Quality of Life Effects of Conventional, Transitional, and Sustainable Production Systems of Rural Communities and Family Farms in the Western Corn Belt

Final Report for LNC94-065

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $37,786.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Federal Funds: $10,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $16,000.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
John Allen
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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Project Information


[Note to online version: The report for this project includes tables that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or ncrsare@unl.edu.]

The relationship between quality of life influencing farm households for three farming system types in northeast Nebraska were the focus of this study. The three farming systems were identified by a cluster analysis of a statewide survey of cropping practices. After identification of three distinct clusters of cropping practices, the three groups were labeled “conventional”, “transitional”, and “sustainable” (Allen and Bernhardt 1995). In order to assess the quality of life outcomes associated with the different farming systems and their adjacent communities, three objectives were identified: 1. Analyze the linkages of four whole farm systems in northeastern Nebraska to surrounding communities; 2. Analyze how these farm systems are perceived to influence local community well-being; and 3. Analyze probable structural impacts of the four systems on farms and rural communities in northeastern Nebraska. Because the assessment of the relationships local farm households have with the surrounding rural community was the objective, this study was carried out in a northeastern Nebraska watershed. Given this objective and associated objectives of the ACE project, the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District (NRD) was selected. The study identified tradeoffs associated with quality of life, e.g. a farming system could rank high on one or several dimensions of quality of life, but low on others, knowledge which should help farm households and rural communities with planning and priority setting.

Two methodologies were used in the study. In-depth qualitative interviews with farm household and local community members will be used to gather information about their concerns regarding local agricultural patterns and their impacts on the rural community. A quantitative survey on quality of life issues related to agriculture and its linkages with the rural community was also used to supplement the qualitative data gathered from the interviews.

Among the major findings were: (1) Farmers saw few differences in farming practices between the farming systems; (2) Each system had different adoptions in mind for the continued viability of their operations; (3) Different norms and quality of life issues pervaded the three farming systems; (4) The significance of the intergenerational and land lease issues in the region; (5) labor constraints faced by the different systems; and (7) the switch from a nuclear family operation (e.g. husband, wife and children) to father-son or brother partnerships.


Interest in the quality of life issues related to agriculture and rural communities has existed since the USDA commissioned Goldschmidt's comparison of large and small scale agriculture in California in 1946. The study became embroiled in controversy when he found that smaller-scale agriculture resulted in a higher quality of life on a variety of measures for the surrounding community than did larger scale industrialized agriculture (Goldschmidt 1978). More recent attempts to replicate Goldschmidt's work have not always supported the thesis that large scale, industrialized agriculture results in lower quality of life than smaller scale family farms, particularly in the Midwest (Green 1985, Van Es et al 1986, Flora and Flora 1986). A major reason for the conflicting findings is that the newer studies often use different measures for critical variables such as farm "scale" and "quality of life", also the geographical unit of analysis is typically changed from communities to entire counties or groups of counties. Finally, more recent studies often substitute statistical tests of significance for Goldschmidt's use of qualitative and historical data. Despite the controversy surrounding the Goldschmidt thesis and its measurement, the relationship of different agricultural systems to the surrounding community remains of interest as evidenced by the recent comparative analysis of conventional and sustainable farming systems by the Northwest Area Foundation Sustainable Agriculture Initiative. Following Goldschmidt, sustainable agriculture proponents often argue that smaller scale, more diversified farms will produce greater benefits for the surrounding community than will continued growth of monocultural, large scale farming. Typically, however, studies attempting to evaluate this hypothesis analyze only economic and environmental outcomes associated with the farming systems under comparison.

The structure of agriculture can be a significant factor influencing rural community well being or quality of life (c.f. Goldschmidt's seminal work on the negative effects of industrial agriculture on rural communities in California).(2) Three major systems of agriculture labeled "conventional," "transitional," and "sustainable" have been identified in the northeastern region of Nebraska (ACE project 1993). Following Goldschmidt and the more recent sustainable agriculture literature, one would expect these agricultural systems to have differential impacts on local communities and the farm households within each system if the size of operation, ownership structure, or hired labor varied significantly (see Table 1 for significant differences between clusters related to size of operation and ownership structure). Researchers working in the Goldschmidt tradition have focused largely on how farm structure is related to quality of life in the surrounding community. Largely ignored is how the community itself may influence farm structure. Of particular interest in this study were how community level factors such as marketing structure, local farming heritage and information networks shaped farm household decisions regarding production practices.
Note 2: The rural sociological theoretical tradition defines "structure" of agriculture by three primary components: (1) size of the operation; (2) ownership structure, e.g. owner-operator versus tenant; and (3) use of hired labor.

Given the dual policy interest in identifying which farming system best serves family farms and rural communities, it is important to identify and analyze how local community social structures may facilitate or constrain farmers' ability to choose more sustainable farming systems over less sustainable systems. Proponents of sustainable agriculture have argued that sustainable agriculture offers a viable alternative to increasing concentration and specialization in conventional agriculture. Following the Goldschmidt thesis, one would expect sustainable agriculture to have greater positive benefits for local communities than continued growth of conventional farming systems. Among recent work in the sustainable literature which defines hypotheses regarding the relationship between sustainable agriculture and rural communities is the Northwest Area Foundation study, Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community, which lists the following propositions regarding the relationship:

[1.] "Sustainable agriculture promotes smaller farms and more people by requiring generally greater management and labor, thereby providing the necessary population thresholds needed by many rural businesses. 2. Sustainable farmers display greater trade loyalty to local businesses, because they are more committed to preserving farm neighborhoods and local communities (Lasley et al 1993). 3. Sustainable farming retains greater value in the local area by using more inputs produced on local farms or in local communities, rather than contributing to the current loss of value to distant cities and businesses." (Planting the Future, p. 132)

The authors do mention the possibility that if sustainable farmers use fewer agribusiness products, a transition to sustainable agriculture would hurt the local economy (Bird et al 1995, p. 132), a research assumption that was tested by Dobbs and Cole (1992) in South Dakota and found to be true unless significant premiums were attached to organic products.

One of the key assumptions of the sustainable agriculture movement is that sustainable agriculture fosters collaborative efforts among sustainable farmers on a variety of fronts, including knowledge exchange (Hassanein and Kloppenburg 1995) and the tendency to buy products produced by other area farmers (Bird et al 1995). A final assumption of the movement is that diversified production not only fosters ecological health, but also increases the operation's economic health by spreading the "risk" associated with the various crops and livestock being grown. Both concepts, collaboration and diversity as a key to health and flexibility, have also gained currency in the economic development literature since Piore and Sabel (1984). New rural community literature often endorses inter-community collaboration as a means of increasing rural community viability (Cigler et al 1994; Flora 1990), a concept which seems to have grown from Granovetter's (1973) work on the strength of weak ties.

The concept "quality of life" has also been revised since the "social indicators movement" first emerged in the 1970s. When it was recognized that using only economic measures such as per capita income to measure development or quality of life was insufficient (i.e. they fail to take into account stratification within society) (Miles 1985), other "objective" measures of quality of life were developed with "subjective" measures being added later. Given findings that individuals from rural areas appear to assess quality of life differently than those from urban areas (Wasserman 1982; Miller and Crader 1979; Dillman and Tremblay 1977; Goudy 1977; Johnson and Knop 1970), designing measures relevant to individuals living in rural areas has been even more challenging. A primary assumption driving the social indicators movement is that identifying areas of life individuals believe are critical to life quality will help identify development priorities and objectives which met residents' needs and values. While quality of life indicators have been criticized in the past for failing to identify relevant policy issues, more recent work in the area has attempted to overcome this problem by designing measures with more direct policy implications (Innes 1990; Baldwin et al 1990).

A recent report by National Sustainable Agriculture Quality of Life Task Force, chaired by John Ikerd, has attempted to clarify the relationship between sustainable agriculture and quality of life. The task force has sought to expand the analysis of quality of life beyond the typical concerns with environmental and economic outcomes associated with competing production systems to include an analysis of issues such as family dynamics and satisfaction with occupation. Using methods of measuring quality of life suggested by the SAQOL Task Force to measure the quality of life associated with the cropping systems identified in Nebraska will allow comparison of the quality of life associated with each production system.

Project Objectives:

Objective 1: Analyze the linkages of four different whole farm systems to surrounding communities.

Objective 2: Analyze how conventional, transitional and sustainable farms are perceived to influence local community well-being.

Objective 3: Analyze probable structural impacts of conventional, transitional and sustainable farming systems on farms and rural communities in northeastern Nebraska.


Materials and methods:

The study relied on in-depth interviews with farm household members and community members following an open-ended interview schedule as the principal method of data collection (Barlett 1990; Fitchen 1990; Salamon 1990). Because the research deals with farm adoption issues and community involvement (including off-farm employment, consumption patterns and volunteer activities), it was decided that both spouses should be interviewed to assess their involvement in the community and farm decisions. The interview schedule was developed through "practice" interviews with an "executive committee" of farm household members and community leaders (see Appendix 1 for a copy of the interview instrument). After each of the practice interviews, committee members were asked if the questions were clear, if questions should be added/deleted, if the interview format should be changed, etc. After making the suggested revisions, a meeting with farm panel members was held to discuss the revised instrument. Revisions based on farm panel members' concerns led to the "final" instrument.(3) When scheduling interviews, attempts were made to interview each spouse separately so that spouses with differences of opinion might freely express their concerns about farm decisions.(4) Dr. John Allen reviewed transcripts of early interviews to provide critiques of the interview process. Individuals interviewed were assured that the content of the interview would be held confidential. When allowed by the participant or interview conditions, interviews were tape recorded for transcription.
Note 3: As the early interviews were analyzed, it became clearer which issues were of concern to households in each farm systems. Later interviews concentrated on these issues.

Note 4: Because rural sociological literature addressing farm women's activity on the farm has noted a tendency for the women to underestimate the level of their activity on the farm (Fink 1992, 1986; Osterud 1991; Neth 1988; Elbert 1988; Rosenfeld 1985; Sachs 1983), a detailed list of specific farm activities were asked. In hindsight, husbands should have also been asked to report on their spouses' activity on the farm. During the rare joint interviews, husbands often countered their spouse's assessment of her activity by arguing that it was higher and more significant than she was stating.

The farm households were selected from a statewide survey of farms carried out as part of a University of Nebraska Lincoln multi-disciplinary ACE funded project regarding alternative farming systems. Survey results of 60 crop production practices were cluster analyzed to identify distinct farming systems. Three distinct farming systems were identified from this cluster analysis (for a detailed analysis of the clusters, see Allen and Bernhardt 1995 or Proven Sustainable Practices from Nebraska Farmers [SARE Project ANC91-003]). A group of 30 farm families representing the three farming systems identified by the cluster analysis residing in a natural resources district (NRD) in the northeastern part of the state agreed to participate in the in depth interviews. (5) These farming systems were initially defined as "conventional", "sustainable", and "transitional" (as illustrated by the project title).
Note 5: In order to be included in the project, farm households had to agree to participate in an interview with an agricultural economist participating in the ACE project, which involved reporting field-by-field crop production practices and income tax returns. The agreement to participate in both interviews thus involved a significant time involvement on the part of the farm families who agreed to participate. The study may thus be biased in that many of the families initially contacted (randomly) refused to participate in both interviews. The investigators would like to thank the families who agreed to participate in both studies.

Because the initial cluster groups were defined by crop production practices, the nomenclature for the three clusters under analysis will be by production practices, i.e. no-till, continuous irrigated corn, and integrated, rather than the more value-laden terms "conventional" and "sustainable" (see Table 1 for summary of characteristics of the three farming systems). Also, further insight into the three groups based on the inductive interviews indicates that the early assessment of the no-till group as "conventional" and the continuous corn group as "superconventional," while accurate in terms of operational diversity, may not be a valid assessment of the farm systems competing normative systems and goals for their operations. A final caution is that the word "system" may suggest that these farm operations are relatively static entities smoothly operating at equilibria. The following results indicate that notion would be entirely false. All of the systems examined had undergone significant change in the last 10 years and projected major changes ahead. A farm labeled "no-till" today may not have been a no-till operation five years ago and may not be five years from now, hence the reader is cautioned to keep the dynamism of these systems in mind as he or she reads the report.

A variety of methods were used to assess community members' attitudes toward agriculture and its relation to local community quality of life. Key informants, community members with significant ties to local agriculture, were identified in three communities in the watershed district region for interviews. Informants were identified using a snowball sampling technique. Managers or owners of agricultural businesses who agreed to participate were interviewed and then asked to suggest others in the community with significant knowledge of the community's relationship to agriculture. Case study communities were chosen based on factors presumed to have sociological relevance to the type of farm system operating in the area, including ethnicity (Salamon 1990) and a bedroom community. Ethnic communities included one in an area known to be a traditional German Lutheran farming community and a traditional Swedish community.(6) The bedroom community, within a 40 mile drive of both of the state's two major metropolitan areas, was viewed as a likely area for alternative marketing arrangements, e.g. farmers' markets, and hence a prime area for sustainable agriculture to emerge. Another community with a long-term nonprofit agricultural organization devoted to alternative production practices was also selected as a comparison case of the adoption of sustainable production practices. Key informants included leaders of local agricultural organizations, input suppliers, employees of local market channels, lenders, equipment dealers, agribusiness consultants, local extension agents, government program officials and retail outlets. Ideas generated discussions with key community informants and the farm panel were used to design a quantitative survey to measure quality of life issues related to agriculture (see Appendix 2). Given the preliminary nature of the research, the same key informants were asked to fill out the survey.
Note 6: Overall, ethnicity was not seen as an influencing factor on the types of farm systems observed in the region, despite the realization that a micro region could be labeled "German Lutheran" or "big Czech operations of related brothers," or "Swedish" Despite the abundance of ethnic festivals and tourism development devoted to ethnicity (e.g. Oakland's Swedish Heritage Center and downtown decor) in the towns, no one reported ethnic differences in farm types.

Because community level impacts on farm decisions regarding farm practices and farm household integration into the community are likely to vary by community structure, a historical analysis of the changes in the community context was undertaken. Among the factors addressed were: (1) original settlement of the community; (2) population change in the community over time; (3) sectoral composition and influence of the community over time; (4) community decision making structure over time; and (5) development strategies pursued by the community over time. Secondary data sources utilized included: statistical data on population and economic trends, local histories, and interviews with local historians or elderly community members.


The no-till operations were the largest farms. Because of the high percentage of highly erodible land on their farms (56%), over half (60%) of these farmers had gone to minimal tillage systems. They were the group most likely to do soil testing (82%) and were the group with the highest rate of computer usage in their operations (45%).

Continuous corn

The continuous corn operations were the middle-sized operations of the three farming systems. These farms were primarily located on flat land along the Platte River valley with easy access to irrigation, hence the group's high percentage of cropland irrigated, 71 percent. The group was the most likely to rely on anhydrous as a nitrogen source. The group had the least diversified operations with a single crop, corn, being the major source of income for these farmers.


As the group with the smallest average farm size with nearly a third of their farms in highly erodible land, two conditions that would seem to constrain farm income, the integrated farms did not suffer from lower incomes than the other two farming systems who have much larger farms. This group relied on more intense operations (i.e. rotations) and livestock operations to increase their farm income. The group also shunned debt and had the highest rate of land ownership of all farm systems (67 percent compared to 49 and 46 for the other two systems). The group was highly reliant on livestock income with 46 percent of the household income coming from livestock rather than crops.

The different methodologies used by the two projects (ACE and current SARE project) leads to one interesting insight, when asked to distinguish farm types in their regions, no farmers distinguished three groups. Overall, size was the only relevant criterion used by the farmers. Further, farmers in all groups noted the lack of diversity in the region, a sign that the statistical "significance" in terms of production clusters does not translate into the perceived social reality in the study region. Several farmers described their perception of the lack of diversity in the region:

Troy: "Well, crop wise it is pretty universal. That is not distinguished too much around here. Size would somewhat, but we don't have a great variety here. They are all relatively small. Tillage practices would distinguish some of them."

Lloyd: "For the most part, I don't. And I don't think anyone who works directly or indirectly with the agriculture industry does around here. If there's any difference, it's do you have a combination, a livestock-grain or do you just have a grain farm. But really, as far as a banker or anyone else, thinking of one entity as different from another, I don't think they do. I think the only distinction I would make is again, getting more into philosophy, is a person willing to change and adapt and move their operation with the times."

Connie: "It just seems like everybody's who's within the area, they always have the same (operation), they are just staying the same and then every time something has to be changed, it's what the government says we have to do."

Sara: "We kind of just all mesh together around this area. We don't have anybody that really sticks out that does anything different."

Many noted the loss of diversity with the loss of livestock operations over the last 20 years:

Cindy: "I don't think Centralia has quite as much livestock in the area like it used to have. I know where we live right now, this particular farm was known for its dairy products. There used to be dairy farmers around here and a lot of people raised chickens and produce. I know that has changed quite a bit. ...Eventually, all the small people got out. It dwindled down here. Like I said, it's basically a grain operated area. ...Yeah, you look back at old pictures and you see that every farm had livestock on it. It isn't there anymore."

Decreasing rates of livestock ownership appeared to be related to increasing farm size and the decision to "specialize" in either crops or livestock. One source of diversity noted was the development of other farm enterprises such as custom work (see pp.41-42 for discussion of income diversification strategies):

Jeff: "Also, the smaller grain farms probably have more livestock. Rarely do we see large livestock and large grain together. We see one or the other."

Martin: "Well, you know you got the livestock farms where people mainly raise livestock and very little crops. Then there's farms which are more prevalent around here, people just strictly grain farm with no livestock. There's also cash grain farms that have other sideline work that they do like hauling grain and making use of the semis that they have. Oh, let's see, doing different custom work services, using a grain vac for cleaning out bins for people. Just different kinds of things just to help fill in the gaps and make a little more income to make use of the equipment they have already."

Research results and discussion:

Objective 1: Analyze the linkages of three different whole farm systems to surrounding communities.

Farm Practices Decision Process

The major finding related to farm decision processes was that the traditional assumption that the husband and wife are the primary decision makers in the farm operation no longer holds for a variety of reasons. The overwhelmingly dominant intergenerational transfer process for households in all three systems involved sons “working into” the operation with their fathers.(7)
Note 7: Despite the significant financial assets involved in today’s farm transfer process, few of the surveyed families reported any real “plans” to transfer the farm to offspring. Daughters were not seen as potential operators of the farm despite the acknowledged presence of interested son-in-laws in a few families.

Unlike Salamon’s work (1990) with “yeoman” farm families in which land is freely passed onto the succeeding generation, these families entered farming first by sharing equipment, gradually building equity into the equipment line, followed by leasing agreements. Full ownership of the land occurred only much later in the succession process (primarily when the father died). Given the lengthy “apprenticeship” of “working with dad”, the father-son dyad is the major source of decisions rather than the husband-wife dyad. The conventional no-till group also contained many pairs of brothers operating together as a farm unit. In this case, the primary decision makers are the brothers involved in the partnership. In both cases, wives are likely to be left out of the decision making process. Commenting on the change from single owner-operated farms to partnerships:

Jeff: “I would say we have quite a few farming operations where you have a brother that helps a father farming together. I think that is the most common type of farm. Not too many single operators out there.”

Larry: “The big farmers, the full-timers, full-time family farms, I would call that the big category. Usually it’s a father and some sons or extended family of brothers that are full-time, that’s what they are doing and are very good at it. Diversified. No, not always diversified, but they are always busy at it.”

Patrick: Well, if you look at agriculture as a tremendous engine, we can let it idle or we can let it run full board. Once you shut it off, it is pretty hard to restart. I don’t know. California in 1980 went from average farm size of 450 acres to the 1990 census where the average farm size is 350 acres. You know, we tend to follow the coast with about a five or six year lag. So what happened there? It is my understanding that it’s primarily Asians. They are breaking up larger parcels and there is more people on the land. I’d like to see more people, because even though large operations if you take a 2,000 acre operation, usually there are about four people involved in that. About 500 acres per paid of eyeballs is about what it takes. So what’s the difference of having one operation 2,000 acres or 4 operations at 500? In a 2,000 acre farm, I treat it as four workers and then their dependent families are involved somewhat in that, but in that type of operation, three of them can walk away and go home at night versus having four 500 acre operations where you carry that home.

While some wives accepted, if not enjoyed, the newfound “freedom” from the farm as their labor was replaced by sons or brother-in-laws, others appeared ambivalent about their subsequent exclusion from farm decisions:

Karen: We’ve been married now for 24 years, and when we first got married we did a lot together, then it got to be bigger and then I stepped back and everybody else stepped in. ...We are kind of in a group of a cooperative type thing, and him and his brothers do all that, so I guess they kind of took over where I kind of stepped back. There is four guys and their wives, so there’s four wives with this. Everybody (the wives) kind of lets the guys make the decisions and its up to them.”

Cindy: “Well, it is a partnership effort. A decision made by one partner could cause problems, but usually we are both very open about our decisions. I don’t know, we always discuss all of our farm procedures together. That’s our only source of income so you know you got to work together to keep the income going.”

Beverly, who disagrees with her husband’s desire to expand the livestock operation commented: “It’s a two-way street but I am a partner, that’s all.”

While husbands usually reported that they discussed their decisions with their wives, few could answer the question of how their wife felt about the changes they were making in the operation:

Lester: “Well, I think she’s quite in favor of it.”
Jeff: “Okay, I guess. I guess she agrees with them.”
Troy: “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think she has a problem with it at all. It’s just as long as I can make everything work, she kind of stays out of it.”

Despite the potential intra-family conflict related to farm decisions, farm operations continue to undergo significant change (see Appendix 3 for list of crop production practices the groups have adopted and are considering adopting). According to the ACE project’s mail survey, each system was considering several new production practices. The no-till group was considering adopting cover crops (18%), the continuous corn group, reduced tillage systems (22%), and the integrated group, reduced or no chemical usage (31%).

By not limiting the answer to crop production innovations, the inductive interviews provided insight into a much wider range of possible innovations and changes the operations would like to make in the next 10 years. As noted above, the wives did not necessarily attach the same importance to all of the operational changes that men did. Two wives in the continuous corn group argued that their work with livestock (increasing litter survival in pigs and starting a horse operation) as their primary sources of “pride” in making changes in the operation.

Among the major changes reported since 1985 by the no-till group were expansion in the size of operation and changing to reduced tillage systems (either no-till or ridge till).

George: “Well, sometimes being 45 years old, I’m almost 46, sometimes I think about the operation and say we’ve worked hard and we built it. We have quite a bit of equity involved in it. Maybe we ought to settle down and get jobs and let it earn its way, but being brought up as hard working and wanting to do as much as a guy can in his lifetime, I guess that probably won’t happen. Are we looking to expand the operation? I would imagine that we’re probably not going to farm 4,500 acres in five to ten years, we are going to probably farm 10,000 acres. ...We’ll probably go to probably 24-hour-a-day farming. The equipment we have probably will never see the machine shed until the harvest is done or something like that, run 24 hours a day and it’s a matter of economics. You just got to take a look at the situation. The last combine we bought retailed at $159,000 and you just can’t let that sit in the shed. I think as a matter of economics is concerned and efficiencies are concerned. We will just continue to expand and go in that direction. ”

For the no-till group, volume production is seen as the primary way to increase income, hence the decision to expand the operation:

George: “I think one thing is the percent of return. We got high prices right now and the percent return on your investment is going to be very good, but the farmer has a problem with that, he gets a nice return and then he gives it away next year. I think that everybody is working on such small margins that they are being forced to cover more acres to get more out of their machinery and more out of their labor and trying to maintain their incomes that way. I think if you were going to label farms, or land, I personally, myself, we have been extensive land buyers over the last 20 years. We’ve come to the conclusion that we do not want to buy marginal farms, we want to be either buying the poorest farm that we can find or the best farm we can find and leave the marginal or the in-between farm alone. The reason for that is that poorest farm on a good year will probably yield as good as the marginal farm, and you don’t have to spend as much money. The good farms will always do you a good job. So if you are going to tie your equity up, you might as well have it tied up in the very best farm or not spend very much and have the poorest farm and not improve it. That’s the way we look at buying real estate.”

Larry: “We bought just a little land. It hasn’t increased a lot. I haven’t been real aggressive in getting new land. We don’t like to rent so that’s held us back. ...there’s some land that’s been sold that I wish we would have gone after a little bit more. It’s a timing problem. Then it looked like a cash problem. When it bottomed out and some nice ground sold, then you didn’t have the cash to go after it. When things look the blackest, that’s when you’re supposed to jump in. That’s been a regret. I guess that’s pretty much the only one I have, not being more aggressive I guess.”

Expansion is seen not only as a way to increase income, but to make good use of labor and machinery.

Martin: I guess I’m proud of the size. I feel pretty good because we are at a comfortable income level and making good use of our equipment and our labor.

Given the percentage of highly erodible land farmed by this group, the change to lower tillage systems is viewed as a significant factor in reducing soil erosion:

Jack: “Yeah, I think the most part of it though is the fact that I don’t have to watch my farm running down the creek. That’s the real good part of that whole system. Since I started doing that, I don’t have the erosion, the ditches out in the field when it comes time to harvest.”

Lester: I think the fact that we do so much no tilling and like, no-till corn into alfalfa and the no-till into the soybean ground, we don’t get near the erosion. When we first moved out, we had so much erosion problems with heavy rains, and it has really helped a lot. ...I think what probably happened was the first year we were back, we plowed a big alfalfa field that’s kind of hilly and we got it all worked up and it was so nice, and we got a great rain on top the hills. It was all washed away and down at the bottom, it was all covered up. So the next year, we had a chance to no-till into some sandier ground, because I was afraid it was going to blow and we tried it.

Noncoincidentally, the method also helps the no-till group’s expansion motive:

Troy: “Ridge till is just giving us more time to farm a few more acres without hurting the bottom line at all, maybe helping it.”

Members of other groups were more skeptical of whether the expansion model of success proclaimed by the no-till group was actually effective. Many rejected the no-till assumption that farm size necessarily translates into higher net incomes:(8)

Patrick: Yeah, well we have our national cheap food policy, and it bothers me that there are certain interest groups that seem to believe that we have to produce our way out of this mess. It is my understanding that corn prices after the civil war were about $2. In 1919, they were $2.10 or somewhere in that neighborhood. In 1946 they were $2.30 to $2.40. You know, a pattern is developing there. So it always seems is that all you do is produce more with very little compensation. With the current GATT and NAFTA, they seem, you know, it’s a lot with the playing field. Even 10 or 15 years ago, I always felt my competition was a person who would walk behind oxen. That is really my competition. ... I feel that if every country has the right to grow all the food that they can, but when you get into the business of just exporting just for the sake of exporting, is it corn we are shipping over seas or is it oil? It’s my opinion that it is oil.
Note 8: Farmers were accurate in their assessment that farm size differentials between the three farming systems did not translate into net income differences. ACE data indicated no significant differences in net household income (see Appendix 5 for income data).

Connie: “Around here, I’m going to say they are pretty much (the same), only the size is going to be different. Some do farm a lot more than others. The ones that do farm the small ground do very well. It’s probably just the size.”

Larry: “You can make a living out here if you are realistic about what you have to do to earn that. Size isn’t always the most important criterion. It all depends on how many families you are trying to support with your farm. I see that as the biggest. If you break it down per family, these bigger farms probably aren’t farming any more ground on average than we are. ...They are farming a lot more acres. You just look at that and say, `Wow,’ but you have to look at how many families they are supporting.”

Andy: “I guess appearance wise, these guys that are farming thousands of acres appear to be good farmers if the good farming is you know volume of crops and weed free fields and that criteria which they are doing that to satisfy the bank and continue to get more (land for lease). If success is rated on monetary returns, I wouldn’t say they were necessarily more successful.”

Despite the continuous corn system’s apparent lack of diversification, several members of this group reported efforts to rediversify their operations, rather through introduction of new crops or livestock. These farms were primarily adding soybeans or alfalfa. Regarding livestock, several reported moving out of “feeder” cattle and hogs due to recent market collapses and into stock cow herds and one into a horse operation. Those with livestock operations noted that improving the genetic strains of their cattle and swine herds was an important goal for their operation. Despite the significance of marketing to a group reliant on the income of a single crop, some members of the group only belatedly joined the farm program, despite oft-heard criticisms that this group “farms the program”:

Andy: “Basically I was very reluctant to go into the farm program. I farmed all through the seventies and into the early eighties, even through the thick year of ‘83, but I did not participate in the farm program. I felt that I was probably making more money on my own, but then we got more into it and I decided economically no way you can market grain without having the assistance of the government program there to fall back on. ...I farmed up until then (without the program) which very few people around here were. They were all using the government program ahead of me.”

While the continuous corn group did believe expansion would be helpful, they did not share the same intensity of desire to expand as the no-till group: Rod: “We can stand to use some more ground, but it’s not that I am unhappy.” Size had actually decreased on two (40 percent of the group) of the interviewed farms. One significant difference between the no-till and continuous corn group was the no-till group’s willingness to use credit to expand versus the continuous corn group’s desire to gradually get out of debt and become self-financing.

Martin, no-tiller: “Well, we are a highly leveraged operation. We’ve always been that way. We borrow a lot of money ..we learn to work with a lot of borrowed money.

Andy, continuous corn: “We were pretty self-sufficient without too much bank help until we started leasing this other ground.” Melissa: “...when we did start borrowing, it was very small to start with. It was peanuts.” Andy: “Yeah, she’d say don’t worry about this one. If other people can work with theirs we can handle ours.”

The integrated group was more adamant about avoiding farm debt:

Patrick: I guess I do know that I feel the operation would be in a little more better shape if I was not sorry to borrow money. I just hate with a passion to borrow money, but it is a tool. That’s the difference between being smart and being intelligent. Being intelligent just means that you got a lot of mileage with being smart and it means making good decisions. Now, we were taught at a time where we were encouraged to borrow every dime that you can borrow, because you are going to pay it with cheap dollars and you see what happened with that in the early '80s. It’s just my nature that I wasn’t brought up that way and money comes too hard.

Despite their conservative attitude toward credit, the continuous corn group was more emphatic that maintaining a quality machinery line was essential:

Andy: I have a plan to not let my machinery get too far behind, you know, outdated, I guess. I have made some machinery trades at times that I though maybe were, I was stepping out a little too far at the time, but I never regretted any of them. ...I guess I tried to be fairly progressive in maintaining my machinery line....”

Again, the integrated group was likely to reject the emphasis on new equipment. Given the integrated group’s lack of plans to expand in size significantly and their emphasis on cutting farm costs, their tendency to use older machinery, typically purchased used, is not surprising.

Charles: Of course you can’t tell a good farmer by the machinery, he may be machinery-poor.

Scott: Now, there’s a question where I don’t really buy too much of that stuff locally. I can’t pinpoint that (machinery purchases) for one certain thing. One time you might buy a piece of machinery at a farm sale. One time you might see something at a local implement dealer, and other times you know your farm papers, ag papers, ag trader, Midwest Messenger, you know those kind of flyers or paper are always coming out. You might see something two, three, or four hundred miles away and go buy it there too. Privately from a guy, sometime another dealer, sometimes I’ve gone to an auction way off.”

Patrick: “I’d say (I’m) labeled kind of poor and odd. The pickup I drive is 16 years old. I’m odd because I have a Czechoslovakian tractor.”

The integrated group, while the smallest farm size, had the most diversified operations. The philosophy of diversifying to spread risk is central to this group:

Patrick: “...you should have competing enterprises in your farm, not complimentary. The old idea of raising the corn so that you can feed it to your hogs is actually not the thing to do. ...I had enough statistics, economics to know that, that’s what really what happens. You can buy your neighbor’s corn just as cheap. So actually, a person should graze some sort of livestock and then have something just totally off the wall and unrelated, do several enterprises that way whatever you can manage and whatever you like to do. This system does give us windows of opportunity for I can take the oats as grain and sell them for cash, or I can save them for feed. I can make hay, I can make straw if I like so there’s options there. I can keep the soybeans, no I wouldn’t keep the soybeans for feed, but if I had dry beans which I have in the past, I can keep those and in the corn we can keep some for feed or we can sell it all so there’s options there.
Interviewer: So you try to keep at least part of your rotation system in stuff that can have more than one use?
Patrick:Yes. In this century agriculture has about a 20 year life span or 20 years whatever practice technology comes along it takes almost two decades for it to become completely implemented and the money taken out it. A classic example is no till or ridge till. That was around in its various forms in the 60’s. It wasn’t until the mid 70’s that interest really picked up, and it’s not really till the 90’s that no till became adopted and now the money’s coming out of it. ..but I don’t get married to any particular idea or production system, and we’re always looking and you know if something else comes along and it proves over a span of three years or something, that’s it’s going to be a viable thing to switch to, then I will do it.”

The integrated group, already a highly diversified group, was the most likely to say that their operations had not changed significantly in the last ten years and to say that they expected to make few of the “traditional” changes, e.g. investment in larger machinery or expansion in farm size. The group was likely to emphasize increasing its “efficiency” in order to reduce on-farm costs as the means to stay in business. Buying land in order to reduce rental costs was also viewed as a means to reduce farm costs, hence the group’s relatively high proportion of owned land.

Scott: “Oh, I don’t think I need to change. I’ll just keep going where I’m at now. I’ve got a job, I work part time. I mean I had to do that. I don’t know if I see any reason to really get any bigger. I just improve on methods I’m using now and cutting your costs whenever you can. I avoid making any dumb mistakes. You know I try to keep the number of mistakes to a minimum or whatever. Keep the bankers happy I guess and do what you got to do.”

Sara: “The biggest change I see is more and more people working off the farm rather than trying to do more things on your farm to keep the income there rather than to go outside the farming. ... (What we’re) the proudest of I guess it would be the fact that we’ve started to buy some our own land now is kind of... we can call ourselves landowners I guess. It’s a good feeling. ...I guess we just felt better that we owned some ground and we had a little more income with having more ground to farm. In the long run we can see that it’s going to improve it, because we will own it and we won’t have a lot of expenses on it as far as rent or, yeah they’ll be taxes but at least we can say it’s ours.”

The most significant change that this group reported was a recent departure from livestock operations, especially hogs. Given the group’s high dependence on livestock income (49.43 percent of the farm income comes from livestock), the move away from livestock is likely to result in income differentials between the three farming systems. Unless these farmers plan to recover the lost income by moving into new crop production, possibly difficult due to the percentage of their ground that is highly erodible and their small farm size, the loss of livestock is likely to have further implications for these operations, such as a loss of crop diversity as they no longer need grains to feed livestock. Among those reporting exit from livestock production are the following:

Scott: “Yeah, there was (livestock on the operation) until last year when hogs took a nosedive and I got out of them.”

Brad: “Since '85 we’ve gone from 2,000 head of feeder pigs per year produced down to, it’s going to be zero in 1997 probably. We are going the other way I guess. We are going to be out of the livestock by the end of this year. I don’t see any other land coming up for rent or to buy, or nothing in the near future on that end of it so we’re looking at some outside income I guess, from income off the farm.”

Charles: “Yeah, I’m actually ahead maybe since I’ve quit feeding out. I used to feed about 70 to 75 head, and then I fed a couple of bunches since then, you know, at different times, but the feeder price has been so high, I just decided to sell the calves as yearlings. ...[T]here’s no small feeders around anymore. Everybody used to feed some cattle, nobody does anymore hardly.”

The integrated group’s overall lack of significant changes on their operations may signify that the farm as a “business” may not be a central concern in their farm decisions, despite ACE research indicating that farmers from all three farming systems saw farming as a business (Allen and Bernhardt 1995). This group was much more likely to emphasize family and generational issues in their assessment of their operations, as the following indicates: Charles: “Yeah, raising the kids on the farm. That’s probably my number one priority really.”

Sara: Yeah, I do because they are landowners in this area too and their families are pretty well established in this area and it seems like there are quite a few that have stayed as far as generational in this area. It’s pretty strong.

Members of all three groups did mention that changes currently being made in the operation are actually designed to enhance the operation for the benefit of the future generation:

Barbara: “One of those things, I think, once you become a parent, it’s the reasons sometimes we do the things we do and build the operation we do and try to become financially secure is because of our children. That’s almost a bigger part of the reason we do some things... I have heard Lloyd say on more than one occasion, `If it wasn’t for Jay, he probably wouldn’t still be here. If Jay didn’t want to try farming.’ And that’s probably true. And that doesn’t mean that we hate farming or that we hate what we do. We have days that we are more disillusioned than others, but what it means is, a lot of what we do is for the next generation and maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be.”

Phil: “We built a new house here on the original farmstead. I guess that’s what I am most proud of, I guess. (We also

While off-farm employment rates appear to diverge by farm system, with integrated farms more dependent on off-farm employment than the no-till and continuous corn systems, those systems are equally dependent on nonfarm income sources as the farm income results indicate (see Appendix 5). The no-till and continuous corn households appeared to rely more on nonfarm businesses to increase household income. Forty-four percent of the no-till men ran other businesses, with three-quarters of those related to agriculture, such as custom feeding or field work businesses. Forty percent of the continuous corn farmers ran seed dealerships, and other custom work, including spraying, ammonia application and grain hauling. Among the two businesses owned by integrated farmers, one was a consulting operation and another a repair shop. Among women, only the no-till women had businesses with 55 percent of those women currently operating businesses. Given the diversity of businesses and the small sample size, it is difficult to determine how much of the family income was generated by these nonfarm income streams.


Unlike the 1995 Northwest Area Foundation Study (Bird et al 1995), the integrated and near organic households in this sample had relatively lower rates of community involvement than did the no-till or continuous corn operations. Interestingly, the latter production system seemed to have curvilinear levels of activity with some participants reporting either very high or relatively low rates of participation. These findings must be viewed with caution, however, given life cycle effects of participation, first noted by Mayo (1950). Many respondents reported either higher or lower rates of participation at different periods in their lives. Despite the insignificant age differences among the groups, differential marital statuses between groups did impact levels of involvement.

Consumption and Marketing

(2) Do farm households recognize the significance of agriculture to the local economy?

While the majority of farm respondents subscribe to an ag fundamentalist point of view, i.e. farming is central to the local town's economy, most farmers did not see a reciprocal relationship between the community's economic well-being and that of area farmers. When asked about the importance of the town to local farms, many seem to view the potential loss of many services simply as an "inconvenience" that will be met by driving to nearby regional centers such as Columbus, Lincoln or Omaha, a finding seemingly incongruent with increasing rates of off-farm employment.

Despite the often heard complaint that "big" farmers are bypassing the local community for farm purchases and that sustainable farmers may be more reliant on distant markets for specialty products (Bird et al 1995), processes which would hurt the local economy, the majority of farmers from all production systems in northeast Nebraska report making local purchases for seed, feed and chemicals as well as making use of local market outlets. Farm purchases were overwhelmingly local due to transportation and time constraints. Seed purchases are increasingly being made from other local farmers due to the "dealerships" being offered to farmers, a major sideline for farmers in the continuous corn and no-till groups:

Patrick: “There are, in this area, still a significant number of midsize farms that are really buying their inputs at retail, and then there are the large size operations that are living off of the midsize farms. They’re large enough to get semi loads or rail car loads of inputs. They get them at wholesale and then they sell them at retail to their neighbors. They’re the ones that don’t shop at home very much.”

The major farm item not being purchased locally were implements for very different reasons depending on the group surveyed. New implement purchases are made only after significant comparison shopping and thus are often made in regional centers. While the no-till and continuous corn groups relied primarily on new implements, the integrated and near organic groups were much more likely to use older equipment, purchased at farm sales. The loss of local implement dealers was noted as problematic by several farmers because of increased difficulty in obtaining parts and service quickly if needed. Relatively few farmers reported hauling grain to terminal centers, bypassing the local coop, despite the agreement that other people were probably doing so and that it made “financial sense” if one had the equipment to haul grain longer distances:

Larry: “Becoming less so, I’m afraid. That is because of information and transportation and the margins that agriculture is offering. People are bypassing the local towns to go to the terminals. The local towns are struggling because they are being bypassed. If you could go in now, you’ve got towns every seven miles because of transportation and railroads and things like that. If you went into a new area, you wouldn’t have a town any seven miles, it would be every 15 to 20 miles. They don’t seem to be dying away, but they aren’t growing either. You just have to recognize that and accept that. Not every town is going to grow and get that new business in town.”

Brad: “Agriculture is less dependent on them (rural communities). Especially the larger operators, they get more of their supplies and stuff from outside the area, they get bigger truckloads and stuff.”

Lori: “The big guys can afford to or have the ability to bypass the community and can buy directly from the manufacturer or wherever.”

Patrick: “Transportation. As the farms generally grow larger, they do less and less business locally. ...You know that enters into it because if people are going to buy a semi load of fenceposts and if it is a nickel a post cheaper 500 miles down the road, that’s where they are going to go rather than to give that nickel to the local dealer. I am a little bit opposite that. I’ve got a neighbor who does custom baling and I told him several times over the years, I said `You’re not charging enough.’ And he said, `Geez, I’ve never heard that before.’ I said,`Well I don’t want to own a baler. That’s about the last piece of equipment that I want to own.’ I would rather pay him just a little bit more so that he would do it or continue to do it.”

The no-till group were the most likely to report bypassing local markets (for either sales or inputs) and hence most likely to approve of bypassing the local markets:

Martin: “It’s just price. They are going for the best price and probably the biggest reason is most farmers have semis now, their own, and they don’t have to hire to have it hauled. They can have it hired hauled in some cases and still get a better price at a bigger terminal than if they hauled it themselves to a smaller terminal.”

George: “It’s the matter of the dollar, more return. They can load their production on a truck and haul it 100 miles and improve their bottom line by like soybeans, 15 cents a bushel. It’s just a matter of economics and it’s good business to do that. ...but it still comes down to the dollar at the end of this thing, and that’s why there is a lot of persons taking place away from their local community. Economically the margins are less and we have to shop more in look for bargains for better prices.”

The major limitations to bypassing the local market for farm marketing and purchases were transportation; time or labor to haul grain longer distances; and the lack of significant price differentials between market outlets.

Lori: “Well, there are farmers who couldn’t afford to take their grain to Baldwin, they don’t have the equipment or the time.”

Scott: “Sure, you can’t complain there (about price differences between outlets). It’s more your own marketing decisions that make or break you and what they you know, their (local coops) prices are about the same as anybody else.”

Most farmers argued that bypassing the local market (for both purchases and sales) did not reap the economic benefits many argue larger markets are able to offer if time and transportation costs are considered.(10) Many farmers located reasonably close to towns with ethanol plants or plants in progress noted that the new plants might influence their marketing because of the higher price being offered, but feared not being able to produce the volume demanded by the plants. Farmers also mentioned that changes in grading requirements and the consequent discount points might change their marketing, i.e. if they were not able to produce a consistent product required by the terminals, they would be forced to market at local coops which still do not grade grains as finely.
Note 10: Note the farmers' willingness to take into consideration the "cost" of their time. This contrasts with arguments by Chayanov and others that farmers do not consider their time costs. Similarly, the value farmers place on "timeliness" of completing tasks suggests that time is of consideration.

The major exception to the locally-oriented marketing rule is livestock. Nearly all local livestock auctions have closed in the region. Cattle are predominantly sold in Norfolk with hogs being sold to IBP buyers. Given the tendency of the integrated and near organic groups to "feed out" their grains rather than market it, constrained options for livestock marketing should be of importance in this region. One producer commented on the lack of livestock markets in the region:

Larry: “...there’s less packing plants around so that changed a little bit to the negative. There’s not as many buyers available to you. I’m not a big fan of forward contracting your cattle to the packers so that isn’t an option for me. Right now I sell my cattle to basically one packer so that’s not very good...it’s a very limited choice and prices that you get when you do that. It’s kind of scary.”

Still, few farmers are bypassing the limited options by satellite marketing (available for cattle) or using direct marketing. Despite several farmers' concern that their marketing skills would have to increase over the next 10 years in order for their farm to remain competitive, few farmers reported using newer marketing methods such as futures or making use of newer information sources available on the computer, options seemingly available to them given high rates of computer ownership (Allen and Bernhardt 1995).

Interestingly, the argument that time and transportation costs need to be evaluated in purchasing decisions did not appear to be applied to household purchases. Nearly all families reporting clothing and appliance purchases in nearby regional centers rather than the local community. The few families who did shop at the local community reported making conscious decisions to purchase at the local level in order to help the local community:

Lori: I probably buy at least 80 percent of my groceries locally. I understand the importance of buying locally where a lot of people don't realize that. ...I think that people say, `I can get it cheaper in Baldwin and it's worth my drive to go 30 miles in order to get it.’ They might save $10 or $20 on their grocery bill but they also haven't taken into consideration the cost of driving down there and their time. When I worked in Baldwin, it was so easy for me {to go ahead and shop in Baldwin}. Well, I didn't have kids in school. I would stop at the grocery store on my way home. When we had kids, I started really concentrating on that. My mother-in-law told me the importance of supporting local merchants. As my family's business struggled because people started going to Omaha {for hardware purchases}, I learned to shop locally.

Larry: “I’m the `support the small town’ guy. We try to shop there. I’ve heard some people say, `the small towns are going to die, why support them, the big businesses that support the big farmer is the future.’ I hope not.”

The only purchase likely to be made in the local town was groceries. Again, cost had little to do with the decision to purchase locally. Convenience was the primary reason given for local grocery purchases. A further limitation on out-shopping was the need for social interaction fostered by shopping locally.

Barbara: `Can agriculture exist without a community?’ The answers to both of them are yes, but there are always ramifications if part of your community doesn’t exist. Proximity to schools, to grocery stores, to equipment parts you need, all those things have a part in it, but to me, that’s the part that doesn’t count. We grew up without that. I could live with the inconvenience of having to travel to get to grocery stores, a place to buy a gasket for the tractor, things like that. The things that I would find hardest to live without are...people you meet here.”

(3) Do farm households recognize the role agriculture plays in local environmental quality and natural resource use?

Only a minority of farm households attributed local environmental quality issues to agriculture, with most arguing that despite increasing media attention to the problem, most local townspeople do not see agriculture as a problem. They attributed the lack of local concern as a result of local knowledge of farming practices, i.e. knowledge reduces perception of risk. The minority who admitted agriculture contributed to local environmental problems included:

Karen: “Yes, they say that a lot of times. It’s, you know, water running into the, with heavy rains and running into the creeks and with fertilizer and stuff that...I can in that respect feel that way too.”

George: “I’m sure it does especially with Iola, because of the sweating problems that we had over the past ten years or so. It is definitely a concern of the residents of Iola.”

Cindy: “I think all farmers need to be certified to apply their applications on chemicals. I think a little bit of ...knowledge for the farmers on the correct chemical applications. Some of them feel that the more chemicals they use, they will be further ahead on their weeds. If they would only realize that you don’t use the extra ounces to kill those weeds. You need to apply a little less. You are going to get them by going out there and getting them by hand. ...Chemicals is a big thing. A very big thing. Not just chemicals that go into the ground that contaminate the water, it’s chemicals and anything that’s put into animals for better meat and so forth. A lot of city people are very negative about.”

Examples of the theory that knowledge reduces perception of risk or that the problem is primarily a media creation include the following:

Lloyd: “The problem right now and I don’t know that it’s going to get worse, I don’t see the consumer concern issue lessening for some time. The reason is, it’s not really the consumer that’s all that concerned, but it’s the people who influence the consumer.”

Barbara: “Those flagwavers are the people who are waving the red flags and hollering about the things that we eat and drink and things like that. ...I figure we probably have very wholesome food in the United States and if you’re careful about what you buy...I can buy a lot worse than the things they are concerned about. You can feed your family a lot worse things than stuff like that (BGH in dairy products) so I guess it’s really not something that’s an overriding concern for me. I tend to watch fat content and things like that more than whether the milk’s been genetically improved or whatever.”

Larry: “I think it’s more of a national problem. Our community can’t afford to bite the hand that feeds it. The picture you get nationally isn’t always applicable to small towns and the communities realize that. They don’t think agriculture is threatening them from an environmental standpoint anyway. I don’t see that. The beef is bad story or the atrazine story. Things like that, we have to be aware of that. The ultimate consumer is in the city. If all the small towns consumed everything we produced, we wouldn’t have to be aware of that. We have to be aware of what people around the country are saying. I think the media and its coverage of the environment bothers me. They don’t seem to care whether it’s factual or not in some instances. We have to be aware of it because the farm bill gets debated in Washington and that’s where environmental lobbies have the ear of legislators.”

Martin: “Well, I say like, if you take Centralia for example, where people are more connected to the outside of the community you know, people are a lot more aware of what’s going on in reality out on the farm so I don’t think they have the bad vibes so to speak around here as much as you get into the larger communities where people are more distant from what a farmer actually does. It seems like around here, even though people live in town, they seem to be aware of what farmers are doing out in the country and I feel that makes quite a difference ...how close thy are to the reality of the farmer.”

Lori: “I think a lot of it is, like the pesticides leaching through into the groundwater, I think people think that’s just the media and environmentalists blowing smoke. Most farmers are conscious of what they put down and how they run their farms. They (town) trust that people aren’t polluting the water. For one thing, it’s too expensive to put down too much herbicide or too much pesticide.”

The number one defense of agriculture was that townspeople were responsible for greater amounts of water contamination due to chemical applications on lawns:

Lois: “Actually, in the city, the chemicals they put on their lawns is much worse than the farms anyway.”

Cindy: “People in town put more chemicals on their lawn per foot than we put on per acre wise, and their water level isn’t quite as deep as ours is. That is one thing that needs to be made clear to people in town that this is happening and the amount of people in a block that have lawn services come out and do the yard because they want it greener and stuff like that. We don’t put any chemicals on our lawn here because we rely on our rain....My husband is certified for applying his chemicals...They test you on how much chemical you put on per acre and he’s been through that kind of deal. He’s certified and you have people in town that put their own chemicals on their lawn. I guarantee you they are not certified to do that. I’d like to point that out because they are always pointing a finger at the farmer.”

Because the integrated group typically saw their job as producing “food” rather than a mere “product,” they saw some of the greatest challenges ahead as producing food that met heightened consumer concerns about food safety:

Sara: “I can see a lot of people wanting farmers to do a lot more organic growing. They are all becoming more health conscious and they don’t want a lot of chemical use on their produce or even the corn they are going to use for their cereals and what grass or what hay has been sprayed when they feed it to the cattle for milk and those types of deals. I think farmers are going to have to learn how to do more organic growing. There has definitely been a health run on the people lately. ...they think that when they go to the store that food is always in the store. I don’t think they realize any paths where that food comes from or who’s preparing it or who is growing it.”

Patrick: “I would rather have more options, but you take what you got. There is a lot of technologies that permit handling vast quantities and large acreages that they are in the feed business. There’s people that are more food-orientated. They are organic perhaps or they are in the fruits and vegetables. I have a little trouble with people that claim (if) we switch (to) technologies to more organic oriented style things that `oh, we are going to have all this hunger.’ Well, I’m not a big reader of newspapers but I do watch TV and it just seems to me that hunger is more of a political problem than access to food instead of just having enough.”

Objective 3: Analyze probable structural impacts of conventional, transitional and sustainable farming systems on farms and rural communities in northeastern Nebraska.

An initial question was whether or not community and farm household members are aware of the nature and range of farming practices and strategies being adopted by local farm households and if so, how they evaluate the applicability of these practices and strategies for their own farms. Among the research questions to be addressed include:

1. Are farmers aware of a diversity of farming practices in the region? If so, what relationship do farmers see between those practices and the local structure of agriculture?

As noted earlier (pp. 7-8), few saw significant differences in the region’s farming practices. The major outcome they see resulting from a particular farm practice is the sharp competition for ground that is resulting from the no-till and continuous corn groups’ expansion. Farmers often see the intergenerational transfer process (does the land remain in the family, get leased out, or go on the market) as one of the key factors shaping the future of farming in the region. A major concern of farmers in all three systems was the amount of land being held by elderly landowners who were typically no longer farming, but leasing the ground out as a source of retirement income. Because land only rarely comes onto the market, finding land is listed as one of the primary hindrances for an entry into farming. Leases in the region have recently switched from crop shares (typically 60-40 split) to cash leases, often requiring cash payment up-front. Farmers reported rental rates in the region ranging from $110 to $170 per acre (depending on whether the land was flat, had a pivot on it, etc.).(11) The no-till group, which sees its future as tied to expansion in order to produce volume, is most likely to see the transfer outcome as the critical issue shaping the region’s agricultural future:

Martin: “I think probably the reason is obviously if there’s families with no kids and the guy retires, that eliminates one family right there. If it’s a big family and the dad retires, you can’t split the ground between a lot of kids, and some kids are not going to want to farm and will want to move on to something else and the size, if there’s not enough income there to please a family, I guess they will have to find something else to do, so that dictates it there.”

Larry: “I think in the next 10 years there will be more (land on the market), just within our six mile radius. We see a lot more that a decision will have to be made on. Sometimes you just don’t know if the kids that are off the farm that might be inheriting that land, if they’ll want to mess around with it or if they will want to sell it. I don’t know that decision that they’ll make. A decision will have to be made...then there might be more right in our immediate area.”

Cindy: “Land value. I do know that when land goes up for sale around here, the land value is so high that there are some farmers who are out there in this area who would like to really have that piece of ground, but can’t afford the price per acre of it and you do get a lot of what you might say wealthier people who are not even farmers like doctors and lawyers and things like that who are able to purchase this land that are not even from around this area. Like we have a lot of doctors and lawyers from Omaha that buy land around here because they can afford it, but they do get farmers in this area to farm it for them. Sometimes it puts a big damper on things around here. You know it’s not giving the smaller farmer an opportunity to purchase land.”

Connie: “Just to rent ground, even if you rent ground just to get started, a lot of it is not 60/40 anymore, it’s cash rent so you have to come up with that cash and pay it right away. Coming up with the cash is tough.”
Note 11: A quick calculation, assuming 160 per bushel dryland corn production, with an average $2.10 corn (in most recent years), illustrates that before taking out any costs of production, leases in the $110-$140 range are taking a minimum 33 percent of the crop income.

The no-till group, with its high proportion of leased land, received the most censure from other groups as a force driving up rental rates in the region.

Jeff: “The other would be the competitiveness of trying to obtain rental property. It’s competitive. Some people will spend money and it’s not even logical.”

Janice: “Right now there are a lot of big farmers gobbling up all the land, and they don’t leave a lot for the small farmer anymore.”

Brad: “I feel a lot of these farmers are farming more and more land because of the economy and scale where you need more land, because you are making less per acre to make a living. I feel a lot of it is greed. Maybe it’s just local around here too, but I actually feel that a lot of them are running more land and they farm and make more money all because of greed.”

Censure of the no-till group’s expansionism may be directly, albeit subtly, experienced by members of this group, as one integrated farmer found while driving a no-till farmer’s truck:

Patrick: It does. I drove a truck just during harvest for a family member that was involved in the elevator business here locally. When I drive my truck down the road, people wave, but when I was driving this other truck, they really wouldn’t look who was driving it, but they would see the truck they knew who it was and they would never wave. So it’s not always an overt thing.

Despite the central importance of the intergenerational transfer process, none of these families had concrete plans in place to help their children enter the farm. Recent surveys of other family-owned businesses note the lack of planning and its repercussions on business longevity: only one-third of the companies survived to the second generation and only 10 percent to the third generation. Lack of planning, family arguments, and estate taxes are blamed for the poor retention of family-owned businesses (“Family-Run Firms Prepare for Succession,” 1996). An ad hoc process seems to be followed in which several common factors enter: (1) which child has shown the most “interest” in the operation; (2) does the child believe a better living could be made by working elsewhere; (3) is the parent willing to help the child enter by sharing equipment, renting land at favorable terms, etc. Because of the high capital costs of Midwestern operations, most families noted that family “help”, especially in the area of equipment usage, is essential.

Martin: “I basically started out with nothing, because dad only farmed a couple of hundred acres and I basically started doing custom work and started renting machinery and just built it from there. I think if somebody wants to start that way, having the opportunity of having machinery there to use, but most people can find either someone to work with or their dad or a neighbor or a farmer ready to retire. I think it just depends on the will.”

Lester: “It depends on what kind of family background to get help from home. In certain cases it could be a lot harder in some cases it probably be easier.”

Mary: “To make a profit, you got to farm enough ground to pay for the equipment and all that. There is no way that somebody who has never been on a farm or even get totally rich from winning the lottery can do that. You can’t come up with that kind of money. ...there’s no way you can just buy all that stuff. It’s tough, unless you are under somebody’s wing, to ease you in.”

The only “planning” that goes into the succession process seems to be selection of a “chosen child” to take over the farm:

Scott: “Oh you mean like giving him a few pigs and that kind of stuff? Yeah. We restore antique tractors and that. He’s got a couple of them so he’s got tractors already. Like right here in the shop he’s got a big tool chest and tools and he’s pretty active out here helping doing stuff and that so you can say he’s got his foot in the door. Oh I think when he’s about ready to take over this place, I’ll be just ready enough to let him have it. I really look for myself to go you know go to a full-time job or something like that. It’s kind of like what my dad did. I mean he started working in town and just kind of left the farm to me. I’ll probably just kind of do the same with Christopher as soon as he can get old enough to become financially stable and socially stable and all this and that. I’ll probably just him sort of take over. He’s your son that’s all you can see him as. I mean you can’t call him an employee or a category like that. He’s, how would you explain that, it’s kind of a chosen one you’ve got in your head to take over some day.”

Interestingly, mothers seemed more willing to identify this child at a very early age while most fathers were more hesitant.

Lori: “The youngest is farming now (playing in the basement). The oldest one is in first grade, the younger one in kindergarten. The youngest one plays with tractors, plants his fields. If I was to say one would be more likely than the other, it would be him.”

Connie: “My middle one is, I mean if it’s painted green, he’ll do anything for you.”

Irene: “Right now, the way it looks, it’s going to be the youngest one (age 6). I’m pretty sure of it. Because if a chance to go with his dad, he’ll go. He rides the tractor, you know, he goes to cattle shows with him. Things like that. He’s the outdoors type. I know my oldest one isn’t and it don’t bother me.”

The choice of the “chosen one” to take over the farm at such an early age may be one reason why these farm households failed to develop “concrete” succession plans:

Larry: “I thought I would (farm). I never considered a lot of other possibilities. It’s funny. We never talked about it a lot, that I would come back and start farming. That’s just the way it...kind of an unspoken agreement that I would do that. So there was no disagreement on either part either as to what would happen. It’s been a very harmonious arrangement.

One major impact seen by the current farm practice of not carefully planning the succession process, combined with the low returns of agriculture (compared to alternative investments) and the high capital intensity of Midwestern agriculture is the belief that farm transfer may be significantly curtailed in the next generation as noted by the vast minority of households who answered the question of whether they expected fewer families to be farming in their area in the future affirmatively. Among those who are pessimistic about the future of agriculture:

George: “It’s my personal feeling about agriculture is this...our margins will continue to become slimmer and smaller and eventually we will be weeded down to a few and then we will have public funds come back in and we will work again for a gigantic conglomerate corporation type of situation and end up working, doing the same thing we are doing, but it will be with public funds or outside funds coming into it.”

The failure to develop plans may be symptomatic of parents’ belief that returning to the farm is not a viable option for their children due to the low incomes associated with farming in the region. Parents can actively discourage their children from expecting to return to the farm:

Lester: “I can see any time that an older person, you know, a lot of the young people are being discouraged to come back to the farm. I guess we really don’t do that with our children, but they don’t want their kids to come back, because they think it’s such a poor lifestyle where we’ve been on the other side and think it’s great, but we still don’t try to influence our kids. We just don’t try to discourage them.”

a. If farmers are aware of potential impacts of farm practices on farm structure, what types of social, economic and environmental impacts do they see related to these practices? How do they evaluate current farming systems in terms of quality of life?

The major quality of life impact seen by producers in all three production systems was the loss of “family time” because of the labor demands of larger operations. The no-till group’s tendency toward expansion is seen by many as a choice of income, i.e. “standard of living,” over “quality of life”:

Lester: “I think a lot of it is the lifestyle the people want to live. You know everybody wants to get ahead of the next guy, to live higher. In order to do that, you have to farm more land or else they have to go out and get a part-time job in the winter time to keep up with everybody else. I think that’s what is kind of changing things around here.”

Mary: “Money is the bottom line for a lot of things. If you are not making any money, well, you can’t go on and on. You have to find a way to make money. I think that’s why the economy is up scaled. You have to have a bigger farm and some of those who haven’t been able to farm more, well, can’t make a living. So either someone goes to town and tries to get a job or they quit.”

Martin: “(A good farmer)...He enjoys working hard on his farm, but he enjoys getting out and socializing with people and relaxing, and I guess maintains his equipment well. Enjoys his family as well as his farm....”

Melissa: “It’s the matter of putting your priorities straight. You know, do you want to work 20 hours a day for the rest of your life and pay enormous cash rent, or do you want to make a comfortable living and spend some time with your family and special time, which I guess has been one of our big things on not getting any deeper into farming.”

If standard of living is viewed as important, “family time” is likely to be relegated to a few winter months:

Cindy: “You got the winter to spend a lot of time with your family and it’s not quantity time, it’s quality time. An the kids, our kids are very understanding about that. Martin puts some long hours sometimes, but when he’s home, he’s home and that’s it.”

Not all wives were willing to accept this tradeoff (income versus family time) even if their husbands did. If husbands and wives have different opinions about the quality of life versus standard of living issue, significant conflict is likely to occur as the following quotes from one household suggest:

George: “She comes from a family that probably has not been involved in such an intense farming operation. Over the years, people adjust and everybody has gotten used to us. When you think about a 24-hour-a-day operation is this, it should enable people to spend more time with the families and should enable them to work 12 hours and be off for 12 hours. Where today, when it’s just an immediate family like this, we’re gone and then home for 3-½ or 4 hours and back out and away you go again. It makes a dismal type atmosphere.”

Karen: “I guess they’ll (good farmer) will find time to spend with their family. To me, that’s an important thing. Like our guys are so busy we just really don’t have time for a lot of that.”

Members of the integrated group, with their strong emphasis on family, were the most likely to adopt a quality of life approach to their farm decisions:

Patrick: Ever since I went to this strip crop system, I never had so much free time. It allows me to do some things that I feel that are important to me. I don’t believe in the philosophy he who dies, has the most toys, wins. ... It’s important to me to be able to do things like travel, and I like meeting people. There has been several farms that have come up for sale in this area and I can’t get them to pencil out so I don’t buy them, and I realize that if I did them, it would entail more of my time and resources devoted to that and I don’t know if that’s what I want to do. Evidently, I don’t do that so I place a high value on my time. ...Do only what is necessary and I continually ask myself that question. Sometimes you have to stop doing what you think is right and try a system that does not do that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to ask that question. I think a lot of their tillage and stuff that goes on especially in the spring is recreational.

However, this group may also face similar constraints on family time as they supplement declining farm income as the result of poor livestock markets with off farm employment. One woman reported the problems associated with her husband’s full time job coupled with full time farming:

Irene: “I feel with his dairy job and working on the farm, it takes away from his kids. And, I believe in family time. I was raised on family time. My dad worked at a 10 to 12 hour a day job and he was home. And, it seems like I’m more the one that’s going to make their life a little bit more enjoyable growing up because I have my summers off...so when they’re out of school, we get in the car and go driving. ...[A] week ago, we had spring break, and my husband took six days off, too, so the kids really enjoyed coming home after school, and their dad was home, you know. ...Friends and coworkers, especially my boss that works, they joke with me that `Oh, you guys will never argue then because you don’t have time to see each other.’ He goes to work early in the morning, and I’m at home. He comes home and I take the kids to school. We might have an hour in the morning. And then he’s gone at the farm...and then I go to work at 10:30, and we’ll both get home at 7 p.m. And in the wintertime here, we’ll have like an hour for supper and then he’s in bed. ...So, we won’t say hi to each other until the weekend. You know, `How was your week?’ ...He said this has been going on for two generations, his dad was sort of the same way...working a job, and work the farm, and now he’s doing it.”

A second quality of life issue related to increasing employment and consumption patterns outside the community is the loss of social ties. If the process of farm consolidation and farm purchasing patterns does result in continued loss of ties to the rural community, many farm families report that the primary loss they will face is the loss of social connection to their community.

Lori: “If you don’t have a community near you, you’d have no school, you wouldn’t see your neighbors as much I don’t think. You run in to town and you always talk. You’d have neighbors you’d never see. You have that now anyway, but it would be more pronounced.”

Sara: “I guess some people would think we are little nosey when we have find out what’s all going on in everybody else’s lives and feel a part of their lives. You kind of feel left out when you don’t see them go by. Like call up and just even talk to their answering machine and say `hey you guys doing okay over there?’ Well, it’s probably not as strong now because of the outside working, but you try to stay in contact even if you know where they work if you have to drop in there, but I don’t think it’s as strong now as it use to be.”

The loss of recreational ties to the community was significantly felt by many households because such events as the traditional town dance represent symbols of community or cooperation:

Lester: “I can remember back when I was a kid and I’m sure it did because going to town on Saturday night and visiting with the whole country, that was the thing to do and nobody does that anymore. I mean it’s kind of a on-your-own thing. ...I think a lot of that has to do with at one time the businesses in town were real strong, and right now the ones in town here ...we’ll go there when we can’t go to Norfolk because Norfolk has much more to offer. You know, at one time everyone was open on Saturday nights when you went to town you took the eggs and spent it all on whatever you needed. It doesn’t work that way anymore.”

Martin: “When I hear the word community, I guess I just think of probably our local community because it’s the closest. It’s the people that you can visit with. Different events that you participate in with people I guess. ...It’s got a population of around 600 or so roughly and you pretty well know everybody. You know all the businesses that are in town and everybody is friendly, everybody for the most part is friendly. I guess that’s life in the community. ...I still feel, at least in our area, it’s a great community because you still have events to go to.”

2. What relationship do farming practices and the local structure of agriculture have on the community and its future?

a. If community leaders and residents are aware of potential impacts of farm practices on farm structure, what structural impacts on local agriculture and the community do they see flowing from current farming practices? How do they evaluate these outcomes?

From the farm perspective, one major repercussion of the farm household practices of increased outshopping and marketing has been a loss of local market outlets.

Scott: “You have to say both there because what activities happen around in your own back door, or your little home town will always influence you. Elevators closing or opening or fertilizer dealers are changing. ...they’ve all declined really. Both livestock and grain markets. A couple local smaller elevators have shut down and a couple of slaughter houses have shut down. Yeah, there’s fewer markets, but they are bigger markets I guess.”

Overall, farmers did not appear too concerned about the loss of market outlets because they believed enough intercommunity competition remained.

Martin: “How important are they to the well-being of agriculture? I would say the communities are very important too, because services offered in the community seed farmers and the competition between the towns would probably give you a more fair price than if one community in the area and sort of a monopolized business. I think the competition keeps the services better and the prices better for farmers.”

Phil: “Well, some of the smaller outlets have disappeared, but I don’t think we’ve been hurt by that. There is still enough around for competitive bids.”

The threat of loss of farm-related businesses has led to farm-community cooperation in some cases:

Connie: “The co-ops and the machinery places, those are very, very important. John Deere was going to leave Mound City and the whole community got together and they went on national TV and everything to get it to stay.”

From a community perspective, the major repercussions of the current farm structure in the region was the loss of a customer base. Despite academic concern about the repercussions of off-farm employment, many community leaders saw off-farm employment as a stabilizing force in the local economy. One respondent in a community with high rates of off-farm employment noted:

“We didn’t get hurt as bad as some area towns during the crisis years of the 1980s. Enough farm families in this immediate area work off the farm that they have the cash flow to continue shopping.”(12)

The finding that community leaders may view off-farm employment as a positive economic force in the community, despite outshopping patterns, is reminiscent of Gringeri’s (1993) research on the role of community leaders in defining and creating certain types of work for farm wives.
Note 12: The finding that off-farm employment income enabled farm households to maintain their usual shopping patterns during the farm crisis years contradicts the findings of Lasley et al (1995) which reported significantly reduced spending of all types during those years.

Community Case Study

Despite its status as a county seat, Redfield is a relatively isolated community of approximately 1600 in a traditional rural poverty county. Initially founded as a railroad community, the town is now 15 miles from rail service and eight miles from a U.S. highway. The community itself has rebounded from the population loss in the 1970s, but the county has seen a one-quarter loss in population since 1950 (Table 4).(13) Major employers include a cheese processing plant, a hydraulic manufacturing plant and a telemarketing firm. Two organizations in town are devoted to economic development: the Chamber of Commerce and Redfield Community Development, Inc. (nonprofit corporation with 166 members; funds from dues, real estate sales and agricultural land rental). City tax rates have decreased steadily since 1989 (.7022 to .5613 per $100 of actual value) while county tax rates have increased (.3262 to .3448) with rates at the industrial site outside of city limits set at $1.6915. One public and one private school serve the community with a nearly equal distribution of students. The county has several notable agricultural features including its ranking as one of the top two counties in state for oats and dairy production and in the top 10 for alfalfa and barley. Average farm size is 403 acres with 16.2 percent of cropland irrigated (Nebraska Public Power District 1994).
Note 13: Interest in population issues must be high: obituaries are printed on the front page of the newspaper while the births (if there are any) are printed inside under a column headed "Future Subscribers" (Cedar County News, 1996).

While the community leaders(14) and business owners surveyed readily acknowledged the community's dependence on the surrounding farm population, none saw a continued pattern of dependence as healthy. The loss of farm population on surrounding farms and the repercussions for Main Street were noted by all. Two sentences clearly summarize the problem: "a section used to have three families on it, now a family has three sections" and "for every seven to ten farms that go out, a business goes out of business" (Johnson 1996, personal interviews).
Note 14: As noted earlier, definitions of community leaders are problematic as illustrated by the following. One person noted a list of 14 possible leaders to interview. Only one was a person currently holding political office (i.e. no city council members were listed); no women were listed. Finally, personal information played a major role in assessing a person's leadership capacity, "he's a Tabor boy, but he might be able to tell you some things" and "I'd tell you to visit Mr. X, but he's dead. His son has taken over the business and he couldn't tell you much. He's not his dad."

In order to escape this dependency, nearly all community leaders emphasized "diversification" as the key to a healthier local economy. What constitutes diversification may be problematic. Community leaders had divergent opinions on whether or not recent additions to the local economy were a part of that process: while one listed expansions at the hydraulic factory as examples of diversification, others saw the plant as part of the agricultural economy. Leaders agreed that diversifying away from agriculture does not mean promoting efforts to entice large manufacturing plants into town. Noting the lack of payoff by other communities who had spent money recruiting large industries, leaders noted that the town would be better served by recruiting several small factories (10-15 employees) rather than "going after" a larger firm promising employment of one hundred or so. In order to "advertise" itself, the community has recently invested into an Internet web site at a modest cost of $1500, with a utility company providing technical support for the project. The effort serves two "advertising" goals: (1) attract smaller size firms; and (2) attract "people who can make their living with a modem." Whether or not the community will find success with either goal is questionable. First, the goal of setting up a colony of small manufacturing plants may be hindered by the relative isolation of the community as well as the overall lack of unemployment. Second, attracting computer-linked professionals seems unlikely given the lack of amenities in the community likely to be expected by this group, especially the lack of retail and recreational options.

When asked whether or not the community had considered collaboration with other communities as a possible solution to some of the problems created by isolation and a small economy, all said no. One described the problem: "We don't see much collaboration in northeast Nebraska. Nebraska is still rooted in the independent farmer mentality. Businesses are independent." The lack of collaboration on one publicly funded service, education, clearly hurts the local economy (i.e. taxes are higher than necessary due to replication of services). The same respondent noted that, "Economics has nothing to do with it (the decision to consolidate). As long as a town can field a football team, it will keep its school. It will go down to eight-man football and even six-man football, but it will not consolidate until it can no longer keep a football team." Such fiscal "irresponsibility," however, is not borne in other essentials such as police protection, fire and ambulance services. Not only are these functions largely carried out by volunteers rather than paid staff, the community has long ago joined with other volunteer units from surrounding communities to provide these services.

The overall lack of collaborative efforts does not bode well for increasing farm-community cooperation. Despite the importance of the dairy-processing plant as both a value-added operation, thereby retaining more agricultural dollars in the community, and its status as a major employer in town currently undergoing expansion, the apparent success of the value-added model has not appealed to community leaders. Leaders at a local nonprofit farm organization noted a general lack of interest among community leaders has permeated their efforts to include the community as part of their education activities for both the Small Farm Energy Project and the more recent IMPACT program.


The above case study of one farming system spatially clustered in the northern part of Nebraska and the surrounding community illustrates that some of the assumptions underlying the sustainable agriculture movement may need to be revised. First and foremost, knowledge exchange and other forms of local collaboration (e.g. purchasing from other local farmers) were not strongly developed in the area, despite a twenty-year presence of an alternative farming organization in the area. Creating the networks of local knowledge exchange seems dependent on farm household willingness to share information (seemingly available), but more importantly, an "audience" receptive to the information to be shared. Why such an audience has not developed given the group's networking efforts and strong research program remains to be answered. The community's similar lack of collaborative efforts both the surrounding farm economy and with other surrounding communities illustrates a similar sort of value system prizing independence, but may again be a symptom of the lack of partners willing to collaborate with the community, whether other nearby towns or businesses willing to relocate to the area. One reason for a lack of collaboration may be predicted by Cigler et al (1994) is that the community may not have resources to contribute to a network of cooperating entities. Given the impoverished state of the community this may be likely. Conversely, community leaders may not feel that the smaller communities in the county have enough to contribute to make its efforts at reaching out worthwhile. The lack of active collaboration with the surrounding farm population is not surprising given the farm population's reluctance to participate in the community as illustrated by the near organic and integrated group's overall lower levels of community participation (i.e. volunteerism) and willingness to shop in regional centers. As sociologists, the congruity in farm and community attitudes toward collaboration indicates that a similar norm structure appears to operate in this micro region.

As farm households become viewed as a major consumer group (Brown 1993), providing consumer goods and services may help curtail the current outshopping by farm households (as well as that by other town residents). One major complaint by farm households was the lack of local recreational facilities. Providing these facilities on a community-level with area farm support is a cost-effective and community-building method of providing quality facilities. Some communities in the region were already developing such cooperative ventures:

Barbara: “Uniontown in the past few years has made some group improvements that I think are phenomenal for a community this size, such as, they built a brand new library, which is absolutely gorgeous, we have a new middle school that we are constructing this year...new health and fitness center. The health and fitness center and the library were built by community donations. They went out and actually solicited money from the community...but the community banded together and managed to build both of those facilities, I think within a couple of years of each other. And they are both very nice and very used by the community. I think that says something about how Uniontown feels about itself and what its people are willing to do.”

Finally, regarding adoption of sustainable practices, one of the major findings of this research is that farmers in all farming systems can adopt conservation measures, sometimes in spite of themselves. Policy makers and extension should be made aware that a farmer may best be persuaded to adopt more environmentally sound methods by appealing to the language of the farming system. The no-till and continuous corn groups’ emphasis on “cash flow” and “returns” may lead them to adopt more sound methods as a more “efficient” procedure rather than as a conservation measure as the following quote about a more efficient irrigation system suggests:

Barbara: "That has more to do with conservation, good use of the water, making the water do the best that it can on the land. It doesn't have a lot to do with conserving it for somebody beyond us to use or somebody ahead of us or worrying about who's water it is. We all own the water so to speak, we all share the water."

While many might argue that without the proper motivation, i.e. a true concern for the environment, their adoption of more environmental sound methods is insignificant. Given the different value systems operating in the three farming systems, it is apparent that a more pragmatic approach of “selling” the idea based on the values and norms of the particular system is more likely to bring the desired results in a more timely fashion. In conclusion, one of the most significant findings in the research is the different “trajectories” each of the farming systems is on, because of the goals, norms and constraints underlying each farming system. Whether these systems will stay on course, e.g. continued expansion for the no-till group; rediversification for the continuous corn group; or loss of livestock operations in the integrated group, is of major interest when considering the “sustainability” and “quality of life” associated with each of the farming systems.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Production of a 30 minute slide set summarizing the findings to be used for mobile presentations in area communities, agricultural organizations and extension offices.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

1. Specific number of farmers involved: 30 interviewed, 3 on farm panel

2. Specific recommendations for day-to-day operations:
a) Plan the intergenerational transfer process early
b) Think about potential cooperative efforts in order to produce the volume required by many niche market products (e.g.: two or more farmers could contribute on a contract, buying a new semi, or building storage facilities necessary for new products.)


Areas needing additional study

Four major research and education areas visible from the research include the following:

• Potential mediation services as family partnerships grow more complex.

• Training for farm wives in several areas: economic decision making; environmental repercussions of alternative practices; and landlord-tenant issues. Given current greater longevity for women than for men, training for farm women will become more essential over time as the population ages and more farm wives are left to manage property. While it is often assumed that women will make more environmentally conscious landlords, research has not supported this claim because female landlords do not discuss actual production practices with their prospective tenants (Rogers and Vandeman 1993). Giving the knowledge base from which to make comments and evaluate prospective tenants could change this dynamic.

• Economic impact analyses of the rate of outmarketing and the resultant economic losses for rural communities. Old multiplier effect analyses may be based on outdated assumptions and hence be of little value in estimating the economic costs of new marketing and purchasing patterns.

• Comparative analyses of healthy communities showing an ability to maintain youth retention in the area and market centricity and unhealthy ones who are having greater difficulties in these areas.

• Marketing training for farmers. Training related to what to look for (and avoid) in specialty item contracts would be helpful as farmers consider moving into alternative crops. Farmers themselves see poor marketing as a drain on the local economy:

Larry: “There was an opportunity all early in the summer to price your grain at a good price and I was surprised by the amount of grain that got sold after the price had dropped forty or fifty cents. Then they were bringing their corn to town. And that tells me that they are not watching the market because the price is there and they are bringing it into town after the price has fallen. Either they are not watching or they are not good marketers or I don’t know what the deal is. They are just not taking the risk or I don’t know what their reasonings are. I was amazed. It really bothers me. How many millions of dollars is that taking out of this town by farmers not paying attention to their marketing.”


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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.