Overcoming Barriers to Grass-Based Agriculture in the Driftless Region

Final report for GNC21-338

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $11,827.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. William Stewart, PhD
Dept of Recreation, Sport and Tourism
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Project Information


Overcoming Barriers to Grass-Based Agriculture in the Driftless Region

In the Driftless Region of Northwestern Illinois and Southwestern Wisconsin, working grasslands have been dramatically decreasing over the past 30 years. The decline of grass-based farming practices have been associated with increased soil erosion, reduced water quality, and diminished wildlife habitat. Going forward it will be important to consider ways in which grass-based farming can be incorporated into farmer land-use decisions. Common sense suggests that agricultural land-use decisions are based solely on economic efficiency for maximum production. While economic factors are undoubtedly an important aspect of agricultural land management, such factors do not offer a complete explanation.

Our project examined the structural factors that influence farmer land-use decisions in Grant County, WI, and Jo Daviess County, IL from August 2019 to December 2022. To shift agricultural practices in the direction of regenerative practices, there is a need to understand and elevate the visibility of community-based influences on farming decisions. Land use strategies that are developed through collaborative efforts combine insights from both research and experiential knowledge. Incorporating various perspectives on agroecosystems offers advantages when implementing land-use strategies that integrate conservation within their production-based goals. Our project found that farmers and community members were interested in the concept of well-managed rotational grazing but expressed the presence of systemic barriers, such as intense social sanctions, that impeded adoption of the practice. To move forward, well-managed rotational grazing, a regenerative form of agriculture that builds soil, enhances water quality, and provides wildlife habitat, communities in the Driftless Region identified the need to implement their landscape vision through collaborative processes. An emerging example of the collaborative effort is the community driven endeavor to develop a Driftless beef supply chain that rewards production systems that promote farmer quality of life, community vitality, labor rights, and a wide array of ecosystem services.

Project Objectives:

The project was developed for farmers, community organizers, researchers, and extension staff to learn from one another and identify collaborative strategies for overcoming barriers to grass-based agriculture. The first learning objective centers on gaining awareness of land-use perspectives from farmers, agricultural organizations, regional conservation groups, and researchers. Through collective dialogue and learning processes a set of potential interventions that work toward the adoption of grass-based farming approaches was developed. From these identified interventions communities identified future projects that can work toward a desired agricultural landscape. By going through the processes of place-based social learning, a set of recommended areas of focus have been identified for future projects that work toward increasing the amount of working grasslands in the Driftless Region of Illinois and Wisconsin.


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  • Stanley "Jay" Solomon (Educator)


Materials and methods:

A mixed methods design was employed to understand issues related to agricultural landscape change in the Driftless Region. A mixed method approach is valuable because it allows researchers to gain insights from various data collection techniques and processes to enrich explanations provide distinct angles for interpreting findings.

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The first phase involved semi-structured interviews with community leaders and farmers who have played active roles in the evolution of Grant and Jo Daviess County agricultural landscapes. We interviewed 21 farmers and community leaders. Our analysis of the semi-structured interviews identified social and physical barriers to adopting environmentally sustainable agricultural practices, specifically grass-based agricultural systems. The questions used in the semi-structured interviews were broadly stated and open-ended to encourage engagement from the research participants. The semi-structured interviews were also part of a sequential mixed-method design where the interviews informed the development of the subsequent focus groups and questionnaires.

In the second phase, we conducted two focus groups, one for each respective county. Focus groups had 3-5 participants, accepted as an appropriate size to encourage a diversity of ideas to come forward in a participatory dialogue. A research team member served as a moderator to guide discussion among the participants. Focus groups offer a way to evaluate the generalizability of information gathered during the interviews.

The third phase was a farmer survey examining how farmers conveyed social meaning and interpreted landscape features through the management of their farming operations (n=82). The questionnaire had six distinct sections (1. Farm information, 2. Sense of place of your farm, 3. Farming practices, 4. Conservation efforts with others, 5. Demonstrating good farming practices, and 6. Sociodemographic characteristics). The questionnaire had a series of open and close-ended questions that were informed by preliminary findings from the semi-structured interviews and focus groups. The questionnaire was distributed from October 2020 through November 2021. The online version of the questionnaire was distributed using Qualtrics software. The Qualtrics link was broadcast on the email list that the Grant County Farm Bureau, Wisconsin Farmers Union, and Jo Daviess Soil and Water Health Coalition provided. A link to the questionnaire was published in the online version of the Warren Flash, a local newspaper. The questionnaire was also distributed using a “drop-off pick-up” and a “drop-off mail-back” method. By sharing the questionnaire face-to-face, researchers hoped to bolster response rates of the questionnaire due to the personalized contact.


Research results and discussion:

Our research explored interconnections between agricultural practices, ecological outcomes, and community well-being through contexts of understanding barriers to grass-based agricultural practices. From the semi-structured interviews, three themes were identified that are: (1) external events influencing farming communities, (2) collective action, and (3) a move to regenerative farming. The survey findings also supported these themes.

External events influencing farming communities

Farmers were aware of corporations' and governments' influence on farming operations. Without modern technology, it would not be possible for farmers to grow the amount of corn and soybeans that they currently do. With an increase in high-input corn and soybean systems, low-input grass-based systems have been plowed under. A Grant County farmer explained how Glyphosate was one of the most significant factors in changing the agricultural landscape. The importance of agricultural chemicals to the simplification of agricultural landscapes was a sentiment shared by numerous farmers.

“Roundup™ that made a huge difference. When the chemicals come into play, that made a big difference… When Roundup™ came along you could go out and plant and plant, and if the corn field got ugly with grass and weeds, you still had a window because Roundup™, you could spray it right over the field with a lot of weeds in there. So, you could run more acres… Roundup™ probably changed the landscape as much as anything.”

-Grant County Farmer

In rural agricultural communities, farm decisions are essential not only to agricultural success but also impact other facets of life. Evolutions in farm size and agricultural practices have led to subsequent changes in communities. Technological advances have made it much easier for farmers to plant large fields of corn and soybeans. Such technological shifts help explain why acres of pasture are being replaced with acres of corn. Farmers still viewed animal agriculture as being labor intensive because the same level of technological advances has not been enjoyed by farmers who manage pastures. A farmer from Jo Daviess County, IL, highlights how technological improvements impacted the rate at which crops get planted.

“In 1960 I do remember… I would have been 6 years old… If you got up early, the field below my house, you could plant that in a day… Now I plant it in 20 minutes. So that’s, but the tractor my dad bought new, I found the receipt for it… had been a John Deere 2 row planter, a 2 row cultivator and a 2 bottom plow… It was $840. My corn planter with all the bells and whistles on it’s over a half a million.”

-Jo Daviess County Farmer

In rural agricultural communities, farm decisions are essential not only to agricultural success but also impact other facets of life. Evolutions in farm size and agricultural practices have led to subsequent changes in communities. Technological advances have made it much easier for farmers to plant large fields of corn and soybeans. Such technological shifts help explain why acres of pasture are being replaced with acres of corn. Farmers still viewed animal agriculture as being labor intensive because the same level of technological advances has not been enjoyed by farmers who manage pastures. A farmer from Jo Daviess County, IL, highlights how technological improvements impacted the rate at which crops get planted.

“The government’s a big part of this. No country ever survived with high price food, and they know that. They’ll (the government) do everything they can for overproduction, ‘cuz overproduction is cheap food.’ How they do that, how they achieve it, is they put a floor underneath here. That sounds real noble, say oh, I’m gonna get so much money. You know what that does? That puts a ceiling up here. So, they keep that carrot about 2 inches in front of our nose, and we follow, I’ll be the first to admit it. And that’s back to the economics of scale, too. Do I want to get a $5,000 government check or a $50,000 government check.”

-Jo Daviess County Farmer

With the agricultural treadmill in full effect, the farms in the Driftless Region have consistently gotten larger since the 1950s. Farmers expressed that increasing farm sizes and new technology has allowed for a consolidation of farm labor. With that, there are fewer family farms resulting in fewer school-aged children. In the study region, some towns are experiencing reductions in population, losing local businesses, and merging school districts. Interviewees repeatedly expressed concern about the social and community impacts of increasing farm size and its role as a factor that exacerbates school and business closures.

“I was just talking with a guy who used to be assistant principle with the public-school system in Platteville. When Matthew (the farmer’s son) graduated from the high school in Platteville there were about 140 kids in a class now there isn’t even a hundred. And he graduated in the late 90’s… it got that way because of the larger farms coming in and the farm families being gone and it is affecting the rural situation. And then in these towns the real estate value like Benton you can’t get any money out of a house. I don’t know why anyone would build a house in Benton.”

-Grant County Farmer

In recent years fewer children who grew-up on farms are returning to the farm as adults—leading to a dramatic decline in the number of people living in rural farming communities. As more farm children grow up and move to urbanized communities, the average age of the farmer has steadily increased. The farmers who we spoke to expressed it was harder to maintain livestock as they grew older. With an aging farmer population, there was a decline in animal agriculture. Farmers also touched on the knowledge of animal husbandry skills needed to run a livestock operation. One emerging concern is that the capacity to mentor young livestock farmers will quickly diminish as older livestock operators move away from farming.

“One main barrier to grazing is the average age of the farmer. As we get older you can eliminate chores everyday with milking or beef cattle or whatever. We are not as quick and agile as we ust to be… plain and simple it is easier to sit in the seat of a tractor then it is to pull a calf. Then it is to do just about anything that has to deal with livestock. You have to have a certain amount of patients. You have to actually have an idea of what husbandry is.”

-Jo Daviess County Farmer

Collective action

To advance agricultural practices, farmers discussed a need to work together. The ability to collaborate on improving agriculture and conservation has been a mainstay in the Driftless Region since the 1930’s Coon Valley Conservation Corp Project. In our interviews, we had numerous farmers point toward watershed groups as a way to share information. Watershed groups have the potential to allow farmers to share pertinent information and reshape what is seen as an ideal form of agriculture within the region.

“We do have a county (watershed) group now… it is kind of a unique relationship we have… We are all in here to learn and we are more than willing to give information. I have no secrets and that is the neat part about this.”

-Jo Daviess County Farmer

“We implement a lot of no till. We’ve ramped that up the last five years. Because we’ve been getting a lot more of these big rain events… Maybe it’s cause of global warming I hope not cause it is not good and we don’t benefit anything from a four-inch downpour… Once we get that (watershed group) rolling, I think that it is gonna be popular to see new practices.”

-Grant County Farmer

In both quotes, we see how sharing information with one another allows for the adoption of innovative agricultural practices. In the second quote from the Grant County farmer, he expresses how agricultural practices will have to become more resilient to the impacts of global climate change. It is evident that adaptations to agricultural approaches are necessary to remain resilient as farmers experience various social, ecological, and economic challenges.

A move to regenerative farming

Regenerative approaches notably highlight how farmers can embrace rather than battle ecosystem functions to improve agricultural outcomes. We found that many farmers attempted to get off the agricultural treadmill by reducing the number of inputs (e.g., fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide) and instead implemented a regenerative approach. These farmers knew that regenerative farming took advantage of natural processes to help improve agricultural outcomes.

“There are so many other benefits when my farming practices changed to a more regenerative type farming and you know we are not using insecticides we are going to cut back on herbicides and on fertilizer. We stopped using seed treatment. All of these things go together. And I am just amazed at how everything flows.”

-Jo Daviess County Farmer

The Jo Daviess County farmer explained how moving to a regenerative approach allowed things on his farm to flow together. He was notably amazed at how well such an approach turned out. Because of his success with his regenerative system, he has been outspoken toward other farmers that reducing the application of fertilizer and insecticides is a viable way to farm.

“As a grass farmer, we’ve never re-plowed something. If we wanna introduce a new grass or another legume, I frost seed it and put it on, and we’ve got a tremendous mix, I think, of clover and grass down here… We don’t have a lot of equipment.”

-Grant County Farmer

The Grant County farmer underscores a similar point by emphasizing that they can run a productive agricultural operation with minimal farm equipment. This farmer avoids the agricultural treadmill by not having a lot of equipment; rather than plowing hay ground, the Grant County farmer inter-seeded and has had great success.

Survey Findings

Important factors when managing land

Farmers who participated in the survey reported a primary focus of farm management centered on limiting soil erosion. Due to the rolling topography, soil health is a major element of agriculture and is a primary concern in the Driftless region. The worries around soil erosion have only been amplified in recent years due to major precipitation events.


These responses indicate that farmers consider much more than economics in their management decisions. The evidence shows that farmers are focused on maintaining farms in a way that keeps them viable over the long term. For agricultural land to remain viable, there are numerous factors that farmers consider. Farmers who responded indicated maintaining soil health and conservation efforts were necessary so that the land continues to produce year after year. Conservation efforts were seen as a way to create a more resilient agriculture system better suited to hold up to extreme weather events. Farmers also expressed that maintaining viability depended on a certain profit level to sustain the farming operation for a future generation. While both popular discourse and research on farming practices often focus on increasing profits, our results suggest that farmers know that having viable farms over the long term requires a comprehensive approach. Farmers were well-aware that if any of these elements were ignored, farms would not be viable over an extended time frame.

One perplexing finding from table 1 is that while farmers are concerned about soil health and conservation, they report low on a need for a diversity of plants and animals. Researchers have found that increasing the diversity of plants and animals on agricultural lands is a way to improve conservation outcomes and soil health. A possible explanation for this discrepancy is that systemic social and economic pressures are exerted on farmers to use monoculture cropping systems such as corn and soybeans.

Sense of place

We also asked farmers to identify what makes their farm in the Driftless region unique and distinct. These measures are referred to as sense of place and were put into 6 categories (Table 2). The findings further underscore that it is not a single aspect that makes a farm special. These results provide additional support for a holistic approach that recognizes the complexity of farm decisions and the multiple goals that influence farming practices. The senses of place reported by farmers for their farm and communities were the following:

Caring Community: Distinctiveness comes from strong schools. Having local governments that serve the needs of the citizenry. And community members who display ethical character and are resilient to hardships.

Family: Distinctiveness comes from connections with multi-generation farms. It is a quality place to raise a family and leave a legacy.

Conservation: Distinctiveness comes from the compatibility between conservation and agriculture. Has areas for agriculture, conservation, and wildlife habitat.

Agricultural Production: Distinctiveness comes from farmland that yields high quality and quantity crops and livestock. Soils are fertile. And producers are willing to innovate to remain cutting-edge in their agricultural approaches.

Outdoor Opportunities: Distinctiveness comes from opportunities to encounter wildlife and experience outdoor recreational opportunities. These opportunities provide balance to one’s life.

Small Town Feel: Distinctiveness comes from a tight community where people know and support each other. Those connections provide numerous close personal relationships. Communities have distinct locations such as a café or high schools that serve as gathering points for people to come together as a community.

Sense of Place

Conveying and interpreting good farming practices

As part of the research process, the authors appreciated that many farmers provided them with personal tours of their farms, and at times, the PI was able to travel around the countryside with farmers as part of the fieldwork. It became apparent that farmers interpreted their neighbors' farmland and realized that neighboring farmers gave their farm the same interpretation. Farmers we interacted with referred to this as “road farming,” which involves observing and evaluating farm practices as one views them while driving down the road. Road farming is noteworthy because it could indicate the social processes that inform what is seen as ideal ways to maintain a farm. Simply put, it would be reasonable for farmers to want to be known as good farmers and competent in their profession, so they seek to maintain their farms in a way that neighbors see as aligning with an ideal. From our experiences meeting with farmers, our research team was interested in how farmers conveyed or expressed they were good at farming and how farmers interpreted or made sense of neighboring farming practices. In our survey, we asked farmers if they did anything on their farmland to represent to others that they were a good farmer, and then we asked them if they read or interpreted the farmland of their neighbors to evaluate the extent of good farming practices being used. In this section, we broke up agricultural land into three sections (1. Crop areas, 2. Buffer areas, 3. Living areas). Crop areas would be the part of the farm where corn and soybeans are grown, or cattle might be out on pasture. Buffer areas would be sections that break up a field or property boundaries, such as fence lines or waterways. Then finally, living areas would be structures and areas such as a barn, houses, and front yards. The point of this analysis was to see if farmers conveyed and interpreted good farming in the same fashion.

C & I Good Farming

Data show that farmers use a comprehensive approach for conveying and interpreting good farming. Crop areas edge out both buffer and living areas as the most consequential in conveying and interpreting good farming techniques. It is also noteworthy that for buffer and living areas, there is a pronounced difference between the way farmers convey versus interpret good farming. The difference in buffer areas is particularly interesting because farmers we interacted with expressed that it was important to have clean field borders, road ditches, and waterways.

Survey demographic characteristics

With our focus on changes in agricultural practices, we targeted the survey toward farmers and the way that they manage farmlands. To do this, our survey was completed by people who farmed across seven counties in Southwestern Wisconsin and Northwestern Illinois. The wide range of age distribution of survey respondents varied from young to more experienced farmers and offers the potential to gain further insights into the future of agriculture.


The Driftless region is known for having farms of different sizes and types. Respondents to our survey reflected that diversity by having farms of varying sizes that participated in crop, beef, and dairy production. A large amount of the farms in the survey were below 499 acres which is expected since the US Agriculture Census suggests that the mean farm size within the region is 274 Acres (2017 US Agricultural Census Data).

Farm Sizes

Farmers self-reported how they utilized their agricultural land. The survey provided insights on management decisions for 62,068 acres of agricultural land, and those reported acres were predominately in corn and soybean production. The other two predominant land uses were for alfalfa hay and pasture.

Land Utilization


Farming occurs within a place-based context

Currently, societal forces encourage Midwest farmers to expand their operations by predominantly focusing on corn and soybean production. Farmers we heard from suggested that farm practices are influenced by government policies, global events (i.e., COVID-19 and tariffs), and large agricultural businesses. Most farmers were aware of the impacts of such forces on rural vitality, individual farming operations, and ecological health. When considering a shift to grass-based agriculture, it is noteworthy that societal, political, and economic contexts impact the autonomy that farmers have to change their style of agricultural operation. The narrowed decision-making frame has been referred to as the agricultural treadmill. During our study, it was apparent that farmers had first-hand experience and were aware of how regional, state, national, and international events influenced their decisions and, in turn, the subsequent impacts on community, ecological, and economic conditions.

Efforts that seek to increase the adoption of grass-based agriculture need to take a comprehensive approach that recognizes farmers’ holistic context for their farming decisions. While farmer decision-making needs to consider farm finances and crop yields, our research indicates that farmers have a diverse set of goals for maintaining a viable agrarian lifestyle. Farmers expressed that farm consolidation occurs because they perceive consolidation as an important way to remain economically competitive. Engaging in efforts perpetuating farm consolidation bothered farmers because they knew the associations between increasing farm sizes, adverse ecological outcomes, and diminished rural vitality. The dissonance that farmers feel around farm consolidation is illustrative of why systemic changes are needed in the way that food is grown and consumed in the United States.

Enhance farmer voices in agricultural policy-making. Based on the interactions with farmers in this study, grass-based agriculture would increase if farmers were provided a greater amount of influence in state and federal agricultural policy and were allowed to have a stronger voice in the development of agricultural innovations. Engaging in systemic changes will be difficult because agribusiness profits considerably from an agricultural structure that is hyper-focused on row crop commodity production28. That means the high input and output corn and soybean rotation is advantageous to agribusiness firms such as Cargill, John Deere, ADM, Bayer, Corteva, and Syngenta 1,2,28,29,31. A large-scale transition to a low-input system is a potential threat to the socially acceptable (and expected) high-input form of agriculture. To increase the amount of beef produced through well-managed grazing there is a serious need to consider the development of alternative supply chains that circumnavigate the oligopoly created by the big four packers (Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef). Such innovations will require collective action movements that are sustained over time.

Aging base of farmer population. Farmers also shared that the aging farmer population partly drove the reduction in animal agriculture. Over the years, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that children who grew up on a farm stay on the farm30,32. Farmers expressed that when their children go off to college or pursue a trade, they seldom see any reason to return to the farm. To make ends meet financially, young farmers often have to work the farm and also have off farm employment33. We also found that finding quality off farm employment is becoming more difficult as once-vibrant rural towns have experienced the closure of local restaurants, hardware stores, and boutiques33. The cumulative impact is that more young adults who grow up on a farm either head off to college or find a trade in urbanized areas and never return to the rural community where they were raised. For well-managed grazing operations, the departure of these young adults is unfortunate because they are also taking their knowledge of animal agriculture with them.

Need to incentivize place-based approach to agricultural decisions. If it were left up to farmers, it would seem likely that they would seek to redesign the agricultural system in ways that promote ecological sustainability, food production, and improved community health. Based on our study findings to fix our broken food production system, we think it paramount that there be concerted efforts to work with farmers to develop and implement a new agricultural vision. A comprehensive approach to farm decisions is necessary to improve the viability of farming. Researchers should move attention away from focusing on individual farmer decisions and instead take a place-based approach that considers the social, political, economic, and bio-physical context in which farming decisions are made. The promising news is that many community members we interacted with saw the need for a comprehensive approach to improve agricultural practices. Local organizations such as watershed groups and farmer coalitions offer opportunities to redefine what is seen to be the ideal farm and farm practices in the Driftless Region. Those redefined farms in the Driftless region will seek to promote ecological health, profitability, and community well-being.

Implications of study findings

A recurrent pattern of discussion among our participants and various farmers we engaged, was the need to redesign an agricultural system to promote ecological sustainability, food production, and improved community health. A generalized voice across our participants was a keen awareness of linkages between ecological functioning, farm profits and vibrant rural community, and needs to make these linkages sustainable and attractive to future farmers. A multipronged strategy needs development that would support the concerns of farmers, that includes the following: (1) Federal and state policy processes should engage farmers to frame them as distinct from the agribusiness industry and advocacy groups tied to commercial production. (2) Researchers should focus attention on farming as a place-based activity that considers the social, political, economic, and bio-physical contexts of farming decisions; rather than emphasizing farming as an individual and person-based set of factors. (3) Local organizations, such as watershed groups and farmer coalitions, should be further empowered with resources and political visibility to redefine what is seen as a “good farmer” and farm practices, such as those in the Driftless Region. Fortunately, we already have seen evidence that the above three recommendations may be gaining traction. Many farmers with whom we interacted, already saw the need for a comprehensive approach to improve agricultural practices and were initiating strategies to move forward transformational changes.



Participation Summary
102 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Journal articles
2 Published press articles, newsletters
9 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

25 Farmers participated
10 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The project supported efforts that allowed for localized outreach and dissemination of those findings on a global scale. In Northwest Illinois and Southwest Wisconsin, we conducted 21 interviews and 82 farmer surveys that inquired about the ways in which farmers make sense of their communities and agricultural practices. These interviews and surveys provided a foundation for three community events in 2021 and 2022. Participants at the community events were farmers, community leaders, extension agents, local government officials, and members of environmental NGO’s. At the project conclusion meeting that occurred in Elizabeth, IL (December 2022) community members identified a need to identify future projects that sought to address the structural barriers to grass-based agriculture.

The research and community outreach results were summarized and shared in a technical report that was distributed to community members and is available for review on the University of Illinois Extension webpage. In addition to the technical report, a manuscript was published in Society and Natural Resources (see: https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2022.2101080). We anticipate two additional peer-reviewed manuscripts will be developed from our project. The project findings were also presented at the July 2022 Climate Intersections Conference in Duluth, MN and the February 2023 Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference in Kansas City, KS. Building on these earlier presentations there is an abstract under review to present findings to at the June 2023 International Association for Society and Natural Resources Conference in Portland, ME.

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Throughout our project, we have engaged a network of farmers in Jo Daviess and Grant Counties. From those interactions we have collectively identified barriers to agricultural landscape change and have identified ways grass-based agriculture could become dominant across the agricultural landscape. There are several implications suggested by the findings that are difficult to disentangle from the evidence provided, our conversations with farmers and other stakeholders, and our own opinions. A primary finding that we were pleased to learn, and contrasts with the majority of farm-based decision-making research, was that farmers were well-aware and concerned about the problems with contemporary farming practices. There needs to be more focus on how to implement sustainable farming rather than an emphasis on convincing farmers why conservation farming is important. Farmers we interacted with understood the impacts of their farming decisions on the vitality of their communities, ecological conditions near and far, and the legacy of their farm. The implications of this study include the following:

  1. Financial incentives alone are not enough. While financial incentives – through insurance or federal subsidy programs – can be helpful, they need to be focused on practices that will enhance the influence of farmers in place-making processes. Financial incentives when not accompanied by efforts for systemic change, likely exacerbate the agricultural treadmill and often only lead to short-term behavior changes that go away once the incentives have been fully distributed. Rather than concentrating efforts on payment schemes for short-term behaviors, society would be a lot better served by engaging in programs and community efforts that seek to build the collective agency of farmers.
  2. Build collective farmer agency through entities such as farmer-led watershed groups. Farmers are influenced by many factors that reach well beyond the site of their farm. Currently, in the United States, our economic, social, and political context disadvantages farmers and exploits the efforts that they engage in daily. By gaining collective power farmers would be better positioned to exert their vision for a rural lifestyle.
  3. Retain and recruit young farmers through policies and community-building efforts. Farmers expressed that the aging farmer population is a barrier to grass-based animal agriculture. By enhancing farmers’ agency in place-making processes, the hope is that these highly vested community members will collectively work to shape vibrant rural communities that attract and retain young farmers. There is also hope that federal investments such as those made around rural internet service will help retain younger generations that depend on the internet for social and professional activities. Steps to retain and bring in younger farmers must be acted upon soon because the available mentors will quickly diminish as more farmers retire from animal agriculture.
Knowledge Gained:

By interacting with farmers and local community members it became apparent that there was discontent with the current agricultural system and there is a desire for a multi-dimensional form of farming that allows for agricultural production, rural vitality, environmental stewardship, and farm profitability. Despite that desire such changes to agriculture were made difficult because of the ways a dominant agricultural paradigm is socially, politically, and economically reinforced. Our findings would suggest that the productivist paradigm of agriculture that is perpetuated by universities, government agencies, corporations, and the farmers themselves does not match with the local vision for the future in the Driftless Region of Illinois and Wisconsin. Based on those findings, farmers and other community members need a way to express their vision for good farming. Watershed or community groups seem to be a path for people to gain collective agency in the place-making processes that work toward transformational landscape change. Through collaborative efforts that value a plurality of place-based perspectives it becomes possible to develop an agricultural paradigm that advances a form of farming that values farm well-being, community vitality, labor rights, and environmental health.


It is increasingly apparent that farmers are boxed in by the agricultural treadmill. Most farmers we interacted with want to change the way they farm but do not feel as if they can. Projects that address this issue could pertain to supply chains, community planning, and support of advisors that help farmers through a transition. The farmers we interacted with were skeptical of adopting grass-based agriculture because they struggled with the logistics of how they could transition away from corn and soybean farming and move to grazing. Future projects in our estimation need to focus on how to adopt practices and move beyond convincing farmers why to adopt practices.

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.