downing and Finley found that among Pennsylvania landowners’ active learning methods, such as outdoor workshops and demonstration areas, were the most preferred methods as compared to passive learning such as video conferencing and slides.5 These results complement a 2017 needs assessment by Southern Regional Extension personnel.6
Table 2. Preferred delivery formats for conferences and workshops for South Carolina.
|Preferred Delivery Format||Responses (%)|
Short Course Learning
Master volunteer landowner programs to enhance peer learning and promote personal networking among landowners are common Extension formats in many states.7, 8 Two widely popular peer-learning programs that Clemson University initiated in the 1980s include the “Master Tree Farmer” and “Master Wildlifer” series. These programs were immensely popular when offered in the past; the survey respondents requested those peer-learning programs be revived. As one respondent noted: “Please consider ‘re-starting’ the Master Tree Farmer Series, I found this to be extremely helpful when I did it, and unfortunately my adult children and wife do not have access to it.”
Participants appreciated the learner focused nature of those “master-type” programs and some tended to associate the programs with Clemson University. Another respondent noted: “The Master Tree Farmer/Wildlifer series was once a flagship program for Clemson. Bringing it back to reach multiple landowners could generate tremendous publicity and good will.”
Comparison with the National Woodland Owner Survey
The National Woodland Owner Survey (NWOS) is the official USDA Forest Service national survey of family forest owners.1 Results of the NWOS are available for most states, and the survey’s Table Maker function allows users to develop their own tables based on key attributes for states or regions in the United States. There are 86,000 family forest ownership in South Carolina that control 6,885,000 acres of forestland.9 Tables for South Carolina family forest owners were developed for family forest owners with holdings of ten or more acres to serve as a basis of comparison with our survey results (tables 3 and 4).
Preferred topics and methods for receiving advice are similar to our South Carolina survey, but do differ somewhat, as the objectives for the two surveys slightly differed. For table 4, nearly one-third of respondents stated that they did not want or need advice or information on their forestland; those forest owners were not considered in developing the percentages in that table.
Table 3. Preferred topics for woodland management advice by South Carolina family forest owners.1
|Desired topics for receiving advice||Responses (%)|
|More favorable tax policies||44|
|How to transfer land to next generation||38|
|Stronger timber markets||36|
|Cost-sharing for woodland management||28|
|Selling or giving away development rights||17|
Response percentages are lower in table 3 as compared to table 1. This may be explained by the groups that comprised the survey respondents. Respondents to our survey were Clemson University Extension forestry clientele, while the NWOS had respondents from the entire population of family forest owners. Thus, our survey respondents would be expected to have a higher interest level in woodland management than average family forest owners. Another limitation in our data is a relatively small sample size; the NWOS has a much larger sample size and includes both forest owners interested in Extension activities and those that are not. The results from the two surveys are fairly consistent. In table 1 forest health is a top priority; in table 3 forest health was not explicitly included but might be considered part of woodland management. Respondents to both surveys showed very strong interest in financial topics like taxes, marketing timber, and management alternatives.
Table 4. Preferred method for receiving advice by South Carolina family forest owners indicating an interest (67%) in information on managing their forestland.1
|Preferred method||Responses (%)|
|Written material (brochures or publications)||52|
|Talk to someone||31|
|Have someone visit my land||17|
|Conference or workshop||17|
A direct comparison of surveys is difficult. Table 2 is based on respondents identifying preferred types of conferences or workshops, where table 4 is based on a much more diverse set of options for receiving advice. It is interesting that conferences and workshops are not a strongly preferred method, as it is the entire basis on the Clemson survey. Table 4 suggests conferences and workshops might have stronger interest if interaction between foresters and forest owners occurred in the field (a field trip component). Table 4 also suggests conferences and workshops may be more attractive if written materials were included as part of the event.
One challenging task for Extension programming is to provide relevant, useful, and timely information in an effective and efficient format for the changing forest landowner clientele base. We found that landowners do have a strong preference for educational content, format, and delivery method in South Carolina. This information will allow for more effective delivery of educational resources and better communication with this major clientele group.
Forest health related issues threatening the productivity of the forest, such as an insect pest or virulent disease, were the major educational need among forest landowners. This is possibly related to the recent outbreak of the emerald ash borer in parts of the South and its imminent threat to timber investments. Surveys like this often highlight current threats to the forest.
Other major topics of interest to forest landowners were forest management and economics, harvest planning and marketing, and tax issues. Since the South plays a major role in United States softwood timber supply, and forest landowners are the major ownership group associated with the wood supply, these issues highlight landowner preferences for current forestry information related to management technology, markets, and policy issues through trusted sources such as the Cooperative Extension Service forestry program. The other topics, such as wildlife management and non-timber forest products management, reveal the diverse objectives of the forest landowner groups. The survey showed that not all forest owners are interested in timber management, and some landowners are interested in understanding more about expanding non-timber forest products markets such as wood pellets and pine straw.
The findings of this study will be useful for Extension and its partners in designing, developing and delivering more effective and impactful educational programs. Forest landowners want to know what to do to ensure the health of their forests. In addition, they want management, economic and tax advice in a hands-on format. They are also interested in in-depth short course style formats and would like to see the return of the in-person Master Tree Farmer and Master Wildlifer series. A potential bias of this survey includes the fact that the landowners surveyed may already be familiar with past and current Clemson Extension forestry programming efforts. It would be useful to conduct a survey on South Carolina family forest owners who have never participated in an Extension event.
Though the results reflect responses of South Carolina family forest landowners, the findings could be equally applicable for Extension programming throughout the South. This information should be useful to Extension forestry professionals in determining the method of presentation and type of program most attractive to their potential audience. Of course, the actual topic of a meeting or workshop will be the major determinant of audience interest, and our survey shows clear preferences in terms of broad topic types. These type of programming decisions strongly influence the program quality reported by Extension clientele and their overall perception of program usefulness.
- Butler BJ, Hewes JK, Dickenson BJ, Andrejczyk K, Butler SM, Markowski-Lindsay M. USDA Forest Service National Woodland Owner Survey: National, regional, and state statistics for family forest and woodland ownerships with 10+ acres, 2011-2013. Newtown Square (PA): USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station; 2016. Resource Bulletin NRS-99.
- Mercker DC, Hodges DG. Forest certification and nonindustrial private landowners: Who will consider certifying and why? Journal of Extension. 2007 Aug; 45(4): Article 4RIB6.
- Bardon RE, Hazel D, Miller K. Preferred information delivery methods of North Carolina forest landowners. Journal of Extension. 2007 Oct; 45(5): Article 5FEA3.
- Radhakrishna RB, Nelson L, Franklin R, Kessler G. Information sources and extension delivery methods used by private longleaf pine landowners. Journal of Extension. 2003 Aug; 41(4): Article 4RIB3.
- Downing AK, Finley JC. Private forest landowners: What they want in an educational program. Journal of Extension. 2005 Feb; 43(1): Article 1RIB4.
- Hubbard B, Boby L. SREF Needs Assessment. Athens (GA): Southern Regional Extension Forestry. 2017.
- Bridges CA. Identifying agriculture and forestry educational needs using spatial analysis techniques. Journal of Extension. 2008 Jun; 46(3): Article 3TOT6.
- Allred SB, Goff GR, Wetzel LP, Luo MK. Evaluating peer impacts of a master forest owner volunteer program. Journal of Extension. 2011 Oct; 49(5): Article 5RIB3.
- Butler BJ, Butler SM. Family forest ownerships with 10+ acres in South Carolina, 2011-2013. Newtown Square (PA): USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station; 2016. Research Note NRS-235.