Sustaining the Family Farm at the Rural Urban Interface: Farm Succession Processes of Alternative Food and Agricultural Enterprises and Traditional Commodity Farmers.

Final Report for GNC06-070

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2006: $9,995.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Grant Recipient: Ohio State University
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Jeff Sharp
Ohio State University
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Project Information


Family farming has historically been reproduced through a complex process of farm succession. This process of intergenerational transfer of the farming occupation and farmland from parents to children is becoming more tenuous as an increasing number of farmers lack a farming heir. The absence of an heir may be especially problematic at the rural-urban interface (RUI), where farmland is already at risk of being developed for non-farm purposes. While activists and academics have touted a shift into urban oriented alternative food and agricultural enterprises (AFAEs) as a strategy for preserving farmland and farming at the RUI, a longer-term challenge to the viability of this adaptation may be the success of the succession process. The failure of AFEAs to persist across generations may result in these enterprises simply being transitional forms of farming before conversion to urban uses.


For this dissertation, three research objectives are tested to assess how household goals and values, succession, life cycle effects, farm structure, and land use policy affect the reproduction of the farming enterprise and ultimately the successful persistence of farming at the RUI. The first two questions are examined through a quantitative analysis of land owners in eight case study counties across the United States. The first question asks how household dynamics, household values and farm structure variables are associated with Commercial farm persistence at the RUI. The second research question compares the influence of household dynamics, values and farm structure among the Commercial (AFAE and Non-AFAE) and Rural Residential farmers. Comparison of means testing and a multinomial logistic regression model found lifecycle effects, availability of an heir, ability to afford retirement, education, substantive and instrumental values and to a more moderate degree farm type do influence farm persistence and adaptation strategies.

The third research question is a qualitative analysis examining the influence household factors and farm structure have on different farm types (First-generation AFAEs; Multi-generation AFAEs; Commodity, and Mixed type farms) at the RUI. When no heir could be identified farms either fell into a state of decline and disinvestment or opted to put their land into some form of preservation. When an heir could be identified, families engaged in four distinct types of adaptation strategies: the expanders; the intensifiers; the stackers; and the entrepreneurial stackers.

The interviews also brought forward the different types of AFAE farmers on the landscape. First-generation AFAE, Multi-generation AFAE and Mixed type farms demonstrate that while farmers across the RUI landscape appear to be adapting and implementing AFAE strategies their reasons for doing so are embedded in widely varying motivations.

Project Objectives:

A pressing issue facing Ohio and U.S. agriculture is the question of who will be the next generation of farmers. In recent years, the popular press, government reports, and academic papers have documented an aging farm population, a lack of succession planning, and the existence of fewer heirs choosing farming as an occupation. The absence of a farm succession plan or an identified heir may threaten the future of family farming and the rural communities that depend on them. At the rural-urban interface (RUI), an area distinguished by a high population growth and development pressure with varying rates of farmland being converted to non-farm purposes; a failure of the succession process can also impact whether farmland remains available for agricultural use.

At the RUI, farmers have been encouraged to transition from traditional commodity production (corn, beans, dairy etc.) to Alternative Food and Agriculture Enterprises (AFAE) focused on direct marketing, agri-tourism and value added production geared toward new urban clientele as a strategy for saving the family farm by increasing farm profitability. The goal of this research is to comprehend how the processes of succession contributes to farm enterprise persistence and adaptation at the RUI


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  • Jeff Sharp


Materials and methods:

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the nuances involved in farm adaptation and succession at the RUI, face-to-face semi-structured interviews with 35 farm families were conducted.

Interviews were primarily conducted in the Columbus Metro Region in Ohio and the Grand Rapids Metro Region in Michigan, two areas of the Midwest with rapidly urbanizing populations that have seen considerable growth at the RUI. The Columbus Metro region in this study includes a six county area (Franklin, Delaware, Licking, Madison, Pickaway, and Union Counties). These counties are agriculturally diverse with farmers raising corn and soybeans, dairy, livestock and fruit and vegetable crops. The Grand Rapids Metro region is a one county area (Kent County) though some respondents were located on the border of Kent and Ottawa Counties. Parts of Kent and Ottawa Counties are part of the Fruit Ridge, a unique micro-climate in Western Michigan where the majority of Michigan’s tree fruit crop is grown. Growers in this region also produce vegetable crops, dairy and engage in a small amount of corn and soybean production.

Farm families interviewed represented a diversity of AFAE and commodity farms. Parallel to the methodology used in other succession studies (Salamon 1992; Taylor et al 1998) data gathered from these interviews was used to generate profiles of how internal family dynamics influences farm succession and adaptation by identifying how entry into farming occurred, the working relationships between generations, household values and goals, the decision-making process involved in choosing an heir(s), gender roles, how management responsibilities and land ownership are transferred, and the role of local context (local economy, land prices, development pressures etc) influence land use decision making.

When possible interviews were conducted with as many farm family members as possible, including: the primary farm operator, their spouse and dependents over 18 years old. Participants were asked to fill out a short survey at the end of each interview.

Participants were identified through a snowball sampling methodology (Berg 2004) accomplished through initial contact with the North American Direct Marketing Association, State Extension and State Departments of Agriculture. All interviews were taped and transcribed by professional transcriptionists. The interviews were coded and analyzed with NVivo, a computer program that can assist in identifying and mapping patterns in qualitative data (Richards 1999; Bazeley and Richards 2000; Gibbs 2002).

Research results and discussion:

The Influence of Life Cycle Effects, Household Values, and Goals

First-generation AFAE farmers entered into agriculture as a conscious lifestyle and career choice, and were highly motivated by a strong set of substantive values generally rooted in spiritual and environmental concerns. Many actively critiqued industrial agriculture from an environmental perspective. Their strong sense of spirituality allowed this group of farmers to trade material (income) for non-material (spiritual and community) benefits. Material concerns were secondary as this group demonstrated a marked rejection of consumer culture. However, their embeddedness in American culture was still evident by the emphasis they placed on college education, health insurance and achieving a reasonable income.

The First-generation AFAE’s did not place much emphasis on succession, which most likely reflects their lifecycle stage, as many were young and had very young children. Furthermore, this group could not be characterized as ‘back to the land homesteaders’, in fact these farmers were highly attuned to local marketing opportunities and maintaining a niche advantage by focusing on direct marketing and value adding activities. Many used the skills they had learned in earlier careers or experiences outside of agriculture to enhance their businesses. This orientation to the local market and direct marketing buffered many from global market competition. They were not influenced by the farm crisis as other groups were due to their relatively recent entry into agriculture. However, some First-generation AFAE’s were actively dividing production from entertainment and education activities, taking on more managerial roles as opposed to being both producer and manager. The First-generation AFAE’s have many similarities to the group of respondents who expected to continue farming indefinitely. Both groups were younger, in earlier stages of their lifecycle, were more educated and optimistic about the future of their farms, tended to emphasize substantive goals, and reported a higher incidence of off-farm work and more moderate farm-income. These similarities reinforce the importance of substantive values as motivating factors for keeping land in agriculture among these groups of farmers.
Multi-generation AFAE’s were more oriented towards instrumental values in order to obtain substantive lifestyle goals compared to the First-generation AFAE’s. This group of farmers made little mention of stewardship ethics, the environment, religion or spirituality among the factors they weigh when making land use and business decisions. The Multi-generation AFAE’s were highly embedded in American culture and values, and their business goals reflected this orientation. This group emphasized a business strategy rooted to ensure growth (vertical and horizontal) with income generation and profit as critical goals. Succession was a key concern for this group, families were actively making opportunities for the next generation by expanding the existing business or by adding on new enterprises. This group was only moderately influenced by the farm crisis and while they recognized the potential threats from regional, national and global competition (particularly in the fresh fruit and vegetable markets) they placed only moderate emphasis on the structure of agriculture, attuning themselves to more local market conditions.

Commodity farmers were most sensitive to global competition and fluctuating commodity markets, this group tended to be oriented towards instrumental values in order to obtain substantive lifestyle goals. Stewardship was often distinguished from environmentalism, and there was little discussion of religion or spirituality as a primary focus of family life or motivation for land use decision making. The Commodity farmers tended to be highly embedded in American consumer culture and values. They emphasized growth (primarily horizontal and some vertical), and sought to establish the next generation in the farm business by fitting them into the existing structure. This group was most likely to invest heavily in technology and focus on the market. More moderate thought was given to the structure of agriculture and on the farm crisis. These farmers were pre-occupied with the effects global competition has on impinging commodity markets and shrinking margins. The large scale these farmers operate at combined with an exhibited lack of interest in engaging with the public make AFAE adaptations unlikely among this group of farmers.

The Mixed type respondents were the most complex group, demonstrating the greatest interplay between instrumental and substantive rationalities to accomplish farm reproduction goals. While stewardship values and the environment resonated as important influences for some, others made no mention of these factors. Additionally, only a minority of Mixed type respondents were influenced by spirituality and religion. This group of respondents was also mixed in the degree to which they rejected American mainstream culture. Some questioned consumer values, while others embraced them. The majority stressed the importance of college education, health insurance and achieving a reasonable income. We see the strongest emphasis on vertical and horizontal growth being actively pursued by this group of farmers with the intention of creating opportunities for next generation. These farmers were actively implementing new strategies to keep their families on the farm and increase the number of people the farm can support. As these enterprises grow and transition into AFAE’s many take advantage of life cycle differences within the family to fill production, marketing and childcare/household needs. This group was by far the most cognizant and vocal about the structure of agriculture and the ways in which these larger structures impact their own operations and the larger farming community. The majority of Mixed type farmers were influenced by the Farm Crisis and the risks associated with overexpansion and debt. This group purposefully choose to increase niche production and localize in order to avoid global competition. These farmers also tended to operate more medium sized farms which may afford them some flexibility in transitioning into AFAE strategies not available to very large Commodity producers.

The Role of Succession in Enterprise Adaptation and Persistence

Succession was also found to play a critical role in enterprise adaptation strategies. When no heir could be identified farms either fell into a state of decline and disinvestment or opted to put their land into some form of preservation. In this study when an heir could be identified, families engaged in four distinct types of adaptation strategies: the expanders, the intensifiers, the stackers, and the entrepreneurial stackers. At the RUI land is a scarce and expensive resource, making the inheritance process a more complex and uncertain process. This research found that with the exception of Commodity growers, very few farmers were choosing a strategy of pure land expansion. The majority of farms were intensifying through an already established commodity mix (growing higher value crops), or expanding by stacking enterprises (of varying size and intensity) to allow more family members to earn a living from the farm and accommodate different phases of the lifecycle.

Lifecycle effects moderated the roles of individual family members in the Multi-generation, Mixed type farms, Stacking and Entrepreneurial Stacking groups. Among some families, as individual family members aged they had transitioned their roles on the farm from producers into marketers. However, among some families the older members continued to retain control of production responsibilities while the younger generation ramped up the farms marketing functions. This latter pattern raises questions about the long term production function of these enterprise types. Will the younger ‘marketing’ generation eventually transition into a producer role, or will they maintain a manager status, employing farm managers and field labor to raise their crops? Future research should include long term panel studies to track changes in production and management decisions. The ultimate way in which these AFAE’s evolve informs larger questions within the sociology of agriculture that seek to understand the dynamic relationship between capital, production, labor and management and the family farm.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

To date current research findings have been presented at six professional meetings, and at the USDA Agriculture Outlook 2009 meeting.

The first topical report/extension sheet to be published from this research, titled "Succession and Enterprise Adaptation at the Rural Urban Interface" was published in June 2009.

The report is posted on line at
and is featured on the Center for Farmland Preservation web site at Ohio State University.

Three news articles in Ohio and national publications have featured this report and the research findings.
This report was also distributed at the Farm Lasts Conference.

The research team continues to promote this research and incorporate various elements into professional and extension presentations around the country in order to provide a more complex and holistic understanding of agriculture at the RUI.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

A limitation of this research was the type of data available. The data for this analysis was from a cross sectional survey, long term panel data would provide greater information about the evolution of the farm enterprise as roles, values and goals change over the course of the life cycle. Long term panel data would allow for more detailed comparisons across groups, and be able to track the ability of specific types of enterprises to persist at the RUI. This analysis was also limited by the land owner survey design; I was unable to classify farmers as First-generation, Multi-generation, Mixed or as Commodity in a way that would have been comparable to the qualitative data. A future panel study should include a measure of the percentage of sales from AFAE activities, this variable would be useful for understanding the degree to which AFAE strategies contribute to farm and household income and how that contribution may change over time given enterprise adaptations.

Future research should include an examination of gender and the role women play in farm succession and enterprise adaptation. Farm families are dynamic entities: they negotiate the social relationships of production and work within the context of the farm wives’, husbands’ and children’s life cycles, family cycles and farm cycles (Colman and Elbert 1984). These social conditions make it necessary to understand how AFAEs shifting emphasis on hospitality, entertainment, and aesthetics (which in some cases is seen as equal and even more important then field work and crop management) alters the traditional relationships among the sex’s. These conditions raise new questions regarding how the gendered division of labor on AFAE’s impacts the farm succession process and enterprise adaptation strategies.

Information Products

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.