Building a Sustainable Future for Agriculture

Final Report for MS09-001

Project Type: Matching Grants Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Southern
State: Texas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Vivien Allen
Texas Tech University
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Project Information


Summary The funds provided through a SARE planning grant were used to conduct a two-phase study with the purpose of clarifying the research priorities related to sustainable agriculture within the South Central United States. A combination of qualitative (focus groups) and quantitative (survey) data collection and analysis techniques were used with the later following an educational activity designed to increase participant understanding of sustainable agriculture-related research in the region. The collected data revealed that a number of potentially inter-related factors are believed to influence agriculture and subsequently sustainable agriculture efforts. These factors include local, state, and federal government influences, a variety of economic factors not limited to the individual farm enterprise, the current and desired future state of our natural resources, the factors that influence the development and sustainability of the next-generation of U. S. agriculture, and the increase of consumer-driven influences that shape the related food, fiber, and energy decisions—all within the context of global economic, climate, and social change. Due to the interrelated nature of the numerous factors that have emerged from this and previous studies, the need has emerged for a model grounded in a systems dynamics approach that will guide future research, education, and outreach in sustainable agriculture. Introduction In 1997, long-term agricultural systems research was initiated at Texas Tech University with the objective of comparing an integrated cotton-livestock system with a monoculture cotton system, representative of the major crop industry of the Texas High Plains, for economic profitability and impact on water use. At the time this research began, concerns were escalating regarding the decline in water supply remaining in the Ogallala aquifer and continued profitability of agriculture in the region. Results of this initial 10-year systems comparison clearly demonstrated that the integrated cotton/livestock (cattle) system required about 25% less irrigation water, 40% less nitrogen fertilizer, and was as profitable as the cotton monoculture. Additional benefits included increased soil carbon, soil microbial diversity and activity, reduced soil erosion, and diversification of income sources. Due to these and other results emerging from this SARE-funded long-term research, we were positioned in 2004 to capture a state grant to initiate a long-term producer-led demonstration of the impact of an array of agricultural systems on water use and profitability. Known as the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC), this coalition of producers, scientists, agencies, industry, and policy makers has focused on identification of systems and technologies that can conserve water while remaining profitable under actual production conditions. By 2004, the critical nature of the decline of the Ogallala aquifer had become better defined and was recognized as acute. Through this next period of time issues impacting agriculture and producer decisions changed dramatically. Commodity and input prices escalated while concerns over energy cost and independence, climate change, carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas emissions, and government policies and regulation escalated. Water retrievable from the Ogallala aquifer that could support crop irrigation was estimated to drop below demands within the next 10 to 20 years. Legislation was passed requiring water districts to design and implement plans setting a desired future condition of the aquifer for water remaining in 50 years. With the SARE-funded systems research located at Texas Tech University and the on-farm producer sites (TAWC) occupying over 4,500 acres on 30 sites across two major agricultural counties in west Texas we became positioned to test and ‘ground-truth’ the complex issues surrounding the design and implementation of more sustainable agricultural systems for this water-dependent region. The SARE-funded planning grant allowed the opportunity to incorporate greater input into defining the issues and opportunities facing a sustainable agriculture in the Texas High Plains and to help shape future research and demonstration, education, and outreach objectives. Objective The singular objective of this project was to define the research priority areas, educational and researchable objectives, and goals of a sustainable agriculture system for the 21st century. Materials and Methods To obtain the objective of this study, a two-phased study was designed and completed. Phase 1 included a review of existing literature that facilitated a focus group study. The goal of this phase was to acquire of depth of understanding of the issues facing agriculture within the region. The goal of Phase 2 was to determine the extent that the results of Phase 1 were shared across the south central United States. Phase 1 The first phase of this project centered on a qualitative research design with four focus groups to discover selected agricultural producers’ attitudes and opinions of sustainable agricultural practices. The focus group design is the best approach to answer the research questions of this study because “focus groups can provide insight into complicated topics where opinions or attitudes are conditional or where the area of concern relates to multifaceted behavior or motivation” (Krueger & Casey, 2009, p. 45). Most importantly, focus groups have the ability to generate data and insight that may not be evident without group interaction (Morgan, 1997). The focus group design utilized snowball or chain sampling to identify people of interest who were capable of providing in-depth information to answer the research questions. Contact information was gathered from willing participants during area agricultural events, and those individuals were contacted and invited via telephone to participate in this study. Selected individuals were also asked to identify others who were also able to participate in the study (Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh, 2002). All potential participants were involved in agricultural production. After all potential participants were contacted via phone, they were sent a formal invitation to attend the focus group in their area. A total of 48 participants were contacted and asked to attend the sessions. Morgan (1997) recommended over-recruiting for focus groups by 20%. The lead researcher also contacted all potential participants via telephone the day before each group to remind them of the session, provide details if needed, and determine if they would attend. These phone calls reminded those who may have forgotten about the group and reinforced the importance of attendance (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Four focus groups were held between May and July of 2010 within the West Texas Panhandle. Sessions lasted approximately two hours. Focus group size ranged from two to four participants. Small focus groups, sometimes called mini-focus groups, work well because the participants feel more comfortable speaking and sharing ideas. Smaller group sizes allow participants more time to elaborate on ideas and encourage more discussion (Krueger & Casey, 2009). A moderating team was used to facilitate each session that consisted of two different main moderators, who each facilitated two sessions, and two assistant moderators. The moderator’s main focus is facilitation of discussion and assistant moderators operate audio recording devices, respond to unexpected interruptions, and address other issues that may arise (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Three small audio recording devices were used to capture all discussion. Focus group participants completed a general questionnaire before each focus group session to collect additional information that would not be discussed during the session. The questionnaire asked the age, production status, production areas, and water conservation techniques of each participant. The moderator’s guide, used in all focus groups, was peer-reviewed by a panel of experts familiar with focus group methodology and the purpose of this study. The moderator’s guide included six topic areas that aligned with the research questions of the study. Several planned probes were also included under each question to ensure quality discussion among participants (Morgan, 1997). The focus groups began with the moderator giving brief instructions and explaining the purpose of the research group. The opening question allowed the participants to introduce themselves and briefly explain their agricultural operation. The participants were also able to identify things they had in common with each other (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Next, the moderator began the introductory questions. These questions introduced the topic of discussion and allowed the participants time to reflect upon the topic (Krueger & Casey, 2009). The first section of questions required the participants to offer their opinions about sustainable agriculture and problems facing the agricultural industry. The moderator asked participants a series of questions to encourage discussion of their opinions and attitudes regarding general issues related to sustainable agriculture. Diversification of agricultural production was the next topic discussed. This section of questions was designed to help transition the session conversation into more in-depth issues that drive the study (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Participants were asked what they had done, and what they plan to do to increase the diversification of their agricultural operations. The moderator then guided the discussion into the key questions about water conservation to learn the specific beliefs, opinions, and attitudes of the participants regarding this topic. Carbon sequestration was another key topic during this part of the focus group session. Participants were asked to discuss their knowledge of carbon sequestration and the current cap and trade legislation. Before the conclusion of each focus group, the moderator asked the session participants to indicate if they would like to add anything to the discussion. The goal was to uncover information that had not been discussed and to ensure that no pertinent topics had been overlooked. This final question sought suggestions from participants about what to modify for future focus group sessions (Krueger & Casey, 2009). After the focus group sessions concluded, the moderator and assistant moderator verified that the session had been successfully recorded, then transferred the audio recording to a computer and filed all consent forms, notes, and questionnaires. These final steps helped ensure that all comments and notes would be easily identified for future analysis. The moderating team also engaged in discussion to identify the most important ideas or themes that arose, and any unexpected or unanticipated findings. Effectiveness of the questions and any need for revision was also discussed (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Focus groups discussions were transcribed in their entirety. NVivo 8.0 was used for data organization and analysis. This computer program allows qualitative researchers to organize data in order to identify themes and key phrases. The researcher looked for common themes, and grouped them into categories. As themes emerged, they were compared to existing categories to look for common relationships. New categories were created for distinct themes that did not fit existing categories. This study found that the selected agricultural producers face many issues and problems that are complex and intertwined. The producers currently believed that they are implementing sustainable practices because they have increased their profitability. They also plan to adopt more sustainable practices if they will further increase profitability. The producers are concerned with water conservation and the management of the Ogallala Aquifer, but feel that local control is the best way to accomplish desired future means goals. Phase 2 Phase 2 was a day-long activity that include two parts that were completed in partnership with the the Southwest Council of Agribusiness (SWCA). SWCA is an alliance of agricultural organizations, financial institutions, and businesses, established to actively advocate for strong agricultural policy which is so important to the businesses and economy of Texas and the greater Southwest area. The mission and goals of SWCA is to represent and promote broad-based agriculture and business interests and increase economic opportunity in the Southwest region of the U.S. both now and for the future through the pursuit of good and stable agricultural policy, through information sharing and the building of relationships and alliances within the area, and through the promotion of value-added agribusiness and other enterprises that capture more of the wealth created from our land, water and other natural resources for the people and communities of the region. Of SWCA, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) stated that “When I want to check the pulse of Southwest agriculture, I turn to the Southwest Council. The Council is a broad-based and unified voice with experienced, effective leadership that policymakers can count on for advice” (SWCA, n.d.). Based on the geographic composition of the SWCA membership and the perceived levels of leadership and influence on the future of agriculture in the region, the group was contacted for the second phase of the study. Part one of this day-long activity was an educational program focused on the sustainable agriculture-related research being conducted in the Lubbock area. The program included presentations by researchers and farmers as well as research site tours. The day concluded with SWCA’s annual meeting and evening banquet. The participants in the study were those 240 individuals who attended an annual conference held by the Southwest Council of Agribusiness in Lubbock, Texas in July 2010. The conference is intended to be educational for participants as well as serves as the annual meeting for SWCA. The participants included producers, agribusiness leaders, researchers, and policy makers from a four-state area. All participants attending the conference were asked to anonymously fill out a brief questionnaire. The questionnaire asked a single open-ended question: What are the five most important issues or problems facing the agricultural industry today? The single-page questionnaire also collected demographic information of gender, age, ethnicity, education level, occupation, and if farming, the size of their operations including acreage and number of head. Sixty-three completed questionnaires (26.25%) were collected. The resulting data were entered into an Excel spreadsheet for analysis. The issue statements were examined for common themes with five themes emerging. Results/Discussion/Milestones Phase 1 Results Along with the topic of water conservation, most focus groups participants said that some type of monitoring was necessary in order to ensure the stability of the groundwater supplies. However, some of the producers stated that water monitoring may not be the correct way to approach the management of the groundwater. The participants did agree that local control was the best way to accomplish desired future means goals. Another area the participants mentioned as a problem they were facing was related to government involvement in their operations through legislation, including legislation that deals with water conservation. One participant said, “As water legislation goes, so there goes our production.” The participants also expressed a general concern for potential legislation. As one participant said, “We don’t know for sure what they are going to do in Austin or Washington, D.C.” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations regarding fuel usage for equipment were also discussed, and a producer explained, “All those regulations are going to be adding to our cost.” When discussing policy, participants mentioned international trade and relations. One producer said, “I would say that the international regulation part keeps me awake more than anything else does.” Another producer added, “We’re not on a level playing field as far as international economics are concerned and that’s going to be in the way for U.S. producers because we’re darn efficient that we have an excess of goods.” Technology was also discussed as another problem facing agricultural producers in the region. Some participants said that the available technology was too expensive; therefore, it did not allow them all an equal chance to experience the benefits. One producer said, “They’ve made equipment do so much more work, but as a result that equipment is so much more expensive.” Another participant added, “That’s hard on the smaller farmer.” Other producers argued that the cost of the technology is worth the added efficiency and yields, even if it is expensive to purchase. Others added that the increased technology has decreased the need for paid labor. Production costs were discussed throughout all four focus groups. Focus group participants all commented at some point about production costs and how they affect their production, profitability, and success in production agriculture. Production costs discussed included: fuel, fertilizer, chemical, equipment, technology, energy, seed, labor, and irrigation. The main theme that emerged was the high cost of fuel. The participants indicated that fuel prices had a big effect on their operation because it is needed to plow, plant, spray, harvest, and run irrigation motors. Participants also mentioned markets for agricultural commodities as a problem they face. One producer said: “One realization I have is the fact that the farmers are on the bottom of an economic situation. We accept what’s given to us and we sell in a market that’s going to give us X number of dollars and that’s it.” The producers discussed the risk they have invested into their operations and said that their high input costs made them vulnerable to the volatile markets. The main theme through all of these problem areas – water, legislation, policy, technology, production costs, and markets – was the concept of profitability. All of the focus group participants discussed profitability and expressed their concerns for the financial aspect of their operations. One participant stated: “Production agriculture is a business. We’re in it to make a living and to provide capitol so that we can increase the efficiency of our business.” The general theme from this discussion highlighted that most decisions producers make in their operations are related back to profitability. The focus group participants also expressed concern regarding outward expansion. The producers all agreed that less land would be available for agricultural production as more people moved to the rural areas. The producers said they would have to produce more on less land in order to maintain their operations. Along with this problem is the perception of agriculture among individuals who are moving from urban areas to the more rural areas. The participants said the general public population does not understand how hard they work to efficiently use and preserve available natural resources, which can impact the broader understanding of agricultural practices. The focus group discussion revealed that the majority of the producers were already engaging in practices that were related to sustainable agriculture – they just were not aware they were considered sustainable. Many of the producers were implementing processes such as minimum till, no till, more efficient irrigation, soil conservation, diversification, crop rotation, crop residue management, and precision technology. When asked to define sustainable agriculture, the participants had a variety of responses. One producer said sustainable agriculture meant organic. Another producer indicated that sustainability was for the future while another explained sustainability as being “kinder or gentler to the land.” A different producer described sustainable agriculture as survival. The participants from focus group two did not like the word sustainability. One participant said: “When I hear the word sustainable, it makes me think I’m doing just enough to hang on, making just enough to keep the bank happy so they won’t foreclose. I hate the word sustainable. I love the word profitable.” The moderator then asked if they preferred the word “stewardship.” The participants agreed that stewardship was a better term to use in regard to agricultural production. Although the terminology and initial opinions of sustainable agriculture were neither all positive nor in agreement with the USDA definition, all the participants agreed that agricultural producers should strive to preserve the natural resources and make efficient use of non-renewable resources. The discussion indicated that the producers had already begun to implement practices that would make their operations more sustainable and had increased their efficiency through the use of technology. This need to improve efficiency was motivated by the need to increase profitability and decrease production costs. One participant said, “We become more environmentally friendly to become more economically productive.” Many participants had moved away from using row water or flood type irrigation to using pivots and underground drip systems. Others had already started implementing a minimum tillage system within their operations and were utilizing crop rotation and residue management. The producers said that when they implemented these changes, their crops grew better and their yields were higher. The participants discussed adopting practices such as new seed varieties, increasing their use of technology, and adding livestock to their operations. Due to increased profitability, several producers had already started to diversify their operations—a sustainable agriculture practice. The producers seemed interested in using new seed technologies that would allow for more drought resistance and protection against insect damage. One producer said, “If we can get a cotton plant that can help resist insects, we can use fewer chemicals.” Another producer commented, “Hopefully, we’ll have some crops that will require less water.” Precision technology was also commonly used by the focus group participants. Increased yields and profitability had encouraged these producers to start utilizing tractors equipped with global positioning systems (GPS). Most participants said they could benefit from the use of more technology. Technological advances allow the producers to accomplish more work faster with less hired labor. One producer said he would “probably start using a little more technology as far as irrigation scheduling.” Another producer said, “I think it’s going to be all the technology and I think it’s all going to be driven by economics.” All of the producers agreed that there was some type of technology they are not currently using that can help them become more efficient and profitable. One producer said, “I know there are some new technologies that I haven’t tried yet.” Another producer stated: “I’m convinced that agriculture is here to stay. The technology is probably going to be our savior.” Some of the producers indicated they would like to expand their operations with the addition of livestock production, particularly the addition of cattle. The producers indicated it was becoming easier to raise cattle in the region due to the increased number of permanent fences. Phase 2 Results Similar to the themes that emerged from the focus groups, the five identified themes that emerged from the SWCA were government, economic factors, natural resources, next-generation and consumer-driven influences. The government theme (n = 53) included topics of concern for overregulation, the potential impact of the Environmental Protection Agency on agriculture, the farm bill and resulting programs, the impact taxes (income, estate, and carbon), government funding (spending and/or budget cuts), and farm-related labor laws. The economic theme (n = 50) included topics of the high cost of production agriculture inputs, low market prices for commodities, limited profits, cost of crop insurance, availability of credit, and the influence of corporate monopolies on agriculture. The natural resource theme (n = 21) was led by the topic of water (availability and quality) followed closely by energy and conservation procedures. The next generation theme (n = 21) focused on the future of production agriculture including potential farm labor shortages and the difficulty for young farmers to start their own operations. The theme of consumer-driven influences (n = 24) included the lack of education of consumers, public misconceptions of agriculture, and communication with consumers. Conclusions When in comes to defining the research priority areas, educational and researchable objectives, and goals of a sustainable agriculture system for the 21st century, the results of this study illustrate that there is not a single area of research focus that will lead to future success of agriculture in this country. Rather, the two research components in this planning grant illustrated the need for a systems approach that considers the myriad of factors that influence the short and long-term decision making of production agriculture and its supportive enterprises. For participants in these two studies, the data indicates that government involvement in agriculture is the most pressing factor that influences decision making processes. While the majority of the topics related to this theme were negative, there were also positive statements within the data. It was also clear that economic-related factors are not the sole concern of industry stakeholders and that human/consumer dimensions are important factors to consider. Related to this is the concern for the next-generation farmers indicating a potential concern towards the sustainability of the agriculture industry. The expressed concern of the consumer influences the endpoint of the agriculture industry and as such, the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices. As such, the potential influence of additional education for consumers that would improve the understanding of agriculture’s role within the government and the economy may also increase the agriculture industry’s sustainability. This study revealed that the selected agricultural producers in the South Central United States face many complex and intertwined problems – water, legislation, policy, technology, production costs, markets, and outward expansion. Water was by far the most significant concern shared by the participants. The participants were very concerned about a number of complex issues that impacted their ability to successfully operate their agricultural enterprises. And while producers are focused on the day-to-day success of their operations, they are also concerned with how agriculture is viewed by others. Publications/Outreach Frederick, C. (2010). The attitudes and opinions toward sustainable agriculture of agricultural producers on the High Plains of Texas. Unpublished master’s thesis: Texas Tech University. Meyers, C., Frederick, C., Doerfert, D. L., & Ulmer, J. (in review). The attitudes and opinions of agricultural producers toward sustainable agriculture in South Central United States. Paper submitted for possible presentation at the 2011 National Agricultural Education Research Conference, Coeur d’Alene, ID. Zavelata, J., Doerfert, D. L., & Sullivan, N. (in review). The issues that matter most to agricultural stakeholders: A framework for future research. Research poster submitted for possible presentation at the 2011 AAAE Western Region Agricultural Education Research Conference, Fresno, CA. Areas Needing Additional Study Increasingly clear is the fact that the simple demonstration of a research-proven, production practice that is profitable and/or has the ability to sustain our natural resources is no longer sufficient to ensure the future of U. S. agriculture. Due to the interrelated nature of the numerous factors that have emerged from this and previous studies, the need has emerged for a model grounded in a systems dynamics approach that will guide future research, education, and outreach in sustainable agriculture. This framework needs to include local, state, and federal government influences, a variety of economic factors not limited to the individual farm enterprise, the current and desired future state of our natural resources, the factors that influence the development and sustainability of the next-generation of U. S. agriculture, and the increase of consumer-driven influences that shape the related food, fiber, and energy decisions—all within the context of global economic, climate, and social change. The challenge to creating this model is deciding what is the quantifiable endpoint. Is the endpoint the slowed consumption of our natural resources such water? Is it the economic sustainability of our rural communities? Is it simply the adoption of a single agricultural production practice? Or is it a combination of desired endpoints that increases the complexity of a guiding framework? While we have not completed our proposed framework in time for this report, one is being developed that we believe will serve as a starting point. What we do know is that future research will need to be multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional in design with an increased focus how these and other factors interact in the complex system that is agriculture. References Ary, D., Jacobs, L., & Razavieh, A. (2002). Introduction to Research in Education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group. Krueger, R., & Casey, M. A. (2009). Focus goups: A practical guide for applied Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Morgan, D. L. (1997). Focus groups as qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Southwest Council of Agribusiness (n.d.)

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.