Progress report for ONE22-420
In this project, the question we will answer is how motivations, concerns, and decision-making vary between the different types of producers currently enrolled in the Vermont Pay for Phosphorus program as well as between farms of different sizes (both in acreage and income). The objectives of this project are as follows:
- Conduct semi-structured interviews and farm visits with producers enrolled in the VT PfP program to gather data on farmer perspectives and perceptions of the program.
- Develop an understanding of the motivations, concerns, and decision-making of different types of producers as it relates to PES programs, generally, and the VT PfP program, specifically.
- Conduct focus groups with different types of producers to communicate interview findings and facilitate critical discussion.
- Communicate findings from interviews and focus groups to relevant agencies, producers, and partners.
It is anticipated that these methods will produce a detailed understanding of the factors that influence farmer decisions regarding enrollment in PES programs. Not only will this provide vital baseline data to inform the direction of the PfP program over the next 5 years, but it will also help inform the development of future PES programs within the state to better support both ecosystems and farmers.
In the coming decades, the U.S. Northeast is expected to face a number of challenges with the potential to undermine the sustainability and resilience of the regional food and agricultural system. These challenges have varying implications for farmers and agricultural landscapes across the region as well as for the ecosystem services they produce. The U.S. Northeast is not unique in its need to sustain a healthy regional landscape and land-based economies, but there are several unique attributes in this region that propel the urgency to assess the production of ecosystem services on agricultural lands. Within the United States, the Northeast is “the most heavily forested and most densely populated region in the country” (U.S. GCRP 2017), and the urban coastal corridor between Washington D.C. and Boston is one of the most developed environments in the world (Horton et al. 2014). At the same time, the region has struggled with a declining productive landbase and decreasing regional self-reliance (Griffin et al. 2015). Together, this means that while the region is becoming more developed, adding additional strain on ecosystems and ecosystem services in the region, it is also losing the farmers and working land managers that might be best positioned to implement practices to improve the provisioning of these services.
In addition to these unique characteristics, several recent shocks to the U.S. Northeast also motivate the need to increase the pace and scale of ecosystem service provisioning. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 laid bare a number of fault lines within production systems of the United States, including food and agricultural systems. The U.S. Northeast is also expected to experience regionally specific impacts of a changing climate, including rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and a warming ocean, especially in the Gulf of Maine (Horton et al. 2014). Together, these shocks add to the growing pressure on agricultural landscapes and the livelihoods of those that work them.
To address these intersecting issues, significant efforts are needed to incentivize the production of ecosystem services while also supporting food systems and agricultural livelihoods. Payments for ecosystem services, or PES programs, represent one such effort with the potential to promote specific land management behaviors through various mechanisms, including direct financial compensation. Evidence suggests that the broad regional adoption of ecosystem service production practices at scale, with the right support, has the potential to not only ecosystem service provisioning on agricultural lands, but to also increase agricultural livelihood viability, sustainability, and resilience (Coleman & Machado 2022).
The State of Vermont has long been a leader in the development and implementation of programs aimed at improving the production of ecosystem services in agriculture. The Vermont Pay for Phosphorus (PfP) program is the latest of these efforts. It provides payments to farmers for reducing phosphorus runoff with the goal of alleviating several ecological concerns, especially water quality, among others. What is unique about the PfP program is that, rather than being a practice-based PES program, it is performance-based, meaning that farmers have the flexibility to implement conservation practices they know will work for their own operations. The PfP program is also interesting in that it engages with several different types of Vermont farmers, including vegetable, mixed, crop and hay farmers. Such a unique program provides a number of opportunities for various types of farmers, but not without some of the same challenges that face other PES programs, which include the creation of new externalities, trade-offs between efficiency and equity, and being top-down in their approach (Chan et al. 2017).
To better understand how farmer perspectives and perceptions of these challenges impact program uptake and implementation, this partnership grant will use a combination of farm visits, in-depth semi-structured interviews, and focus groups to gauge the motivations, concerns and decision-making of farmers who have enrolled in this program. Through close collaboration with Nic Cook, the Research and Soil Conservation manager of Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center, this research aims to collect farmer perspectives and provide farmers more access to the policy process as this program rolls out over the next five years.
Such research is both timely and relevant. Not only is the VT PfP program beginning this year, providing a unique window in which to gather important baseline data for future research, but it is also one of the first programs of its kind in the United States. This work therefore has the potential to be exemplary, impacting the design and development of other performance-based PES programs elsewhere. Beyond its academic import, this research is also important for farmers in Vermont and elsewhere. As has long been recognized in Vermont, farmer "goals, needs and perspectives" are vitally needed "to inform the design of [PES] programs that farmers would be willing to participate in" (Hammond-Wagner et al. 2019). At the same time, however, preliminary conversations with farmers currently enrolled in the VT PfP program reveal lingering concerns and uncertainties regarding program design and implementation.
This research aims to probe deeper into these dynamics to understand farmer perspectives and to integrate them into ongoing conversations as the program gets underway. More generally, this project will address SARE's overall goal of ensuring the diversity, profitability, sustainability, and resilience of agriculture in the Northeast through a better understanding of the ways that performance-based PES programs contribute to farm viability as well as the ways these programs might be improved going forward to further serve these aims.
Ultimately, PES programs provide one of the most effective and promising frameworks for addressing the social, economic, and ecological dimensions of agricultural sustainability and resilience. Going forward, the ability of such programs to foster conditions where farmers can have high quality of life and communities can thrive will depend predominantly on the extent to which they incorporate and are amenable to farmer perspectives. This partnership grant aims to do this within the context of the VT PfP program through discussions with and exchanges between the various types of famers currently enrolled with the goal of creating an ongoing dialogue between program managers and famers.
- - Producer
This project will make use of several distinct qualitative research methods, including farm visits, semi-structured interviews, and focus groups with the aim of developing a better understanding of the motivations, concerns, and decision-making of different types of producers as it relates to the Vermont Pay for Phosphorus program. For all these methods, research participants will be identified from the list of enrolled farms available through the Vermont Agency for Agriculture, Food and Markets, which runs the VT PfP program. Currently, there are approximately 60 farms enrolled with operations that include vegetable producers, hay producers, crop producers and mixed-production systems. From each of these four categories of farms, a representative sample of producers will be identified using a snowball sampling technique. Identification of farms interested in participating will be facilitated by this project's farmer collaborator, Nic Cook, who maintains strong regional connections with farmers and farming networks in Vermont. Once identified, farms will be able to participate in one or more of the planned data collection methods depending on availability and willingness.
More details of these methods, as well as a description of how they relate to the overall project objectives are provided below.
- Objective 1: Conduct semi-structured interviews and farm visits with producers enrolled in the VT PfP program to gather data on farmer perspectives and perceptions of the program.
To complete this objective, this project will make use of two different qualitative methods which will be carried out during the first phase of the research. The first of these are farm visits. Farm visits represent an important methodological tool for familiarizing oneself with farmers and their operations. Farm visits offer insight into not only the thinking of farmers but the material function and specific dynamics of their various operations. These farm visits will take approximately 2 hours and will involve a tour of the farm along with open-ended discussion on themes related to the Pay for Phosphorus program to gauge farmer perspectives. This discussion will be guided by a series of questions that will be developed beforehand with the input of the project’s farmer collaborator, Nic Cook. To compensate for their time and efforts in these field visits, farmers will be paid $200. In all, this project aims to conduct farm visits with 10 farmers in total.
The second method in support of this objective is semi-structured interviews. Semi-structured interviews provide a more formal setting in which to ask specific questions of farmers related to their motivations, concerns and decision-making surrounding the PfP program. At the same time, the nature of semi-structured interviews also allows for a more natural conversation to develop that gives research participants the freedom to explore important topics that are not necessarily considered within the list of questions. As with the farm visits, the questions for these interviews will be developed beforehand with the input of the project’s farmer collaborator, Nic Cook. These interviews will be conducted virtually with willing participants who will be identified via a snowball sampling technique and facilitated by Nic Cook. Some prospective interviewees will also be identified at the annual Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association conference that will take place in the winter of 2023. To compensate for their time and efforts in these semi-structured interviews, farmers will be paid $50. In all, this project aims to conduct semi-structured interviews with 20 farmers in total.
- Objective 2: Develop an understanding of the motivations, concerns, and decision-making of different types of producers as it relates to PES programs, generally, and the VT PfP program, specifically.
To develop an understanding of the motivations, concerns, and decision-making of different types of producers in the VT PfP program, the results of both these farm visits and semi-structured interviews will be transcribed with the help of an undergraduate assistant that will be hired with funds from this grant. Once transcribed, these interviews will be coded using content analysis, which is a standard qualitative data analysis technique that categorizes and collates data based on dominant themes (Cope 2016). Coding will be accomplished by using the qualitative data management software, NVIVO and will categorize data according to themes such as institutional trust/distrust, regulatory requirements, perceived economic concerns/benefits, perceived ecological concerns/benefits, and stewardship ethics, among others. Once coded, this data will be evaluated to understand the motivations, concerns, and decision-making of participating farmers. Particular attention will be paid to differences and/or similarities in perspectives between farmers of various types and between farms of various sizes, both in acreage and income. This initial round of data analysis will take place in the second phase of the research project from roughly February through May of 2023. Through further consultation with this project’s farmer collaborator, Nic Cook, the results of these interviews will be used to develop the topics and themes that will be used as discussion prompts in the focus groups that will be conducted.
- Objective 3: Communicate interview findings and facilitate critical discussion among different types of producers.
To further delve into some of the issues that emerge from the analysis of farm visits and semi-structured interviews, a series of four focus groups is planned for the latter half of the second phase of the research project between May and August of 2023. These focus groups will include 6 farmers each and will be divided based on different types of producers (i.e., vegetable, crop, hay, or mixed). Focus groups will include farmers that were previously identified through the farm visits and semi-structured interviews. Each session will last one and half hours and will be guided by themes and discussion prompts that will be based on findings from the farm visits and interviews and further developed through consultations with the farmer collaborator. To compensate for their time and efforts in these focus groups, farmers will be paid $150 each.
As with data from the farm visits and semi-structured interviews, data from the focus groups will be transcribed with the help of an undergraduate assistant. It will then be coded and analyzed in NVIVO using content analysis. Analysis of this focus group data will then be compared with the analysis of both the farm visit and semi-structured interview data to develop a final series of findings and results based on this work.
- Communicate findings to relevant farmers, agencies, and institutional partners.
The communication of research findings will occur following the completion of the research and analysis stage of this project. This objective will be fulfilled in four different ways: 1) Direct dissemination of research findings via pamphlet to participating farmers, 2) Conference travel and presentation of findings, and 3) Dissemination of findings via policy brief through the UVM network, and 4) Publication of results in peer-reviewed, open-access academic journal. Further details about all four aspects of this outreach plan are listed in the “Outreach Plan” section below.
Since being awarded in August of 2022, this project has begun with its first phase, which includes the conducting of semi-structured interviews with farmers currently enrolled in the Vermont PfP program. Since this method includes human subjects, the first step of this project was to obtain IRB approval from the University of Vermont. This application was completed in October and subsequently approved. Following IRB approval, the project could begin with the recruitment of research subjects. Due to information sharing limitations between the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the University, research subjects have to be recruited indirectly. A recruitment email from PI Mario Machado was sent out by the PfP program director to the approximately 50 farmers currently enrolled in November and since then, interviews have begun being scheduled and conducted.
To date, a third of the interviews have been conducted with farmers in the PfP program, with the eventual goal of interviewing 20 farmers or more by the end of the winter or early spring. Of these interviews, almost all of them have been with dairy famers. On one hand, this is unsurprising, given the fact that dairy farmers constitute a majority of the farms currently enrolled in PfP. On the other hand, there is a need to diversify and expand farmer sampling to better understand how the PfP program impacts different types of farms/farmers. For example, of the the interviews conducted so far, most have painted the PfP program in a positive light, however, from anecdotal evidence, this does not appear to be a universally shared perspective, especially for particular farm types. To address this, the research team is currently exploring alternative recruitment techniques, including snowball sampling with other project stakeholders (see below).
Additionally, since an additional goal of this project is to better understand how the PfP program functions overall, the research team realized that there may also be significant research value in conducting additional interviews with agency personnel, conservation district staff, and other relevant project stakeholders. As such, the original IRB application was modified to account for these additional research participants and the research team is in the process of scheduling and conducting 5 to 10 interviews with other PfP stakeholders. These are also to be completed by the end of the winter or early spring of 2023
Lastly, the research team was fortunate enough to gain access to a survey conducted by the University of Vermont in early 2022 regarding farmer attitudes towards the PfP program. While this data has not been collected under the guise of this SARE project, the analysis of it will nevertheless prove incredibly valuable for informing this research and will serve as vital baseline data for this project going forward. As such, the research team has done a thorough analysis of this survey data and is in the process of drafting a baseline report summarizing and detailing this work. Once completed, this report will be included as part of the outputs produced from this SARE project.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Beyond the immediate objectives of this research, the outreach component of this work is essential to fulfilling the overall goal of bringing more farmer perspectives into the dialogue with PES program development and implementation in Vermont. To deliver on this goal, there are a number of outreach activities that will be conducted through this partnership grant. These activities fall into four general categories: 1) Direct dissemination of research findings via pamphlet to participating farmers, 2) Conference travel and presentation of findings, and 3) Dissemination of findings via policy brief through the UVM network, and 4) Publication of results in peer-reviewed, open-access academic journal.
1) Direct dissemination of research findings via pamphlet to participating farmers
Upon completion of this research and with the support of the farmer collaborator, Nic Cook, results will be directly disseminated to participating farmers via pamphlet that summarizes research findings. The goal here is to produce a summary of results in a format that is appropriate and accessible to farmers, and which provides a resource and reference for ongoing conversations between program managers and participants throughout the VT PfP program's 5-year cycle.
2) Conference travel and presentation of findings
Along with Mr. Cook, findings from this research will be presented at two different conferences during the proposed project's 2-year cycle. Preliminary results from the farm visits will be presented at the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Grower's annual conference that will be held in the Winter of 2023. Final results from the entire research project will be presented at the American Association of Geographers Annual Conference which will take place in March of 2024 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
3) Dissemination of findings via policy brief through the UVM network
Beyond these conferences, I will ensure the communication of the results of this work to partners and institutions within Vermont by developing a policy brief to summarize key findings and recommendations. This policy brief will be distributed through the Gund Institute's network, which includes other organizations at UVM such as Cooperative Extension and the Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station, as well as organizations outside the university such as the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, and the Vermont's branch of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association.
4) Publication of results in peer-reviewed academic journal
Lastly, the result of this work will be collated into an article which will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal, such as Ecological Economics, and will be available for open-access to ensure it is widely available.