Future Farmers in Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for LNC94-067

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $20,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $14,550.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Leslie Reindl
Minnesota Food Association
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Project Information


The Minnesota Food Association's Future Sustainable Farmer Project attempts to describe the background and skills successful 21st century sustainable farmers will require and offer insights into their traits, attitudes, and social priorities. The purpose of the project is to help address the educational and community barriers with which future sustainable farmers are faced. Quite often, sustainable farmers find that publicly-funded institutions do not provide the information, educations, and training they need. Meanwhile, they may be faced with a lack of support from community members and other farmers who look with suspicion on their practices.

The future of a reliable and safe food source, healthy communities, clean water, and productive land may rest to a large extent in the hands of tomorrow's farmers and today's educators. In an effort to help educational institutions meet this challenge, the Future Sustainable Farmer report identifies attitudes, knowledge, skills, and social issues that will be important to 21st century farmers and explains how sustainable farmers acquire and maintain the skills the need to farm sustainably.

The results of this report and the dialogues form the basis of a job description that highlights the background, skills, knowledge, education and experience a future farmer will require. The skills and knowledge identified in the study will also be compared with the various land-grant curricula to determine how well the university courses match the needs of future sustainable farmers. In addition, the Minnesota Food Association has begun work with land-grant institutions to increase and enhance the universities' sustainable agriculture offerings.

The profile of the sustainable farmer of the future will not mirror that of farmers of previous generations. The farmer of the future may or may not have grown up on a farm. In fact, the future farmer may have lived his/her entire life in the city. The future farmer may easily be a man or a woman, born in the United States, or elsewhere. One certainty is that the traditional image of a farmer is likely to change.

The sustainable farmer of the future will do more than just grow food, raise animals and make a profit to support the family; he or she will serve as an educator, protector of the land, and community builder. The future sustainable farmer will require patience and the ability to think and plan long term. Significant manual and intellectual work as well as special management skills will be required. Finally, the future farmer will view quality of life and living within his/her natural and financial means as a top priority.

To help future sustainable farmers acquire and maintain skills they will need to farm sustainably educational institutions will have to rethink not only what they teach, but how they teach it and who they view as their customers. Land grant institutions are in the position to lead the way with programs geared at preparing students from a variety of backgrounds to become farmers and help current farmers to improve their skills. Effort should also be made to encourage greater exchanges between researchers and farmers so that the work the universities produce is sure to match the needs of their intended audiences, which will include in increasing numbers sustainable farmers.

Project Objectives:

(As stated in the original grant)

1. Develop a job description that (a) describes the work of the future farmer, (b) reflects society's expectations of those who care for the land and grow food in a sustainable way, and (c) reflects quality of life expectations of the farmer as a member of a local community.

2. Develop a prospectus for the preparation of the people to be farmers in sustainable agriculture.

3. Use the job description and the prospectus as a means of broadening the discussion and acceptance of sustainable agriculture as an important force for development of rural communities.


Materials and methods:

Information used in the study was collected through a literature review, survey, interviews, and dialogues. MFA employed all of these techniques in an effort to draw a more complete picture of the needs of future farmers and how land-grant and other educational institutions might help farmers acquire and maintain the knowledge and skills that they need to farm sustainably.

The first phase of the study consisted of a review of academic literature on sustainable agriculture. Specifically, MFA wanted to identify the skills, knowledge, values and attributes researchers found to be important to farmers. The review offered a framework for understanding the results generated in the surveys and the interviews.

As part of the second phase of the study, MFA mailed surveys to 427 people identified through its membership list and referrals. Seventy three people returned the survey. MFA grouped the survey respondents into four categories: (1) sustainable farmers, (2) sustainable agriculture professional, (3) educators, and (4) employed in another field. Slightly more than half of the respondents identified themselves as farmers. An additional 18 percent are in sustainable agriculture professions, and 10 percent are educators. Almost 21 percent of the respondents are employed in other fields. Forty-six percent of the sustainable agriculture professionals, 29 percent of the educators, and 67 percent of the respondents in other fields would like to become sustainable farmers.

The third phase of the study consisted of a series of interviews with farmers, sustainable agriculture professionals, educators in related fields, and people who would like to become farmers. The interviews covered many of the same questions included in the survey, but generated longer and more in-depth responses.

MFA volunteers also conducted dialogues with sustainable farmers, professionals in sustainable agriculture, educators, and students. The dialogues were used to both refine a job description that highlights the key skills, attitudes, and knowledge future sustainable farmers will require and explore ways in which land-grant institutions might be more responsive to the needs of sustainable farmers.

Research results and discussion:

Objective One: Attachment I is the job description which describes the responsibilities, skills, attitudes, and attributes necessary for the future farmer in sustainable agriculture. The job description is based on the survey, interviews and dialogues conducted through this project. The information compiled is consistent with what was suspected in terms of the nature of the requirements of the position. The future farmer must be very versatile, have a broad educational background and perspective, possess critical thinking, problem solving, marketing and management skills, think in terms of systemic connections, and be very grounded and committed to their community. In addition, the future farmer must be a good communicator.

Objective Two: Attachment II is the compiled information upon which the job description is based. This report, entitled "Preparing for a Sustainable Future," is being made available to the community as a means of outlining for general use the necessary information for those considering a future in sustainable agriculture.

Objective Three: The information gathered through this project has been reviewed by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). MISA has been a silent partner in this project and has been very helpful in reviewing our work and in assisting in guiding the work of the advisory council. The job description and prospectus (report) will be used by MISA as it builds the curricula of the sustainable agriculture minor in the graduate school in the Collage of Agriculture. At this time, there are plans to create a minor in sustainable agriculture in the undergraduate school, as well.

In addition, MFA will be collaborating with MISA in the implementation of the NC SARE grant, "Experiential Learning Activities for Education in Sustainable Agriculture." The principle investigator is Craig C. Sheaffer, Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota. "Preparing for a Sustainable Future" will be used as a primary resource for this project which will conduct a series of training sessions in experiential learning for land grant institutions in our region. (See Attachment III.)

Research conclusions:

The future farmer in sustainable agriculture in the 21st century will likely look different than the conventional farmer of today. To be a success the future sustainable farmer will require knowledge of specific sustainable farming techniques as well as communication and business skills. He or she will require an holistic management approach and must be willing and able to explore natural solutions to farming problems. The future sustainable farmer will have to understand marketing, not just selling. He or she will have to help educate consumers about the importance of a sustainable food system, while responding to their demands for specific products. Finally, the future farmer will need to be able to work with both neighbors and other producers to ensure that sustainable farming, good health, and communities flourish.

Land grant institutions have an important role to play in both helping sustainable farmers acquire the knowledge and skills they need and working with farmers to educate the public about the benefits of a sustainable farming system. Unfortunately, many sustainable farmers do not turn to land grant institutions for education and training they need to begin farming or to maintain their skills. They have found that the institutions do not offer programs, courses, or research that address their needs.

If land grant institutions are to meet the needs of the people they are supposed to serve and help build healthy communities, they will need to listen more carefully to sustainable farmers, offer courses and programs they need, and reach out to and help prepare the sustainable farmers of tomorrow.

The intent and hope of this project is to provide a bridge for that effort.

Implications for the Future Use of this Study

The Minnesota Food Association's intent in completing this study, with the support of SARE and the Jay and Rose Phillip's Family Foundation, was to provide an informed basis for work of assuring the future of sustainable agriculture in Minnesota and other communities. This work does not stop with the dissemination of the information through the land grant institutions in our region or by hopefully influencing other educators in a broader community. While that impact is necessary and very critical to the future of sustainable agriculture, the implications are much broader. Who will populate the land and farm sustainably in the 21st century?

Based on the findings of this project, we who are interested in answering that questions, need to look in new places for those future farmers. We need to think differently as we design programs to repopulate the countryside. An exciting example of that currently exists here in Minnesota. A large community of Southeast Asian people have relocated in Minnesota in the last twenty years. Many of them live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, although some have relocated to small towns in the rural part of the state. While many live in multi-generational households, their preference has also been to live in close proximity to other extended family members and others of their native culture. Many families are involved in urban agriculture, selling their produce at many farmers markets in the city. But access to land has been a significant problem, especially land close to urban populations.

The impact of welfare reform and the implications for even legal immigrants has been of increasing concern for the Southeast Asian community. They have approached MFA to seek assistance in relocating many families (some say as many as several thousand) into rural Minnesota. The intent is to support the families in purchasing farms which will allow the families to farm collectively, utilizing their extended families to provide labor and to pool resources. This is just one example of the future farmer in sustainable agriculture, as identified through this project.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

This report and job description will be made available to anyone interested in the future of sustainable agriculture. MFA will be advertising this report for sale at a nominal cost in a variety of publications and on a future web site on the Internet which will be set up before the end of the year. The report will be made available to the members and affiliates of the Midwest SAWG. In addition, the executive summary information will be sent to high school educators and guidance counselors and to the technical schools in Minnesota.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.