Vermont Farmers’ Land Ethics: Stories from the Ground Up

Progress report for GNE22-291

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,999.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Yale University
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Amity Doolittle
Yale School of the Environment
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Project Information


This mixed methods research project will begin with participant observation and semi-structured interviews that will be used to guide development of a subsequent survey. Taken together, these approaches will capture a selection of stories about how Vermont livestock farmers consider, manage, and steward their land. Questions to be explored include: Are farmers guided by ethics grounded in their work and relationship with the land? If so, what are they, and what material and value-based factors are they influenced by? Though there is a stated consensus that agriculture is a key part of Vermont’s identity, and farmers are valued members of Vermont’s cultural and land-use history, farmers’ role in stewarding the environment is increasingly contested. As a recent report about Vermont dairy farmers stated, “Farmers are the people who know the most about their land in Vermont, but they are under siege” (Corse et al. 2021, p. 33). Farming is not just an economic activity – it is one rooted in a set of values. My primary intention in this research is to listen directly to how farmers describe their land and land management choices, and to learn about the factors that affect how they steward and care for their land. I will use interviews to develop a survey that asks a broader group of farmers to rank the values they manage their land for, and why. This research project will explore Vermont farmers' land ethics in order to contribute towards a more grounded public discourse that centers working landowners’ perspectives.

Project Objectives:
  1. Understand the diversity of land management objectives that motivate farmers’ actions. What are these factors (i.e. economic, ecological, landbase/production capability, family, personal, community, and beyond), and why and how do they affect decision making?
    • Ask farmers to describe what they manage their land for. A particular focus within this objective is to understand the ecological factors that farmers manage their land for.
    • Ask farmers to describe their ethics of care for their land
  2. Understand the relative importance of the material and value-based factors that affect farmers’ decision making about their land.
  3. Articulate these factors in a way that might inform/influence broader understandings of farmers’ ethics of care and land use decision making

The purpose of this project is to ask farmers how and why they manage their land in the ways that they do. Technical service providers and the general public each have perceptions about why farmers make land management decisions. This research will ask farmers themselves to describe why they make land management decisions. What are they managing for, and why? What enables or constrains ecologically-oriented land management decisions?

Societal ideas about farmers are contested. Popular images of diversified farmers, or valorization of farmers who are using regenerative or organic practices, can obscure or criticize the work of farmers who do not fit these molds. This is not to say that farming, of any type, is impact free or "perfect." This is also not a critique of regenerative or organic practices. Environmentally sensitive farming practices are critical. Rather, it is to suggest that farming is complex. Land stewardship practices cannot be reduced to labels, or simple binaries of "good" or "bad." Production methods are not checkboxes but rather conversations between humans and place. We must understand the land management choices farmers are making, and why - we must understand their context. As a Vermonter recently told me, "We need to view farmers as humans."

Vermont's land use discussions are too often debates, with working landowners and environmentalists on opposing sides that are rooted in incorrect assumptions. For instance, assumptions that farmers are solely focused on economic returns or that environmental NGO staff want a "pristine" landscape with no active agriculture. The recent Vermont Dairy Farmer Voices report (2021) describes these fractures well: Vermont farmers have felt excluded from state-level decision making, and their “knowledge and stewardship are not commonly honored by current systems” (p. 13). Power dynamics color the relations between farmers and environmentalists: "Where the conversation is theoretical problem-solving [for NGO staff] ... it is existential for farmers (p. 7). These misunderstandings affect efforts to improve land management. To paraphrase anthropologist Michael Dove, interventions to support community development and sustainable land management practices must be rooted as much in the perspectives of the landholders (farmers) implementing decisions as they are in the technicalities of interventions or practices themselves. So too, the perceptions and stories that technical assistance providers hold in their head of what farmers believe must be grounded in farmers' actual beliefs and practices. 

“We need to tell a different story," said one Vermont farmer, frustrated by how non-farmers and environmentalists understood and critiqued his work. Farmers have an under-appreciated land ethic, one which may not be captured in current public discourses or efforts to make change. This is not to valorize farming without question. Instead, it simply recognizes that current narratives are not necessarily grounded in farmers' lived experiences. This project seeks to capture, understand, and share the stories of farmers, stories that may disappear as farmers age out or leave the profession in a time of intense societal pressure. 


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Alissa White (Researcher)
  • Dr. Cristina Connolly (Researcher)
  • Dr. Heather Darby (Researcher)
  • Sarah Heller (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Research Protocol - draft research questions

Research Protocol - survey

This research aims to elicit stories from farmers. Objectives 1 and 2 are linked, and will be satisfied through a mix of ethnographic methods (semi-structured interviews, walking interviews, and participant observation) and a survey. This will be an iterative process, one which I seek to ground in the perspectives and goals of farmers. I will achieve this through context-setting conversations with farmers and farm technical assistance providers to understand the range of values farmers manage their land for; I will use these to develop a survey to ask a broader group of farmers about their land management practices and goals. 

Target farmer audience: my target audience is livestock producers. There were 3,377 livestock farmers in Vermont in 2017, out of 6,808 total farms (USDA NASS), and dairy farming alone uses 80% of Vermont's landbase (Future of Agriculture 2022). In addition to the social and ecological reasons mentioned previously, I plan to interview livestock producers because these farmers typically own and/or manage land bases large enough to have heterogeneous habitats (i.e. mixes of fields, pastures, forests, and riparian areas). I will ask farmers about the diversity of habitats on their land, so as to enable comparisons. Exploring these different values and land uses will be one way I will elicit the multiple ways in which farmers know their land.

I will interview commercial-scale farmers, which I will define as "at least one farmer makes most or all of their income from farm operations." I intend to interview farmers who have been farming for at least five years, and who have long-term land tenure. Secure land tenure is important because I seek to talk with farmers who are able to materially speak to their relationship with their land, and the factors through time that have driven decision making. My goal is that, of the farmers I recruit for both interviews and surveys, approximately half identify as “regenerative,” organic, or sustainable, and half do not.

Farmer recruitment: to develop my small group of interviewees, I am partnering with the Vermont Land Trust (VLT). A project sponsored by VLT has recruited a cohort of pasture-based animal producers to understand the financial and soil health dimensions of intensive grazing practices. I will work with VLT to identify initial interviewees, and will ask these farmers for connections to additional farmers to develop a cohort of 15 farmer interviewees. I recognize that this purposive sampling will limit my initial interviewees to a set of farmers who are engaged in conservation and technical assistance systems. However, I seek to identify a group of farmers who are excited about this project and its aims. Seeking out farmers who are comfortable working within existing technical assistance systems is one way I will do that. I will compensate my interviewee farmers using funds from this grant. 

For the survey, I will mirror these same criteria. I am partnering with a project led by the American Farmland Trust, UConn, and UVM to administer my survey; we have co-developed a survey that investigates: farmer adoption of soil health, grazing, pollinator, and nutrient management plans (plans funded by NRCS), the reasons why they have undertaken these land stewardship practices, the impacts their farming practices have on their landscape, and the reasons why they farm. We will administer this survey at a variety of conferences in the winter of 2023, such at the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference and the No-Till and Cover Crops Symposium. 


OBJECTIVE 1: Understand the diversity of land management objectives that motivate farmers’ actions. What are these factors (i.e. economic, ecological, landbase/production capability, family, personal, and other), and why and how do they affect decision making?

  • Ask farmers to describe what factors they manage their land for. A particular focus within this objective is to understand the ecological factors that farmers manage their land for.
  • Ask farmers to describe their "land ethics"

Research methods: Before this SARE-funded project begins, I will conduct a series of pilot conversations and site visits, intended to ground me in the issues that farmers and technical assistance providers are thinking about with regards to land management. I will begin by asking a small group of farmers, What issues do you think are the most important in Vermont agriculture right now? and What land use concerns do you have? I also want to situate the work and research I do by asking farm technical assistance providers What do you wish to better understand about the values that motivate farmers to do particular types of land management practices? and What do you wish you knew about what farmers are thinking? Through grounding my overall research project and specific research questions in the perspectives of practitioners and the current conversations happening in Vermont, I will ensure that my research is in sync with work happening on the ground in Vermont, and relevant/resonant to current land use discussions and debates.

Starting in August 2023, I will visit with farmers with the intention of qualitatively understanding their land management practices and goals. I will spend approximately half-a-day visiting with each farmer, conducting both participant observations (i.e. working alongside them) and either walking or seated interviews (depending on farmer preference). I will elicit both a land- and farmer-based perspective on on-the-ground land management activities. I have attached a PDF with a list of interview questions I will use for interviews. I will conduct these interviews with three intentions: to allow farmers to describe their land management practices according to their own, self-defined categories; to test which questions yield good conversations with farmers; and to identify through their responses overall value categories I might use in the survey I will develop.


OBJECTIVE 2: Understand the relative importance of the material and value-based factors that affect farmers’ decision making about their land.

By the end of August, I will develop a survey that I will send to farmers across Vermont. I intend to send this survey to at least 200 Vermont livestock farmers, hoping for a response rate of at least 25% (average survey response rate, per conversation with Mary Tyrrell).

Because an effort led by the American Farmland Trust is looking at very similar questions to me, I will partner with them to co-develop a survey that we will jointly administer. I will follow the same criteria for survey respondents as interviewees. The survey asks similar questions as what I ask during my interviews, and uses interview responses to define criteria (for instance, rather than ask “what do you manage your land for,” I will provide a list of categories that respondents can select from).  The survey will primarily be distributed at farmer conferences during the winter of 2023. My goal is to get at least 50 responses. Funds from this grant will provide modest compensation to farmer respondents.

In late spring 2023, I will close the survey and begin my data analysis and interpretation. I will analyze results both quantitatively and qualitatively. I will statistically analyze my survey responses, calculating summary statistics and testing for statistical significance across land management practices using an ANOVA test. This will allow me to understand overall trends in the responses.

I will interpret what I learn through surveys with follow-up conversations with farmers. I will return to my initial group of farmers (the group that I begin this project with) in the summer of 2023. I will ask these farmers to respond to aggregated survey data, both in the context of their own farms and the ways they understand other farmers. How do these responses match onto, or not, their own land ethics, and what they see other farmers doing? The intention of the survey, as well as the interviews, is to develop a broader understanding of the variety of factors that influence land management. Thus, my process of “making sense” of how and why farmers manage their land will be iterative, and grounded in farmers' perspectives throughout. 


OBJECTIVE 3: Articulate these factors in a way that might inform/influence broader understandings of farmers’ decision making. Farmers and land conservation/farm technical assistance service providers are my two primary audiences for this aim.

I will spend the summer of 2023 writing up survey results for my masters thesis, which I will present and finalize later in 2023.  

I am committed to sharing the results of my research. For now, I anticipate doing this through development of a peer reviewed journal article for submission in an open-access journal. I would like to publish in this type of publication because it will be seen as “legitimate,” offering a sense of formality to the stories I hear. I also anticipate that a scientific journal will be appreciated by farm technical assistance providers, who comprise one of my target audiences.

I also intend to ask my small group of farmer interviewees for advice on ways to share what I learn with the broader public. How might they like for the data and stories I learn to be shared? I have heard recommendations for particular magazines and publications I should try to publish in, and groups of people I could present to. I hope to return to Vermont after I finish this research and my graduate degree, and hope that I will find ways to share what I am learn in ways both written and spoken, and through my future professional work.  


Methodological background: Surveys are often used to understand how working landowners might rank a pre-determined set of factors that drive land management decisions. Survey results can then be statistically analyzed to identify both significance and correlation or explanatory factors (Morse et al. 2020; Lloyd 2006; Butler 2021).

However, surveys are limited by the questions that they ask. Surveys can inadvertently “Reduce the motivations and barriers of private land conservation to a discrete set of variables or classifications,” which “are not always useful in providing a complex understanding of a decision-making context” (Moon et al. 2019, p. 430). The current scholarly interest in relational values comes, in part, from a critique of a positivist, reductionist approach that pre-defines the variables that drive human-environment interactions.

Rather than seeking explanatory, quantifiable, or predictive variables, recent studies of relational values pay particular attention to “the complexity of socio-ecological relationships” in an effort to “allow for the complexity and inter-relatedness of the different factors that contribute to landholder decision-making” (Moon et al. 2019, p. 429). Stories are critical in this work. Moon et al. suggest that “stories can be extremely important for shedding light on phenomena that may be ‘otherwise opaque’ without illustration through personal narrative” (2019, p. 427). Many scholars have used semi-structured interviews and modes of participant observation to elicit landowners’ and farmers’ stories about practices on their land (Lamb 2021, Sliwinski 2014, Henry 2007, Munden-Dixon 2018, Rissing 2015, Lloyd 2006, Moon et al. 2019). This research takes lessons from these findings. I will use a combination of participant observation and semi-structured interviews to inform development of a survey, so as to rely upon grounded information about the range of values landowners might mange for in order to gain a larger-scale understanding of the factors that influence land use and land management by Vermont farmers. I hope this combination of interviews and surveys will yield both specific, contextual understandings of the farmers I conduct participant observations with (the "why"), and a bigger picture understanding of the ranked factors that farmers manage their land for (the "what"). I will note here that my goal in combining the survey and interviews is to balance going deep and going broad, and though I don't pretend to be comprehensive, I hope I will balance broader observations and trends with grounded, specific stories.

Research results and discussion:

Preliminary Results, Based on Interviews:

By the end of 2022, I interviewed 20 livestock farmers. Of these farms, five use conventional production practices (primarily raising dairy cows for milk), and the rest somewhere on the spectrum of regenerative/ organic/ pasture-raised (mostly selling into direct markets). Farmers raised a variety of products, including dairy cows, beef cows, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, turkeys, fruit, and vegetables.

I asked farmers How did you come to farm?, and Why do you continue to farm? despite farming’s challenges. These stories were inspiring – I heard stories of deep connections to place, and persistence. Each farmer I interviewed, in their own way, farms out of love – for their land, their animals, their family, their history, their community, or their independence. 

I asked each farmer, why do you farm? I asked this question to understand farmer’s priorities, and the things farming enabled them to do and be. The diversity of responses to this question (which were never short, or singular), surprised me. Many farmers mentioned ecological values: a concern for and interest in managing their land to create habitat for birds, pollinators, wildlife, plants, and more. Many farmers mentioned the health of their animals as a key motivator – moreso for the animals’ sake than out of concern for product quality, though product quality was certainly another motivator (as was profitability, of course). Concern for community was a value I didn’t expect to come up as often as it did. For many farmers, the ways that farming enabled them to be part of their community was a key reason they enjoyed being a full-time farmer (for instance, by hosting school tours, or because their flexible schedule meant that they could volunteer for things like the local fire department or schoolboard). One farmer was extremely committed to affordability and community access to her products, such that she didn't want to change her farming practices if it would mean she'd have to charge more for her products. Many farmers also cited the value of independence that comes with being a farmer – they appreciated being their own boss and being able to develop a farming system that worked well for themselves, their land base, and how they wanted to spend their time and energy. Many farmers also mentioned their families: wanting to raise their family on a farm, or to maintain their parents' legacy of farming.  

I asked farmers what constrains your ability to farm or manage their land as you want to? Responses included inappropriate infrastructure, not having the right land base, lack of access to capital, not enough time or labor, and inefficient systems. I coupled this question by asking what resources might help farmers overcome these barriers. Many mentioned money and time, but typically time was more scarce than money. In countercurrent to much of the discourse around nature-based solutions, very few farmers said that payment for ecosystem services (particularly payments for carbon or nutrient reductions) would substantially change their growing practices. Farmers also helped me think differently about the time-frame on which they made decisions, with many considering impacts to their animals, land, and human communities generations down the line.

I have used what I learned from interviews to develop the survey that I am administering in early 2023. Survey results will be forthcoming in later 2023.

Participation Summary
20 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

20 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Education and outreach (ongoing): 

In the summer and fall of 2022, I visited and talked with 20 farmers about their land management practices. I have informally presented what I learned in my conversations to my lab group in the fall of 2022. In early 2023, I will give a presentation as part of a lecture series from the Yale Sustainable Food Project about my work. 

Over the winter of 2023, I will administer the survey to farmer attendees at a variety of farmer conferences. 

Sharing the results of the research: 

I am committed to sharing the results of my research. During the time frame of this grant, my primary outreach "deliverable" beyond my masters thesis is the development of a peer-reviewed journal article for submission in an open-access journal. I will work on this article during the spring of 2023 (in parallel to development and writing of my masters thesis). I aim to publish in this type of publication because I hope it will help make story-based knowledge, which too often is discounted, be seen as “legitimate.” However, to respect any potential confidentiality dimensions of this work, I will focus this article on talking about the values that farmers manage for, moreso than the stories of individual farmers. I also anticipate that a scientific journal might be appreciated by farm technical assistance providers, who comprise one of my target audiences. Once this article is published, I plan to share it back with the farm technical assistance providers who I will work with in the early stages of this project. I also intend to be in close touch with technical assistance providers throughout the course of this project, sharing what I learn with them as I go.  

Throughout this project but particularly in 2023, as I analyze what I learn through surveys and interviews, I intend to ask the farmers I interview for advice on how to share what I learn. How might they like for the data and stories I learn to be shared? With whom? In what venues? I also want to respect farmers' wishes about where and how to share this research, particularly in a state so small as Vermont. Because I do not know what they will say, I have not budgeted for specific activities. I can imagine presenting this research to the technical service providers with the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program or at a conference like the NOFA-Vermont Conference or the Vermont Farm to Plate Conference. I also can imagine using my article to develop written pieces for popular publication, be they op-eds or long-form narrative journalism. I would welcome feedback from SARE as to other venues to share the results of this work. However, I will defer to farmers' perspectives, in particular, in developing a post-grant outreach and data sharing plan. 

Additionally, I hope to return to Vermont after I finish my graduate degree, and plan to continue my prior work supporting farmers and land stewardship. I hope this work will inform my professional work in significant ways. This research represents an opportunity for me to ask the types of questions I didn't feel able to as a technical assistance provider, and I look forward to relying on this fundamental understanding of farmers' values as I support their work. In other words, I plan to find ways to share what I learn in ways both written and spoken, through both publication of resources and through my future work.  

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.