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 sought to understand how Vermont livestock farmers define responsible land stewardship. It used a combination of participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and a survey in order to capture stories about how Vermont livestock farmers consider, manage, and steward their land. These stories were intended to add to existing environmental narratives in Vermont, which sometimes focus on reducing human management of land as the best way to promote ecological health. By asking farmers about their relationship with their land, it sought to elevate the stories of farmers who see their land management actions as rooted in an ethic of care.


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 critiqued by environmental advocates. This critique has become especially vocal in the past decade, as concerns over water quality in Lake Champlain have pitted farmers as enemies, responsible for polluting the lake. However, blanket critiques of farming serve to obscure the ways that many farmers see themselves as stewards of land, and the ways they see farming as an act of care for land they love. As a 2021 report discussing the tensions between dairy farmers and water quality advocates in Vermont 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). Farmers have expressed frustrations ranging from a lumping of all farmers as one homogenous entity, to active forms of ignorance or lack of regard that they see through environmental policy, and both serve to make farmers feel like their perspectives are not individually valued or appreciated.


Questions explored through this research included: How did you come to farm here? How does the place where you farm shape your farming practices? What outcomes are you managing your land for? How do you define responsible land stewardship? What barriers are hindering your ability to manage your land in the ways that you want to? I interviewed 29 farmers, and each had different responses, shaped by their personal values and land/ farming situations. I intentionally interviewed farmers who raise animals on a range of scales and sizes, using a variety of production practices.


Farmers described a broad range of reasons why they farm. These factors include a care for the well-being of domesticated animals, a desire to create habitat for wild animals who rely on open land, a desire for independence, wanting to continue or begin an agricultural family lineage, and climate change mitigation. The outcomes farmers managed their land for were broad, and included: work-life balance; community health; soil health (especially carbon and water retention); care for animals and animal well-being; and biodiversity. Economic outcomes typically were oriented towards having enough to survive and sustain the farm operation.   


Sometimes, the non-farming public focuses on specific outcomes from farms, either good or bad (i.e. positive ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, or negative impacts like water pollution). As climate change exacerbates and makes more visible environmental challenges (i.e. flooding, or algae pollution), the push for focuses on specific outcomes seems likely to become more prevalent. Critiques of environmental damage may focus more on these types of outcomes (i.e. a 2015 local news article titled “Sacred Cows: Does Vermont Cut Farmers Too Much Slack on Water-Quality Violations?” (Flagg, 2015)) than the people behind them. This focus on individual outcomes can obscure the full set of what farmers are balancing and managing for - particularly farmers who seek to balance multiple objectives in order to be resilient in the face of a changing climate, challenging economics, and other external forces. This research sought to illustrate the variety of factors that farmers are managing for, a variety that is far broader than water quality, carbon sequestration, or other public demands for what farmers can produce, and how. In order for farms to be resilient in a changing climate, they must balance across multiple land management objectives, for unforeseen impacts may drive unexpected outcomes. 


This research speaks to the imperative to not make assumptions about farming, but rather to understand the motivations and perspectives underlying individual farm management choices. It reminds external agents who seek to intervene in farming practices – ranging from environmental advocates focused on issues of concern, to neighbors who might not like a particular farming practice - who seek to encourage farmers to adopt different management practices to ask why. Why does a farmer farm? Why do they farm in the ways that they do? How do the answers to these two questions inform farmers’ choices about current and future farmland management practices? This research posits that asking why questions is a way to honor farmers’ knowledge and their individual perspectives. Asking why questions offers the possibility of greater understanding.

Project Objectives:
  1. Understand the diversity of land management objectives that motivate farmers’ actions. What are these factors (i.e. economic, ecological, 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 
  1. Understand the relative importance of the material and value-based factors that affect farmers’ decision making about their land. 
  2. Articulate these factors in a way that might inform/ influence broader understandings of farmers’ ethics of care and land use decision making 

This research asked farmers to describe how and why they make land management decisions. Why do they choose to farm? What are they managing their farmland for, and why? What enables or constrains their ability to farm in the ways that they want to? What does land stewardship mean to them?  


Societal ideas about farmers are contested, and often sit in binaries. Popular images of diversified farmers, or valorization of farmers who are using regenerative or organic practices, can implicitly obscure or criticize the work of farmers who do not fit these molds. Many advocates for ecological agriculture often use the word “conventional farmers” with a tone of disdain, grouping conventional farmers as a single entity and often suggesting they are not concerned with ecological outcomes. This is not a critique of regenerative or organic practices, nor a valorization of conventional agriculture. Environmentally sensitive farming practices are critical for ensuring ongoing protection of biodiversity and sequestering carbon in soils to mitigate the effects of climate change (The Nature Conservancy, n.d.). It is also not to say that farming, of any type, has no environmental impact. Rather, it is to suggest that land stewardship practices cannot be reduced to labels, and that binaries of “regenerative” or “organic” or "good" or "bad" are too simple. Production methods are not binary 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 Vermont farmer told me in an interview, "We need to view farmers as humans." 


Vermont's land use discussions are too often debates, with working landowners and environmentalists on opposing sides. Each makes assumptions about the other: 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). This report also described how 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 can hinder efforts to improve land management. As anthropologist Michael Dove reminds us, 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 (1992). 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.  As Vermont loses farmers and farmland, and explores ongoing questions about how actively managed farmland fits into conservation activities and objectives in the state, accounting for farmers’ concerns, priorities, and unique circumstances is critical. 


Vermont is losing farmers, and farms. The state has lost ~5% of its farms each year between 2007 and 2017. Though 2022 Agricultural Census data has not yet been released (the last census was completed in 2017), farm policy experts suspect the same trends have continued (Claro 2023). These trends do not capture impacts in individual sectors. Supply chain shortages and the conflict in Ukraine have caused price hikes that have had an outsized and extreme impact on organic dairy farmers: one farmer estimated the state lost half of its organic dairies between 2022 and 2023.


I conducted this research in part because of the ideas I hold in my own head. I approached this work as someone who has deep respect for working lands stewards. Through both work and personal experience (including three years providing direct technical assistance to farm and forest products businesses and supporting a water quality grant program for farmers, and time spent working on farms) I saw and came to deeply appreciate the ways that many landowners steward their land over generations. I also, through that work, became quite curious about the reasons why farmers farm in the ways that they do. Particularly in the case of farming’s effects on water quality, I also became curious about why farmers are or are not able to implement practices that policy makers or the general public might wish them to. I also have worked with farmers who have not taken good care of their land, and know that no generalities can be drawn about systems so complex as agriculture or forestry, especially given that they sit within a globalized, capitalist context that prioritizes extraction. This tension fascinates me: how policies and markets with statewide, regional, and global reach influence the activities on a single farmstead. Farming is inherently place based, and the interplay of global decisions and policies on local places becomes so clear when talking with a farmer about their craft.


I wanted to use this research as a chance to ask farmers for their stories and to hear their narration of what drives farmland management decisions. What outcomes, in addition to and beyond ecological outcomes, might farmers be seeking to get out of their land? What do they care about? What might the general public not fully appreciate or see about what farmers are doing, and why? I approached this project as someone who cares deeply about ecological health, but wanting to hear perspectives beyond and in addition to ecological outcomes that drive working lands management. I fear that sometimes when we focus on just one outcome without paying attention to others, we miss the chance to appreciate things outside our field of view. I bring to this work a belief that there is common ground to be found between working lands stewards and more preservationist environmental interests, if we look hard enough, treat each other with respect, are willing to listen to one other, and look towards outcomes moreso than 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 calls out the fact that current narratives are not grounded in farmers' lived experiences. As we lose farmland, we lose both the stories, and the broader societal services, that land in active agriculture can provide. 


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:

I designed my research methods in a way that would best draw upon farmers’ own data and words. I relied primarily on qualitative methods to elicit these stories, but drew upon a mix of methods, including seated and walking interviews, site visits, participant observation, and surveys. I avoided using a priori categories or analytical lenses by beginning with open-ended interview questions, and then using data from my interviews and site visits to develop a survey. 

I used an exploratory, sequential design for this study: I began by visiting farms in the summer of 2022, conducting interviews and participant observation to understand the context farmers sat within. I coded my interview responses and used what I learned to develop questions and multiple choice options for a survey. I then synthesized what I learned through the survey and interviews into a one-page document, which I shared with the initial group of farmers I interviewed for feedback and reactions to test whether my analysis made sense to them. In the summer of 2023, I conducted another round of interviews, sharing results from the prior work while also asking for a new set of farmers’ responses to questions.



I interviewed 29 farmers about their land management practices. I reached out to farmers who I knew from my prior work helping farmers implement water quality improvements; farmers I met through talking about my research at farmers markets and farming conferences; referrals from farm technical assistance providers; and based upon recommendations from the farmers I interviewed. This snowball sampling method was a helpful way to get connected with farmers I might not otherwise have met.


Farm #

Products raised

Growing practices





sheep, oxen



cows (dairy)



goats (dairy)

pastured, regenerative


cows (dairy), cows (beef), lamb, chicken, blueberries



cows (dairy), sheep

pastured, grain


cows (dairy)



cows (beef)

fully grass-fed


cows (dairy)



chicken, turkey, apples



cows (dairy)

pastured, organic


cows (beef)



cows (dairy)

fully grass-fed, organic


cows (dairy)



cows (beef), pigs, vegetables

fully grass-fed, regenerative, organic


goats (dairy)



sheep (meat)



cows (dairy)

pastured, certified organic, regenerative


cows (dairy)



cows (dairy)



pigs, wheat



cows (dairy)



pigs, sheep, chickens (meat and eggs) 



cows (dairy)



cows (dairy)



cows (dairy)



cows (beef)






cows (dairy), cows (beef), sheep, chickens

organic, pastured, regenerative

 Table 1. List of all farms interviewed, with a list of products they raise and a list of words farmers used to describe their growing practices. 


I interviewed livestock farmers. As Table 1 illustrates, there was significant variation in the crops raised and growing practices used, and these multiple variables illustrate the breadth of farmers I sought to speak with. Some farmers raised dairy cows and sold milk to commercial milk markets; some raised livestock (cows, chicken, sheep, pigs, etc.) for meat, milk, or eggs via direct markets; some raised a great diversity of products (i.e. one farm raises chickens, beef, sheep, and blueberries); while others raised just one key product. Most farms raised their own feed for their animals; some were fully grass fed and just raised hay, while others grew corn and grain for their animals. Some farmers bought in grain, too. It is challenging to quantify livestock farming practices, but perhaps the most empirical way to describe the practices used by the farmers I interviewed is to describe the markets farmers sell products to. Sixteen of the twenty-nine farmers I interviewed raised dairy cows. Of these, thirteen sell into commercial markets, six sell to conventional milk processors, and seven sell to organic milk processors. However, some farmers who sell to conventional milk markets pasture their cows, while others don’t; organic farmers are required to pasture their animals, but the degree of attention organic farmers paid to pasture health varied widely.  

Roughly half of farmers were multi-generational farmers, while the other half were first generation farmers. All but one farmer owned their own land, though the vast majority of farmers had formal or informal leases on land beyond their acreage. All but three farmers had a house and lived on their farmstead.

With all but five farmers, I was able to set up a time to visit each farm in person (I talked with the five farmers I was unable to visit by phone). For both phone and in person visits, I would begin with a semi-structured interview. I would draw from questions listed in the appendix, picking questions based on the direction of the conversation and asking follow-up questions as needed. I asked the below questions of all farmers: 

  • How did you come to farm here? 
  • What do you manage your farmland for? 
  • What does stewardship mean to you? 

I asked farmers to give me a tour of their farm, and if I could shadow them as they completed chores. In general, visits lasted between 30 minutes and a couple of hours, though I stayed at one farmer’s house for a couple of days to get a sense of the full cycle of chores required for their system (this farmer raised sheep). 

After my first summer interviewing farmers, I developed a survey. I did this in hopes that a survey would help me reach a broader group of farmers than those who were willing to be interviewed. Since conventional dairy farmers, in particular, were challenging to reach via my outreach methods, I hoped the survey might better draw in their perspectives. As described above, my interview questions were intentionally broad and open-ended, so that I could use the breadth of responses I heard from farmers to develop survey questions with options that were inclusive of the categories farmers understand (not the categories that I, as an outside researcher, assume). 

I worked with an existing project that was surveying New England livestock farmers about soil health practices led by the American Farmland Trust, University of Vermont, and University of Connecticut. I worked with this group because we had very closely aligned research questions, and I knew that farmers quickly get “survey fatigue”; by working together, we hoped to reach more farmers than either of us could alone, while also reducing confusion about our very similar projects. We co-developed a survey that investigated farmer adoption of soil health, grazing, pollinator, and nutrient management plans (all 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. I used responses from my interviews to shape survey questions and especially to develop choices for multiple choice questions. The survey questions are attached in the appendix. We administered this survey at a variety of conferences in the winter of 2023, such as the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference; the Vermont Organic Dairy Producers Conference; the No-Till and Cover Crops Symposium; and the NOFA-VT Conference; and to farmers who participated in American Farmland Trust's soil health grant program. Over 60 farmers filled out the survey.

I offered farmers a modest stipend as thanks for their time and participation. 



This was a grounded, bottom-up analysis. I used inductive methods to go from one-on-one interviews, intended to elicit themes in farmers’ own words, and from there use coding and write interim, internal analyses in order to zoom out to shared themes. These methods seemed best able to capture the complexity and context-dependent nature of individual farmers’ lived experiences. A large motivation behind this research was to understand what is shared, and what differs, across farmers raising a variety of products, and using a variety of farming practices. Farming practices are challenging to quantify or empirically describe, and it is simplistic to say that farming practices are reducible to a set of labels or certifications. Rather than ask farmers to self-identify from a set list of possible practices, I asked farmers to describe their farming practices. This led to far richer descriptions of how a farmer farmed, the inclusion of practices I might not have thought of, and created opportunities for farmers to describe why they use the practices that they do in a way that escaped labels like "good" or "bad" or "sustainable" or "regenerative" which rely on words without shared definitions. Farming practices are on a broad spectrum, one that transcends words like “conventional” or “organic” or “sustainable” or “not.”     

In many places in the narrative that follows, I directly convey what a farmer shared with me, rather than conduct any strict analysis of the veracity of what they said. There may be different ecological or other interpretations of some of the ideas that follow, but I sought in the ways that I analyzed the statements of farmers to share their words directly and highlight farmers’ perspectives, rather than to verify the veracity of their claims.

In my analysis, I intentionally did not quantify results or seek to match responses to 'drivers' or factors (i.e. I resisted matching ideas and production practices, or even conducting a frequency analysis). Instead, I followed the thinking of scholars like Melissa Moon and Anna Tsing about how, when taken together, stories can create a picture. Melissa Moon et al. describe how we are all a “collection of stories.” Anna Tsing introduces the idea of assemblages as a structure for gathering and understanding stories as a collective whole: “Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological ‘community.’ The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible; still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making” (Tsing 2015, 22-23).

There are choices in how we gather stories, and choices in how we analyze them. I intentionally did not correlate responses to the questions below to specific farming practices, because one of the primary intentions of this research is to illustrate the breadth of values underlying many types of farming practices without assigning causation. These stories are each, alone, true. Together, they make up a collection of some of the many values that underly and drive land management practices. I sought to gather a range of stories, to lightly group them, but mostly to let readers see the diversity of perspectives that farmers bring to their craft. Though my perspective is certainly embedded in this research, I also hope that readers will be able to “see communal effects” without my assigning labels or value judgements. 

Research results and discussion:

Farmers shared 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.  

How did you come to farm here? 

I began each interview with this question. This question elicited responses that included both the reasons why someone initially got interested in farming, and also illuminated their story of accessing land. Land tenure is a central challenge for many farmers, and poses challenges in making long-term sustainability investments.

Land access was one of the most significant challenges faced by farmers. For those with family members who farmed, sometimes their family land might not be best configured for the type of operation they wanted to create. For farmers who did not grow up on farms and did not have generational access to land, it look a long time to find land that was affordable, available, near markets, and suitable for the type of farming practices and products a farmer wanted to raise. Land-based factors that affected farmers’ abilities to make a secure living / livelihood included land availability, land affordability, suitability for a particular operation’s needs, and the proximity of suitable, affordable housing.

The land farmers have access to significantly shapes both the ways they are able to manage their land, and the long-term decisions farmers are able to make. One farmer who sought to scale up was unable to do so without access to contiguous land on which to continue their existing land management practices. Without secure land tenure, said one farmer: “We're always moving. It's never worth setting up something permanent.” For some farmers seeking to scale up, not having access to land made it impossible to manage their animals in the ways they thought was best for both animal and ecological health, and to farm on the scale they wanted. One farmer, currently raising 50 sheep, said that she wanted to graze 200 sheep to be able to be a full-time farmer, able to focus entirely on her sheep, and not need to work a part-time, off-farm job. Without secure land tenure she was not able to scale up or make investments in any permanent infrastructure (like fences) which would help her better manage her animals and their impact on the landscape.  

Why do you farm?

I asked the question Why do you farm? in order 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. The responses were full of emotion, too. Below I summarize and group the range of responses I heard to the question of why farmers farm. Though each farmer had words and stories to describe why they farm, they told these stories with emotion that is challenging to capture on a page. I urge you, reader, to ask a farmer this question and listen to their response. 

“Because I don’t want to do anything else”: Independence and Personality Reasons.  One farmer looked at me after I asked why they farm and said, “Because I don’t want to do anything else.” Another farmer said, “I want to be at the bottom of the driveway each day when my daughter comes home on the bus.” A third said, “I want to be my own boss.” Many farmers described how the fact that they farmed was something that they knew that they had to do: one said it was "in their bones.” Farmers would often build on these initial responses with a broader set of reasons. But there was a poignancy to these first, immediate, and direct responses.

Many farmers cited how much they enjoy the 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. Some farm because they feel it matches their personality type: one person described appreciating how farming offers many different outlets for her varied interests and energy levels.

Climate Change. One farmer’s interest in farming began when she first learned about climate change. This farmer’s interests were geared towards farming as a form of climate mitigation: she talked about how we have to eat, and how by farming responsibly, she could play a role in reducing the emissions that come from producing and consuming food. She went on to talk about how raising sheep on grass feels the only thing she can tangibly do in the face of climate change: sheep can survive eating only the grasses that grow in the high hills of Vermont, and fully grass-fed meat is a way to eat what this place provides, rather than need to import feed, or food. She described how, by using good pasture management practices, she feels she can sequester carbon, while also mitigating emissions that would otherwise be associated with imported meat.  

Another farmer described how farming was a way to ensure food security as the climate changed. She described how glad she was to have her own diversified farm (and thus food sources) to be able to feed both her family and her community. This was emphasized for her during the COVID-19 pandemic, and again during the Vermont floods of 2023 when she and her neighbors were stranded by high water up their mountain valley for a few days. She thinks that supply chain interruptions will only become more common with climate-induced extreme weather. She was glad to be able to farm in order to prepare for the future and build community resilience by producing food locally. 

Ecological Values. Many farmers mentioned ecological values: a concern for and interest in managing their land to create habitat for birds, pollinators, wildlife, plants, and more. I discuss this more in the outcomes section, but central to this notion was the fact that farmers saw their farming practices as a way to enhance ecological outcomes. One farmer said that she and her husband purchased the land that they did because it was a piece of land that they knew they could improve through their farming practices and methods (it was an old hill farm, degraded by farmers from generations ago). For her, farming was a way to enhance wildlife habitat and address biodiversity challenges. 

Care and Concern for Animals. Many farmers mentioned the health of their animals and wanting to give their animals an excellent upbringing as a key motivator. Many clarified that this was out of concern for the animals’ well-being rather than out of a concern for product quality. Farmers described starting to farm because of how much they loved animals - either through childhoods spent on farms, or childhoods spent interacting with non-farm animals (i.e. horses), or experiences working on farms in this school or college that helped them realize how much they loved animals. They said that these youth experiences made them want to farm in a way that animals would have the “best life possible.” One farmer described how raising and slaughtering animals himself was an act of love and reverence for his animals.

Care and Concern for Community; a Sense of Wanting to do Something Greater. Many farmed out of an urge to do something greater. As the prior topics illustrate, farmers saw what they did on their land as responsive to and integrated with actions and challenges far beyond their landscape. One farmer said, “I can’t control the earth, but I can control these 565 acres right here.” Another farmer said she and her husband started a farm because they wanted to live “In a way that was defensible.” Still another farmer described his decision to farm as a national security choice: he felt it was important to have local food production to be self-sufficient, as a nation, in order to be able to feed ourselves in the face of potential global supply chain interruptions.

The ways that farming enabled farmers to be part of their community was a central reason why farmers farmed, and why they continued to farm. One farmer said that farming "is good for communities," because farmers often have more capacity and flexible schedules to be able to serve on volunteer boards or fire crews. One farmer was extremely committed to affordability and community access to her products, so much so that she didn't want to change her farming practices for fear that she'd have to charge more for her products. For a number of farmers who described community-oriented reasons for why they farm, they saw the loss of farmers having visible and detrimental effects on the vitality of the communities where they lived. They described wanting to continue farming in countercurrent to that trend because they felt the community benefits of farming were too great to lose. They also wanted other farmers to continue farming for this same reason.

Many farmers farmed because they wanted to produce food. Some farmers seemed focused on not only producing food for their nearby communities, but also to feed people far beyond the gates of their farmstead. 

As a Site for Education and Connection. One farmer described how strongly she believes in place-based education as a way to instill change. She farms because she can use her farm to create a community-oriented educational space. She raises livestock on her farm, and runs educational programs and community events for children of all ages. She farmed because “we need to repair a lot of broken things,” and she sees the lack of connections between people, land, plants, and soil as one of the most significant broken things in our society. She sought to shift the narrative of needing to go “out into nature,” because nature is in fact us. Thus, she sees farming as a way to illustrate how humans are part of nature, and sought to instill that ethic in children, in particular, by giving them on-farm experiences that allow them to physically ingest their relationship with land and animals.  She wanted her farm to be a community space, especially for kids who will not be full-time farmers themselves, but will be eaters - one that instilled notions of stewardship by appreciating where their food comes from, and helps them experience how they are connected to place and land.

One farming couple, who lived in a dairy-heavy county in Vermont, loved hosting tours for elementary school children, which they did every year. They talked about how, as the number of farms in their community declined, more and more students came to their farm without ever before having met a cow. They were glad to be able to help children find ways to meet and connect with animals even though it was a less common part of their community than it had been previously. They felt like they were contributing to and continuing an agricultural legacy for the children in their community. 

Families and Legacy Values. Many farmers mentioned reasons for farming that involved their families. For those whose grew up on farms and inherited their farms from their folks, they wanted to maintain their parents’ (and in some cases aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) legacies. Others, even those who didn’t grow up on farms themselves, wanted to raise their family on a farm. One farmer said that farming was a way to instill a sense of hard work in her children, and to ensure that they "developed a work ethic." For many farmers, especially those with young kids, it was also important to farm "so that the next generation can continue." Another farmer spoke to the practicality of farming: he and his wife struggled to find childcare, and farming was a profession he could bring his daughter along to.

In the survey, we asked respondents to rank the top five reasons they farm from the choices listed in the table to the right. These choices were synthesized from the stories shared above. Ranked first, in aggregate, were love of animals and to be able to live in accordance with one's values. Ranked second was to be able to have a positive relationship with nature. Ranked third was stewardship or improvement of farmland. Overall, the characteristic with the most votes (i.e. the characteristic that was most often included in a farmer’s top five reasons for farming) was quality of life. Feeding the world; financial motivations; climate change mitigation; and improving the environment off someone’s farm did not make it into the top 5 list of any survey respondent.  

What do you manage your farmland for? What factors influence your farming practices? How do you know if you’re being successful?

Farmers defined their objectives in a variety of ways. Asking farmers what they manage their land for helped me, as a non-farmer, better see the full breadth of objectives and goals that drive farm management practices. 

Soil health: A number of farmers described the primary goal of their farming as "building topsoil," “feeding soil,” or “soil health.” Many went on to say that topsoil or soil was their most valuable resource. 

I asked farmers how they knew if they were successfully building or improving soil health. Many conduct annual soil tests, often funded by state or federal farm agronomic technical assistance programs. Others use observational data to track soil health and condition. One farmer, who had been grazing her fields for about a decade, described how when she purchased her land, the soils on her hillside farm were very acidic and relatively bare. Wild strawberries grew there, but not much other vegetation. However, over the decade she had been rotationally grazing sheep on her fields, she saw a great increase in clover and reductions in wild strawberry populations, which she suspected came from soil pH increasing to the point that the clover could survive and an overall improvement in soil nutrition. She hadn’t added any clover seed, so this was simply regeneration from an existing seed bank that had not been able to thrive in more acidic conditions. 

This type of observational data maps onto soil chemistry: wild strawberry grows better in acidic soils, while clover needs more basic soils. This farmer, at her own cost, tested her soil organic matter each year. She had seen steady increases year over year (from 4.9 to 5.3) and shared these soil organic matter numbers with pride. She said: “I’m doing soil tests periodically. But my biggest indicator, every single day, is to just watch and see where we’re grazing, and what these plant species look like.” She noted how her animals’ grazing influenced pasture species composition: both through the nutrition they added to soil (changing soil chemistry) and the species they selected. She saw soil tests as additional data, but not the only way she knew what was taking place on her fields.

Water:  Many described water management as a key objective. Discussions about water need to be viewed in the context of the summers in which they took place. The summer of 2022 was one of the driest on record; I remember a conversation on a hot July day, where a farmer noted that it had been 100 days since he had gotten rain. The summer of 2023 was one of the wettest on record, with intense flooding events that slowed crop growth significantly. In both cases, farmers had significant water management challenges.   

Farming for water means retaining water in dry years, and having good water runoff in wet years. Managing for water is similar to managing for soil organic matter: soils with high organic matter content can retain water without becoming overly saturated. Other farmers described how their farming practices increased water retention capacities of their soil – in some cases dramatically. Many farmers understood this to be possible because of the motions of animals on their land, rooting around in, aerating, and breaking up soil, as well as adding organic matter. One farmer described plant rooting depths that increased dramatically as a result of grazing practices: he said that in the thirteen years they had been managing their fields, plant rooting depths had increased to 36 inches, and he felt confident they could go deeper.

Farmers are quite attuned to quirks of their land base, many of which have to do with soil types and their water retention capabilities. By being on their land each day, they can observe the subtleties of how habitat, hydrology, and place change due to tweaks in their land management practices and precipitation events. One farmer gave me a tour of her pastures, and as we walked, she gestured to wet areas and dry areas. In one place, she pointed and said, “There's also a sh**load of bobolinks out here, so I don't know if I'm going to graze here next year.” She noted how the area she was indicating was not a mapped wetland, but rather just an emergent wet spot. Thus, she wasn’t under any regulatory requirement to not farm there, and instead just felt it would be better for the bobolinks if she avoided farming there. Other farmers described how they shifted their management in wet years (like the summer of 2023), when some zones were too wet to farm because of intermittent streams or soil type changes that were not visible on any map.

Pasture productivity: Several farmers spoke to the ways in which their farming practices improved productivity and land health. I walked with one farmer on land he was grazing for the first time in decades. He described how the land he was farming had been hayed for many years with “nothing put back in” (i.e. no nutrients or manure had been added). Hay yields had declined to the point that the field had been abandoned. He pointed out areas where his sheep had peed, and the rich green color in those plants, a sign of regrowth directly responding to nitrogen. He described how after his first rotation of animals on the land, he was able to give his animals a smaller paddock because there was so much more forage regrowing in a given area.  

Of course, pasture productivity relates to economic outcomes. One farmer said, “Everything I do is to ensure that we have a great first cut of hay.” First cut hay can then be stored as future feed for animals. This farmer went on to describe how he views farming as an act with compounding interest: everything you do has to more than make up for what you are taking away. This farmer saw first cut hay as an act of removal, so he did all he could to add nutrition back into soil for the rest of the growing season. The farmer knew that investing in first cut hay, and then letting his land rest, was a way to build soil while also growing the most nutritious feed possible for his animals. 

Pasture productivity was something that farmers had good anecdotal and quantitative data about. Many farmers noted how much they appreciated working with technical assistance providers to develop and follow grazing plans, and were committed to following and tracking these plans and yields. One farmer described how when he started farming cows could graze 10 days total on an acre over the course of a growing season; in four years, he had increased productivity 3.5 times, such that animals could graze for 35 days on a given acre. This farm did not add any fertilizer or seed to fields, and thus he suggested that these increases in pasture productivity were due entirely to adding animals to his fields. 

Many farmers described how the grazing actions of their animals led to different pasture species compositions. One farmer pointed out how, in the three months he’d been grazing a field that had previously not been grazed for decades, he could see legumes and other nitrogen-fixing plants returning. Many farmers also add nutrients and specific seed mixes to their fields to ensure optimal species mixes. A number of farmers are involved in the emerging “Land Care Cooperative,” and one farmer took me to a field with new species emerging as a result of planting by the collectively owned ripsower. We stood quietly in her field for about ten minutes, admiring the small seedlings slowly emerging from the ground. At one point, her daughter drove up on the tractor, en route to a different chore. She jumped with excitement when she saw her first baby buckwheat seedling. 

Product Quality and Customer Satisfaction: Many described managing their land to produced the highest quality products, though they focused on different quality components. For some, focusing on quality meant that they could focus less on quantity. One farmer said, “When we just focused on yield, we missed things,” and went on to describe how he felt that paying attention to product quality improved his management, for it meant that he was better attuned to small changes. For many dairy farmers, product quality has a direct financial benefit: milk with higher fat or protein content fetches far higher prices. Many farmers described how creating high quality products was a way to honor their animals - this was especially true for livestock and meat farmers - and how they knew when they ate a rich, fatty, or tasty piece of meat (or when their customers told them that) that that animal had lived a good life. Other farmers described how motivating the compliments they received from their customers were. When their customers were happy with their products, farmers were proud. One farmer who sold her products at the farmers market described how her customers’ questions and suggestions influenced her decisions on the farm, because she wanted to farm in a way that they were comfortable with. For instance, it was because of customer questions and suggestions that she decided to become certified organic.

Biodiversity: Though many farmland management practices do positively effect farming yields, some of them do not. Said another way, some of the outcomes that farmers seemed most excited about were not at all related to their farm’s economic productivity. For example, one farmer described how, in her ten years farming, the diversity in the number and types of birds visiting her fields had dramatically increased. Of this, she was so proud. She described how one of her favorite activities, towards the end of each day, was to sit with her husband on their porch and watch birds come to the wild apple tree in the middle of her field. Birds would fly over, and she and her husband would just sit there and watch, for hours. She left this apple tree in the field even though it wasn’t critical to her farming operation. Similarly, with a tone of great excitement, she described how she enjoyed seeing bears walking across her field. This led to a conversation about how when she moved there, there were no bears in the neighborhood, and thus she wondered if her farm had created better habitat for the bear. Another farmer grew gourds specifically so that they could mount them on their fence posts and watch birds spend time in them.

Farmers described biodiversity on multiple scales. While some were focused on wildlife and larger mammals, others were interested in microbial diversity. One farmer said, “I try to keep track of the different trophic levels of species that we see. We have a pretty complete system. You know, we have snakes, we have amphibians, we have reptiles, we have, you know, small mammals and larger animals …” Many farmers who described biodiversity as an objective spoke to it on multiple scales. 

Farmers have strong opinions about each others’ practices, and sometimes described how they felt their farming practices were beneficial by comparing them to what others did. One organic farmer described visiting a conventional farm and standing in a corn field. It was a genetically modified variety of corn. He said that he stood in that corn field and felt it was “quiet, and dead.” For him, the insects and bacteria present in soil are critical, and he sought to farm in a way that supported biodiversity on multiple levels. He thought the field he stood in felt dead, in part, because there were no other plants visible besides corn, and while he can hear insects and pollinators in his multi-species pastures, this monoculture corn field did not have any visible plant or insect diversity. He described how silent it was, eerily so, and used this story to articulate the objectives he sought from his farm fields.

One example of a biodiversity-oriented management practice was a farmer who let his hayfields flower and go to seed. He saw this as a way to support insects and pollinators who enjoyed flowering plants. He acknowledged this produces lower quality feed for livestock. But he viewed this practice on a longer time scale than just a single growing season: letting the grass go to seed resulted in seeds getting into cows feed, which they then pooped out and trampled into the ground, effectively reseeding fields for next year. He loved this cyclicality, and how it both supported biodiversity outcomes and sustained farm animals. He said, “It may not be the best for milk quality… but there are other benefits.” 

Another farmer spoke about how his college education in conservation biology influenced how he thought about the role of his farmland in providing animal habitat. He described the 'zones' of management that he saw on his farm: his intensively managed farmland (a mix of pasture and corn fields) were one zone, the edges of his fields were a wild edge habitat zone, and the matrix forests were a third. He talked in particular about the habitat benefits he saw from leaving the edges of his field to be wild, and how much he enjoyed watching deer, coyotes, foxes, and other critters on the edges of his hay fields and pastures.  Thus, different farmers saw biodiversity in different places: both embedded within their farming operations, and in the woodlands and edges surrounding their fields. 

Animal health and welfare: Farmers love their animals. Many grew up with animals (both farm animals and other domesticated pets or horses). Many mentioned wanting to give their animals the best lives possible, and they designed their farm systems to ensure this outcome. This drove some farmers’ decisions to shift to rotational grazing methods: they felt it was a better way to live for their animals - outside, in a new place each day, with regular exercise and a diverse mix of food. Particularly for sheep and smaller ruminants, parasites can decimate a flock very quickly. Reducing the risk of parasite pressure was a significant focus for many farmers. Small ruminant farmers let their pastures rest for 45-60 days so as to reduce parasite populations. Others followed their sheep and goats with other species to eat the parasites. Predation of animals was a concern for many farmers, especially those closer to the spine of the Green Mountains. A number of farmers included a donkey, cow, or herding dog in the same pasture with their herd as protection.

Beauty: Many farmers described beauty or other aesthetic characteristics as a driver of their farmland management practices. They farmed because they felt it made their land look beautiful. Sometimes notions of what is beautiful changed (or discouraged changing) growing practices. One farmer had alternating strips of hay and corn in her steep fields, and one of the challenges of shifting to organic and pasture-based production was that she had to let go of this aesthetic. Another farmer described the reasons her family started to graze animals was because her husband thought it would look nice to have cows in their field down by their river. Farmers live on their farms, too... thus, having a beautiful home was a key motivator. Many farmers had small food or flower gardens outside their homes for their own personal consumption, for bird/pollinator habitat, or just for the beauty that flowers offer.

What enables or constrains your ability to farm in the ways you want to?  

When I talked with farmers about what they are managing their land for, they would sometimes describe the barriers they experienced in trying to meet those objectives. Responses included inappropriate infrastructure (such as not having permanent fencing), having a land base that was not configured for the types of crops or practices that a farmer wanted to implement, lack of access to capital, not enough time or labor, and inefficient systems.

I asked what resources might help farmers overcome these barriers. Many mentioned money and time, but typically time was more scarce than money. Anecdotally and in reality, many farmers do not pay themselves, particularly small farmers. And they certainly don’t pay themselves for the full number of hours they work. This meant they didn’t need more funds to pay hired labor, but rather more time so they could do all of these tasks themselves. For farmers who sought to raise their kids on a farm, time was an acute challenge: they wanted to do farm chores with their kids, and in some cases designed their infrastructure to be functional with a kid on the hip, but this made chores take longer. Spending every moment of every day on a farm wore out many farmers. Labor requirements on all farms are high, but for some farms, a lack of financial resources meant that they had relatively inefficient systems, and thus their farming systems required quite a bit of time. 

Very few farmers said that payment for ecosystem services (particularly payments for carbon or nutrient reductions) would substantially change their growing practices. One commented that the amount of money these programs would provide would have to be immense for them to be willing to do the paperwork, for they already had a hard time keeping up with other required reporting and paperwork. The bureaucracy of support programs for conservation-oriented farmland practices was a frequent complaint and constraint, and frustrating for farmers who wished for financial support to undertake practices that aren’t compensated by the market. Many farmers seemed to recognize that their practices improved and resulted in ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, but were not solely focused on tracking or improving these specific outcomes, and seemed skeptical at how these programs would ultimately be beneficial to their farm.

What does land stewardship mean to you? 

"Passing it along better than it was before."

"It's not just about productivity, but also about reducing erosion, sequestering carbon and nutrients, and having production areas that are beneficial for wildlife habitat."

"Farming within the carrying capacity of this place."

Most farmers described stewardship in a single sentence, something to the effect of “leaving the place better than we found it.” For almost all farmers, stewardship was very much tied to the act of farming: by farming their land, they were contributing to land health. 

Land health is key – and is a result of active management: One farmer commented, "If the land is thriving then everything is thriving." Many others spoke about how the health of their land, and soil health, were key indicators of how well they were doing. Farmers far more often described land-based factors, rather than economic factors, as indicators of their overall farm operation, what they were managing their land for, and whether they were being successful. 

Many farmers mentioned that stewardship required maintaining agricultural land as agricultural land. Nearly every farmer described human action as embedded in stewardship. One farmer said, "Through management, land can support a lot. Without our animals, we have seen declines in productivity and more invasives." They shared this a year after selling their cows, and seeing how their land changed without the animals. Many other farmers spoke about how their farming practices led to faster pasture regrowth and improved soil health outcomes. Some described outcomes that were explicitly economic (i.e. yields), and some that were explicitly ecological (i.e. habitat for wild animals). But for all, stewardship was a human action – it was the result of human engagement with and management of land.

Watching and learning from how the land responds: Farming practices are not static, but rather attentive to how land responds. One farmer said "The land indicates what we can do with it. We figured that out pretty early." Farmers pay close attention to the results of their farming practices, and are constantly iterating their practices to get to optimal outcomes.  

Many farmers spoke about how their land responded to the presence of grazing animals. One farmer let me follow him three mornings in a row as he moved his animals. Each day, he adjusted the paddock size to accommodate how much forage was on the ground, as well as how much animals had eaten the day before. When the animals didn’t eat as much as he wanted them to, or if a pasture was particularly lush, he made the paddock smaller so they would eat more. If a paddock didn’t have an ideal mix of forage for animals, he would make it bigger so they could find enough to eat. Thus, he wanted to give animals just the right amount of forage for what they needed for a 24-hour period, and he adjusted the way he farmed each day in order to calibrate. Because of the way this farmer’s paddocks were laid out (roughly circularly), we walked through most of the prior paddocks before arriving at the zone where we would be moving animals into. This meant we could see how land was responding over different rest periods. I remember the farmer stopping me as we walked to show me the regrowth of species he was excited to see coming back in his fields.

Many farmers described the many objectives they managed their land for - ranging from ecological to social - and how all of these objectives were embedded in stewardship. In our conversations about ecosystem services, or specific environmental causes (i.e. water quality, or carbon), farmers expressed concern about whether their farms could be resilient with a narrow focus on just a single outcome.

Restoring Traditional Land Management Regimes. One farmer described how part of his notion of land stewardship was restoring traditional grazing to the landscape. To my surprise, a couple of farmers hearkened back to the Pleistocene era, when mastodons and other large mammals grazed on the landscape. They sought to mimic the actions of large mammals through letting animals graze for intense, short periods of time, and then excluding them from an area for a long time to support pasture regrowth. The number of times Pleistocene-era land regimes came up made me curious about how this idea became part of the Vermont farmer discourse.

Living within Limits: One farmer described land stewardship as "Farming within the carrying capacity of this place." She described a particular rock that she always looked to, day after day and season after season, to judge how deep her topsoil and pasture grass were. She said that when she had even just two extra cows in her herd, that rock had much more exposed surface, and it was a sign to her that they had to back off. This story showed just one of many possible indicators farmers might use to understand what is happening on their landscape. Another farmer said that land stewardship meant "Doing what we can with the resources we have." I interpreted this statement as similar to the comment about carrying capacity: it illustrated a recognition that farmland, soil, and animal health are each finite resources. And a central part of good farming practice is recognizing and not exceeding those limits.  

Stewardship requires knowing a place, and being able to observe changes over long time scales: One farmer, in the midst of transferring her farm to a next generation of farmers, mourned that those new farmers were not planning to live on the farm. She said, “If you live somewhere you get to know it - at all times of day, and in all seasons." For this farmer, a critical component of stewardship was living in the place where she farmed, so that she could spend time on her farm both while she was ‘farming’ and also while she was recreating. She was able to observe the land at many times of day, and observe its small details that might not be explicitly related to her farm operation, but responded in small ways to it. She also noted the ways that she and her husband were able to do the small, detailed things that she felt really mattered – checking on cows when they heard a strange sound, for instance – and that were only possible because they lived on the farm and able see or hear that those small tasks needed to be done. This getting to know, because of spending so much time in, a place was a particularly beautiful illustration of the care that is possible through close attention. Farmers are able to pay minute detail to the function of their farmland, and to directly see how it responds to small changes.

Farmers make decisions on very long timeframes, considering impacts to their animals, land, and human communities many growing seasons or generations down the line. Farmers view land management not just in terms of its ‘now’ impacts, but also consider how what they do now influences what might happen next. This sense of time is different from that of the general public, and helped me better appreciate some of the tensions between agricultural and non-agricultural communities. For example, spreading manure might be seen by the public as an immediate threat to water quality, while farmers might see spreading manure as a long-term investment in soil nutrition and pasture productivity. This action’s impacts may not be pleasant one day after spreading (and in fact may be detrimental to specific environmental outcomes) but will carry long-term benefits for soil health and pasture regrowth. Balancing between these time frames is a challenging task which has led to much tension between farmers and the non-farming public.

Many of the farmers I spoke with spent many years on their piece of farmland. The act of farming over that long time span allowed them to try new practices and see how their land responded. Particularly for farmers with family members, they were also thinking about how to farm in a way so that the farm would be around for the next generation to manage. This statement had both economic implications (farmers wanted to be sure the farm operation would persist), but also illustrated how farmers saw keeping agricultural land as agricultural land as critical.  

Is stewardship the right word? I continue to wrestle with the fact that, while many of my other questions elicited long responses, when I asked farmers to define responsible land stewardship, they would respond in a sentence or two. This question was typically one I asked at the end of our conversations, at a time when our conversations were petering out. But farmers who had previously been somewhat verbose didn’t have much to say on this topic. I wonder if farmers saw ‘stewardship’ as a word that was relevant to their farms, or their actions. A couple of farmers asked me what I meant by the term, and seemed confused by it.  

Research conclusions:

Farmers have diverse objectives in managing their land. They are a heterogeneous group, driven by a variety of motivations. Many farmers are driven to achieve ecological outcomes such as soil health, water management, pasture productivity, biodiversity, and animal health. Biodiversity, from a macro (wildlife) to a micro (microbial) scale, was a significant objective, and farmers employed various practices to support it. Farmers also are motivated by human values, ranging from wanting their immediate or extended family to have connections to land, to just wanting to be by themselves, on a tractor or in the woods, all day. Additionally, factors like plant nutrition, plant diversity, animal health, product quality, and beauty each influence farmers' decision-making in managing their land.

As I conducted this research, though I learned about a lot of individual factors and outcomes that farmers shared, I was far more interested in the stories I heard. It proved challenging even to extract individual quotes or themes from an interview, as each farmer seemed to share a holistic story that was inclusive of their relationship with their land, human communities, and farm animals. Through the interviews I conducted, I had the opportunity to appreciate each farmer. I did not heavily or quantitatively analyze my data, because I don’t want it to be taken as a check list of outcomes or findings that can be extracted and applied elsewhere. These findings are true for the 29 farmers raising livestock in Vermont that I spoke with. Rather, I sought to preserve the sanctity of the stories that I heard, relying on direct quotes, while grouping similar statements together. This approach sought to preserve farmers’ voices and perspectives and not insert too much of my own. This approach can certainly be applied elsewhere. Asking why questions is a great place to start, and to illustrate the multiplicity of values that underly farmland management practices.

It’s critical to help farmers adopt more sustainability-oriented practices and improve their land management. Farmers I spoke with acknowledged that they could do more to take care of the environment, that they were interested in doing so, that they appreciated the perspective of technical assistance providers who came to their farm and offered advice of what worked elsewhere, and that their perspectives were inherently focused on their own place and didn’t always think beyond the bounds of their property. However, efforts to change agriculture must be rooted in an understanding of why a farm is the way it is, what motivates a farmer, and how a farmer’s values can inform and influence the adoption of new practices that still help them achieve their goals. These efforts could also be better grounded in an appreciation of what a farmer is already doing. What constitutes sustainable agriculture or ecologically beneficial outcomes from a farmer’s perspective might differ from what the general public might seek or understand. We need to understand these values in farmers’ own words, and understand why agriculture is the way that it is. And then, we might be able to work with farmers to develop sustainability-oriented practices that have positive impacts beyond their farms in order to address those goals.

One of my favorite conversations was with the farmer who described wanting to be at the base of his driveway when his child came home each day. This value, of being a good dad, is not implicit in many of the external metrics we might put onto a farm’s outcomes, but shaped everything this farmer did. Later in our conversation he mentioned wanting the farm to be around for his child. This is sustainability, just in a different sense of how many might initially conceive of it as an outsider.

We must expand the blinders we have on when looking at a farm as an external viewer. We must look broadly at what farmers do, the impacts they have, and the outcomes they care about. Farmers design their operations based on what their place enables. They farm within the opportunities and constraints of their land, and with great care for the health of their land, animals, families, and communities. This may be a more lasting scale on which to engage and make change, in the long-term.

Participation Summary
29 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

29 Farmers participated
60 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

In the summer and fall of 2022, I visited and talked with 20 farmers about their land management practices. In the summer and fall of 2023, I talked with 19 farmers about their land management practices (some of these 19 were repeat interviewees). I also administered the survey to farmers at multiple conferences (NOFA-VT, Vermont Organic Dairy Conference, Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference). 

In spring 2023, I gave a presentation about my research as part of a lecture series from the Yale Sustainable Food Project. In fall 2023, I gave a presentation to approximately 60 land conservation professionals about my research at the American Farmland Trust’s Soil Health training conference. 


Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This research helped to articulate some of the ways in which farmers feel they are contributing to broader public services - both ecosystem services like open space, water retention, or contributions to biodiversity, as well as social values like providing food at affordable prices or farmers serving in volunteer roles. These values are not always appreciated in broader public discourses, and this is a source of frustration for many farmers. They are scrutinized for what they general public sees them as not doing well, and not appreciated for what they do. 

My biggest takeaway from this research is the importance of asking questions about why farmers do what they do. I not only had fun doing so, I also learned a lot. This approach might help ensure that farmland management approaches are rooted in the perspectives of farmers and the values they care about. These values may not always align with public goals for how land or resources are used - the goals of farmers and the general public may not be the same. Certainly, there is a role for environmental managers to engage with farmers and remind them of broader values or goals (i.e. values which transcend their farmstead, or specific outcomes they can observe) that they could incorporate into their land management practices. However, these perspectives ideally should be in conversation with each other, rather than one dominating the other.  

Knowledge Gained:

This research helped to articulate some of the ways in which farmers feel they are contributing to broader public services - both ecosystem services like open space, water retention, or contributions to biodiversity, as well as social values like providing food at affordable prices or farmers serving in volunteer roles. These values are not always appreciated in broader public discourse, and this is a source of frustration for many farmers. They are scrutinized for what they general public sees them as not doing well, and not appreciated for what they do. 

My biggest takeaway from this research is the importance of asking questions about why farmers do what they do. I not only had fun doing so, I also learned a lot. This approach might help ensure that farmland management approaches are rooted in the perspectives of farmers and the values they care about. These values may not always align with public goals for how land or resources are used - the goals of farmers and the general public may not be the same. Certainly, there is a role for environmental managers to engage with farmers and remind them of values or goals they could incorporate into their land management practices. However, these perspectives ideally should be a conversation, rather than one dominating the other. 

One significant question I am left with is: what is the role of on-the-ground action, and drawing from the perspectives of those responsible for making decisions (and living with their consequences), “versus” the value of external expertise? That external expertise might have a different set of values and objectives, and this is often critical for encouraging system-wide shifts for broader societal goals. What is the value, and risk, of managing for a variety of outcomes, rather than a single objective? And what is the role of environmental advocates, focusing on large-scale ecosystem health both within and beyond a farm system, when it comes to the actions and challenges facing a specific farm. Perhaps my biggest question is: what happens when these objectives do not perfectly map onto each other? Whose should triumph?

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

This was very much a social science project, and I think it would benefit from a degree of ecological analysis. For example, I could do a series of interviews in tandem with an ecologist or wildlife biologist, who could help measure and track how farmers’ practices influence soil health or biodiversity outcomes. I enjoyed hearing farmers talk about the biodiversity or other ecological impacts they saw from their management practices, and I’d love to find ways to quantitatively test these. This would help me explore a lingering question embedded in this research: where are farmers' perspectives aligned with quantifiable scientific outcomes, and where might they be misaligned?      

I'd also enjoy interviewing more farmers, and gathering a broader group of stories. I would design these interviews in a way to fill gaps in who I was able to speak with. In particular, I spoke with farmers who own and manage their own land, because I sought to understand what influences long-term thinking and decision-making about land management for those who already have secure land tenure. This is a significant gap in this research: I primarily spoke with farmers who had access to land or resources to be able to buy land. This excludes a significant group of farmers, and people who want to be farmers, who are unable to farm due to systemic barriers to owning land and/or who are not in a financial position to be able to purchase land. What perspectives would tenant or leasing farmers share about land stewardship? On what timeframes are they able to consider these questions?

I would like to share what I learned with those who provide technical assistance to farmers. These professionals work directly with many farms to help them improve their farmland management practices, and sharing the breadth of what I learned might be most relevant to this audience as they advise farmers on land and financial management practices. The attached PDF is a presentation I gave to land conservation practitioners at the American Farmland Trust’s soil health conference; it serves as a template for future presentations.

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.