Management of Small Rural Holdings as Economic and Ecological Units

Final Report for LS00-118

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $21,406.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
David Zimet
North Florida Research and Extension Center Inst.
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Project Information

Brief Description

The project produced a research agenda concerning small land holdings from a joint environmental-economic prospective. This was accomplished through a collaborative planning effort involving landholders with 5-50 acres, resource and economic planners, and environmental groups. Regional meetings were conducted to discuss economic, resource, and ecological problems faced by the small landowners. The geographic focus was the panhandle, Florida-Georgia border, and central Florida counties that represent the Southern Coastal Plain. The result of the project is a research agenda for small landholders, increased awareness and communication between the concerned groups, and a source book with information relevant to small land holdings.

The project produced a research agenda concerning small land holdings from a joint environmental-economic perspective. In regional meetings, landholders, resource and economic planners, and environmental groups discussed economic, resource and ecological problems faced by the landholders in order to identify a relevant agenda for future research. The geographic focus was the panhandle, Florida-Georgia border, and central Florida counties that represent the Southern Coastal Plain. The region also shares a water resource that is important to the ecological and economic activities of the region. To date, little information has been available to small landholders concerning the management of property of 5-50 acres as economic and ecological units. The information gathered in the regional meetings addresses the concerns of those who manage resource use on a regional or sub regional basis in conjunction with property owners and is valuable to both sets of parties. The result of the project is a research agenda for small landholders, increased awareness and communication between the concerned groups, and a source book with information relevant to small land holdings. The ultimate goal of this project and future research is to assist small farmers to improve production and marketing of traditional and alternative agricultural and rural commodities, improve awareness and communication between the concerned groups, and generate greater choices for consumers.

Project Objectives:

Funds requested will support a planning project to identify problems and potential solutions which will result in the design of a full proposal. The planning project will develop recommendations for research designed to build a body of knowledge for the management of small holdings as economic and ecological units. The specific objectives of the proposed planning project are to:

1. Identify and evaluate key problems of small holders from the landholders point of view and that of those in the public sector and quasi public sector responsible for resource planning

2. Identify research issues for environmental conservation techniques suitable for the small landholder

3. Identify information requirements concerning potentially remunerative alternatives for small holders and catalogue and summarize (at least) 20 relevant documents

4. Identify and evaluate economic and ecological opportunities and barriers for new and existing small farmers, and

5. Prepare a document that will summarize the discussion and findings of the planning project


The structure of the rural U.S. is changing. Agricultural production has become more concentrated as average farm size increases and the number of farms overall decreases (Gebremedhin and Christy, 1996). Farmers exit agriculture or diminish their farming activities because of difficult economic conditions facing the farmer and increase dependence on off-farm income (Gebremedhin and Christy, 1996). Florida's comprehensive planning requirements are urban oriented, promoting the conversion of medium and small farms to exurban subdivisions (Audirac, 1998). Furthermore, in an effort to manage financial troubles or in reaction to the unwillingness to farm of their children, farmers have sold parcels of land. Such sales are relatively common in the Southeastern U.S. where population is increasing or urban sprawl is significant. The land is often sold as small rural holdings (lots of 5 to 50 acres) and is used for exurban subdivisions or individual small holdings. Many of these small holdings are dedicated to forest or timberland (Birch, 1994). In the South, from 1978 to 1994, the number of private ownerships with fewer than 10 forested acres increased from 2.7 million to 3.2 million and that of 10 to 49 acres increased from 0.6 million to 1.2 million. The proposed planning project is based upon the assumption that the economy, the environment, and the community are inextricably linked and that good management and planning are necessary to benefit each of those components.

The Southeast United States has particularly been affected by the division of farms into small farm or small exurban holdings, i.e. parcels or holdings of 5 - 50 acres. Small farm parcels are faced with different economic, social and environmental circumstances than larger parcels of land (D'Souza and Ikerd, 1996). To date, small farms have not fared well economically even with recommendations from many sources. Recommendations for management of small holdings in the rural-urban peripheries as ecological units have been limited. General cases for such management have been oriented towards specific types of gardens (e.g. butterfly gardens) or for organic production. Some NGO's have promoted grass-roots conservation a la Bill Mollison's permaculture. Small land holders face numerous obstacles or problems, and the viability of their holdings appears threatened. The most pressing issue comes from the threat of urban development, whereby agriculture is being supplanted. In the southern states, including Florida and Georgia, few resources are directed toward this issue.

In regard to land management, resource management, or viable economic enterprises, very little information is available for the new type of holdings. Land use recommendations are oriented towards either the economic set of problems or the ecological set and, with the exception of organic production, there is not a group of integrated solutions in which both sets are simultaneously addressed. An integrated approach would address land management in a way that reflects the attitude of land owners (Vericker, 1998). A planning project involving people who are affected by the situation (private land owners and those in the public arena responsible for assisting land owners, resource use, and land use planning and community development) would reveal the issues that can be resolved through further research. Such a focus would help assure that future research would be of use to the groups or constituencies represented at meetings proposed under this project.

Because little is known about the proper management of the smaller holdings in either an ecological, an environmental, or an economic sense, the emerging structure creates new challenges. For example, Birch (1994, p. 4) wrote, "The implications of changing ownership patterns are significant. ... More than 40 percent of the current owners acquired forest land for the first time since 1978. These owners control 25 percent of the private forest land." In general, information is lacking concerning the management of land holdings other than forests as ecological units. Some whole farm studies such as Ikerd et al. (1996) have been conducted, but as stated in IV.A.2. above, much of the information for farms is oriented towards enterprises, the farm production resource base (Breeze et al 1991, for example), or specific farming practices rather than the farms or lands as an ecological unit. In sum, most of the information that does exist relates to large holdings or to active farms, not the emerging group of land holdings/homesteads.

In Florida, a series of focus roups of small farmers was during the period January 18 - 23, 1999 (Pandion Systems, Inc., 1999). Those small producers that attended identified "land development" as a major problem, but the report by Pandion Systems, Inc., did not give any insight into the issue. Reynolds and Moss (1998) and Barnard and Westenbarger (1999) have researched influence of land use and urbanization on farm land, but have not researched the economic/ecological land management issues.


Audirac I. 1999. "Unsettled Views About the Fringe: Rural-Urban or Urban-Rural Frontiers?" Pp. 7-32 in Contested Countryside: The Rural Urban Fringe in North America. O.J. Furuseth and M.B. Lapping (eds.) Perspectives on Rural Policy and Planning Series, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Barnard, Charles and David Westenberger. 1999. Influence of Urbanization on National and Regional Trends in Farmland Values. Reported in

Birch, Thomas W. 1994. Private Forest-land Owners of the Southern United States. Resource Bulletin NE-138. Randor PA: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Forest Experiment Station.

D'Souza, G. and Ikerd, J. 1996. "Small Farmers and Sustainable Development: Is Small More Sustainable." Journal of Agriculture & Applied Economics. Vol. 28. Num. 1, Pp. 73-83.

Gebremedhin, T.G. and Christy, R.D.. 1996. "Structural Changes in U.S. Agriculture: Implications for Small Farmers." Journal of Agriculture & Applied Economics. Vol. 28. Num. 1, Pp. 57-66.

Reynolds, John E. and Susan Moss. 1998. The Florida Land Market Report: 1998 Survey Results. Florida Food and Resource Economics Report No. 140, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.

Vericker, John. May 1999. Improving Forest Management in Florida: A Landowner Survey. Masters Paper Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Forest Resources and Conservation.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Ivonne Audirac
  • Alan Long
  • Laura Miller-Regalado
  • Michael Wetzstein


Materials and methods:

Prior to the planning meetings, the research assistant interviewed project stakeholders to discuss their concerns about small landholdings. Those interviewed included county extension agents, representatives from environmental agencies and nonprofits groups, small farmers, and researchers. This information was used to develop the meeting agenda and preliminary alternatives to be presented at the planning meetings.

Three regional planning meetings and one follow up meeting were held in Florida:

· West Big Bend, October 5, 2000 - 6:30-9:00
Leon County Extension Office, Paul Russell Road,
Tallahassee Florida

· Panhandle, October 19, 2000 - 6:30-9:00
Okaloosa County Extension Office, 5479 Old Bethel Road,
Crestview Florida

· North Central Florida, November 13, 2000 - 6:30-9:00
Columbia County Extension Office, Route 18, Box 720
Lake City, Florida

· Follow up meeting, March 6, 2001 - 6:30-9:00
Dorothy B. Oven Park, Thomasville Road
Tallahassee Florida

The main focus of the planning meetings was a discussion of specific problems and concerns faced by the landowners, resource and economic planners, and environmental groups in attendance. Attendees received a packet of information containing the alternatives included in the source book as well as information from the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Project (SSARE). During the meetings, attendees discussed problems specific to their situation and reviewed and commented on the alternatives. The follow up meeting provided an opportunity for the project coordinators to present the findings of the planning meetings and to receive comments on the draft of the source book.

Laura Miller-Regalado served as research assistant and project coordinator. Her assistance was funded through the research grant from SSARE. Project collaborators Dr. David Zimet (University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, North Florida Research and Extension Center), Dr Ivonne Audirac (Florida State University, Department of Urban and Regional Planning), Dr. Alan Long (University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) and Dr. Michael Wetzstein (University of Georgia, Agricultural Economics) volunteered their time to the planning project. Extension agents assisted in publicizing the meeting information to farmers in their counties and in hosting the meetings in the three north Florida counties.

The final, wrap-up meeting was held in March, 2001. Cooperators were supplied with a draft of the Small Farm Source Book prior to the meeting. Landowners who attended were given a copy at the door. At that meeting the Source Book was presented and discussions were held on various points raised by participants.

Research results and discussion:

There were several common concerns voiced by project participants, which can be broadly defined as: regulatory, marketing, and alternative production issues.

A. Regulatory Issues

Participants expressed concern over the lack of a central resource for information on regulatory issues. Presently, producers must contact the USDA, FSIS, EPA, IFAS and the Florida and Federal Government separately to obtain information relevant to their operation. Several of the attendees had trouble obtaining information in a timely manner. The general consensus among participants was that a central information-clearing house tailored to the small producer would be very helpful and time saving.

Producers feel that many of the regulations are outdated and should be reevaluated with respect to small farmers. One participant that has livestock stated that some of the livestock regulations are 100 years old. Many of the regulations make it difficult for the small producer to incorporate value-added and direct marketing into their operation.

Regulations and taxes also affect the competitiveness of Florida farmers as compared to Georgia or Alabama farmers. Agricultural regulations in other states are less rigorous than in Florida, making farming in Florida more difficult. For example, Georgia has an exemption on ad valorem taxes on farm equipment purchases that Florida does not have.

B. Marketing Issues

Cooperatives were suggested as a solution to some of the regulatory problems and as a way to organize individual farmers for marketing purposes. Many of the farmers did not know about cooperatives in their area or how to go about forming one. This is another area where a small farm information resource would be useful.

Several participants discussed alternative markets and marketing techniques. Community supported agriculture (CSA) is not common in this area. Participants explored reasons for this and possible ways to promote agricultural enterprises in their communities. Small farmers markets that cater to the small producer were suggested. Ones in operation such as the Saturday market on Park Avenue in Tallahassee and the Saturday Haile Plantation market in Gainesville were discussed. One participant mentioned new generation co-ops as an alternative to traditional cooperatives and suggested that they could function as umbrella organizations for individual farmers. CSA type cooperatives were also discussed.

Participants expressed the need to know what types of CSA projects the community would support.

Participants discussed specific obstacles to marketing that the small farmer faces. Many of these are due to production problems that make it difficult for the small producer to guarantee a consistent supply that grocery stores and other outlets require. Producers also felt there is a lack of locations for selling their products. Again cooperatives were mentioned as a possible way to ensure production and provide enough variety to support a retail outlet and potential buyers.

Producers that have had success with alternative marketing techniques shared their experiences. Roadside stands, individual farmers markets, selling to schools, specialty stores, and to restaurants were some of the suggestions. One producer uses the Internet as a marketing tool in conjunction with a farmers market stand. This was of interest to many of the participants who were not familiar with the Internet or had not considered using Internet marketing.

C. Alternative Production

Many of the participants expressed a desire to supplement their income from traditional farming with alternative products and markets. Alternative production such as organic farming was discussed. Alternative products such as ethnic foods for niche markets were given as an option to traditional crops. Aquaculture and the problems with implementing a program, specifically permitting requirements, in Florida were also discussed.

Many of the participants expressed an interest in agritourism as an addition to their traditional farming activities. Value-added processes were also discussed as a way to increase farm income. Specialty foods and alternative farming techniques were also mentioned.

Participating landowners expressed very little interest in considering non-farming alternatives for their land such as the selling of development rights to a public or non-profit conservation agency. The main intent among participants was to remain in farming as long as possible and in full control of their property rights.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
Small Farm Source Book

The Small Farm Source book includes information categorized by overall topic as follows:
i. Organic farming
ii. Farm direct marketing
iii. Forestry alternatives
iv. Alternative crops and livestock
v. Value-added agriculture
vi. Transfer of development rights
vii. Conservation easements
viii. Agricultural tourism

The source book also includes information on general farm sources.

500 copies have been distributed throughout the Florida farming community.

The source book information is also available on the web at

Literature and Websites Used in Source Book

a. Agriculture, Food and Community Partnership
Cornell's Agricultural Development and Diversification Program

b. Alternative Enterprises for Your Forest Land University of Florida IFAS

c. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center

d. Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA)

e. Farm Service Agency

f. Florida Land Trust Alliance Directory

g. Florida Organic Growers and Consumers, Inc. (FOG)

h. Florida State Rural Development Council

i. Georgia Organics

j. IFAS University of Florida Publications

k. Iowa State University Extension, Value-Added Agriculture

l. Journal of Extension, University of Florida

m. Little Traverse Conservancy

n. Marketing Specialty Forest Products, University of Minnesota Extension

o. Michigan State university Extension, Value-Added Agriculture's1.htm

p. Natural Resources Conservation Service

q. Ohio State University, Community Development

r. Organic Farming (many helpful links)

s. Pace Law School

t. Purdue University rural and agricultural tourism links

u. Rural Development Internet Sources

v. Rural Radio Resource Pack, Niche Marketing

w. Small Farm Center at University of California Davis

x. Small Farm Magazine

y. Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture
Research and Education Program

z. University of California at Davis Small Farm Center

aa. University of Arizona Agricultural and Resource Economics

bb. University of Arizona Cooperative Extension
Direct Farm Marketing and Tourism Handbook

cc. University of Florida
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

dd. University of Minnesota Extension

ee. USDA home page

ff. USDA National Agroforesty Center

gg. USDA Small Farm

hh. USDA Rural Development

ii. USDA Rural Development in Florida

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

As of this writing there are no completed research project proposal that result from the planning project. At least two solid research and education ideas have come to the fore:

"Overcoming the barriers to agriculture and open space conservation at the rural-urban interface."
Project PI: Ivonne Audirac, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Urban and Regional Planning, Florida State University.

This project focuses on the rural-urban interface. This proposal conceptualizes open space provided by farms at the periurban fringe, as an integral element of environmental and cultural resource preservation of the rural landscape valued by rural, suburban and urban communities. As part of the rural-urban landscape these farms are an integral part of the rural-urban ecosystem whose presence and permanence over time provide not only food and open space, but also the rural character that attracted rural and non rural residents and settlers to the area. The conservation of agriculture, silviculture, including land and water conservation in periurban regions provides to urban-based residents amenity, cultural, and ecological services that enhance the quality of place at no cost to them. However, when the farms are gone, the rural character of the place is also gone and fast replaced by urban development. This is an issue and challenge of periurban landscape management requiring coalition building and diffusion of ecological literacy among periurban stakeholders (citizens and institutions).

Building on the findings of the current study, the proposed project investigates, through contingent valuation methods, the amount of compensation that farmers would be willing to accept to participate in conservation programs (i.e., conservation easements, land trusts, transfer of development, and cluster zoning). It will also investigate the willingness of urban-based residents to pay for keeping in place the ecological, environmental and amenity services provided by farming, with emphasis on small farms. The study will be conducted in two types of periurban settings:

a. Those at the edge of cities with urban growth boundaries and

b. Those without urban growth boundaries.

Information will be also collected regarding:

a. the type and distribution of non agricultural activities in the periurban area;

b. residential patterns and dynamics;

c. stakeholders dynamics (institutional, corporate, and citizen-based organizations) influencing land use decisions; and

d. an ecological transect-based analysis of the urban-periurban-rural region for information diffusion of the ecological qualities of the area and landscape management to stakeholders.

The product of this research will consist of publications that report study findings and recommendations for overcoming barriers to agriculture and open space conservation at the rural-urban interface.

Other sources of funding sought:


· the changing structure of employment and non agricultural activities in the rural-urban interface

· resource conservation, including agricultural land conservation and water conservation

· land use planning and the management of development processes, including open space management

· residential patterns and dynamics

· socio-demographic patterns and dynamics

· the dynamics of interest groups and actors

· particular institutional arrangements in the rural-urban interface

Stressing the rural-urban interface underscores rural areas as part of the broader human ecosystem and as integral components of the complex web of relationships between human activities and the natural environment. On the one hand, rural areas contribute various types of urban function such as urban and periurban agriculture's contribution to urban food security and alleviation of rural poverty, providing for recreational activities for the urban population and managing rural landscape. On the other hand, urban areas provide important outlets for rural products and services and are frequently the source of innovations, thus contributing to the sustainability of rural areas and activities.

"Expanding the CSA Concept to the Regional Level"

Project PI: David Zimet Associate Professor, Food and Resource Economics Department and North Florida Research and Education Center, Quincy, University of Florida
Cooperating Institution: SSAWG


Most sales of organically grown food occur at markets, not through a CSA program. Some of the markets are regional or local farmers markets, others are health and specialty food stores, and others still are standard super markets. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the health and specialty food stores, or mid-range markets, are in the process of mimicking the standard super market by trying to single source produce to reduce transactions costs as well as to assure year round availability of certain standard items, most especially lettuce. (The purchase of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream by a major food processing company and the practices of Stonyfields Dairy products lend veracity to the anecdotes.) Such trends further endanger the small, local farm and could put many that have survived through niche marketing out of business. Yet, anecdotal evidence and a limited number of studies indicate that CSA's are satisfactory to participating consumers and producers. CSA's, however, are limited in size and scope, reaching relatively few people from either the production or consumption side. There has been limited experience (both favorable and unfavorable) with CSA-like cooperatives in which a group of local producers supply local consumers. Sales of organically grown foods continue to grow at a rate of 15-20% per year.

Produce can be produced in the SSAWG region year-round because of the varied climatic conditions. Is it possible to extend the concept CSA-like cooperatives to the regional level, taking advantage of the varied climate of the region.

Overall Goal
Increase the chances of survival of small local farms that enhance the quality of life of producers and their near-by communities.


1. Determine whether health food and specialty stores in the SSAWG region have increased "single source" purchases - survey of stores, $45,000, 6 months

2. Determine whether producers in the SSAWG region would be willing to participate in a regional cooperative to supply consumers directly - $25,000, 6 (partially concurrent) months

3. Determine whether consumers in the SSAWG region would be willing to participate in a regional cooperative to purchase a wide variety of products directly from producers - $35,000, (partially concurrent) 4 months

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.