Finding common ground: Identifying barriers to sustainable agriculture transitions among Upper Midwest row crop farmers

Progress report for GNC22-341

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,740.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2024
Grant Recipient: UW-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Randall Jackson
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Expand All

Project Information


Agricultural systems that build soil carbon and diversify our landscapes provide ecosystem services that benefit farmers and society at large. Perennial pastures seem to offer the best opportunity for achieving these benefits, while also contributing to an agricultural system that is profitable and resilient. However, if we are to transform our agricultural system from one dominated by annual row crops to one dominated by perennial pastures, we need the perspective of row crop farmers to create a successful transition. Specifically, this work will strive to identify barriers and motivations for row crop farmers to transition to perennial agriculture through meeting those farmers where they are at.  

Row crop farmers in eastern Iowa and southwest Wisconsin will be contacted through snowball sampling, beginning with farmer contacts known to the research team. Interviews will be conducted with interested farmers, and they will be compensated for their time. The interviews will explore challenges to shifting towards sustainable agricultural practices. In addition, these conversations provide an opportunity for co-learning and identifying shared values. We want to work with farmers and intend to create a space where they feel empowered to voice their questions and concerns.

Through engaging row crop farmers in these conversations, this project will increase knowledge of opportunities for improving the sustainability of our current agricultural system. For farmers, this can be facilitated by using decision-support tools to explore how the outcomes farmers desire align with their management practices during follow-up conversations about the interview data. This may shift crop farmers' attitudes on the need for more perennial agriculture. For researchers, understanding barriers and bottlenecks to change enables us to be more effective in how we approach sustainable agriculture transitions and ensures that farmers are sufficiently supported throughout. With the emphasis on relationship-building and co-learning, this work can serve as an entry point for increasing perennial pastures on the landscape. 

Project Objectives:

Through the proposed conversations with row crop farmers about transitions to sustainable agriculture, learning opportunities are present for both farmers and researchers. For researchers, a key outcome of this work is increased knowledge of barriers to transitioning from row crop agriculture to perennial pastures. As a long-term outcome of this research, increased adoption of perennial agriculture is anticipated as strategies to address identified barriers are incorporated into sustainable agriculture transformation plans. More frequent dialogue among diverse farmer groups and researchers are also expected given the importance of relationship-building within this work. Learning outcomes for row crop farmers include increased awareness of the environmental and economic benefits of perennial agriculture aided by the exploration of decision-support tools, which may lead to more positive attitudes towards perennial agriculture. However, the emphasis of this research will be on listening to row crop farmers and learning from them.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info


Materials and methods:

This work received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval as an addition to a larger, already-approved UW-Madison research project, titled "Grassland 2.0-An agroecological transformation plan for perennial grassland agriculture". Because both projects shared similar goals and were conducting interviews with similar groups of people, submitting a revision to the larger project made more sense than creating a separate IRB submission. Next, the interview guide was revised to align with the theory of place-making, which explores how places are constantly being shaped and reshaped, after receiving feedback from individuals both within and outside of UW-Madison. Because this work investigates how the agricultural landscape in the North Central US could be reshaped to better meet the needs of people and the environment, this theory is highly relevant. In particular, it is useful for considering change at the regional level, moving beyond individual action and instead emphasizing coordinated region-wide efforts. Six preliminary interviews were then conducted with farmers in eastern Iowa. This served as an opportunity to begin identifying barriers and pathways for increasing adoption of well-managed grazing on the landscape. It also allowed us to revise the interview guide based on the flow of these initial conversations and helped us identify new directions to probe as themes emerged from preliminary analyses. Finally, official interviews began in the winter of 2023. Because we are targeting row crop farmers, conducting the majority of interviews in the winter avoids busy harvest and planting seasons.   

Research results and discussion:

Through qualitative interviews, we have started to uncover areas of misalignment between how crop farmers characterize a "good farmer", their long-term goals for agriculture in their region and their community, and the current agricultural practices dominating the landscape. Discrepancies between these components signal that landscape level change could be supported through an investment in redefining the "good farmer" to better align with outcomes farmers want. Redefining "good farming" within a region could support coordinated widespread change by shifting which management practices farmers' identify as necessary and/or important. Additional funding is being sought to support community discussions about the findings in the regions where these interviews took place. While interview results will be shared with participating farmers regardless of additional financial support, I believe continued community discussions are critical to support landscape change.

Participation Summary
12 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

60 Farmers participated
35 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

First, I spoke at two farmer field days in Wisconsin, one in June 2023 and one in August 2023, to promote the benefits of well-managed rotational grazing. At the August field day, a fact sheet was shared that summarized on-farm Wisconsin research exploring relationships between soil carbon and annual row crops versus grazed perennial pastures. Next, preliminary interview results were shared via an oral presentation at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in August 2023. In November 2023, this research was shared in a flash talk for UW-Madison Chancellor Mnookin and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Gillaspy, and again in a second flash talk for Dean Gillaspy and UW-Madison Provost Isbell, highlighting interest among university leaders in sustainable agriculture. Finally, a piece responding to the question of "Can cover crops and no-till reduce dairy greenhouse gas emissions?" was published on Decode 6's website, which provides accessible content on soil carbon and ecosystem services in agriculture. Upcoming presentations are planned for the International Association for Society and Natural Resources (IASNR) annual meeting in June 2024 and the Rural Sociological Society annual meeting in July 2024. After concluding farmer interviews, we intend to convene with farmers in each of the interviews locations to explore the findings and discuss steps forward. 

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Initial interviews suggest that sustainability is a key goal for crop farmers given that many explicitly expressed the importance of ensuring their farm is left in good condition environmentally, if not a better condition, for future farmers. Challenges in ensuring economic sustainability has also been a major component of these conversations. By exploring ways that farmers are constrained in meeting their sustainability goals, this research allows us to uncover which changes are necessary within agricultural systems to reprioritize sustainability. In particular, these interviews provide an exploration of how the current agricultural system is not meeting crop farmers' economic, environmental, and/or social goals. Additionally, farmers are also given an opportunity to express what support might be beneficial to them in shaping the agricultural system they would like to see. Overall, these conversations are centered on what outcomes are desired by farmers for agriculture and their communities. By defining these desired outcomes, of which sustainability is central, we are better able to discuss pathways towards achieving those goals. 

Knowledge Gained:

From this project, I have gained a better understanding of what practices are being promoted to achieve sustainability and which are not in eastern Iowa and southwest Wisconsin. For example, farmers often reference efforts to reduce tillage, maintain grassed waterways, incorporate cover crops, and manage nutrients. However, increasing crop diversity or expanding pasture acres are often not explored. If current farming practices are not meeting farmers goals, then it is important to consider how we can expand or shift the conversation around what sustainable agriculture looks like. These conversations with farmers have also helped me become more aware of the challenges they face in changing their practices, including the realities of fluctuating markets, thin profit margins, and long work days. This project has likewise increased my appreciation for the hard work farmers are doing, their various innovations, and how they are striving towards sustainability across all dimensions (economically, environmentally, socially). Finally, this project has helped me to develop my communication and outreach skills so that sustainable agricultural change can be discussed in partnership with farmers. 

Success stories:

One important outcome of this work is the opportunity it gives farmers to tell their story and to feel heard. After wrapping up one of these interviews, I received a text later that evening from an Iowa crop farmer thanking me for caring about agriculture and thinking outside the box. I have heard other farmers also echo this sentiment, indicating that it feels mutually beneficial to have these conversations. Additionally, it reiterates the importance of ensuring information gleaned from these interviews is used to support outcomes that the farmers care about.  

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.