Meeting the Expectations of People and the Land: Enacting Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for GNC06-068

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2006: $9,998.70
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: U. of Wisconsin
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Michael Bell
Dept. of Community and Environmental Sociology, U. of Wisconsin-Madison
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Project Information


In 1948 William H. Sewell surveyed high school students in rural Wisconsin about their occupational aspirations. In Richland County 58% of students reported that their fathers were farmers, and 92% had as least one grandfather that was a farmer. Fifty-three percent of the male respondents listed farming as one of the occupations they had thought about pursuing after graduation, but only 30% foresaw that they would be farming 10 years into the future. What did these post-World War II high school students expect agriculture to provide for them and their community? This report details research following up with Sewell’s 1948 Richland County respondents to develop a sociology of expectations, including human-land relationships. Expectations of agriculture are formed by a number of factors including; governmental policy, ideology, technology, the economy, family and community, and nature or “the land.” Understanding expectations, including “the expectations of the land” will aid in the development of sustainable agriculture for farmers, families, and communities.


Poet and farmer Wendell Berry defines sustainable agriculture as an agriculture that does not “deplete soils or people” and meets “the expectations of the land.” Enacting sustainable agriculture requires an understanding of the motivations of those involved. What do farmers expect agriculture to provide for them? And what does the larger society expect agriculture to provide? If we can understand the mechanisms that form and guide expectations we may be better able to maintain and sustain economic, ecological, and social spheres of agriculture.

Project Objectives:

The research was intended to gain a deeper understanding of the sociology of expectations from within the context of farming as an occupation in Wisconsin. The research examines the questions of what farmers expect agriculture to provide for them, for their family and their community. Farmer expectations are placed within the system of “the expectations of the land” and the expectations of the larger society that buys and consumes agricultural products. The research will inform ongoing and future initiatives and policy focused on keeping agricultural land in production, with attempts to ensure that economic, ecological, and social issues are equally considered in policy and decision making. A long-term outcome of this project is to enact a vibrant, sustainable agriculture that, as Wendell Berry puts it, does not “deplete soils or people.”

This research set out to engage with current initiatives in the state and region to maintain farming as a viable livelihood - ecologically, economically, and socially. This engagement has the goal of highlighting the social aspects of farming, incorporating what can be learned from a sociology of expectations, to inform present and future policy and action.


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  • Michael Bell


Materials and methods:

The main focus of the research funded by NCR-SARE has been to establish a baseline picture of farmer expectations using the case of Richland County, Wisconsin. I took advantage of a unique opportunity to follow up on a survey carried out in 1948 by prominent Sociologist, William H. Sewell. Sewell administered a questionnaire entitled The Occupational Plans of Wisconsin Youth to high school juniors and seniors in three predominantly rural Wisconsin counties. My research focuses on one of the counties. The primary methods used in the follow-up study were semi-structured interviews. Interview subjects were selected with the goal of getting a cross section of men and women and the interest in farming reported in high school. It proved difficult to track down the women respondents in many cases because they had changed their names after marriage. Some interview respondents were contacted by asking an identified interview subject to share contact information for classmates. Survey respondents living out of state were not contacted. Interviews with a local business-person active in community development, and a couple farming in a grass-based organic system was also done as part of the research. I supplemented the interview data with participant observation and collection of historical background data on agricultural production levels and systems in the county.

One objective of the research was to interact with and inform current and future policy discussions. Throughout the research process I was able to participate actively in two state initiatives, the Working Lands Initiative and the Wisconsin Academy’s Future of Farming and Rural Life project. Participation in the Working Lands Initiative continues.

Research results and discussion:

With support from NCR-SARE 18 interviews of Richland County respondents to William H. Sewell’s 1948 questionnaire entitled The Occupational Plans of Wisconsin Youth were carried out. These respondents are now in their mid- to late-seventies. In addition participant observation at community events was carried out, including the county fair, an annual autumn weekend with tractor show, a land auction, and a political rally focusing on rural issues.

The research started with a basic examination of the Sewell 1948 survey data, which show the agricultural base of the county and the interest in farming as an occupation. Of Sewell’s 462 Richland County survey respondents:

+58% reported father as farmers (267). In rural schools this is as high as 70-83%

+70% list both grandfathers as farmers, 92% list at least 1 grandfather as farmer

+53% of male respondents said they had thought about farming as an occupation

+30% said in 10 years I will be a farmer.

From these data we can understand the strong agricultural base of the county and begin to see that in the immediate post-WWII period that just over half of the male youth, from predominantly farming communities had thought about farming as an occupation and only 30% thought they would be farming 10 years after high school.

From the 18 interviews I was able to identify a number of themes that are useful in understanding the changing expectations of agriculture, including how farmers and agriculture interact with the land. The themes are often related and are sometimes directly contradictory.

Themes from the interviews are:

+Loss, farming is not what it used to be, an important segment of the community is dying out.

+Agriculture’s role as keystone to the local economy is changing.

+Young people today are not accustomed to working hard. They expect things to be easy to obtain.

+You’ll never get rich farming; however, farming is a great way to raise a family. If you were going to farm it today you need backing from family or community

+Since mid-20th century there has been a movement of the farm from something self-contained (self-sufficient) to something dependent on outside inputs.

+Farmers are good stewards of the land, government agricultural policy has had both positive and negative impacts on farmers ability to maintain good stewardship.

The interviews, participant observation, and analysis of historical data on agricultural production and systems in the case county helped me to highlight and explore some key aspects impacting agricultural expectation formation. These are: governmental policy, ideology, technology, the economy, the family and community, nature or “the land.”

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

In the original grant proposal one output from this research was to be a fact sheet on the issue of agricultural expectations. In carrying out the interviews with the 1948 Sewell survey respondents I realized that in order to more effectively and reliability draw conclusions about the changing role and expectations of agriculture I needed a reference population included in the study. Therefore I have expanded my research to include plans to collect information from groups of current high school students and newly graduated high school students from the case study county. This data collection will take place in the winter 2008-09. This will provide a good comparison 60 years after the initial 1948 survey. Due to this need for expanded research, no fact sheet has been created at this time.

The data and analysis based on this research was presented in a poster session at the 2008 International Symposium on Society and Resource Management held in Burlington, VT in June.

As mentioned in the methods and materials section, I have participated in open processes on the Working Lands Initiative and the Future of Farming and Rural Life project. The Future of Farming and Rural Life has come to a close, but the Working Lands Initiative continues and the insight gained from this research will be brought to that ongoing process.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Economic Analysis

No economic analysis was carried out as part of this research.

Farmer Adoption

No farmer adoption issues were studied as part of this research.


Areas needing additional study

As mentioned in the publication and outreach section this research will continue with an expanded look at the case county. I plan to collect information from current high school students to create an opportunity to compare the agricultural expectations of county youth, then and now.

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.