Evaluating Relative Impacts of Conventional and Sustainable Farming Systems on Rural Communities

Final Report for LNC92-048

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1992: $99,244.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $88,246.00
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
John Ikerd
University of Missouri Columbia
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Project Information


Farmers and community leaders from three communities, one each in Missouri, Nebraska and Minnesota, provided information for development, and validation of the conceptual and analytical models used for assessment of community impacts of alternative farming systems. Results of these studies focused on first-round or direct economic impacts associated with differences in resources, inputs, and outputs resulting from specialized, input intensive conventional systems compared with more diversified, alternative, or sustainable farming systems.

A detailed study of expenditure patterns of 30 farmers in southwest Minnesota indicates little differences in spending impacts on local communities between farmers who classified themselves as sustainable versus those who classified themselves as conventional. However, significant differences were found between large and small farmers and between crop farmers and those who had both crops and livestock. Smaller farms and farms with livestock had significantly greater positive impacts on the local economy than did their larger, more specialized counterparts.

A similar survey was carried out in the Hartington and Wynot communities in northeastern Nebraska. The Nebraska Study compares detailed economic data provided by 28 farmers, half of whom were classified as “conventional” and the other half as “sustainable” based on current farming methods. The sustainable farms were found to be only about one-half as large as the conventional farms in terms of acres farmed, head of livestock, and total sales of commodities. However, the sustainable farmers actually reported a higher average farm income, or return over direct costs per farm, in spite of their smaller size.

The Missouri portion of the study was based on two alternative scenarios for returning land currently enrolled in the CRP program to agricultural production in Putnam County, Missouri. The conventional scenario was designed to reflect currently typical farming methods in north Missouri. The alternative or sustainable scenario assumed increased use of crop rotations, input management strategies, and reduced tillage methods for cropping system and utilized planned, or management intensive, rotational grazing systems for livestock production.

Returning CRP land to crop and livestock production under either the conventional or alternative system would result in more than a two-fold increase in total direct, or first round, economic activity compared to current CRP payments. Total economic impacts under the alternative scenario were projected to total $7,860,000: $2,368,200 direct effects (excluding farm income), $925,700 indirect effects, and $4,565,000 induced effect (including farm income). This compares with $6,269,400 under the conventional farming scenario: $2,087,500 direct effects (excluding farm income), $776,000 indirect effects, and $3,406,000 induced effects (including farm income). Farm income could be expected to rise to $2.4 million and $3.4 million respectively for conventional and sustainable systems compared with $1.7 million in total CRP payments for the county.

Project Objectives:

A. To facilitate community self-appraisal of the potential to increase local employment and income by supporting transitions of local farmers from conventional to more sustainable systems of farming.

B. To facilitate practical, community-specific evaluation of potential impacts of more sustainable local agricultural sectors on the overall long run sustainability of rural communities.

C. To promote an understanding and realization of potential positive linkages between sustainable systems of farming and sustainable rural communities; considering the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • John Kerd
  • Dick Levins
  • Nancy Thompson


Research results and discussion:

The Minnesota study assessed differences in farm spending among various farm types by conducting in-depth interviews with 30 farmers in southwest Minnesota. The farmers were chosen from farm management associations so that a consistent set of records could be obtained. Interviewers spent approximately two hours with each farmer talking about their expenditure analysis and conducting a check-by-check analysis of farm expenses to determine which purchases were made locally and which were not.

The results of these interviews clearly show that as farms get bigger, they buy a smaller percentage of their inputs in local markets. The study also confirmed that the addition of livestock to crop farms increases local spending, but only up to a point. Very large livestock operations spend much more in total than their smaller counterparts, but have no greater impact on local economies because they have a much higher percentage of non-local spending.

Results of the full Minnesota study have been published as a MS thesis, “Local Spending Patterns of Farm Businesses in Southwest Minnesota,” by John Wade Chism, University of Minnesota, September, 1993. The results of this study have been widely quoted in various newsletters and popular publications, a sample of which are enclosed with this report.

The Nebraska study focused in the communities of Hartington and Wynot, which are located in Cedar County in northeast Nebraska and are dominated by moderate-sized diversified family farms. In June 1993, letters were sent to 42 farmers in the area, requesting their participation in a study of the relative impacts on rural communities of various types and sizes of farms. Follow-up phone contacts were made with each recipient and from this group, 28 agreed to participate.

A survey instrument was developed and sent to all participants. The survey requests specific information regarding the farmer’s current operation, expenditure patterns, and future farming plans. To complete the questionnaire, each participant was visited in person so the interviewer could eliminate any deviations based on individual interpretations. These interviews were completed during 1993.

Twenty-eight farmers agreed to participate in the Hartington-Wynot, Nebraska Study. Each farm was classified as either “sustainable” or “conventional” based on an assessment of their farming practices, and specifically their use of chemicals and fertilizers and the nature of their crop rotations. Farmers with less chemical and fertilizer use and more diverse crop rotation were classified as “sustainable.” Farmers with higher chemical and fertilizer purchases and less diverse crop rotations were classified as “conventional.” The classification resulted in 14 farmers of the 28 farmers representing each category.

The participating farms were similar in that they were all family owned and operated, most rent land in addition to land they own, all have both livestock and crops, and all utilize manure to supplement commercial fertilizer. However, the farms classified as sustainable and conventional differed in several other respects: (1) conventional farms controlled approximately twice as many acres as sustainable farms; (2) conventional farms on average have more than twice as many head of livestock as sustainable farms; and (3) conventional farms had more than twice as high an average “gross” income as sustainable farms. However, sustainable farms had a higher average “net” income per farm in spite of the fact that sustainable farms were less than half the size of conventional farms in terms of acres, head of livestock, or dollars of gross sale.

Currently, a total of 169 people are supported by the 28 farms included in the Nebraska study. If all farms in the survey area had been of the same average size as the sustainable farms, an additional 44 people could have been employed on the same number of acres with at least as high a per capita income. If all farms were like those in the conventional group, 22 fewer people could have been supported in the area. Local farm business expenditures would be about $200,000 higher with all conventional farms but total family expenditures would be more than $100,000 higher with all sustainable farms. Total family income with all sustainable farms would have been more than double that of an all conventional community and 80% higher than in the current community, with both higher net farm incomes and off-farm incomes for the sustainable farms.

In the Missouri study, Putnam County was selected as a case study location because it has a high level of CRP enrollment and in many ways is typical of a number of economically depressed north Missouri counties. A mail survey was sent to all owners of land covered by CRP contracts in the county. The response rate to the survey was over 60%. Preliminary findings include: (1) The average CRP parcel size is 161 acres out of an average of 583 total acres owned by farmers with land in the CRP program; (2) Forty-four percent of the owners of CRP land currently plan to use the land only for pasture or hay if the CRP program is not continued. Thirty-four percent plan to return the land exclusively to row crops. Eighteen percent plan to use a combination of hay and row crops. Eighteen percent plan to use a combination of hay and row crops. Trees will be continued on the remaining four percent.

The Missouri Study compared local economic impacts of returning lands currently in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Putnam County, Missouri to production under either a conventional or an alternative (more sustainable) system of farming. Results of a survey provided estimates that 55% of current CRP land would be returned to crop production and 41% would return to pasture or hay for livestock production if CRP payments were terminated. The remainder would be maintained in wildlife habitat or trees.

Local CRP contract holders were defined as those residing in Putnam County or adjoining counties in Missouri and Iowa. Local contract holders indicated intentions to return a significantly larger proportion of their CRP land to livestock production than did out-of-area residents. Out-of-area residents favored returning CRP land to crop production, which could be carried out more easily through rental or leasing arrangements and without investing in fencing and watering facilities for livestock. The use of highly-erodible CRP land for pastures and livestock production would be expected to be less erosive and would provide more favorable wildlife habitat than would any economically viable system of crop production.

Two different scenarios were developed for use of post-CRP land. One represents “conventional” farming methods and the other a set of “alternative” farming methods designed to be more sustainable. The same acreage of the same crops were produced under both scenarios, using recent cropping history for the county to simplify the comparison. However, continuous corn and soybean systems, conventionally used on about half of Putnam County’s crop land, were replaced with crop rotations under the alternative scenario. The alternative scenario utilized no-till and ridge-till systems to replace conventional tillage on erodible lands. No-till provides more erosion protection and less fuel use at similar levels of herbicide use, while ridge tillage allowed herbicide use to be cut in half with somewhat less effective erosion control and greater fuel use than no-till. Conventional fertilizer application was set at levels so as not to limit yields under the most favorable growing conditions. Fertilizer use for the alternative scenario was adjusted for realistic yield goals with allowances for peak yield reductions in the most favorable growing years.

The alternative cropping system using ridge tillage indicated that farmers could reduce direct production costs by 25% and increase returns over direct costs 26% in comparison to conventional farming methods. The no-till system showed a 12% reduction in direct costs and a 19% increase in net returns per acre over conventional cropping methods.

The alternative or more sustainable system of cattle production was represented by a planned, or management intensive, rotation grazing system with 24 paddocks. Conventional livestock production was represented by a three paddock grazing system, which likely overestimates the intensity of current management of a typical Putnam County grazing system. The alternative system would allow farmers to stock more than 50% more cows on the same number of acres than would the conventional grazing system.
The more sustainable grazing system resulted in a 35% increase in direct production costs as a result of higher stocking rates per acre of pasture. However, total livestock sales were increased by 51% under the alternative scenario resulting in a 73% higher net return over direct costs for the sustainable system.

Costs and returns per acre were multiplied by the numbers of acres of CRP land to be returned to crop and livestock production in Putnam County, assuming the CRP program was allowed to expire. The results indicate an increase in total input purchases of $946,000, if CRP land were returned to conventional crop production compared with $707,000 for inputs purchases if the more sustainable alternative cropping systems were used. However, input costs for the conventional livestock system were lower, totaling $1,030,000, in comparison with the alternative system, totaling $1,401,000. Thus, combined total input purchases were actually higher for alternative systems, $2,108,000, than for the conventional systems, $1,976,000. In addition, combined returns over direct costs, or gross farm income, were nearly $1 million higher for the ridge-till system, $3,404,000, versus the conventional system, $2,421,000. The no-till system also returned $862,000 more than the conventional system, netting $3,283,000.

Total annual CRP payments in Putnam County currently average about $65/acre for an annual total of approximately $1,692,000. Thus, returning CRP land to production under either the conventional or alternative system would result in more than a two-fold increase in total direct, or first round, economic activity. Returning CRP land to conventional crop and livestock production would add $2,705,000 in total economic activity, while returning the same number of acres to more sustainable crop and livestock could result in a $3,820,000 increase in total economic activity in comparison to current CRP payments. Putnam County’s 581 farms averaged about $17,500 in net cash income in 1992. Returning land to production under the conventional scenario could support 89 additional “average” farming operations. The additional income for the more sustainable scenario would support 57 additional “average” Putnam County farming operations, a total of 146 more than are supported by the CRP program.

The final phase of the study was to translate potential changes in total economic activity into estimates of impacts on the local economy, including increases in local farm income and local consumer spending. The IMPLAN model was used to estimate indirect business and induced consumption expenses in the local area as well. Finally, estimates will be made of impacts on local employment, including self employment of farmers, and the related number of farm families who might be productively employed in the local community.

During 1994, basic data identifying potential changes in purchased inputs and product outputs were analyzed for Nebraska and Missouri communities to estimate economic impacts of changes in farming systems on the respective rural communities. Nebraska data was used to evaluate differences in direct or first-round impacts of conventional and sustainable farms on the local economy. Missouri data was used to develop coefficients for the agricultural sector of an IMPLAN input-output model, allowing estimation of indirect and induced effects, in addition to direct effects, of input purchases and commodity sales for alternative systems of farming.

The sustainability of alternative farming systems must be assessed using ecologic, economic, and social indicators. In this study, ecologic risks are assessed as threats to water quality from commercial agrichemicals, soil loss, energy use, and cropping diversity. Economic indicators are relative income or profitability with indirect implications for financial risks associated with cropping diversity. Social impacts are reflected in implications for farm size and ownership structure, number of farm families in the community, and for the economic and social quality of life of farmers and others who live and work in rural areas.

Farming activities have direct, indirect, and induced impacts on the local economy. Direct impacts are the first round impacts associated with purchases of production inputs, sales of farm commodities, and the resulting net cash farm income. Indirect effects result when local input suppliers or marketing firms buy raw materials, products, or business services from local sources.

Substantial leakages typically occur between direct and indirect economic impacts. A large portion of total production inputs may be purchased from sources outside the local community. Even when inputs are purchased locally, only a small proportion of the total sale price may go to local manufacturers and local service providers. Additional indirect effects occur when local manufacturers or service providers buy their raw materials or services from other local sources. However, additional leakages occur with each round of activity until additional impacts from a given initial transaction eventually become negligible.

Sales of farm commodities may also create indirect effects on the marketing, processing, or value-added sector of the local economy. Commodities sold locally generated sales commissions and other types of income for local marketing firms. Marketing firms may purchase supplies or employ local residents, resulting in indirect economic impacts similar to those associated with input purchases. As in the case of purchases, leakages occur at each round of activity, and eventually any additional impact from a given marketing transaction becomes negligible.

Total indirect effects represent the sum of all local economic activity occurring “after,” but in response to, the initial direct transactions associated with input procurement and commodity sales. Indirect impacts are associated with the local business sector, including manufacturing, wholesaling, and business services. Induced impacts, on the other hand, are associated with local consumptive activities.

Induced impacts occur when people spend money they earn from participating in the local economy. Obviously, those earning income from agricultural transactions include farmers and farm workers. However, employees of local input suppliers, marketing firms, and other service providers also earn income from local agricultural transactions. As in the case of indirect impacts, initial consumption expenditures have second, third, and higher round impacts. Those who work for local retailers spend part of their incomes for local goods and services, which in turn generates income for local residents who provide those goods and services. And as in the case of indirect impacts, leakages at each round of consumption spending eventually reduce additional impacts from a given retail transaction until they become negligible.

Results of the Missouri impact assessment study indicate that returning current Putnam County CRP land to conventional production would increase total production and marketing activities by $4,508,900. Increased farm owner/operator net cash income, or gross profits, would account for $2,421,400 of this total. Direct impacts, net of farm income, were $2,087,500. Total indirect impacts were estimated to be $776,000. The business sectors of the local economy receiving the largest benefits would be agricultural services, wholesale trade, and banking, insurance, and real estate, in that order.

Induced economic impacts were derived from two sources: hired workers in the business sectors, including hired workers in business sectors affected by consumptive activity, and income that accrues to farm owner/operators and supports their consumptive activities. The estimated $2,421,400 in farm income was assumed to be spent on consumption activities. The total induced impact from farm consumptive spending was estimated at $2,577,000. The relatively small difference between initial spending and total induced impact results from the fact that few consumption items are produced in Putnam County. For hired workers in the business sector, the induced impact was estimated at $829,000. Thus, total induced spending was $3,406,000 for the conventional farming scenario. Most of this impact would be felt by the retail and service sectors of the Putnam County economy. The total economic impact – direct, indirect, and induced – from returning land presently in the CRP program to conventional production is projected to total $6,269,000. The largest component of this economic impact would come from increased consumption spending with a smaller proportion coming from impacts on input supply, marketing, and business services sectors.

The alternative, more sustainable, production scenario was estimated to increase total production and marketing activities by $5,651,500. Increased farm owner/operator net cash income would account for $3,283,200 million of the alternative system total. Direct impacts, net of farm income, totaled $2,368,300. Total indirect impacts were estimated to be $925,700. The business sectors of the local economy receiving the largest benefits would be banking, insurance, and real estate; wholesale trade; and agricultural services, in that order.

The estimated $3,283,200 in farm income for the alternative scenario, when spent for consumption activities, resulted in a total induced impact from farm consumptive spending of $3,494,200. For hired workers in the farm and business sector, the induced impact was estimated at $1,070,800, resulting in total induced spending of $4,565,000 for the alternative farming. The total economic impact – direct, indirect, and induced – from returning land presently in the CRP program to conventional production is projected to total $7,860,000.

In summary, the total economic impact from returning land presently in the CRP program to production under the alternative scenario is projected to total $7,858,900: $2,368,200 direct effects (excluding farm income), $925,700 indirect effects, and $4,565,000 induced effect (including farm income). This compares with $6,269,500 under the conventional farming scenario: $2,087,500 direct effects (excluding farm income), $776,000 indirect effects, and $3,406,000 induced effects (including farm income).

The economic impacts of crop production under both scenarios were very similar, even though their conservation and environmental quality impacts would be quite different. Most of the difference in economic impact arises from the livestock sector. The production and profit potential is significantly higher from the management intensive grazing system. The alternative system generated an estimated 25% higher level of local economic activity than did the conventional system. Most of the $1,589,400 advantage for the sustainable system is associated with the higher level of income generated for farm families and their associated consumption spending in the local community.

Sustainability must be measured in terms of ecological soundness, economic viability, and social responsibility of alternative systems of farming. Environmental soundness in this case is measured in terms of threats to water quality from commercial agrichemicals, soil conservation, energy conservation, and cropping diversity. Economic viability measures for the Putnam County study focused primarily on relative profitability with some indirect implications for financial risks associated with cropping diversity. The social responsibility dimension of sustainability was reflected in implications for farm size and ownership structure, and for the economic quality of life of farmers and others who live and work in Putnam County. More farming families might also contribute indirectly to the viability of local schools, churches, health care, and other public institutions.

The alternative farming system may be concluded to be more sustainable than the conventional system because it was found to be more ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible than was the conventional system. The alternative systems appear to be more economically viable and socially responsible to the Putnam County community than is the current CRP program. The question of whether the alternative system would be considered more economically viable than the CRP by current CRP land owners is beyond the scope of this study. Current CRP land use practices are quite likely more environmentally sound and resource conserving than are those in the alternative, or sustainable, land use scenario. Returning land to production under the alternative scenario would retain more of the ecological benefits than would returning the land to conventional production. However, significant tradeoffs among environmental, economic, and social benefits remain when the sustainable scenario is compared with the CRP program. Sustainability is a question to which the answer is seldom either definite or clear.

Case Studies

The planned case studies have taken the form of special project reports for the Missouri and Nebraska studies. The Nebraska report focuses on potential differences between conventional and sustainable systems of farming on the communities of Hartington and Wynot in Nebraska. The Missouri case study report focuses on alternative post-CRP land use strategies for Putnam County.

Research conclusions:

Positive Benefits

Community leaders, including farmers, will be able to use the procedures and models developed under this project to assess differences in community impacts among alternative community development strategies, specifically strategies that might enhance the sustainability of local agricultural systems.

A simple microcomputer spreadsheet template was developed for use in educational programs to help farmers and community leaders understand the potential impacts of changes in farming systems on local economic activity and employment. Data from the Missouri case study is reflected in default values distributed with the community impact assessment program.

New Hypotheses

Differences between impacts on conventional and sustainable farming operations on local communities appears to reflect farm size, enterprise mix of crops and livestock, local versus out-of-area spending, and the number of farms under alternative systems more so than differences in quantities of inputs purchased or total local agricultural production.

Farmer Adoption

Changes in Practices

The results of this study may encourage local farm and community leaders to rethink the role of agriculture as a potential source of support for local community development. Local community and economic development strategies may be devised to encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable systems of farming as a means of supporting more farming families, who in turn may contribute to both the economic and social life of their communities.

Operational Recommendations

Major emphasis needs to be placed on encouraging on-farm trials and demonstrations of sustainable crop and livestock systems. Farmers must convince themselves, as well as the other members of their communities, that more sustainable alternative farming methods can contribute to the economic viability of their farms, can support more farm families per acre or per dollar of investment, and can thus contribute to the overall quality of life in rural communities. Impact studies can only show “potential” impacts. Ultimately, these impacts must be demonstrated under actual farming conditions in actual farm communities.

Farmer Evaluations/Testimonials

Testimonials must await additional community outreach activities utilizing the newly completed impact assessment software program. Results of this study are being used with farmers and community leaders in northern Missouri as part of a four-year Kellogg Foundation-funded community self-development project linking sustainable agriculture and sustainable rural community development.

Producer/Community Involvement

Local community leaders in Putnam County, Missouri have collaborated in evaluating community level impacts of returning CRP land to conventional agricultural uses versus adoption of more sustainable systems of land use. Thirty southwestern Minnesota farmers provided in-depth financial information for the first phase of this project. Twenty-eight Nebraska farmers provided in-depth information regarding their overall farming operation. Community leaders and farmers will be actively involved in dissemination of the results of the impact assessment studies.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

An extension outreach program is currently being carried out to promote an understanding of potential positive linkages between sustainable systems of farming and sustainable rural communities and to make farm and community leaders aware of the concepts and tools available for evaluation of community impacts. This activity will continue even though the project is complete.

A computer software program was developed to demonstrate and teach the potential impacts of changes in farming systems on income and employment in local communities. The spreadsheet format accommodates data readily available in USDA Census of Agriculture. County-level census data can be used to establish benchmark systems of farming for single or multi-county “local” areas. Estimates must be made of the proportion of total input purchased from “local” suppliers and the proportion of those inputs manufactured “locally.” Also, the proportions of consumption purchases made from “local” retailers also must be estimated. Such estimates may be available through extension community development specialists, local economic development foundations, or chambers of commerce. Additional data indicating local per capita income and proportions of farm household incomes from farm and non-farm sources are needed to support estimates of changes in local employment.

A complete set of benchmark information provides estimates of “local” farm income, total personal income, farm employment, and non-farm employment supported by “local” agricultural production. “What-if” scenarios can then be developed for 1) changes in proportions of purchased inputs relative to utilization of on-farm resources used to generate the same level agricultural production, 2) changes in the proportion of local versus non-local input purchases and local production or manufacturing of farm inputs, 3) changes in proportions of consumption purchases made from local versus non-local retailers, 4) various combinations of the above.

The community impact assessment computer software package will be made available through the Sustainable Agriculture Network.

Selected Publications

Chism, J. W. 1993. Local spending patterns of farm businesses in southwest Minnesota, Unpublished Masters Thesis, Dept. of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN.

Ikerd, J. E. 1993. Rural communities: places in search of a purpose, in rethinking the role of agriculture in public policy for rural America, College of Agriculture Food and Natural Resources, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, Special Report 460, pp. 25-31.

Kleinschmit, L. D. Ralston, and N. Thompson. 1994. Community impacts of sustainable agriculture in northern Cedar County, Nebraska. Special report of Center for Rural Affairs, Walthill, NE.

Traiyongwanich, Suthijit. 1994. Post-CRP land use alternatives for Putnam County, Missouri, Unpublished Masters Thesis, Dept. Of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri.

Ikerd, John, Gary Devino, and Suthijit Traiyongwanich. 1995. “Community Impacts of Alternative Farming Systems: A Case Study,” proceedings of North American Symposium, Linkages among Farming Systems and Communities, Association for Farming Systems Research-Extension, North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, Ames, IA., November 5-8, 1995.

Ikerd, John, Gary Devino, and Suthijit Traiyongwanich. 1996. “Evaluating the Sustainability of Alternative Farming Systems,” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, Volume 11, Number 1.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

Additional studies should focus on getting community leaders involved with farmers in demonstrating the economic viability of more sustainable systems of farming and the complementariness to other local economic, social, and political activities in sustaining rural communities.

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.