Final Report for LNC92-050

Social and Cultural Factors Affecting Sustainable Farming Systems and the Barriers to Adoption

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1992: $72,018.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1995
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $58,037.00
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Sonya Salamon
University of Illinois
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Project Information


A paired comparison of 60 farm families was employed (30 using sustainable systems and 30 using conventional systems) to determine why some families opt for sustainable practices, and their neighbors who resemble them in many ways do not. Although not a random sample the two groups do not diverge significantly along the dimensions usually expected to account for farming-system contrasts: age, education level, off-farm employment, farm size, soils or a representative field=s productivity. The paired groups, however, are distinctive socially. A whole-farm design was used that included the entire farm household. This approach brought to light factors other than profitability that effect whether sustainable farming systems are adopted, and whether once adopted persist through a transfer of management from one generation to the next. Families using sustainable farming systems had an environmental or health event linked to adoption, have traditions of environmentalism, systematically do on-farm experimentation and are generally prudent about resources in homes as well as in farming. Tractors are older, for example, and homes lack central air conditioning among the sustainable group. Findings indicate that rather than making a deep philosophical paradigm shift to environmentally sensitive farming (although not excluding it), sustainable families are characterized by a predisposition to use resources prudently in every dimension of their lives. Adoption of sustainable systems is therefore as much as for efficiency and financial motives as it is for environmental factors. Families farming conventionally, but sharing more characteristics identified with sustainable families, potentially are those best targeted for educational programs. Socially-sustainable situations (maintained through an intergenerational transfer) have long-term implications for whether adoption of sustainable-farming systems persists. Social sustainability in the long-term may rank as importantly for educators as achieving an initial shift from conventional systems.

Project Objectives:

1. Determine the family and enterprise preconditions or barriers to adopting sustainable farm systems.

2. Identify and assess the environmental and economic consequences for the rural community of families farming with sustainable versus conventional systems.

3. Develop an innovative educational program that identifies the real-life costs and benefits to families using sustainable versus conventional farming methods.


Research results and discussion:

Objectives 1 and 2: A paired comparison design was employed to achieve project objectives of identifying the social, economic or environmental barriers to adopting sustainable farming systems. By comparing families in the same community with similar operations, lifecourse phase, and soils the aim was to throw into sharp relief the social and cultural characteristics of those who adopt sustainable systems.

The 60 families (30 using sustainable systems and 30 using conventional systems) were each interviewed on-farm for approximately two days, absorbing the first fourteen months of the project. An anthropologist, agricultural economist and agronomist forming the project team had a steep learning-curve in our first-time collaboration. As a consequence critical data were lacking after the intensive interviews were completed. Much of the second project year involved two waves of follow-up phone-interviews with all 60 households fleshing out missing data sequentially uncovered during the statistical analysis. Wave I focused on data central to the social issues of adoption. Wave II focused on obtaining further production data needed to assure comparability. The extension year was mainly devoted to synthesizing and analyzing the combined data sets.

The families with sustainable systems did not farm intrinsically less productive soils, according to an agronomic analysis of a representative field from each farm selected by the farmer. (The types and amounts of unique soils and respective productivity indices were determined based on published soil maps.) We found no significant differences between conventional and sustainable farms for any fertility or productivity indices. We did find that farms from southern Illinois were slightly less fertile and substantially less productive than either central or northern Illinois farms, as would be expected. Our findings about the farm size of each group is one supported by previous studies. The sustainable group’s average farm size is smaller (941 acres) than the conventional group’s average farm size (1147 acres), but not significantly smaller. Soybean yields were comparable on the representative fields (45, 48, and 45 bushels per acre for the sustainable group and 49,47, and 47 per acre for the conventional group, 1991-93). The sustainable group’s corn yields (141, 137, and 133 per acre 1991-93) tended to be a little lower than the conventional group’s yields (150, 167, and 132 bushels per acre 1991-93). Only 1992 corn yields, however, proved to be significantly different at the .05 percent level. These results suggest that a farm family adopts sustainable farming systems for reasons other than those related to the productivity or fertility of the land they farm.The similarities found between the two groups allowed us to focus on the cultural and social factors that differ in association with adoption or rejection of sustainable farming systems.

Each group of farmers was aware that contrasts existed between them and their opposite group. Asked to place themselves on a continuum from conventional to sustainable farming systems farmers chose a position consistent with how we designated them. That is, (at the .05 significant level) the sustainable group placed themselves toward the sustainable end of the continuum and similarly the conventional group placed themselves toward the conventional end. Each group thought about farming differently, although all families placed a high priority on self-sufficiency of the farm. Self-sufficiency, however, was defined according to agronomic factors by the sustainable group and according to financial factors by the sustainable group (at a .05 significance level). Finally, during the past ten years sustainable farmers had changed the way they farmed compared to conventional farmers, and those changes were statistically significant. Over two-thirds of the sustainable farmers had diversified their crop mix while only 17% of conventional farmers had. Over half the sustainable group had reduced herbicides compared with only 3% the conventional group. Almost two-thirds of the sustainable group had reduced its use of synthetic fertilizer compared with only 20% of conventional farmers. All these trends (significant at the .05 level) point to distinctive management styles between the two groups.

Distinctive social characteristics (arrived at inductively) were identified for the sustainable group: a family tradition of innovation; critical family events with environmental (or health) consequences; and family resource conservation and prudence patterns. About two-thirds of the sustainable group cited a negative environmental or health issue that triggered changes in how they farm. Over half the sustainable families reported a kin-mentor influencing their adoption decision. Furthermore, in four instances sons were influenced to return to the farm because of their parents’ involvement in ecologically sensitive farming. A majority (83%, a statistically significant number) of the sustainable parents felt good enough about the occupation to want their children to continue farming, in contrast to only 47% of conventional farmers. It may be that sustainable families obtain greater satisfaction from their farming-choices.

Prudence about all resources (agricultural, environmental or domestic) characterized the sustainable group of farmers. For example, 80% of the sustainable operators had extensive facilities to work on their equipment compared with 27% of conventional operators (significant at the .05 level). Each group had a comparable 3.7 average number of tractors. For the sustainable group, however, the average age of their tractors was 1974 compared with the average of 1980 for the conventional group (significant at the .05 level). Older tractors such as those owned by sustainable operators must be repaired often, and this group takes pride in keeping Aantiques@ operating. Sustainable families were less likely to have central air conditioning (47%) than conventional families (67%), significant at the 0.10 level. Lack of central air conditioning reflects an older home or a reluctance to invest in such equipment, another example of a prudent use of resources.

Sustainable families, we found, differ distinctively from those farming conventionally. Their farming changes during the last five years, their prudence with resources (e.g., how money was spent on the farm and in the home), and their awareness of differing from conventional farmers are all social/behavioral factors. We found a few conventional families that shared these characteristics. Such middle-ground farmers appear to be the most likely group to make a transition to sustainable farming systems. The purely conventional farmers, because of how they view the world and sustainable farming, seem unlikely candidates for conversion. Conventional families were highly critical of the flexibility and experimentation of sustainable adopters, and less respectful of their management than vice versa. Our findings point up the usefulness of targeting educational programs to audiences likely to accept them, and perhaps the futility of convincing all farmers of the worth of sustainable farming systems.

Particular family issues (e.g.. willingness of members to shift from conventional systems) were identified as affecting the original adoption, or, the continuation of sustainable systems once adopted. Wives, whose fathers or other relatives farmed conventionally to aesthetic farming issues as to profitability issues. When fields look weedy neighbors and kin put pressure on wives as much or more than husbands, according to reports. Husbands who have the support of co-adopters in the region are better able to resist such pressures than are wives, who lack involvement in most sustainable farmer-networks. In some instances a farmer was forced to return to more conventional chemical applications due to demands from landlords. Thus, adoption of sustainable farming systems can fluctuate over time and with annual performance, as well as vary with kinship and community pressures.

Our research highlights that a family consensus about adoption (including the wife or the successor) is crucial to the social sustainability that fundamentally undergirds the continued use of sustainable systems. Considering that adoption is permanent if a single farm-family member is converted to sustainable systems stands in contradiction with current understanding about how families function. In addition to environmental sustainability, future research should also take into account social sustainability that preserves decisions made by one generation after the next generation assumes management control.

Objective 3: The investigators were asked to participate in another Illinois SARE funded educational project for which Richard Warner is the principal investigator. A family from this project using sustainable systems, was selected as a subject for video-taped teaching materials. In addition, major findings of this project will be added to the sustainable agriculture web site being developed under the Warner SARE project. Salamon returned to the farm and carried out an additional twelve hours of interviews and participant observation prior to the video taping. This new collaboration made it appropriate to focus on the family and its conventional pair for developing the out-reach case studies. Thus, an audience will be provided with written case-study materials connected with the video and will be given the opportunity to access the University of Illinois sustainable agriculture web site. The case studies are to involve detailed social, economic, environmental, and production information that will entail a true whole-farm system. In particular motivations and beliefs about farming will be included. The families have been assured if they are used in the case studies that they will have prior approval of the materials.

Research conclusions:

Positive Benefits

As a result of the project findings a set of family characteristics associated with adoption were identified. This set creates the potential for targeting those families more likely to make a shift to sustainable farming systems with educational programs. Our findings also demonstrate that a whole-farm approach must include the whole farm family because individual members may present barriers to adoption or persistence of adoption through the intergenerational transmission of a farm.

New Hypotheses:

Sustainable families as a group do not represent a paradigm shift associated with adoption, but rather a gradual enhancement of a fundamental tendency to use all resources prudently.

Social sustainability (potential to persist through intergenerational transfers) may be as important to sustainable farming systems adoption as the original acceptance of innovation.

Farmer Adoption

Operational Recommendations

Based on our findings we would suggest that sustainable agriculture’s advocates soft-peddle messages aimed at nonadopters. We find that not everyone approaches resources in a way that makes them candidates for adoption. Targeting all audiences with missionary zeal appears to be counterproductive.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Because the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network cooperated in the initial phases of sample selection Salamon and Farnsworth made a presentation to their annual conference in March, 1994. About 50 farm couples were in attendance. The case study booklet described above is the major mechanism planned for educating audiences about project findings. An address was also given at the Illinois Renewable Natural Resources Association’s annual meeting in April 1995 in association with a representative of the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network, to an audience of approximately 100.

A paper submitted for publication consideration is attached to this report. A series of other papers and a doctoral dissertation in agricultural economics are in preparation. These publications will be submitted to the regional office as soon as is appropriate.

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

The role of family members other than the male operator of a farm in the context of a “whole-farm” analysis.

Social sustainability and its relevance to the adoption process.

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.