Farmer Engagement with Regenerative Agriculture in New England: Understanding Barriers and Facilitators to Improve Services and Outreach

Progress report for GNE22-281

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $13,913.00
Projected End Date: 08/05/2024
Grant Recipient: Boston College
Region: Northeast
State: Connecticut
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Brian Gareau
Boston College
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Project Information


For New England to reach its great potential for an economically, culturally, and ecologically resilient argifood system, we must begin by actively supporting local farmers working toward regenerative agriculture (RA). While RA has many definitions, it is best understood as an approach that purposefully integrates agricultural production with complex and biodiverse ecological landscapes, especially beginning with complex soil agroecosystems. The RA movement is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. as the environmental, economic, and social benefits of RA systems become more widely acknowledged. The purpose of this project is to support the RA movement through providing extension agencies, agricultural organizations, and policy makers with in-depth insight into the facilitators and barriers faced by New England farmers as they engage with RA at the farm level. I thus ask: How do farmers in New England come to adopt the practices and perspectives associated with RA? What barriers and facilitators do New England farmers face as they act to implement RA? To answer these questions, I apply a qualitative social scientific approach, including interview and ethnographic observation data, designed to highlight farmer voices, experiences, and perspectives. Data collection and analysis is further driven by a framework drawn from the subfield of environmental sociology, known as the “sociological imagination,” that is particularly useful for approaching complex social and ecological topics. The rich qualitative data gathered during this project will highlight opportunities for farmer support and provide a valuable resource in the development of future agricultural science and social scientific research instruments.

Project Objectives:
  1. Gather rich and reliable data on why and how New England farmers are engaging with RA, especially in regard to the barriers and facilitators they are facing.
  2. Ensure reliable and transparent data analysis and presentation.

The purpose of this project is to support the RA movement through providing extension agencies, agricultural organizations, and policy makers with in-depth insight into the facilitators and barriers faced by New England farmers as they engage with RA at the farm level. 

New England has great potential for an economically, culturally, and ecologically resilient argifood system (Donahue et al. 2014; Ruhf 2015). For this vision to become reality, we must actively support local farmers who are working to manifest regenerative agricultural landscapes in the region. Extension agencies, sustainable agricultural groups, and policy makers require this regionally specific and in-depth knowledge in order to best support RA in New England. To achieve this objective, I ask the following two research questions: (1) How do farmers in New England come to adopt the practices and perspectives associated with RA? and (2) What barriers and facilitators do New England farmers face as they act to implement RA?  

RA is increasingly popular for its many economic, ecological, and social benefits. For example, RA is seen as a way to increase and sustain farm profitability (Delgado et al. 2020; Green et al. 2021; LaCanne and Lundgren 2018; Rosenzweig et al. 2020) and improve the health and wellbeing of farmers (Burns 2020; Duncan, et al.  2020; Gibbons 2020; Gordon et al. 2021; Gordon et al. 2021; Gremmen 2022; LaCanne and Lundgren 2018). Significantly, RA is also increasingly framed and as a powerful form of environmentalism. RA rejuvenates biodiversity through providing habitat (Delgado et al. 2020; DeVore 2020; Duncan et al. 2020; Krebs and Bach 2018; Lichtfouse 2010) and is seen as a form of climate adaptation and mitigation due to the role of plants, glomalin, and soil organisms in capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to store underground (also known as carbon sequestration and “carbon farming”) (Elevitch et al. 2018; Gordon et al. 2021; Green et al. 2021; Magdoff 1993; Rhodes 2012; White 2020).

While RA has many working definitions (Anderson 2019; Dolan 2020; Gibbons 2020; Giller et al. 2021; Gosnell 2021; Green et al. 2021; Newton et al. 2020; Rhodes 2017; Schreefel et al. 2020), this study views RA as an approach that purposefully integrates agricultural production with complex and biodiverse ecological landscapes--often from the starting point of complex soil agroecosystems (Delgado, Gantzer, and Sassenrath 2020; Delgado et al. 2020; Gosnell 2021; Handelsman 2021; Luján Soto et al. 2021; Roesch‐McNally et al. 2018; Salazar et al. 2020).

To provide an in-depth analysis of the barriers and facilitators faced by New England farmers seeking to implement an RA approach, I apply qualitative social scientific methods designed to highlight farmer voices, experiences, and perspectives. 

This study will thus highlight the needs of New England farmers actively working to build a more diverse, resilient, and healthful landscape. This rich data will not only highlight possible areas for farmer support, providing a resource for the development of future research instruments for both experimental and social scientific inquiry (Guptill and SARE Quality-of-Life Working Group 2021:5).


Materials and methods:

(1) I engage with three main methods including: (1) in-depth loosely structured interviews, (2) follow-up farm site visit observations and observation at sustainable agricultural events, and (3) web and media content analysis. I will recruit participants through contacting New England extension agencies and sustainable farming organizations, recruitment at events, visiting farms in person, and through participant referral (“snowball sampling”) (Berg and Lune 2017). Participants who engage in any form of sustainable agriculture will be sought out in the beginning of the study. After interviews are underway, I will then further sample by purposefully seeking out farmers that can represent a variability in demographics and RA practices.

a) In-depth loosely structured interviews: I will perform 50 in-depth virtual interviews with farmers who identify themselves as applying an approach to agriculture that aligns with the general practices and goals associated with regenerative agriculture as outlined in other sections of this proposal. Interviews will be 90-120 minutes in length to allow for a deeper understanding of farmer perspectives and experiences than is possible with survey instruments (Prokopy 2011). In order to encourage farmers to take an active role in shaping interviews around topics most important to them, I will conduct the interviews with loosely structured “topic guides” (Ritchie et al. 2013) made up of broad prompts and follow-up probes (Jiménez and Orozco 2021). This intentionally loosely structured design is also more likely to capture the topics most important to the farming community than would survey research instruments or heavily structured qualitative approaches (Prokopy 2011). Interviews  will begin by asking farmers to give an overview of their farm and their role at the farm. I will subsequently probe respondents to discuss their experiences with implementing RA outcome goals and practices (as previously defined). I will only purposefully mention RA near the end of the interview if the term had not yet surfaced to ensure interview  engagement with farmer perspectives on the RA movement specifically. 

b) Follow-up farm site visits: I include follow-up farm site visits for about half the interviewees in order to collect a “thick description” (Levitt et al. 2018; Tracy 2010) of the farm landscape and interactions among farmers, employees, customers, and more-than-human organisms on the farm. These site visits will also continue to highlight farmer voices as they explain the current happenings on their farm and how they make meaning from them (Magnusson 2015).

c) Website and media content analysis: I will perform content analyses of websites and media produced by prominent organizations in the wider RA community in the Northeast in order to examine if prominent themes among farmer participants are also present in the wider NE sustainable farming population. This data will be gathered from public sources, or if needed, requested to draw upon with written consent. These data are largely supplementary to interview data and farm visit observation data.

d) Ethnographic observation at events with the wider RA community: During the study period, I will seek to attend a selection of relevant conferences, events, and/or workshops that will provide me with further context surrounding the experiences of farmers in New England. Observation will include the taking of field notes and writing of post-observation memos. I will acquire consent to observe at events and will largely draw on the data as supplementary to my analysis of individual interviews and farm visits.

(2) To achieve Objective 2, I apply a variety of methods and strategies to ensure the validity and trustworthiness (rigor) of this project across data collection, analysis, and reporting/publishing. I apply multiple types of methods, known as “data triangulation,” in order to verify data collected in one method with the insights drawn from data collected by the remaining methods (Roulston 2010). Interviews for example, provide largely farmer perspectives for analysis, whereas observation at farm visits will allow me to observe the physical environment and relations on the farm directly. Observation and content analyses drawn from websites and events will allow me to compare my participants' responses with the wider community. Further, I will use audio recordings whenever possible to allow for detailed later analysis. Finally, I will also engage in writing short research memos following each interview and ethnographic observation during data collection. Writing memos at this point in the project provides another representation of the data that can also be drawn upon layer for analysis.

To ensure rigor during analysis, I will use verbatim transcripts whenever possible to allow for a full depiction of the data. I will include follow-up calls with a subset of participants during data collection and analysis in order to confirm my understandings and interpretations of the data—known as “respondent validation” (Roulston 2010) or “member checks” (Levitt et al. 2018) (also known as a form of “methodological triangulation” (Roulston 2010). I will also ensure the validity of my analysis through weekly check-ins with my advisor and semi-monthly “peer debriefing” sessions with Dr. Pisani-Gareau, an expert in agroecology, throughout the interpretation and analysis process. Finally, to ensure reliability of data analysis, I will also engage in writing “analytic memos” (Roulston 2010) at least once every two weeks during data analysis to ensure. 

During the publication and presentation phase, I will ensure transparency by presenting findings in farmers’ own words as much as possible within confidentiality requirements.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Initial outreach into the regenerative agriculture community in New England is included throughout the study in the form of participant recruitment and attendance at sustainable agriculture events. I will also apply to present my preliminary findings and initial analyses as a graduate student research presenter at the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) 2023 conference. At the end of the study, I will also create a report with specific sections aimed at farmers, extension agencies, and sustainable agriculture organizations. This report will outline how the findings apply to the specific roles of stakeholders in these groups and will be available electronically. I will send this report to participants, Northeast extension offices, NOFA, the Northeast Cover Crops Council, the New England Grazing Network, the Permaculture Association of the Northeast, Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, and additional groups as identified. I will also volunteer to meet with these organizations to discuss or present the report and answer any questions. Extension agencies and sustainable agriculture organizations will be encouraged to draw upon this data to identify gaps in services that may otherwise be overlooked. To enact effective, lasting change, this report will also include a section with recommendations to policy makers and state representatives to help address barriers, and highlight opportunities, at the municipal and state levels.


Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Preliminary data thus far includes six in-depth interviews with farmers resising in four New England states. The NOFA Winter Conference will be attended Jan 14-15 for further data collection and recruitment. 

Knowledge Gained:

The intial six interviews (basic information about interviewees in table below) have already illustrated themes regarding the barriers and facilitators farmers face when they engage with regenerative agriculture. One broad challenge for discussed by four interviewees is the need for affordable housing for people who work on these farms. Nathanliel said farming is at odds with houses and housing while Annabel explained,

We don't have housing, so we can't really have an intern-style, you know, affordable labor...we've tossed around the idea of putting up a cabin... it's a cost, and it's just never on our top priority list. So it just hasn't gotten done yet. So it's, you know, we need to acquire some capital to make that happen. 

As the study continues, we will parse out the nuances surrouding barriers like afforable housing and other topics. We will explore not just if interviewees discuss these topics, but how. For example, Lucy also discussed housing explaining:

...housing is a really challenging situation for us, our family, but also the people that we have--we operate really collaboratively. We have a lot of people who work for us...a lot of people who are young families...A lot of the people that work here...just starting their families, and we're trying to create a situation where they can actually live in a house and raise their family here and afford to do that. So that's that's a huge sort of hurdle and challenge for us, but one we're working on and committed to figuring out.

As shown in these data, this study allows farmer voices and perspectives to be analyzed in-depth. For example, Lucy describes above a vision of a New England farm as a place with unmet potential to help families and a community thrive--not just a vision of a successful individual farmer. As more interviews are carried out and more data gathered, more themes and nuances will be observed and analyzed. 


    Farm characteristics Interviewee characteristics
Interviewee (psydonym) Date of interview State Farm location Grant funding in last 3 years Organic Parent(s) were farmers Complex crop rotations Permaculture Manage animals Intercropping Silvopasture Rotational grazing Years major decision maker on farm Age Gender pronouns Race Education Political affiliation Political views Sexual orientation
Annabel 10/17/2022 ME Rural Yes Yes No Yes No Yes Yes No Yes 8-9 33 She/her/hers White Bachelor's degree Independent Somewhat liberal non-LGBTQ+ 
Atlas 11/9/2022 CT Suburb No Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes No Yes 31-40 65 He/him/his White DVM Independent Moderate non-LGBTQ+
Killian 10/10/2022 MA Spatious suburb Yes Yes No No No No No No No 31-40 66 He/him/his White Bachelor's degree Democrat Liberal non-LGBTQ+ 
Lucy 10/10/2022 VT Spatious suburb Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes 11-15 48 She/her/hers White Bachelor's degree [fill in] "If I had to choose it would be Independent or Libertarian, with mostly liberal views, but again, our political system does not represent me." [fill in] I don't feel represented in our current political context non-LGBTQ+ 
Miles  10/7/2022 CT Rural Yes No No No No Yes No No Yes 6-7 36 He/him/his White Bachelor's degree Unaffiliated [fill in] non political non-LGBTQ+ 
Nathaniel 10/11/2022 MA Spatious suburb No Yes No No No Yes No Yes Yes 15-20 47 He/him/his White Master's degree Unaffiliated Moderate non-LGBTQ+ 
Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Preliminary data, including six in-depth interviews with farmers from four New England states, has been used to slightly adjust the interview guide. Given that all interviews were under 2 hours, adjustments include the addition of more follow up prompts for to aquire further depth in interviewee responses and the addition of a photo-elicitation method. This method is included in the latter part of the interview, prompting farmers to provide comments and discussion on an photo of an anonymous agricultural field taken by the researcher from a public road in New England (see below). The interviewer will prompt farmers about this photo using the "SHOWED" method in which the interviewee discusses what is Shown/Seen in the photo, what is really Happening in the photo, how does the photo relate to Our lives, Why are things as they are in the photo, how can this photo Educate others, and what should we Do/be Done about what is depicted in the photo. 


anonymous field


Further data collection and analysis will focus not only on identfying the barriers and faciliatators toward regenerative agricutlure in New England, but also on exploring nuances in these data for a truly in-depth understanding of engagement with regenerative agricutlure in New Englan

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.