Land Ethics: Connecting Producers, Consumers, Land and Food

Final Report for GNC03-012

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2003: $9,620.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Charles Francis
Grain Place Foundation
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Project Information


Farmer and consumer land ethics and opinions and potential participation in local food systems were studied in Washington County, Nebraska. Results indicated an ethic of environmental stewardship for both populations. Consumers were interested in purchasing food from farmers’ markets, local restaurants and grocery stores, and directly from farmers. In contrast, the majority of farmers indicated no interest in meeting this market demand. The predominant agricultural system in the county is conventional corn and soybean production, and most farmers in the study predicted that they would be farming more land under this system in the future.


As U.S. and global populations become increasingly urban, and as the corporate-owned global food system continues to account for the largest share of agricultural profits, people are more isolated from the original sources of their food, and their dependence on agriculture becomes less apparent. Consumers in the United States spend about 10.7% of total disposable income on food, while the farm value share received by farmers is only a fraction (19%) of each consumer’s food dollar. The remaining amount goes for marketing, processing, wholesaling, transportation, and retailing of farm products (Economic Research Service, 2002). At the same time, consumers have become further removed from the land, potentially changing their role in the food system.

The growing disconnects between people, land, and agriculture may lead to decreased communication and cooperation between farmers and consumers in the food system. Study and identification of common values, attitudes, and ethics among these two groups are lacking. It is important to understand the ethical positions of farmers and consumers with regard to economic, environmental, and social dimensions of land and food in order to highlight commonalities that may form the bridges between rural and urban residents.

One goal of this study was to gauge market potentials for locally produced foods in Washington County, Nebraska. Local food systems have been increasingly suggested as additions and/or alternatives to the global system of food distribution and production. The focus in the local food system literature is on consumer attitudes and preferences, especially in regions of the U.S. where farmers already grow for local, direct markets (Adelaja et al., 1990; Brown, 2003; Eastwood et al, 1987; Gallons et al., 1997; Govindasamy et al., 1997; Kezis et al., 1984; Kezis et al., 1998; Lockeretz, 1986; Patterson et al., 1999; Ross et al., 1999; Thomson and Kelvin, 1996; Wilkins et al., 1996; Zumwalt, 2001). By examining the attitudes and opinions of farmers along side those of consumers, this study contributed to a better understanding of some of the challenges associated with operating local food systems.

Another goal of this study was to gain a better understanding of the land ethics of farmers and consumers in Washington County. The work of Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac (1949) was the initial spark for the study. Studies of environmental attitudes and opinions (Van Liere and Dunlap, 1980), environmental paradigms (Dunlap and Van Liere, 1978; McMillan et al., 1997; Milbrath, 1985; Scott and Willits, 1994), and agrarian environmentalism (Buttel et al., 1981; Buttel and Flinn, 1974; Filson, 1993; Lowe and Pinhey, 1982; Tremblay and Dunlap, 1978; Vogel, 1996; Williams and Moore, 1991) informed this study. Additionally, literature on agricultural paradigms (Abaidoo and Dickinson, 2002; Allen and Bernhardt, 1995; Beus and Dunlap, 1990) and environmental ethics (Manning and Valliere, 1995, 1996; Negra and Manning, 1997; Palmer, 2003) was used in the design of survey instruments. For the purposes of the study, land ethics consist of a set of normative statements about how people ought to use and manage the land. The normative nature of these items makes them different from items used in studies of attitudes and behaviors.

Project Objectives:

The overall objectives of the study were to gauge farmer and consumer interest in locally produced foods in Washington County, Nebraska, and to examine land ethics for both of these populations.

Specific objectives included the following:

Objective 1: To examine the current food system in Washington County.

Objective 2: To examine consumer food preferences, local food purchasing history, and interest in future local food purchases.

Objective 3: To examine farmer interest in producing food for local markets and in sustainable farming practices.

Objective 4: To quantify land ethics of farmer and consumers, and to determine if these two populations share similar ethics about land use.

Objective 5: To test for relationships between land ethics and farming practices.

Objective 6: To determine whether or not farmers want to continue farming, if they want their children to farm, and what factors influence these decisions.

Long-term outcomes, as stated in proposal included: illumination of a deeper connection between consumers, land, and food; cooperation within farming communities; more local food production; less reliance on purchased inputs and agribusiness; protection of biodiversity; more farmers farming with increased profits; increased consumer health; information about the potential need for further education; government assistance for sustainable agricultural practices.


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  • Chuck Francis


Materials and methods:

Consumers and farmers were studied as two distinct populations using two independent survey instruments. In both cases, self-administered mail surveys were sent in September of 2003 following a modified version of Dillman’s Total Design Method. First, a personalized, pre-notification letter communicating the nature of the study was sent to people in both samples. Next, a personalized cover letter including informed consent documentation, a questionnaire, and a return business envelope was mailed. One week later, a follow-up post card was sent to the entire sample to serve as a note of gratitude to those who had already responded, as well as a reminder to those who had not.

The consumer sample was stratified proportionately so that the sample distribution would be the same as the population. Washington County has five towns with populations of at least 300 (Blair, Arlington, Ft. Calhoun, Kennard, and Herman), and a substantial rural population. The number of surveys administered in each geographic region (five towns and rural) was determined by multiplying each region’s percentage of the total population by 600, which was the number determined for the starting sample based on Salant and Dillman. Systematic sampling with a random start was used for drawing the consumer sample from telephone books and the Washington County TAM/PLAT directory of rural residents. The initial starting sample was adjusted to 567 after incorrect addresses were removed, and a total of 207 completed surveys were returned from the consumer sample for a 37% response rate.
The farmer sample was drawn from a list obtained from the Washington County Farm Service Agency (WCFSA). Questionnaires were sent to all 507 farmers registered with the WCFSA. The adjusted starting sample was 480, and a total of 168 competed surveys were returned for a 35% response rate.

In order to achieve useful and consistent interpretation of terms, the following statement was given prior to questions about local foods in both survey instruments, “For the purpose of the following questions, locally grown or produced means that the food was grown on a local family farm or made by a local company (Local = Washington County or nearby areas).”

Research results and discussion:

The study yielded useful information about consumer interest in local food systems. Survey respondents indicated a high level of interest in purchasing locally produced foods from farmers’ markets, local grocery stores, local restaurants and directly from farms. By contrast, the vast majority of farmers surveyed reported no interest in meeting this demand.

Land ethics of both populations were examined, and found to be quite similar to one another. Using a scale constructed for this study, both farmers and consumers revealed an ethic of environmental stewardship.

Results for Specific Study Objectives:
Obj 1: The current food system in Washington County is characterized by a decrease in the number of farms and an increase in farm size. Farmers indicated that they are farming more land presently than they were five years ago, and they anticipate farming even more acres five years in the future. Seventy-one percent of the farmers reported using a corn and soybean rotation, though alfalfa was also included as an addition to this scheme. Half of the farmers surveyed stated that they have livestock as part of their system, with beef cattle being most common and dairy cows least common. Many farmers, however, reported having had cattle, hogs, and chickens in the past. Crops and other farm products are largely marketed through the local grain elevator or wholesaler and through an industry operation. In general, the food production system in Washington County is similar to the conventional mode of production that exists in most of the North Central region.

Obj 2: High-quality, good-tasting, nutritious foods that can be purchased at a good price were most important to consumers in Washington County. Products that were produced in an environmentally friendly manner and support local family farms were also very important. All-natural and organic foods were least important.

Most consumers reported that they had purchased locally produced foods in the past, and 96% report that they had and would purchase local. Additionally, consumers were very to extremely interested in buying direct from farmers, shopping at farmers’ markets, and purchasing local foods from local grocery stores and restaurants. They stated that they were willing to pay prices equal to or 10% more for locally produced foods than for similar conventional items. A clear potential for local marketing of food seems to be indicated from these results.

Obj 3: Farmers in the study were not interested in meeting a local market demand. The percentage of farmers that stated they were “not interested” in the following marketing channels are as follows: Direct sales (48% not interested), farmers’ markets (65% not interested), direct sales to local grocery stores (68% not interested), and direct sales to local restaurants (71% not interested). These data indicate a disconnect between farmers and consumers in terms of local food system development.

Farmers were asked whether or not they use a series of farming practices that are considered to be aspects of sustainable systems. Most farmers reported using no-till and crop rotation. Based on the predominance of the corn and soybean rotation in the county, it can be assumed that the no-till system is used in conjunction with increased adoption of glyphosate-tolerance technologies. Few farmers reported using reduced chemical weed/insect management, composting, cover crops, crop diversification, specialty markets, or organic certification. Also, livestock, rotational grazing, and livestock diversification were not used by most farmers.

Obj 4: In order to quantify land ethics, a scale was developed and used in this study inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic concept and by work in the field of environmental ethics. Both farmers and consumers scored in the “high categorized land ethic category” that corresponds with an ethic of environmental stewardship. Two scale items revealed negative land ethics: (1) most farmers and consumers agreed that humans were created as fundamentally different from other living things, and (2) most farmers agreed that agriculture is a minor cause of ecological problems, and most consumers were undecided about this statement.

Obj 5: Statistical analysis revealed that farmers with smaller farms (less than 200 acres) have higher land ethics than farmers with large farms (1000 or more acres). This relationship held for both acres owned and acres farmed. Similarly, farmers that practiced what was defined for this study as HIGHLY sustainable farming methods scored higher on the land ethics scale than others.

Obj 6: The highest percentage of farmers in the study reported that they are the 4th generation or more to farm their land. Most farmers reported having rented farmland in addition to owned acres. Eighty-two percent of farmers reported that they want to continue farming, and 72% stated that they want to pass their land onto a family member. However, less than half of the farmers stated that they want their children to farm. Personal, land legacy, social, physical, and economic factors were reported as influences to retain ownership of farmland. On the other hand, urbanization was listed as a negative influence on ownership. The proximity of Washington County to the expanding city of Omaha was no doubt an important factor in this result. Residential developers can pay a high premium for farmland, usually resulting in higher profits for farmers than what they receive from agricultural production.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Journal Publications:

Schneider, Mindi L. and Charles A. Francis. 2005. Marketing Locally Produced Foods: Consumer and Farmer Opinions in Washington County, Nebraska. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 20(4): 252-260.

Schneider, Mindi L. and Charles A. Francis. 2005. Ethics of Land Use in Nebraska: Farmer and Consumer Opinions in Washington County. Forthcoming in Journal of Sustainable Agriculture.

Poster presentations at professional meetings:
Francis, C., M. Schneider, P. Skelton, G. Bentrup, and M. Schoeneberger. 2005. Methods for Designing Future Food Systems in Peri-Urban Areas. Presentation at Joint Annual Meetings of the Association for the Study of Food and Society and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society, Portland, Oregon.

Schneider, M. and C. Francis. 2003. Impact of a Land Ethic on Food Systems and Land-Use Decisions. American Society of Agronomy, Annual Meetings, Denver, CO (published abstract and poster).


Schneider, M. 2004. Local Foods and Land Ethics: A Survey of Farmers and Consumers. Unpublished Masters Thesis. University of Nebraska, Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.
Major Professor: Dr. Charles A. Francis
Minor Committee Members: Dr. J. Allen Williams, Jr. (Sociology) and Dr. Deana Namuth (Agronomy and Horticulture)

Newsletter publication:

Schneider, M. 2004. A Local Foods Survey in Washington County, Nebraska. Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society Newsletter. No. 96: 10-11.


In order to communicate results and connections between farmers and consumers in the study, two pamphlets were produced and sent to interested respondents. Information about land ethics and interest in local food systems was included. The goal of this action was to provide farmers with relevant marketing information from consumers and to show consumers how others responded to survey questions. Over half of the study participants requested that results be sent to them.

Additionally, James Peterson, the Washington County Extension Educator, was consulted on several occasions throughout the data collection phase of the project. Using study results, he published two articles in the Blair Pilot Tribune paper and on the Washington County Extension website. The articles highlighted local food interest and attitudes about land use.

Peterson, J. 2004. Status of Farming in Washington County, From a Report Done by Mindi Schneider, a UNL Graduate Student. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Washington County.
Available online:

Peterson, J. 2004. Local Consumer Survey Results. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Washington County.
Available online:

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The most useful outcomes of this study are the tools that can be used by other researchers and/or Extension Educators for future studies of land ethics and local food systems. The survey instruments that were developed for the study can be easily modified for use in other counties or localities in the North Central region. The land ethics scale is a unique methodological tool that can also be used.

Studies of this type can be a preliminary step in developing markets for local foods. Results provide baseline data that can be used by Extension Educators, activists, researchers, and farmers in order to better understand the motivations and interests of consumers.

Economic Analysis

Most farmers in Washington County, and indeed most of the farmer respondents in this study, grow corn and soybeans in a two-year rotation. These crops are marketed primarily as feed crops, fetching increasingly insufficient returns. Local food systems, by contrast, offer the potential for growing higher value crops and products and marketing them directly to consumers. Transportation and processing costs can be reduced at the same time. Based on the results of this study, we cannot provide a detailed analysis of the potential economic outcomes of local food marketing. We can only point to the falling share of food dollars received by farmers, low commodities prices, and the burgeoning success of farmers markets, CSAs, and other direct marketing ventures.

Farmer Adoption

Because this study examined potentials for change in a whole farming system, not just a single technology, it is difficult to report on farmer adoption. Perhaps the most salient piece of information is that more than half of the farmer respondents (53%) requested a report of study results. While this does not indicate that local food marketing was adopted by any of the farmers, it does suggest interest in the idea. In the context of large-scale, industrial, Midwest agriculture, farmer interest in local food systems is a step in the right direction toward a more sustainable agriculture and a more sustainable future.


Areas needing additional study

In terms of local food system potentials, several questions remain unanswered. How would farmer interest in producing for local markets change if current farm programs were significantly reduced, or if financial incentives for supplying local systems were introduced? What would happen if states such as Nebraska offered financial incentives such decreased sales tax to both farmers and consumers for supporting local food systems? Would beginning farmer programs especially geared for small farms that supplied food locally increase interest in local food systems? What are the production-consumption thresholds for local food systems? In other words, how many farms are necessary to support consumer interest and/or demand?

Further study should also be focused on understanding ethics about land use. Do people adhere to Leopold’s land ethic and turn attitudes into behavior? Why did farmers with larger land holdings report significantly lower land ethics than those with smaller holdings? Is there a relationship between land ethics and the structure of family farming? How can we better measure and/or understand people’s ethics about agriculture and land use?

Locally produced and purchased foods continue to be important parts of the food and agriculture system. Research to further our understanding of system dynamics, future challenges, and future potentials are needed.

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.