Breaking down impact

A woman stands, holdig her hands out. Two sit, looking on, behind her.
Holly Henning, associate professor and Swantz Distinguished Professor for Teaching and Learning, speaks to the newest members of the AgForestry leadership program during the 45th cohort’s October launch at WSU Pullman. Henning was honored on-field Oct. 14 as a featured WSU faculty member for her contributions to the university.

I hope everyone cheered loudly for Holly Henning, who was recognized on the field during Saturday’s homecoming game as a featured WSU faculty member for her contributions to the university. Congratulations, Holly!

Congratulations to Laura Griner Hill, Louise Parker, Brittany Cooper, Elizabeth Weybright, Jennifer Duckworth, and Gitanjali Shrestha, recipients of the 2023 WSU Teams that Build Award! We are so pleased that your efforts will be recognized at the Research Excellence Awards Ceremony this Friday!

Congratulations also to Steve Sheppard, who will receive the 2023 WSU Public Impact Award on Friday for his work supporting North American honey bee health! I can’t wait to read the impact statement!

I continue to think about how we can better communicate the difference our programs make to people across the state. I am debating how to ensure that the communications are meaningful, we have data and evidence to support our statements, and we gather the evidence in ways that do not take so much time that the programming is recognizably slowed.

During our visit to the Franklin County Extension office, we received a summary that highlighted outputs and outcomes from the programs in Franklin, Benton, Walla Walla, and Grant Counties. A few of the statements were on the cusp of being what I consider strong impact statements. To expand upon what was written, I want to share a few thoughts.

One impact statement reads: “First blueberry cold hardiness model available to growers. $400,000 annual savings in fuel and labor.”

No doubt the availability of the model is a big deal to growers and the result of hard work by faculty and program staff. As written, we know that research was conducted to develop a scholarly output or product — i.e., the cold hardiness model. We recognize that outreach was conducted to share the model with growers and increase knowledge. We are not sure from the written statement if the learning translated into adoption of the model (behavior change). The economic impact indicated in the statement suggests there was adoption, but we are not certain about its extent.

With a bit more effort to estimate or measure the model’s adoption, the impact statement could read: “During the 2023 growing season, the average-sized blueberry farm saved $400,000 in fuel and labor costs by using WSU’s blueberry cold hardiness model — the first of its kind — to plan inputs. In 2023, an estimated x percent of the Washington blueberry industry used the model. Fuel savings reduced fossil energy use by farms, in addition to cutting input costs.”

Note that I added the year to the statement because in some years the model might make recommendations that increase labor and fuel inputs due to weather or pest pressures. Increased costs are not always a bad thing; in some cases, additional inputs make the difference between a successful and a lost crop.

Another program statement shared that a potato pest monitoring network and weekly email alerts resulted in a 33% reduction in insecticide use, saving $55 per acre. Again, we can see how research and outreach worked together to increase knowledge, but we lack the powerful message about behavior change or extent of adoption. Adoption data, perhaps collected through a brief email survey to the same growers who received weekly alerts, renders a more powerful statement about the difference CAHNRS research and Extension efforts make.

We have great stories to share about our programs in agriculture production, dietary decisions, youth professional development, and natural resource stewardship. It will take a bit of work to focus those stories on impact, but it’s worth the effort. I can’t wait to share the impact messages!