As the U.S. farmer population continues to age, recruiting and supporting beginning farmers is a vital priority for local, state, and national level agricultural organizations. Through interviews with beginning farmers and young people who recently quit farming, this comparative ethnographic project seeks to establish the range of factors that contribute to a beginning farmer’s decision to leave agriculture. Data collection took place between 2015 and 2016. Rissing conducted semi-structured interviews with 14 people from 12 farms who decided to stop farming within their first five years of starting a farm. She also completed over 50 interviews with people still farming and a range of others involved in Iowa agriculture. The project focused on beginning farmers running small-scale, diversified farms targeting direct markets. Although every farmer’s story is complex and includes multiple variables, family relationships emerged as the most common reason for why farmers decided to pursue other work. Additional common reasons included burn out and financial strain. Analysis is ongoing as Rissing completes her dissertation.
The primary objective of this research is to understand why some beginning farmers, after overcoming the initial barriers to entering agriculture, decide to stop farming within their first five years. In order to answer this question, we used a qualitative, comparative approach.
Between June 2015 and August 2016 (NCR-SARE funding starting in September 2015), Rissing conducted ethnographic fieldwork with beginning farmers, former farmers, and a range of other agricultural stakeholders in Iowa. As part of Rissing’s broader doctoral dissertation work, the SARE funded component aimed to compare the experience of young people still farming to those who had decided to quit in order to better understand the factors that promote or undermine beginning farmers’ success—not only barriers to entry, which are well documented, but the events or decisions that can lead an established beginning farmer to leave agricultural production. We were particularly interested in examining the relationship between farm finances and the decision to either stay in or leave agricultural production.
This project’s methodology unfolded along the timeline outlined in the original proposal. Based in Ames, Rissing visited beginning farms in all quadrants of the state, focusing on central, northeastern, and eastern Iowa where direct market agriculture is more common. During summer 2015, data was collected primarily through participant observation by volunteering on small-scale, direct market farms. These farms were predominantly a mix of horticulture (annual vegetable and orchard production) and livestock operations, although small grain farms and dairies were also included. After establishing relationships during these informal visits, Rissing was able to easily schedule semi-structured interviews with farmers over winter 2015-2016. During spring and summer 2016, Rissing continued volunteering on farms, finished interviews, and began visiting beginning farmers in conventional grain production.
In total, 118 visits to 63 farms across the state were completed; of these, 52 were beginning direct-market farms, 4 were beginning commodity grain farmers, and 7 were established alternative farms. In addition to these visits, Rissing conducted 44 recorded interviews with beginning farmers, 12 interviews with people who had decided to quit farming (2 of these interviews were with couples, so 14 former farmers were interviewed total), 4 interviews with Farm Services Agency (FSA) managers, 4 interviews with agricultural bankers, and 2 interviews with parents of beginning farmers. The assistance of Practical Farmers of Iowa was invaluable for connecting Rissing with former farmers; their staff contacted all farmers who had withdrawn from their Savings Incentive Program for beginning farmers to ask if they would be interested in participating in this project. This approach yielded several interviews, as did additional snowball sampling. As with all ethnographic projects, the actual scope of fieldwork is broader than can be represented through such accounting – Rissing also volunteered at markets, caucused, carpooled to field days, attended retreats, hiked, met up for coffee and ran errands with farmers and former farmers. This approach yielded a rich body of field notes, photographs, and audio recordings. Rissing also completed follow-up visits to four farms from her study in June 2017.
As detailed above, this project began from the question, why do some new farmers decide to stop farming? We were particularly interested in understanding the relationship between farm profitability and farm longevity. Did only farmers showing a profit stay in agriculture, and did all unprofitable beginning farmers go out of business? In this project’s sample, this was not the case. Of the 12 former farms whose owners Rissing interviewed, four were not profitable, one was breaking even, and seven had been running profitable operations. Former farmers self-reported gross income, net profits, and any owner draw from their last years of farming; the degree of financial specificity that farmers could recall varied.
Beginning farmers running profitable operations decided to quit farming due to a range of variables including burnout, personal relationship stress, and dissatisfaction with agrarian lifestyles. Although each former farmer’s story was multi-faceted, one main reason for the decision to leave agriculture could typically be determined. Family relationships, including tensions with parents and spouses, emerged as the most common reason given for why beginning farmers decided to stop farming (n=6). Specific examples include not being able to establish effective communication or a unified farm vision with parents, divorce, and feeling as if running the farm was placing too much stress on one’s marriage. After family relationships, financial strain, burn out, and the desire to do something else as one’s career were the second most common reasons (n=2 for each). Specific examples include physical exhaustion from working long hours in the summer, not being able to afford employees, and no longer feeling called to do annual production after trying it for several seasons. Less common reasons given were feeling unsupported and not enjoying the work (n=1 for each).
Conversely, Rissing interviewed many beginning farmers who were barely, if that, breaking even, and still more who were not yet paying themselves a fair wage, but who were holding on. In the absence of sufficient income to pay themselves, many of these farmers maintained off-farm jobs. Others were financially supported by partners or family members, or made significant lifestyle adjustments to reduce their living costs.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Rissing has presented project methods and findings in the following presentations:
Accepted. “Why Do They Quit? Identifying Key Determinants of Beginning Farmers’ Decisions.” Poster for the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education “Our Farms, Our Future” Conference. St. Louis, MO. April 2018.
Accepted. “Why Do They Quit? Identifying Key Determinants of Beginning Farmers’ Decisions.” Lightning talk for the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education “Our Farms, Our Future” Conference. St. Louis, MO. April 2018.
“Ethnographic Research and Iowa Agriculture.” Guest lecture in Fast Food/Slow Food course. Department of Anthropology, Emory University. Atlanta, GA. February 2018.
“Ethnographic Research and Iowa Agriculture.” Guest lecture in Intro to Cultural Anthropology course. Department of Anthropology, Agnes Scott College. Atlanta, GA. February 2018.
“Imagining Post-Industrial Iowa: Emergent Agrarian Livelihoods in the Corn Belt.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Conference. Washington, D.C. November 2017.
“Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa.” Guest lecture in Agrarian Transformations Graduate Seminar. Department of Anthropology, Emory University. September 2017.
“Profitability vs “Making it”: Beginning Farmers’ Longevity in the Midwest.” Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society & Association for the Study of Food and Society Annual Conference. Los Angeles, CA. June 2017.
“Loving the Work Isn’t Enough: New Farmers Deciding to Quit in the Midwest.” Paper presented at the Society for Applied Anthropology. Santa Fe, NM. April 2017.
“Entrepreneurial Visions and Stewardship in Iowa Agriculture.” Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Conference. Minneapolis, MN. November 2016.
“Ethnographic Research and Iowa Agriculture.” Guest lecture in Fast Food/Slow Food course. Department of Anthropology, Emory University. Atlanta, GA. October 2016.
“Global to Local in Iowa Agriculture.” Guest lecture in Culture and Agriculture course. Department of Anthropology, Grinnell College. Grinnell, IA. May 2016.
“Anthropological Fieldwork and Iowa Agriculture.” Department Seminar. Department of Sociology, Iowa State University. Ames, IA. April 2016.
“Conversation and Confrontation in Iowa Agriculture.” Paper presented at the Central States Anthropology Society Annual Conference. Kansas City, MO. April 2016.
And through the following publications:
2017 “Flipping the Field: Who’s Asking the Questions Here?” Anthropology News Website. December 18 2017.
2017 “Beyond Profit and Loss: Anthropological Reflections on Beginning Farms’ Longevity.” The Practical Farmer. Spring 2017: 18-19.
Additionally, this analysis will contribute to the graduate student PI’s doctoral dissertation, which will be publicly available through the Emory University library and digitally available through ProQuest Dissertation and Theses Database. Rissing is currently drafting a manuscript based on this research to be submitted for peer-review in 2018. Project results further contributed to the development of an undergraduate course on U.S. foodways and agriculture that Rissing taught at Emory University in Spring 2017, and an interdisciplinary freshman seminar that Rissing is co-teaching at Emory during Fall 2017 and Spring 2018.
Finally, in collaboration with the staff of grassroots agricultural organizations, Rissing is also currently exploring additional pathways for communicating research findings to farmers in Iowa, such as presentations or webinars, to take place during late 2018 and early 2019 during the final phase of completing her dissertation.
“Making it” in agriculture should mean operators can farm as long as they want to, and that they can meet their financial and personal goals. A farm’s ability to make money is obviously critical to this process, but this project suggests that profitability alone is insufficient to ensure long-term farm viability. Difficult-to-quantify variables, including physical health, social relationships, and personal satisfaction, can have as real an effect on a farm’s longevity as does its bottom line. As a farm’s first years unfold, its likelihood of making it cannot be reduced to only financial questions. Results may contribute to future agricultural sustainability by equipping new farmers with information about the full range of challenges that have led their peers to decide to stop farming in the past. This information may help beginning farmers avoid similar problems, thus keeping more young people in sustainable agriculture longer.
This project has contributed to my awareness and skills regarding sustainable agriculture in several ways. First, by supporting an extensive series of in-depth interviews, SARE funding helped me hone my qualitative research skills. The human component–such as values, histories, and motivations–is integral to any sustainable food system, yet it is not easy to fully capture. Ethnographic interviewing is an inherently flexible form of data collection that can account for seemingly contradictory elements of people’s stories and offer a fuller picture of the personal relationships underpinning food systems. The skills I learned in designing and conducting this project will serve me well as I continue my career as a qualitative researcher interested in sustainable food systems and agriculture. Additionally, the analysis itself brings home the importance of conceptualizing farms as integrated wholes of economic, ecological, and social components.