Motivations for Adoption of Sustainable Agriculture Practices, Education and Research: A Mixed-Methods Study

Final report for GNC02-001

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2002: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Charles Francis
Grain Place Foundation
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Project Information


A comparison of measured motivation sources between producers and researchers/educators and between SARE-funded and non-SARE-funded individuals representing the same professional groups is integrated with interview data from representatives from similar groups related to motivation to adopt, promote or research sustainable agriculture practices and principles. The combination of quantitative and qualitative data allow for a richer understanding of persons’ motivations to adopt and help provide context that can inform SARE program administrators related to grant selection and program improvements.

To assess motivation quantitatively, a survey was taken of 447 SARE-funded and non-funded producers, researchers/educators from the 12-state North Central Region, who completed the Motivation Sources Inventory (Barbuto & Scholl, 1998). This instrument measures motivation in terms of intrinsic process (the fun of doing the work, itself), instrumental reward, self-concept external, self-concept internal, and goal internalization. Analysis revealed a significant difference between funded and non-funded groups in both the self-concept external (SCE) and instrumental reward motivation source, although results involving instrumental motivation must be interpreted with caution because of response bias.

When looking at the differences between SARE producers and all other groups, a significant difference (p<.05) was shown in three of the five motivation sources (intrinsic process, instrumental reward and self-concept external), with the differences between the first and last of those sources being highly significant (p<.005). These data suggest that SARE-funded individuals, in general, are significantly less concerned with the impression they make on others, such as “what the neighbors might think,” than are non-funded people. The data further indicate that, when compared with both their non-funded peers and researchers and educators, as a whole, SARE-funded producers are significantly less motivated by money or by what other people think about them.

To assess motivation qualitatively, a total of 38 interviews were held with producers (n=13 SARE; n=6 non-SARE), and researchers and educators (n=13 SARE; n=6 non-SARE), all residing within the 12-state NCR region at the time of their interview. Analysis of these data revealed that, at the core of the differences between SARE-funded and non-funded participants, there appeared to be an underlying propensity to be engaged in learning by the SARE-funded subjects. Admittedly, the initial motivation was often identified as some instrumental trigger – e.g., one needed to get water to a remote part of the pasture; one needed to control leafy spurge; one wanted to prove he could turn a weed-infested farm he’d just been given into a high-producing farm; one believed he could get better feed value from his pasture. But once they’d identified their instrumental need to make some kind of change, SARE-funded subjects – more so than non-funded counterparts -- concentrated their conversations around something related to their interest in learning. They most typically described their motivation in terms of a story. Their stories revealed ways in which what they did led them to one more thing and one more adaptation or innovation and, yet, another extrapolation of their experience. Even the subtle cues, such as body language, rate of speech, and vocal inflection, provided insights into their excitement for the process they were engaged in as part of their SARE-funded project. In exploring the differences between these two groups, this researcher identified a love of – an excitement for – learning as being at the core.

Integration of these data provide the opportunity to explore the connections between -- and relevance of -- the fun of doing the work, itself, (high intrinsic process motivation), the lack of concern about what others think (low self-concept external), and the apparent propensity to enjoy learning. In personality terms, this last element is referred to as, “openness” (Digman, 1990). While the data collected in the course of this study deserve further analysis, it is this researcher’s opinion that SARE-funded individuals are significantly different than their peers, especially in their love of trying new things and using “simply learning something new” as a tool that motivates them to embrace sustainable agriculture.

It is beyond the scope of this study to determine whether the involvement in a SARE project is a catalyst for this propensity to want to learn or if an inherent propensity exists that can predict a level of success should they receive a SARE grant. Combined with a  2004 predictive study by this author, however, the present study would suggest the latter – that the personality characteristic of openness – is a key predictor of one’s willingness to embrace sustainable agriculture. In the 2004 study, Trout concluded that positive environmental behaviors, which could include adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, were best predicted by a combination of goal internalization motivation, high openness, low resistance to positive environmental behaviors (PEBs), and fewer years in the business. Trout’s model explained 30 percent of the variance in that study.

This study helps to inform SARE administrators as they determine which proposals they want to fund, or more proactively, which individuals they want to target in order to increase the probability of achieving a greater adoption rate across the region and, ultimately, across the continent. This information, combined with other empirical frameworks, such as diffusion theories (e.g., Rogers, 1995) and efficiency-efficacy models, such as Lean Six-Sigma, could conceivably serve SARE leaders well to make a greater impact with greater efficiency.

Project Objectives:

Compare results of the Motivation Sources Inventory (Barbuto & Scholl, 1998) among 6 groups: SARE-funded producers
(1) educators
(2) and researchers
(3) and comparable groups who had not received SARE funding
(4-6) at the time of data collection.

Interview a representative sample of participants to explore ways they describe their personal motivation to engage in SA (SARE-funded interviewees) or innovation (non-SARE-funded interviewees) to seek greater understanding of the motivation process from the lived experience.

Integrate the quantitative and qualitative findings to reveal significant differences among the groups and provide deeper understanding of the results in context.

Report findings and contribute to the scholarship of motivation in sustainable agriculture.


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  • Chuck Francis


Research results and discussion:
Participation Summary
38 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Journal articles

Participation Summary:

67 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:
  • Trout, S. K., Francis, C. A., & Barbuto, J. E. (2005). Evaluation and Perceived Impacts of the North-Central Region SARE Grants, 1988–2002. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture27(2), 117–137.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:



  1. Objective 1: Compare results of MSI among groups
    1. Surveys were distributed and data collection complete by March 2003.
    2. Quantitative analysis was conducted.
    3. Comparative analyses were conducted.
    4. Comparative analysis between the two producer groups was published (see below).
  2. Objective 2: Collect and analyze qualitative data
    1. 33 audiotaped interviews were conducted.
    2. Audiotapes have been transcribed and a representative number of them sent to the respective interviewee for verification.
    3. Initial invivo coding has been conducted as the first step of a rigorous qualitative analysis.
    4. Qualitative analysis will be complete by July 2006.
  3. Objective 3: Integrate findings
    1. This final report is the first representation of the integrated findings.

Impact and Contributions [Objective 4: Report findings and contribute to scholarship]

  1. Poster presentation: Trout, S.K., Francis, C.A., & Barbuto, J.E., Jr. (2003). Motivation and decision-making in agriculture. Presented at the American Society of Agronomy Annual Meeting, November 4, 2003, Denver, CO.
  2. A manuscript of the comparative analysis of the two producer groups’ MSI results has been submitted for review.
  3. Results of survey data from all SARE-funded groups was reported in PI’s dissertation: Trout, S.K. Motivation as an antecedent to positive environmental behaviors of agricultural leaders. Dissertation Abstracts, 2004.
  4. Knowledge gained from conducting this research – especially that gleaned from the extensive literature review – was presented as a chapter in Francis, Poincelot & Bird’s (2005), A new social contract: Developing and extending a sustainable agriculture. Binghamton, NY: Hawthorne Press. See: Chapter 14, Motivation Theory and Motivation Research in Sustainable Agriculture (Shirley K. Trout, Charles, A. Francis, and John E Barbuto Jr.) of:   
    • Charles A. Francis, PhD, Raymond P. Poincelot, PhD, George W. Bird, PhD, editors (2006). Developing and Extending Sustainable Agriculture, A New Social Contract,  New York, NY: Hawthorn Food and Agricultural Products Press. ISBN-10‏: ‎ 1560223316 /  ISBN-13 : ‎ 978-1560223313
  5. Final report of integration analysis submitted February 2008.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.