Final report for GS19-211
In the U.S., farms are growing larger and more highly mechanized, with the majority of agricultural output coming from an increasingly smaller percentage of farms. Small producers, defined as farmers and ranchers with gross cash farm income less than $350,000, contribute approximately a quarter of national agricultural output and operate over half of the nation’s farmland. Financial hardship among small producers is prevalent in research, yet there are few published studies that explicitly address them as the population of focus, and none in Texas. This project will assess the needs of small producers in Texas through a mixed methods research approach. The graduate student will conduct a statewide survey and in-depth interviews with Texas producers. This project directly addresses the profitability and quality of life of farmers and ranchers in Texas, creating deliverables which advance sustainable agriculture in the state. The ultimate goals of the project are to determine gaps in educational programming, financial servicing, and/or policy implementation needed to bolster a critical yet disappearing sector of the agricultural economy.
- Engage stakeholders in project design.
- Identify the predominant challenges faced by small producers in Texas.
- Understand how small producers in Texas perceive challenges, solutions, and success.
- Share project findings with stakeholders.
- Share project results with the academic community.
- Inspire continued research of small, sustainable producers in the Southern U.S.
Initially, this project was designed to include a statewide survey and four focus groups throughout the state of Texas. Due to COVID-19, in-person focus groups were not possible. I decided to do in-depth interviews with farmers because I could still fulfill my objectives, and because in-depth interviews seemed more likely to gather high quality data than virtual focus groups. As of August 2021, data collection and analysis are completed. I have summarized the materials and methods for both my survey and interviews below.
SURVEY (January 2020 - February 2020)
- I hosted a small farmer stakeholder group at the 2019 Farm & Food Leadership Conference at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX. Approximately 12 stakeholders showed up to provide feedback on my survey design and focus group questions. Their feedback was incorporated into the study design.
- I received IRB approval for my online survey in September 2019 (#6598) and prepared my contact list. I disseminated my survey to a total of 136 small producers in Texas. I sorted out contacts from conference attendees and was provided a handful of recommendation(s) from the Central Texas Young Farmers Coalition and the Texas Farm Bureau Small Farm & Ranch Committee.
- Sampling proved to be the most challenging part of the project, as small farmers are not formally organized and are therefore difficult to reach. Survey results are non-representative, but provide important insight into the needs and challenges of Texas small producers.
- The survey was open for 8 weeks with reminders sent to non-respondents every two weeks, plus an extra reminder prior to the survey close. I received 56 responses in total: 41% response rate and a 97% completion rate. I ended up with 48 usable responses.
- Survey questions asked about farm characteristics, operator demographics, success, profitability, and challenge categories. I used chi-square analysis in SPSS 26 to test correlations between farm and operator characteristics and success, profitability, and challenges.
INTERVIEWS (October 2020 - January 2021)
- I received IRB approval in June 2020 (#6598).
- I used purposive sampling via recommendations to find producers to interview. I received producer recommendations from six agricultural organizations: Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), Farmshare Austin, National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), Ogallala Commons, Texas Center for Local Food, and the Texas Mexico Border Coalition, and received a total of 30 recommendations. Representatives from these organizations are listed as collaborators.
- I randomly selected producers within each region (north, south, east, and west) in order to cover the state's diverse geography. Initially, more women agreed to be interviewed, so I purposefully recruited men mid-way through sampling.
- Interviews covered challenges, perceptions of success, and producers' "big picture" visions for the future.
- Interview participants were offered electronic gift cards for their participation.
- I used NVivo transcription services to transcribe the interviews initially. I then listened to each interview with the transcript to manually correct errors before deleting the audio recordings.
- I uploaded interview transcripts to NVivo 12, and used that software to code my data. I used pseudonyms throughout the transcripts and write-up.
- I used inductive coding to uncover themes related to success, challenges, and vision.
The results of this research project make up my graduate thesis, which I wrote in an article-based format to publish results to a broader academic audience. I also developed a stakeholder report of my results as a project deliverable. I have briefly summarized my findings from both the survey and interviews below.
- I had a total of 48 usable responses with producers who represented 33 Texas counties. Compared to Texas producers as a whole, my sample featured significantly higher proportions of young and beginning producers. 72% were first-generation.
- Respondents tended to be well-educated and new to farming. Most operated less than 50 acres and sold their products direct-to-consumer. 29 producers sold over $10,000/year.
- 96% of respondents indicated they used sustainable practices.
- 52% of respondents reported being successful. 21% reported being profitable.
- Producers highly valued quality of life as a measurement of success. 90% of respondents indicated that quality of life was very or extremely important to their success while 69% indicated that profitability was very or extremely important to their success.
- Producers who used hired labor were significantly more likely to report being successful (p<.05).
- Producers who reported being profitable and who had over 10 years of experience were also more likely to report being successful (p<.10).
- Producers reported access to capital, land, and labor as the top overall challenge, followed by production, marketing, and legal concerns. Financial, social, and informational challenges fell to the bottom.
- Successful, profitable, and male producers were somewhat more likely to choose capital as their top challenge, while unsuccessful and female producers were somewhat more likely to choose production.
- I interviewed a total of 11 small producers in 9 Texas counties. Most (10) were first-generation farmers, 8 were beginning farmers, 8 were women farmers, 3 were socially disadvantaged farmers, and 1 was a veteran farmer (note that these are overlapping categories). All interviewees considered farming their primary occupation.
- 100% of respondents identified with organic, sustainable, or regenerative production practices.
- Through inductive coding using a grounded theory approach, I discovered:
- 3 themes related to success: 1) Farming as personal fulfillment, 2) Importance of community, 3) Adaptability and versatility.
- 1 theme related to general challenges (More hours, more hands, 1 theme that was specific to small producer challenges (Small farms in a large farm world), and a sub-theme (To stay or grow?)
- 2 themes related to vision or what should be: 1) A more sustainable, equitable agriculture, 2) Valuing small farms and local food.
Educational & Outreach Activities
As of August 2022, I've conducted seven research talks/presentations:
- (1) small farmer stakeholder meeting at the 2019 Farm & Food Leadership Conference - there were 12 participants, which I counted in the "Research" section
- (1) research poster presentation at the Non-Land Grant Agriculture & Renewable Resources Universities (NARRU) meeting in San Angelo, TX
- (2) presentations to Texas A&M University undergraduate classes in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications
- (1) departmental seminar presentation to graduate students and faculty members in the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Texas State University
- (1) research results presentation at the 2021 Southern Family Farmers & Food Systems Conference in San Marcos, TX.
- (1) professional presentation at the 2021 Southern Rural Sociological Association Conference in New Orleans, LA.
I included an approximate number of farmers and agricultural professionals who attended these meetings and presentations (excluding students).
I have successfully published one journal article in the Journal of Extension (What Makes a Small Farm Successful, Tritsch et al. 2021), with another approved and awaiting final editorial revisions in the Journal of Rural Social Sciences (Evaluating Success Factors and Challenges Among Small-Scale Agricultural Producers: A Texas Case Study). The qualitative paper also received positive feedback from the Journal of Rural Social Sciences, but I need to make content revisions and resubmit.
I also developed a stakeholder report (Thesis-Stakeholder-Report-Revised) for wider dissemination. The stakeholder report predominantly focuses on raw data and less on data analysis required of academic publications.
Per our approved budget revisions, we ordered USB drives to disseminate educational materials to a broader audience. The USB drives will be pre-loaded with the Thesis Stakeholder Report and JOE article.
This project is early research on the value of small farms in the twenty-first century U.S. While it does not provide direct economic, environmental, or social benefits to farmers, my intention in publishing research, developing a stakeholder report, and doing presentations is to increase awareness around small producer challenges, success, and vision for the future. These topics will be important for us to encourage a new generation of farmers, and particularly those who are interested in producing sustainably or regeneratively.
From a broader view, this project has demonstrated the need for more consumer education around small farms and local food, as well as relationship building between small producers and agricultural institutions like universities, Cooperative Extension, USDA, etc. Additional funding and technical support in these areas would likely have a great impact on the success of small, sustainable producers.
Before starting graduate school, I managed small-scale farms for about five years. On a personal level, this project revealed that my challenge to continue sustainable farming (mainly lack of access to land) is prominent. Along with other studies and organizations, my research points to access to land, labor, and capital as the predominant challenges facing small producers in Texas and beyond. This finding has important implications for sustainable agriculture because these problems are not easily solved through educational programs or training.
I started this project wanting to find tangible solutions to the problems facing small producers. Through completing this project, I have evidence to suggest problems facing small producers are largely structural. To be successful, small producers need to be supported by their communities and by institutions. Aside from peer groups, my research suggests that small, sustainable producers do not feel supported and would benefit from policy mechanisms that reward their practices.
Overall, I learned a lot about small, sustainable producers and feel I am better equipped to serve them as my career progresses. I now understand that small producers are diverse, have multifaceted perceptions of success, likely view farming as a way of life instead of solely as a business, and want to succeed but generally need better access to financial, capital, and natural resources. Rather than shifting my attitude, this project has strengthened my belief that political and social factors are important keys to success for small producers and sustainable agriculture as a whole.
SSARE could be a strong partner in conducting research about small farms and producers in the southern U.S. Sampling was one of the biggest struggles to complete this project, though partnership with NASS could result in a representative sample. SSARE's wide network of researchers could lead to a far-reaching, collaborative project on the needs, challenges, and success factors of small and sustainable producers.
I hope future researchers will consider economic analysis of environmental and community benefits contributed by small farms and sustainable agriculture, as well as policy and equity impact analyses to understand how well current programs are serving small, family farmers.