Proficiency-development spirals: Occupational learning among farmers

Date of Completion

January 2003


Education, Adult and Continuing|Education, Agricultural




Farming in the United States is becoming polarized. At one pole are increasingly-consolidated agribusiness ventures. At the other pole are small farms that meet the demand for products such as organically grown or sustainably produced meat, produce, dairy, and other farm products. Farmers need to be proficient in creating, maintaining, and developing farming operations that will succeed and endure in this era of polarization. This study used semi-structured interviews with operators of small farms, supplemented with document analysis of profiles of successful farmers, to explore the nature and development of proficiency among operators of small farms. Findings indicate that farmers use mental models as self-organizing mechanisms for the domain-specific knowledge, tacit knowledge, and metacognitive skills that comprise proficiency. Transfer of knowledge and skill is based on and further contributes to the farmer's self-organization of proficiency. Farmers develop their mental models through implicit and explicit learning. Farmers develop proficiency through discovery learning, problem solving, and constructing and working within ecologies that support and enhance their learning. Implications of the study for theory, future research, educational practice, and agricultural policy are discussed. ^