Adoption of Sustainable Farming and Ranching Practices among African-American Farmers: Helping and Hindering Factors and the Role of the 2008 Farm Bill

Final Report for LS11-242

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2011: $126,770.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Heather Gray
Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistant Fund
Heather Gray
Federation of Southern Cooperatives
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Project Information


The purpose of the study was to assess why African American farmers (AAFs) had largely not participated in sustainable agriculture practices (SAPs) or taken advantage of USDA’s sustainable agriculture initiatives in the Farm Bill programs. The survey of AAFs in 4 southern states revealed several factors and demographic data that appeared to have either prevented or encouraged their overall participation in SAPs. Age, past experience with USDA, education, access to new information technologies, lack of funding, cooperative membership, and heir property all played significant roles regarding these farmers participation in SAPs.

Project Objectives:

HYPOTHESIS: Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (SDFR) are not accessing Farm Bill programs targeted at their needs to the degree that other farmers are accessing these programs.

1) Determine the extent to which African-American producers (Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers) in four Deep South states engage in certain sustainable agricultural practices.

2) Determine the extent to which all farmers access the targeted federal programs.

3) Determine the factors that encourage or impede the adoption of these sustainable practices

4) Determine whether or not key provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill as implemented foster their transition to such practices.

5) Determine whether changes can be made in regulations implementing the 2008 Farm Bill and/or language in the 2014 Farm Bill to better facilitate the transition of Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers to sustainable farming and ranching.


There is increasing agreement among academic observers and others who study agriculture and work with farmers that sustainable practices can be beneficial, especially for the economic, environmental and social benefits they can bring. However, relatively few systematic studies have been conducted to determine the prevalence of specific practices and the role of federal policy and its subsequent implementation in promoting or hindering adoption of sustainable practices. None of the existing studies, as far as we are aware focus on these issues as they pertain and affect Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (SDFR).

The 2008 Farm Bill is notable in part because of its attention to the needs of beginning and limited resource farmers. Several of its key provisions appear to have the potential to help Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (SDFR) adopt sustainable practices such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program(EQUIP) , 2501 Outreach and Education Program and the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program but it is not clear whether this potential has been realized. A variety of potential factors could work to frustrate the stated intent of legislation, including legislative and administrative stipulations; inadequate training and information for local, frontline agency personnel; residual negative attitudes toward SDFR applicants; and others. Some Farm Bill provisions appear to have the potential to significantly impact the practices of individual farmers, but only if these provisions are adequately funded and implemented so as to recognize and address the circumstances in which these farmers and ranchers must operate.

In conducting the propose study, we have an opportunity to explore the actual outcomes of a set of legislative and executive initiatives among a vulnerable group of farmers. Policy initiatives are too often examined only from the implementing agency's perspective. Here, we propose to focus on the “subject” of policy, the farmer.

We propose to utilize the results to explore, with farmers and professional agricultural workers, possible solutions to barriers or problems uncovered in the process of completing the study.

The proposed study is significant not only for the understanding of African-American farmers in the Deep South (our chosen field of study) but also is potentially meaningful for other African-American farmers (most of whom are small landholders with relatively limited resources) and for other small, limited resource farmers in the South and other regions of the United States.

The study is also significant from a systems perspective, in that it will illuminate the relationship between the decision to adopt certain sustainable practices, the availability of information and financial resources from governmental and private sector organizations, a farmer's individual farm environment, and the potential benefits to be derived from a given set of changes in operations.

Because most of the farmers we study are relatively limited in resources, the study will yield some important insights into the sustainability of a group of small farmers and ranchers who also are socially disadvantaged.

African-American-owned farms comprise 31,912 of all 2,204,792 farms in the United States (1.4%). In the four study states, they account for 12,466 of the 173,576 farmers in these states (7.6%). African-American farmers in the four study states account for 39.1% of all African-American farmers. Note that “farmers” are here defined by the same criteria as those used in the Census of Agriculture. The census definition of a farm is “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.”

African-American farmers in the Deep South on the average own or operate smaller acreage than white farmers in the same counties. While all farms in these states average 215 acres, African-American farms average 107 acres in the four states selected for study, or 49.8% of all farms.

Potential Economic, Environmental, and Social Impact of the Anticipated Project Outcome
The study will draw on the practical experience of both socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (SDFR) and professionals who work with them to produce realistic recommendations for the improvement of programs intended to promote various sustainable practices. The Federation and Tuskegee faculty who will be involved in the study all have extensive and lengthy experience with both agricultural policies and their impact, intended or unintended, on farmers. The proposed study represents an unusual opportunity to examine the practical effects of policies intended to promote sustainable agriculture from various perspectives of financial assistance, information and technical assistance, and market development.

The Federation will use results of the study (1) to inform and better focus our advocacy and technical assistance efforts and (2) to formulate input to the Secretary of Agriculture for regulatory changes and for provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill, recommending changes as necessary that would improve the delivery of these programs to SDFR's and better foster the adoption of sustainable practices and the benefits they can bring.

Ultimately, the study will provide overall and site-specific observations about the factors that play a role in farmers' decision-making about production and marketing methods that advance or fail to advance sustainable farming. The decisions affect the quality of life of the farmers in question and their potential for increasing income and employment for themselves and others, especially among small and medium-sized farms.


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  • Dr. Robert Zababwa


Materials and methods:

Population and Sample Selection

The target population was small scale farmers in four southern states. The sample was drawn from Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia. A total sample of 128 farmers was drawn from full-time and part-time small-scale farmers affiliated with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), based on convenience sampling technique.

Data Collection

A survey instrument was developed to collect the data. The surveys contained socio-economic questions (age, gender, marital status, numbers of children, farming status (full-time farmers, part-time farmers), land ownership (acres owned, or rented), product sales (market alternatives or opportunities) farm practices, and awareness of USDA programs. Data from a total of 128 African American farmers (AAFs) were collected in the spring of 2013 through telephone interviews by the Morehouse University. The 128 respondents included 26 farmers from Alabama, 31 from Georgia, 33 from Mississippi, and 38 from South Carolina.

The findings were then shared with 10 farmers and 10 service providers (college professors, Community Based Organization representatives, & USDA) from throughout the South for in-depth interviews regarding their perspective on the issues and the survey findings. The interviews were conducted and videoed at the FSC’s Farmer’s Conference in February 2013 and at Tuskegee’s Professional Agricultural Workers Conference.

The findings were also shared with a gathering of farmers and agriculture specialists at the FSC Training Center in Epes, Alabama for discussion assessment as well as with 220 farmers at the FSC’s 2014 Annual Meeting.

Research results and discussion:

The findings and recommendations are based on both the survey of 128 farmers as well as the in-depth interviews with farmers and agriculture specialists.


The findings show that a majority (77%) of the respondents were males, almost half were 64 years or older, 84% had at least 10 years of farming experience, and 66% had part-time jobs.

Awareness of and Participation in USDA Programs

A little more than 70% did not participate in USDA NRCS programs while most (95%) were aware of such programs. Thus, awareness for the USDA/NRCS by AAF’s was high but not surprisingly, as based on previous research, the participation in specific programs that support sustainable agriculture was low.

Characteristics of Farmers using Sustainable Agriculture Practices

The farmers who used SAPs (a) were members of a cooperative or organization, (b) were younger in age; and (c) had a higher level of education. Comer et al. (1999) reported that participating with different organizations influences the farmer’s use of a sustainable agricultural system. The authors also observed that younger farmers are more receptive to adoption of SAPs compared to the older farmers who were more conservative.

Farming Practices (fuel, chemicals) and Production

A majority (88%) of the respondents practiced using traditional petroleum fuel as the source of energy. Additionally, almost 80% applied chemicals on their crops. Approximately 40% of the respondents reported that they practiced row cropping; about 36% produced vegetables-truck crops, and 23% are involved in livestock and poultry.

Nutrient Management Methods

The adoption rates for the various nutrient management methods were as follows: soil testing (36.2%), application of manure/fertilizer (26.2%), manure testing (16.3%), erosion control practices (15.4%) and plant tissue testing (2.3%). Well over half of the respondents considered their production methods to be between organic and traditional practices.

Adoption of Sustainable Agriculture Practices

The results also revealed that adoption of SAPs was low. In the case of cover crops, 48% of the farmers planted cover crops after harvesting cash crops, 39.5% did not plant cover crops, while 18% felt that cover crops were not applicable to their farm operations.

Reasons for Non-Adoption of Sustainable Agriculture Practices

Survey results revealed a number of reasons for non-adoption of sustainable agricultural practices including lack of funding and lack of adequate information about SAPs; some respondents also stated that they were simply not convinced that there were sufficient reasons to change their current practices and to switch to SAPs.

Cooperative Membership and Marketing Products

About 59% of the respondents were found to have membership in a cooperative in which the sole objective was to aid in buying farm inputs and selling of their products. The majority of the respondents, either cooperatively or individually, sold their products directly at the farmers markets (83%) while 17% sold directly to grocery stores, schools and other institutions.

Sample Corroborates Previous Research

The findings corroborate the impediments reported in previous studies; these include the social aspects and economic constraints to the transition to SAPs, and the fact that it is difficult for farmers to switch from the traditional farming practices that they have become accustomed to (Baide 2005; Drost et al. 1996).

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

  • Publication: “Adoption of Sustainable Farming and Ranching Practices among African-American Farmers: Helping and Hindering Factors”(Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund)


  • Thesis: “Sustainable Agricultural Practices For Small Scale Farmers In Four Southern States”, by Folashade Adalumo;   Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama 36088, August 2014

  • Power Point Presentations:

-       Results of Research

-       Farmer Interviews

-       Service Provider interviews

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The project has given 128 African American farmers who were intervened a better understanding of sustainable agriculture and how it can impact their operation. Although this is a relatively small number, these farmers and the 10 who were interviewed in-depth could become ambassadors for sustainable agriculture within their communities. Based on the research results and the resulting recommendations, both public and private service providers should be better able to tailor their outreach and assistance to the specific needs of African American farmers. The results and recommendations will also give advocates and policy makers research based data to help develop and/or modify agriculture policy that could help move more African American farmers toward sustainable agriculture. The interviews revealed four major themes that were common among most respondents in each category. The respondents viewed these as the major barriers to African-American producers adopting more sustainable agriculture practices.

Recommendations from the research are listed in the attached publication. Those themes include: (1) Distrust of USDA; (2) Lack of Funding; (3) Lack of Education and Information; (4) Heir Property as a Barrier. Each of these themes includes recommendations from either the farmers and/or service providers.

Economic Analysis


Farmer Adoption

Project results were presented at the Federation’s annual meeting in August 2014 to over 250 African American farmers. The impact of the project as it relates to farmers adopting new technologies will have to be measured over time and will depend on how service providers modify their outreach and technical assistance to adopt the relevant project recommendations. It will also depend on how the 2014 farm bill is implemented over the next five years and if the rules and regulatory process reflect the policy recommendations identified in this project.

While the 2008 Farm Bill had several programs that were relatively beneficial to African-American Farmers - the 2014 Farm bill showed mixed results. The following three Farm Bill programs are essential to moving more African American Farmers toward the adoption of SAP and how they fared in the 2014 Farm Bill.

2501 Outreach and Technical Assistance: Ten million dollars per year over a five year period representing a fifty percent decrease in funding and leaving many African-American farmers without critical technical and educational assistance.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): This program provides funds and technical assistance for farmers to adopt SAP. There was a slight decrease in funding in the 2014 Farm Bill. But payment limitations were increased by 50% from $3,000,000 to $450,000 however the increase was aimed primarily at livestock producers. Advanced cost share payments were increased from 30% in 2008 to 50% in 2014. The Bill also retains but does not increase set asides for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers.

The Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program: This program provides incentives for young farmers to enter production agriculture and offers a great opportunity to introduce SAP to these farmers at the entry level. Funding for this program was increased by 25% to 100 million dollars over a five year period however set asides for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers were significantly reduced.


Areas needing additional study

There needs to be more sustainable agriculture demonstration projects in key areas where African-American farmers are located so that they can observe the impact of sustainable agriculture on both the environment and their bottom line and the results documented.  There needs to be more research on the Farm Bill process and more data collected from African-American farmers systematically in order to develop research based Farm Bill recommendations for the next Farm Bill. The research found that there are significant barriers (as addressed in the publication) from past experiences that continue to prevent farmers from taking advantage of the Farm Bill programs. The USDA and other service providers need to consider all of the recommendations and concerns identified in this study as well as support additional research in the area. There also needs to be more research on African American participation rates in the three identified programs for the 2014 farm bill and the impact on their adoption of SAPs. Those programs are: 2501 Outreach and Technical Assistance, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program.

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.