Mapping Sustainable Farm Systems: An Integrated Focus on Upper South New Producers as Catalysts of "Good Stewardship"

Final Report for LS12-251

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2012: $270,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Keiko Tanaka
University of Kentucky
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Project Information


This project aimed to design outreach and educational programs for commercially-oriented beginning farmers in the Upper Southeast by asking: What kind of farm systems do beginning farmers establish? What types of knowledge do they rely on to construct their systems? What challenges do they face? The farm system was conceptualized as the interaction of the biophysical, socioeconomic and cultural realms, which are conceptualized in this project as essential “maps” to guide farmers practice of certain styles from preproduction to postharvest. These maps span spatial scales and boundaries of knowledge; they describe the position and interaction of a particular farm within the larger physical, economic and cultural landscape. To answer these questions, we examined three dimensions of farm systems: farms (biophysical map), farmers (socioeconomic map), and perspectives on sustainability (cultural map). An interdisciplinary research team worked together to develop and implement instruments for assessing efficacy of each map in guiding farmers make successful transitions to commercially-viable sustainable farm systems. In this project, we completed 16 listening sessions and case study of 9 farm systems. We have learned that beginning farmers enter into farming from different background with diverse goals. Our data show the importance of support mechanisms that enable beginning farmers to translate their philosophies and visions for sustainable farming into concrete management practices. We recommend that support providers both widen and deepen their knowledge in farming and agricultural marketing so as to serve a broader range of beginning farmers with diverse goals. More support services are needed beyond farming and marketing techniques.

Project Objectives:

There were three objectives in this project, including:

  1. Improve our understanding of diverse farm/food systems in the Upper Southeast region which beginning farmers create and participate in by:
    1. Identifying current knowledge gaps (i) among these farmers about sustainable farming and farm systems; and (ii) between researchers/extension agents and beginning farmers about challenges these farmers face and resources available to them;
    2. Understanding the biophysical, socioeconomic, and cultural maps used by these farmers to guide their operations; and
    3. Developing typologies of sustainable farm/food systems used by these farmers;
  2. Identify challenges and needs of beginning farmers to develop a commercially-viable and sustainable farm/food system by:
    1. Profiling various types of operations from preproduction to postharvest stages; and
    2. Classifying their common and distinctive needs for support;

Design a support infrastructure that includes targeted outreach and educational programs to address these challenges and meet their needs by establishing a regional network of universities, government, and community-based organizations.


Beginning farmers are important agents for the continuation of farming and change to sustainable agriculture in this nation (Ahearn and Newton 2009). Understanding how to best support their long term success is critical in the enhancement of agricultural sustainability when a percentage of labor force in agriculture in the United States is less than two percent and the farming population is aging. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of farmers declined by 3.1 percent from 2007 to 2012. The average age of principal farm operators increased by 2.1 percent from 57.1 years old in 2007 to 58.3 years old in 2012, and 33.2 percent of all US farmers in 2012 were 65 years or older (USDA 2014).

To support the emergence of the next generation of sustainable farmers, providing pathways to economic, environmental and social sustainability is therefore essential for the continuation of agriculture as a viable economy activity in the US. Existing programs for beginning farmers do not take account of the diversity and complexity of farming/food systems (Niewolny and Lillard 2010). Existing data tend to conflate “lifestyle” farms with “commercially-viable” farms and exclude certain groups of aspiring farmers. More importantly, little research has been conducted to understand the adoption of sustainable farming practices among beginning farmers and their challenges in establishing sustainable farming systems.

The USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development (BFRD) program has contributed to the emergence of groundbreaking educational and training programs for young and beginning farmers on a national and regional level. Between 2009 and 2015, the program funded 219 projects across the US (Auburn, Ebodashe, Rucker-Ross, and Dean 2016). Unfortunately, the research work on this population continues to be limited (Niewolny and Lillard 2010). Our research project contributes to the scholarship of sustainable agriculture and beginning farmer program development by adding new insights into the processes by which beginning farmers acquire knowledge of sustainable agriculture, develop skills for sustainable farming, construct their identities as farmers, select practices of their farm enterprise, and interact with the wider agricultural community.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Steve Hodges
  • Dr. Krista Jacobsen
  • Dr. Kim Niewolny
  • Dr. Margarita Velandia
  • Dr. Annette Lynn Wszelaki


Materials and methods:

This research and education project applied a mixture of methodological tools used by social and biological scientists to capture both generalizable patterns and local specificities concerning challenges and needs of beginning farmers for building sustainable farm systems. A research team in each university consisted of at least one social scientist, one biological scientist, a graduate research assistant, and a summer undergraduate assistant who worked together to collect and analyze the data on each state. Each team also worked with its own Advisory Board.

Identifying Knowledge (Objectives 1a and 3)

In Year 1 and 2, the existing data in each state were synthesized to identify our knowledge gap about sustainable farming and farm systems used by beginning farmers. We tried to ask: What do we already know about beginning farmers in our state in terms of who they are, how they incorporate sustainable farming practices, and what their needs are to keep their farm systems sustainable? Both the UK and VT have educational and extension projects funded by the USDA-BFRD Program. With an ASA-CARI grant, Lily Brislen completed a master’s thesis project on beginning farmers in Kentucky under Tanaka’s supervision. We realized the diversity of beginning farmers as a social group and their farm enterprises which are in the process of building. Geographical locations and family resources are some of the key factors in shaping farm operations by beginning farmers. We also created a “resource map” that includes organizations providing support to diverse farmers/farms such as Cooperative Extension Service, universities, farm organizations, businesses, federal and state agencies, and other sustainability-related civic organizations.

Our plan was to build a diverse coalition of stakeholder organizations, agencies, and groups will be established in Kentucky and Tennessee in the process of creating resource maps. We specifically environed to follow the Virginia’s Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition project. Both in Kentucky and Tennessee respectively, the statewide Project Advisory Board was developed with representatives from such organizations as Community Farm Alliance (CFA) and Organic Association of Kentucky (OAK) in Kentucky and Tennessee Organic Growers Association (TOGA) and the Wilson County Sustainable Agricultural Coalition in Tennessee. In Virginia, the Advisory Board for this project came from active members of the Coalition project. Although the three sets of the Advisory Board played a key role in shaping our research instruments for listening sessions and case study, they were not able to actively participate in the project because of their busy schedules.

Listening Sessions (Objectives 1 and 2):

In Year 1 and 2, we completed 16 listening sessions, including 5 sessions in KY and TN and 6 sessions in VA, to meet Objectives 1 and 2. At each session, we asked participants to fill out the Farm Profile, a short questionnaire that helped us develop typologies of beginning farmers and farms, before starting the procedure of the listening session. As a part of the warm up activities, we asked participants to discuss the following two questions: (a) “When you have a question, who (or where) do you go first?” (b) “Who are some of the other people or resources you go to get answers to your farming questions?” Using a snowflake method of discussion, participating farmers discussed: (a) what “success” looks like for their hypothetical beginning farmer, (b) what different types of resources this farmer will need to be successful as he or she defines it. The participants were instructed to collectively categorize and prioritize these resources. Then, they were asked to identify which resource is the most important and hardest to get right.

Regional Survey (Objectives 1c and 2)

Initially, we proposed to carry out a regional survey in the winter of Year 1. The research team decided not to do the survey because organizing listening sessions was more time-consuming than expected.

Case Study (Objectives 1 and 2)

An interdisciplinary case-study approach was used to understand how beginning farmers apply biophysical (e.g., cropping systems, farm inputs), socioeconomic (e.g., capital and land access, marketing arrangements, community involvement), and cultural (e.g., attitudes, training) maps to guide their operations (Objective 1b) and profile various types of operations from preproduction to postharvest stages (Objective 2a). Over three years, we completed case study of 9 farms to analyze how beginning farmers farm to achieve environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Through participant observations of their farm/food systems and in-depth interviews with their operators, we assessed: (a) adoption of environmental best management practices, (b) yield and net profits relative to farm financial goals, and (c) integration of farms and farmers into local community. We used different, discipline-based tools to “model” three components of a farm system.

The project team collectively developed research protocols for case study, involving at least two visits. The first visit aimed to hear from the interviewee his/her story of the farm from his/her perspective (e.g., the history of the farm, the background of the farmer, the structure of the enterprise, and future goals). We carried out a “farm walk” to generate an overview of the biophysical and built/mechanical resources of the farm enterprise. At the end of the first visit, we discussed the key elements of the farm enterprise and gave the farmer “homework”, or a farm enterprise worksheet, to be completed before our second visit. During the second visit, we reviewed the preliminary model of the farm enterprise and flesh it out with more specific data on: (1) best management practices; (2) management; (3) community, family, and consumers; (4) marketing; (5) finances; (6) vulnerability and risk.

Initially, we proposed to carry out three separate sets of modeling, including: (a) biophysical systems modeling, (b) whole-farm planning modeling and farm business analysis, (c) knowledge pathway modeling. Because each case study took far longer to complete than we anticipated, we reduced the number of cases from 36 (12 per state) to 9 (3 per state). Moreover, of 9 cases, we were able to complete the biophysical systems modeling of one case farm in Virginia. We were able to complete farm business analysis of 9 cases. However, because the data from Kentucky farms were collected differently (though we used the same worksheet), from those from Virginia and Tennessee, we analyzed the Kentucky data separately from the Virginia and Tennessee data. To model the knowledge pathway, we applied the community capital framework (Flora and Flora XXXX) to examine the interaction among: (1) capitals used (i.e., natural, built, financial, political, social, human, and cultural); (2) risks to be avoided (i.e., natural, infrastructural, financial, political, social, human, and cultural); (3) actions or farming practices (i.e., access to land, access to market, fertility management, diversification strategy, labor use, infrastructure/equipment use, marketing strategy, financial planning/management, and capital investment); and (4) success/failures to run a sustainable farm (i.e., environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, social sustainability, and cultural sustainability). We are completing data analysis this fall.

Research results and discussion:

The key characteristics of our study participants are summarized in Tables 1 and 2 below. Please note that our analysis is still in progress. Results and recommendations presented below are still preliminary.

Table 1. Participants in the Listening Sessions (N=91)


Number of Sessions

Range in the Number of participants




Years of Experience


Acres Leased


Acres Owned


Number of Products Marketed



























































Results of Listening Sessions

The key findings from 16 listening sessions are summarized below:

Finding 1. Priority Resources and Information Sources. Established farmers provide local knowledge by: (a) answering locally specific questions and help gain access to find/share/maintain physical resources (e.g., land, equipment); (b) helping beginning farmers access the local farming community; and (c) providing a valuable connection with a neighbor farmer Family is relied upon as mentors who provide local knowledge and investors who provide access to land and other resources. Land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension Services are important, but mainly for scientific and unbiased information about biophysical/technical farming systems. Governmental resources are mostly utilized for specific services and programming (e.g., CRP, EQIP, FSA loans). Nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community based organizations (CBOs) provide educational resources/opportunities and specific technical assistance mostly for niche farms. Private businesses provides product information and resources to improve the use of inputs (e.g., seed salesmen, equipment dealers, bank loan officers)

Finding 2. Sustainable Farming Opportunities. Farmers valued cooperative efforts in their communities, particularly equipment sharing (e.g., commercial kitchens, tractors, mobile slaughter houses, honey spinners, etc.) and knowledge sharing through a network of organizations and individuals. Farmers use many different, inexpensive labor sources, including volunteer/free labor (e.g., inmates, youth organizations, interns), and migrant labor who are paid “under the table”. Farmers are selling their products to a variety of direct market outlets (e.g., farmers market, CSA, U-pick) though aggregators that cater to small operations are accessed (e.g., food hubs, livestock auctions).

Finding 3. Sustainable Farming Challenges. Accessing adequate labor is difficult because farm work is not a competitive or attractive; local sources for labor are unreliable when found; and farmers are resistant to hire migrant labor. Accessing suitable and size-appropriate markets, proper processors within a driving distance, and distributors for small, start-up farms is difficult.  Capital is hard to access as a beginner, particularly appropriate loans large enough to buy land/equipment necessary to operate a profitable farm enterprise. Beginning farmers are hesitant to assume debt/risk even when loans are attainable. Depending on the location of the farm, access to off-farm income and savings varies among beginning farmers.  Accessing good supplies and equipment appropriate for type, size and scale of operation is also difficult.

Results of Case Studies

Through our analysis of case study data using the community capital framework, we have found the following:

Finding 1. Farming Philosophy. One of the most important aspects of the farmers’ cultural capital system is his/her philosophy or worldviews. We found is that most beginning farmers have heroes/heroines (e.g., Wendell Berry, Joe Salatin, their own family member) to whom they aspire and follow in creating their own “sustainable” farm and to formulate self-identity as “sustainable” farmers.



Table 2. Typologies of Case Study Participants (N=9)


Farm Operators

Farm System



Enterprise Structure


Education & Training

Marketed Products


Total Land



Labor Structure


Diversified- horticulture; husband operator

Late 20s

B.S. and M.S.; on-farm

Horticulture, tomatoes primarily

Conventional interested in more sustainable practices


Direct to consumer, wholesale and other farmers, 7 different markets

Family (brother) and paid temporary laborers (2)  wife: off-farm income

Works part-time for father’s farm


Diversified- horticulture and livestock; husband and wife operators


B.S; farm internship experience

Horticulture and Livestock

USDA certified organic vegetables


Direct to consumer- majority CSA with 3 additional outlets

Family member



Diversified 200-year family farm; husband operator


MA; extensive farming background

Horticulture, Tobacco, Cattle



Direct to consumer, wholesale, tobacco contract, livestock sales and agri-tourism

Full-time farmer; up to 50 seasonal; wife with off-farm employment


Diversified- 8th generation family farm; husband and wife operators

Late 30s

B.S.; no farming background;

Horticulture and livestock

USDA certified organic


Direct to consumer (CSA, farmers markets, restaurants and low-income)

Apprentice; wife with off-farm employment for farm marketing and outreach


Diversified family farm; two brothers operators


Some college; extensive farming background

Horticulture, decor crops, and Livestock



Wholesale (Kroger); restaurants

Primarily themselves;2-3 seasonal workers


Pasture finished livestock; Husband and wife operators


BA; no farming experience


finished livestock

Humane and sustainable production methods


Wholesale- direct to consumer

Husband and wife without employed labor


Diversified horticulture and  livestock; husband and wife operators

Early 30s

MA and BA; farm apprenticeship

Mixed vegetables, poultry, pork and beef

Non-certified, organic


Direct to consumer (farmers market, CSA, and farm stand sales)

Mix of three employees and volunteer labor. Pork and beef enterprises managed/owned by employees.


Diversified horticulture; husband and wife operators

Early 40s

BS; operate leased farm in another location

Mixed vegetables

Non-certified organic, biodynamic


Mainly wholesale, small percentage direct market (CSA)

Some apprentice and volunteer labor


Diversified horticulture and eggs; husband and wife operators with five children.

Early 50s

Farming background

Mixed vegetables, forest products, eggs

USDA certified organic


Direct market (farmers market and restaurant sales) and contracts (seeds)

Labor of husband and wife and all five children


Finding 2. Definition of Success. These worldviews guide farmers to select particular farming and marketing methods, and therefore their unique definitions of a successful farm operation. In turn, their choices in farming practices have concrete environmental consequences such as soil management while their marketing practices impact financial sustainability.

Finding 3. Thresholds/Capital Influences. Beginning farmers reach certain points where they are forced to reevaluate the balance between their farming philosophy and farming practices and their strategy to negotiate/utilize diverse capital resources to mitigate biophysical, socioeconomic and cultural risks. Most common thresholds concern the questions of whether to scale up their farm operation and how many market outlets to maintain. All these decisions involve the purchase of additional tools and equipment, hiring of seasonal labor outside their family, and the improvement of record keeping.


Finding 4. Labor Challenges. Across all eight case studies, labor was raised as a consistent challenge. At some points, they experienced a feeling of “burnout”. Farmers complained about their difficulties in finding consistent, capable labor at a reasonable cost. Additional labor adds complexity to their farm operation, thus requiring them to improve their management and bookkeeping skills. All eight farmers were struggling to balance their desire to expand their operations with an increased need for additional labor.

Finding 5. Family and Neighbor Support. Through our case study farmers, we found that safety net offered by relatives and neighbor farmers reduce risks, and thereby helping beginning farmers remain farming. Our case farmers avoided large loans by gaining access to farm land at either free or a low-rent lease agreements, and to farm machinery through equipment sharing with their relatives and/or neighbors. A diverse array of labor support by these support networks also buffers financial risks for beginning farmers. Peer farmers who were not geographically close also served as cultural, social, and human assets. They were used as a learning community to teach beginning farmers “tricks of the trade” in building a sustainable farm which is commercially viable and socially cohesive in the community.

Lessons for Support Providers

In this project, we have confirmed enormous diversity among beginning farmers in their background prior to their entry to farming, the type of farming systems they construct, and their visions for a sustainable farming system. We found two critical factors that contribute to shaping these farmers’ trajectories in creating and participating in particular types of farm/food systems in the Upper Southeast region.

Factor 1. Institutional Sources for Technical Knowledge. Beginning farmers develop knowledge and skills for sustainable farming from numerous sources. They are amazingly creative and innovative in identifying the necessary information, evaluating its efficacy, and incorporating it into their farming practices as they see fit. Many farmer participants had a bachelor’s degree; some are related to agriculture while others are not. Their entry point to farming, or their “aha moment” when they decided to go into farming, was critical in understanding their journey in building a sustainable farm system. That moment shapes their vision for the sustainable farming system which they wish to construct and their approaches to accessing various institutional sources they will likely use to realize their ideal farming system. Heritage farmers were more likely to rely on “traditional” institutional mechanisms such as Cooperative Extension Service, Land-grant Experiment Stations, and input companies to seek technical advice for sustainable farming methods. Non-heritage farmers were less likely to find these institutional sources of technical knowledge useful. Instead, they are more likely to use diverse materials, e.g., books written by charismatic farmers, online reports and publications, as the first step to gain background knowledge. This finding suggests a more diverse range of support services will be needed to assist beginning farmers develop their knowledge and skills. The availability of training programs in their region that fits their schedule and timeframe will likely ease their hardship in making a transition from non-farming profession to farming.


Finding 2. Informal Networks for Information Sharing. Our participants reported that other farmers, both established (veteran) or beginning (novice), were a primary source of information. Their questions to other farmers typically relate to specific farming or enterprise management practices and tap into the other farmers' tacit knowledge and experience. Heritage farmers commonly directed questions to a farming family member (e.g., father, mother, uncle, aunt). Although heritage farmers recognized that family members have extensive knowledge, there also was general recognition that such knowledge often corresponded with strong opinions about the "right" way to do something and discouragement relative to new methods such as organic farming or enterprise lines such as CSA. Nonheritage farmers also valued the opinions and knowledge of established farmers. They tended to consult a "mentor" farmer with whom they had apprenticed or interned or a well-regarded farmer with whom they had a standing relationship and shared similar production philosophies or methods. Because many of these farmers were newly located in a region, they valued the insights of other farmers in the vicinity with regard to questions about area-specific issues, such as the unique characteristics of local soil and topography. This finding validates the usefulness of farmer mentoring for beginning farmers, one of the most common outreach/extension approaches used by USDA-BFRD-funded projects. Fostering informal networks to support beginning farmers will be a challenge to be addressed by support service providers, including universities and Cooperative Extension Service. Our research and Extension work has been exclusively focusing on capacity building of individual beginning farmers while neglecting the importance of “community infrastructure” to provide necessary support to beginning farmers.

The first lesson for support providers is a need to both widen and deepen their knowledge in farming and agricultural marketing so as to serve a broader range of clients with diverse goals. Our data show that no single definition or typology captures beginning farmers in the Upper Southeast region. Each beginning farmer use a unique definition of success, which frames his/her plan for building a commercially viable, sustainable farm enterprise. This poses a challenge to many service providers who tend to be familiar with particular types of farming operations, but not others. Support service providers need to be able to translate diverse definitions of sustainable farming into a wider range of farming and marketing practices.

Second, more support services are needed beyond farming and marketing techniques. To be successful, beginning farmers tap into a diverse range of capital systems to implement their plans to on-farm and marketing practices. Available human, cultural, and social capital systems are often depended on their family, education, and their unique life experiences. From in-depth interviews with beginning farmers, we have learned the importance of constantly expanding these capitals beyond with what they started. For example, while market access is a challenge, developing and maintaining each market outlet is even more critical and requires relatives and peers who are willing to help out farmers and customers who constantly return to purchase their products. Support providers need to design and offer services to assist beginning farmers with building human, cultural, and social capitals.


Because our data collection and analysis took so long, we were unable to meet Objective 3, that is to “[d]esign a support infrastructure that includes targeted outreach and educational programs to address these challenges and meet their needs by establishing a regional network of universities, government, and community-based organizations (CBOs).” However, over the last four years, we have built a strong working relationship among our project team and identified the key CBOs for our future collaborations to design and implement outreach and educational programs.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

During this project period, several papers were given at the professional conferences. I have included several outputs not reported in the previous annual reports.


Velandia, M., C. Trejo-Pech, K. Niewolny, L. MacAuley, and A. Wszelaki. (2016) "Evaluating Financial and Economic Factors Contributing to Sustainable Beginning Farms in Tennessee and Virginia." AE 16, UT Extension.

Tanaka, K., Niewolny, K., MacAuley, L.,  Hyden, H., Velandia , M., Hodges, S., Sorensen, E., Jacobsen, K.,  Wszelaki, A., & Brislen, L.,  (2016). A systems approach to fostering new farmer innovation: Exploring the influence of social, cultural and human capital systems for beginning farmer success in food and farming systems. In Proceedings of the 7th National Small Farm Conference, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Niewolny, K., Tanaka, K., MacAuley, L.,  Hyden, H., Brislen, L., Jacobsen, K.,  Velandia , M., Hodges, S., Sorensen, E., & Wszelaki, A. (2016). “Mapping” the complexities of farmer knowledge production: An interdisciplinary systems approach to examining new farming systems in rural Appalachia. In Proceedings of the XIIII World Congress of Rural Sociology, Toronto, Canada.

Brislen, Lilian, Keiko Tanaka, and Krista Jacobsen. (2016). “Preferred Knowledge Sources for Beginning Farmers: The Case of Kentucky.” Journal of Extension, 54(4) Online. Available at


Brislen, Lilian. 2012. Kentucky Beginning Farmers Survey Results. White paper, published by Community Farm Alliance, Frankfort, Kentucky. (15 pages)

Master’s Thesis

Sorensen, E.  (2016).  Modeling whole farm systems to enhance beginning small farmer success in southwest Virginia.  (Masters Thesis, Virginia Tech). Retrieved from

Paper Presentations

Tanaka, K., Niewolny, K., MacAuley, L.,  Hyden, H., Velandia , M., Hodges, S., Sorensen, E., Jacobsen, K.,  Wszelaki, A., & Brislen, L.,  (2016). A systems approach to fostering new farmer innovation: Exploring the influence of social, cultural and human capital systems for beginning farmer success in food and farming systems. Presented at the 7th National Small Farm Conference, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Niewolny, K., Tanaka, K., MacAuley, L.,  Hyden, H., Brislen, L., Jacobsen, K.,  Velandia , M., Hodges, S., Sorensen, E., & Wszelaki, A. (2016). “Mapping” the complexities of farmer knowledge production: An interdisciplinary systems approach to examining new farming systems in rural Appalachia.  Presented at the XIIII World Congress of Rural Sociology, Toronto, Canada.

Niewolny, K., L. MacAuley, K. Tanaka, L. Brislen, K. Jacobsen, M. Velandia, Z. Li, and A. Wszelaki. 2014. “Exploring Beginning Farmer Knowledge Production of Sustainable Farming Systems in the Upper Southeast Region: A Systems Approach to “Mapping” Agricultural Sustainability.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Rural Sociological Association, Dallas, TX, February 2014.

Tanaka, K., K. Jacobsen, and L. Brislen. 2014. “Mapping a Sustainable Farm System: Transdisciplinary Approach to Modeling the Complexity of Sustainability.” Presented at the 77th Annual Meeting of Rural Sociological Society, New Orleans, LA, August 2014. 

Tanaka, K., L. Brislen, and K. Jacobsen. 2014. “First Land: Creating a Farm for the Future.” Presented at the RC-40 Session on Land as an Asset Class: The Future of Food and Farming in the 18th World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, June 2014.

Outputs Not Reported in the 2013 Annual Report. Niewolny, K., L. MacAuley, and S. Hodges. 2014. “An integrated approach to “Mapping” Farming Systems of commercially-oriented Beginning Farmers:  Listening session findings in the Appalachian region of Virginia”.  Poster presented at the 2014 Virginia Cooperative Extension Winter Conference.  Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA.

Brislen, L. and K. Tanaka. 2013. “Mapping the Beginning Farmer Experience, A new methodology.”  Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, Little Rock, AR.

Hodges, S., S. Shanholtz, K. Niewolny, K. Jacobsen, K. Tanaka, L. Brislen, L. Macauley, M. Velandia, and A. Wszelaki. 2013. “Internship on mapping sustainable farm systems: An experiential introduction to sustainable agriculture.” Poster presented at advisors meeting, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Experiment, GA.

Brislen, L. and K. Tanaka. 2013. “Findings from the Kentucky Beginning Farmer Survey.” A Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, Little Rock, AR. 

Brislen, L. 2012. “Findings form research on beginning farmers in Kentucky.” Invited presentation given at the United States Department of Agriculture, Small Farmers and Beginning Ranchers Program, Washington DC.

Consultation/Community Service

Brislen, L. Board Member, Community Farm Alliance, Frankfort, KY. She specifically works on issues concerning beginning, young farmers.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

At this moment, it is too early to observe any measurable impact or outcomes of our research results. However, one graduate student completed her thesis under this study. Three undergraduate students were trained with social (1 student) and biological (2 students) research methods. We are planning to submit another grant to the Southern SARE for the 2016 competition and a grant to the USDA NIFA AFRI program.

Economic Analysis

Economic analysis of 6 case studies in Virginia and Tennessee has been completed. Valendia is completing the economic analysis of Kentucky case studies. 


Farmer Adoption

Not applicable.


Areas needing additional study

We have identified several areas that require additional study.

Minority Beginning Farmers.

All of our participants were white farmers. Even among farm enterprises jointly owned and operated with their wives, male farmers participated in listening sessions and case study interviews. These farmers tend to rely on social networks of farmers similar to themselves (i.e., white male farmers) for resources, technical advice, and social support. There is an urgent need for examining diverse groups of minority farmers who are interested in and in the process of transitioning to sustainable farming, including female farmers, racial/ethnic minority farmers, and refugee farmers. Our research protocols will enable future study to identify if minority farmers visualize agricultural sustainability differently from white male farmers and analyze how diverse perspectives of agricultural sustainability shape their use of biophysical, sociocultural and economic maps of the sustainable farm system.

Support Service Providers.

Historically, the SARE program has exclusively focused on supporting farmers to farm sustainably. Our study suggests the need for improving the capacity of support service providers. Their services need to go beyond technical and financial advices. Future studies must identify creative and innovative education and training initiatives by the Cooperative Extension Service and CBOs who explicitly help beginning farmers build human, cultural, and social capitals necessary to succeed in realize their vision for a successful farm system. Education and outreach programs need to developed that assist support service providers to develop knowledge and skills in agricultural sustainability.

Quality of Community Life

Of the three pillars of sustainability, the role of “community” in building a strong social sustainability has not been well studied. For example, one of the biggest challenge for our study participants was finding farm labor and being able to pay them at an adequate wage. In recent years, farm labor issues are examined from an analytical lens of social justice in the study of sustainable agriculture and food systems. Another challenge for young, beginning farmers is access to good support infrastructure (e.g., schools, hospitals, recreation facilities) to raise a family. We hope that the SARE will fund more research initiatives which examine the interaction between community vibrancy/resilience and beginning farmers’ success in building sustainable farm systems. Such a study may require to use community, rather than farmer, as a unit of analysis.

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.