This project allowed us to characterize (define) sustainable farming systems in Maine. The project also facilitated publishing of a Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society (MESAS) quarterly newsletter and the overall strengthening of the Society.
Key components of the project included an initial survey of 225 “sustainable agriculture” farmers as determined by farm organization representatives and agricultural support personnel. This survey provided data for the construction of an instrument used to survey a broader sample of Maine farmers and was used to select 30 farmers with who on-farm, in-depth interviews were conducted. Of these thirty interviews, 19 were videotaped and the footage used in producing the video “Conversations with Farmers: Finding Sustainable Agriculture”. From the thirty in-depth interviews, case stories were written about each farm family and are being published in the project’s culminating publication. Also from the interviews, a typology of Maine farmers was established.
Based on results from the initial survey of 225 “sustainable agriculture” farmers, a second survey was mailed to a sample of all Maine farmers. Results and analysis of this survey include comparisons, by farm type, of: number of sustainable practices, marketing channels, years farming, education, gross farm income, and prevalence of off-farm work. In addition to the results and analysis, representative farm budgets are being published in the project’s culminating publication
Publishing the MESAS quarterly newsletter and the MESAS Mentoring Program were also initiated with this project.
This project has characterized and defined sustainable agriculture in Maine. In addition to producing a video, “Conversations with Farmers: Finding Sustainable Agriculture”, the project also surveyed a sample of Maine farmers and assisted the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society (MESAS) establish its communication and educational capacity.
Through the results of the survey of Maine farms, the project compares individual Maine farms based on a typology of farms – Conventional, Appender, Evolver, and Designer. Using this typology, Maine farms are compared in the areas of: number of practices used, public access, types of markets, years farming, gross sales, the incidence of off-farm work, and the role of farm income in providing family livelihood. This typology was also used in developing the representative farm budgets included in the project’s culminating publication.
Through an initial survey of sustainable farms in Maine, the project selected 30 farms with which to perform in-depth, on-farm interviews. Nineteen of these interviews were videotaped and the contents were used to produce the video, “Conversations with Farmers”. Twenty-eight of the interviews are summarized in case story format and are to be included in the project’s culminating publication.
This project also enabled MESAS to begin publishing a quarterly newsletter, to develop a Mentoring Program and to develop a Powerpoint presentation to be used by MESAS Directors and others for public speaking engagements.
Objective #1: Gather, analyze and prepare detailed farm-generated financial, production and marketing information into case study reports and farm budgets that will define integrated sustainable systems and assist other farmers in determining whether adopting more integrated production and marketing practices makes sense on their farms.
Objective #2: Strengthen the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society (MESAS) to become recognized throughout the State as the place to go for information about and examples of sustainable farm systems and as an organization that will continue, long after this project ends, to promote sustainable agriculture by establishing a MESAS mentoring program, a newsletter, a comprehensive mailing list, and research information developed through this project.
Objective #3: Prepare farm-generated information and analysis in written and visual formats that are educational and user-friendly and thus may be widely disseminated to other groups and individuals as well as in public presentations sponsored by MESAS, Cooperative Extension, producer groups, the Maine Department of Agriculture, and individuals at a wide variety of events relating to agriculture and/or the environment.
Initial Survey: From a survey of farm organizations and agricultural support personnel, a list of 225 Maine farmers identified as using “integrated farming systems and sustainable agriculture practices” was developed. A modified Dillman approach to mail surveys was used to survey these 225 farmers concerning their use of specific agricultural, processing and marketing practices and certain demographic and financial information. Survey analysis consisted of frequency analysis of responses to individual questions.
“Conversations with Farmers” Video: Survey respondents were ranked by the number of identified practices used on their farm. The thirty highest scoring farms that provided geographic, economic, and structural diversity were selected to participate in more in-depth, on-farm interviews, nineteen of which were videotaped. The remaining eleven on-farm interviews were tape-recorded. From the tape-recording and videotaping of the thirty interviews, transcripts were made of twenty-eight (two were lost to technical failures). These transcripts were edited to reflect the most useful statements concerning the various aspects of sustainable agriculture in Maine. The original video footage was then edited to aggregate the most useful statements and visual effects into a single video.
Case Stories: From the interview transcripts and follow-up conversations with the farmers case stories were written for 28 farms. These stories focus on specific key components of each interview and are included in the project’s culminating publication.
Statewide Survey: Based on the results of the initial survey, a second survey was developed and mailed to a representative sample of all Maine farmers. The mailing list for this statewide survey was developed using appropriate lists of farmers and agricultural product retailers from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. The lists were aggregated into a single list and cleaned to remove duplications and non-farmers. A random sample of the aggregated list was used for the survey utilizing a modified Dillman approach to mail surveys. This statewide survey included all the questions from the initial survey in addition to questions about public access to the farm, current and future marketing channels, use of marketing programs, and off-farm employment. Survey analysis consisted of frequency analysis with chi-square testing for significance.
Newsletter: Using the case studies as a foundation of information, MESAS began publishing a quarterly newsletter in Summer 2001 in order to keep its membership and other interested individuals informed of the development of sustainable agriculture in Maine.
Mentoring Program: Based on positive responses from a majority of the 30 interviewed farmers, MESAS developed a mentoring program that links farmers interested in using integrated farming systems and sustainable agriculture practices with farmers already using them. Enrollment as a “Learning” farmer is open to anyone working to implement a sustainable farming system. “Mentoring” farmers are identified by program staff according to the mentor’s capacity and appropriateness to respond to specific needs. “Mentoring” farmers offer their time and experience on a voluntary basis.
Powerpoint Presentation: From the 19 videotaped interviews and the results of the statewide survey, a Powerpoint presentation is being prepared for presentations of findings to farmers and others interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture farming in Maine. The use of Powerpoint technology will allow MESAS Directors and others to provide the presentation to a wide array of audiences.
From the in-depth interviews of 30 sustainable farms, a typology of Maine farms was established – Commodity, Appender, Evolver, and Designer. These farm types cover the spectrum from large, specialized conventional farms to small, integrated sustainable farms. The viability of such a typology was validated by the ability of over 80% of the second survey’s respondents to self-select based on farm type descriptions provided in the survey.
The types can be characterized as follows:
#1. Designer – Holistic, integrated biological system from the beginning.
#2. Evolver – Transitioning to integrated biological system from commodity-based system
#3. Appender – Appending sustainable practices to commodity-based system
#4. Commodity – Commodity-based system minimizing production costs of undifferentiated product.
Designers and evolvers meet a threshold condition of sustainable agriculture. Commodity and appender farms meet a condition of conventional agriculture.
Of particular interest are the following results from the second survey:
#1. The respondents are almost evenly split between conventional and sustainable farms
— 52% of farms were “commodity” or “appender”
— 48% of farms were “designer” or “evolver”
#2. Sustainable farms are more integrated into their community
— 57% of commodity farms are closed to the public, compared to 28% of sustainable farms
— 46% of sustainable farms are open to the public more than 30 days per year, compared to 22% for commodity farms
#3. Conventional farms are larger (in terms of acreage) than sustainable farms
— “Commodity” farms are 282 acres, on average
— “Appender” farms are 111 acres, on average
— “Evolver” farms are 43 acres, on average
— “Designer” farms are 24 acres, on average
#4. Conventional farms tend to sell a larger portion (76%) of their output to wholesalers whereas sustainable farms tend to sell more directly to the consumer (57%)
#5. “Designer” farmers have a higher level of education than “commodity” farmers
— 27% of “designer” farmers have some graduate school education, compared to 12% for “commodity” farmers
— 82% of “designer” farmers have some education beyond high school, compared to 60% for “commodity” farmers
#6. Sustainable farmers rely more on off-farm jobs than do commodity farmers
— On 47% of “commodity” farms, neither the farmer nor the spouse work off-farm, as compared to 27% for “designer” farms
— On 36% of “designer” farms, both the farmer and the spouse work off-farm, compared to 20% for “commodity” farms
#7. Conventional farmers have been farming longer than sustainable farmers
— “Commodity” farmers have been farming on average for 27 years
— “Designer” farmers have been farming on average for 13 years
MESAS is stronger now than it was before the implementation of this project because of the wide distribution of its quarterly newsletter and the video, “Conversations with Farmers”.
Quarterly Newsletter: This project allowed for the professional writing and editing of the MESAS Newsletter, an effective, well-received publication that is applicable to a majority of Maine farmers
“Conversations with Farmers” Video: This project also allowed for the professional production of the video, “Conversations with Farmers: Finding Sustainable Agriculture”, a production that is effective, has a wide and diverse audience, and that receives many positive reviews.
Mentoring Program: The MESAS Mentoring Program has been less than effective. The program has numerous Mentoring Farmers, but has had limited requests from Learning Farmers, in part due to the limited promotion the program has received.
Powerpoint Presentation: This resource will be used after the life of the project.
Research Analysis and Case Stories: Smith, Stewart N. and Andrew C. Files, 2004. Sustainable Agriculture Development: Types and characteristics of Maine farms. (NOTE: This resource is the project’s culminating publication and is in the process of being published.)
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
One impact of the project was provided by the video, “Conversations with Farmers: Finding Sustainable Agriculture”. This video was premiered to the farmers who participated in the in-depth, on-farm interviews at a banquet on March 20, 2001 where the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources honored each participating farmer as a “Steward of Sustainability”. The video was also aired numerous times on Maine Public Television. In addition, the raw video footage was used to produce a second video, “Elements of Sustainable Agriculture”, as part of a Northeast SARE Professional Development project (Project No. ENE01-63). This second video was shown to University of Maine Cooperative Extension personnel, USDA/Farm Service Agency staff, Sustainable Agriculture Program students, and others. As a result, this Research and Education project was able to raise the visibility of sustainable agriculture and sustainable agriculture farmers in Maine. Over 100 copies of “Conversations with Farmers” were distributed to farmers, agricultural service providers, and interested members of the public in Maine and the Northeast, most in response to requests.
Another impact of the project was its ability to strengthen the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society (MESAS). Through publication of the quarterly newsletter, annual hosting of panel discussions at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, and the annual hosting of an afternoon of farm tours, MESAS has become a group that farmers, policy makers, and researchers turn to on many diverse agricultural issues. Specifically, the group has informed the Governor’s Vision Statement on Agriculture, the Governor’s Blaine House Conference on Natural Resource-based Industries, and the development of policies and programs at the State level. In addition, the findings from this project have been used in presentations by the Lead PI and others associated with MESAS.
The presentation of farm budgets for “designer” and “evolver” farming systems is being published in the project’s culminating publication.
While the project was not designed to alter farmer behavior during the life of the project, because of interest shown by farmers in the videos and other presentations, several farmers probably did modify their practices during the project’s life. Over time, with the use of the video, the Powerpoint presentation, the case stories, and the farm budgets, changes in farmer behavior are anticipated.
Areas needing additional study
The MESAS Mentoring Program needs more resources if it is to be effective. Analysis of what attracts farmers to such a program may be a start.
Further study could also include the needs and requirements of farmers that are transitioning to sustainable farming systems, as well as research on how to organize effective, local agriculture marketing systems.