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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Fruits: melons, apples, berries (other), berries (blueberries), berries (brambles), berries (cranberries), cherries, peaches, pears, plums, berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, lentils, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), rutabagas, sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: tobacco, herbs
  • Animals: bees, bovine, poultry, goats, swine, sheep, fish
  • Animal Products: dairy
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms


  • Animal Production: animal protection and health, free-range, grazing management, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: decision support system, farmer to farmer, focus group, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, study circle, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, indicators
  • Pest Management: biological control, chemical control, cultural control, integrated pest management
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, social capital, social networks, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    The purpose of this project is to design outreach and educational programs for commercially-oriented beginning farmers in the Upper Southeast that (a) promote site-appropriate and profitable sustainable farming practices and (b) help these farmers realize their own vision of a sustainable farm system. To examine challenges and needs of commercially-oriented beginning farmers in the region, we ask: What kind of farm systems do beginning farmers create and maintain? What types of knowledge about agricultural sustainability and sustainable farming do they rely on to construct their systems? What challenges do they face? The farm system is 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 the research questions above, we will collect detailed data on three dimensions of beginning farm systems: (a) farms (biophysical map), (b) farmers (socioeconomic map), and (c) perspectives on sustainability (cultural map). In each state an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including at least one biological scientist and one social scientist, will work 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 Year 1, the existing data in each state will be synthesized to develop our current “knowledge map” about beginning farmers. We will then create a “resource map” that includes organizations providing support to diverse farmers/farms. In each state, a coalition of stakeholder organizations, agencies, and groups will be established. Each coalition will host six listening sessions to provide our research teams with feedback on the content and construction of the maps, as well as the survey and case study instruments. In the winter of Year 1, the regional survey will conducted to: (a) develop a typology of sustainable farm systems used by beginning famers and (b) identify their challenges and needs to develop a commercially-viable and sustainable farm system. In Year 2, an interdisciplinary case-study approach will be used to understand how beginning farmers apply biophysical, socioeconomic, and cultural maps to guide their operations. In each state, case study of 12 farms will be completed. Through participant observations of their farm systems and in-depth interviews with the farmers, we will assess: (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 their local community. Using STELLA®, we will analyze the effectiveness of farming, enterprise management, and knowledge acquisition practices on generating desirable outputs by constructing: (1) biophysical models of farm systems, (2) whole-farm planning models of farm enterprises, and (3) knowledge pathway models of farmers. By providing a nuanced and systems-based understanding of needs of our next generation of sustainable farmers, this project will contribute to supporting the development of sustainable agriculture.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project aims to design outreach and educational programs for commercially-oriented beginning farmers in the Upper Southeast that promote site-appropriate and profitable sustainable farming practices and help these farmers realize their own vision of a sustainable farm system. To achieve that goal, this tri-state project, involving seven scholars from the University of Kentucky (UK), VirginiaTech University (VT), and the University of Tennessee (UT), will meet the following three objectives:

    1. Improve our understanding of diverse farm/food systems in the Upper Southeast region which beginning farmers create and participate in by:
    a. 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;
    b. Understanding the biophysical, socioeconomic, and cultural maps used by these farmers to guide their operations; and
    c. 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:
    a. Profiling various types of operations from preproduction to postharvest stages; and
    b. Classifying their common and distinctive needs for support;
    3. 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.

    Short-term outputs from the project are discussed in the Information Dissemination and Outreach Plan section below. We anticipate this project will make significant contributions to the sustainable agriculture research, education, and outreach efforts in this country; particularly to SARE’s vision for an enduring American agriculture of the highest quality. The project expects to make four long-term impacts. First, the educational and outreach programs resulting from this project will significantly improve the capacity of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee in supporting new generations of diverse individuals to enter into farming and build commercially viable sustainable farm systems. Second, this project provides an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of Agricultural Experiment Stations and Cooperative Extension Services in generating and disseminating knowledge about agricultural sustainability and techniques for sustainable farming. Such assessments will contribute to the enhancement of UK, VT, and UT’s programming in sustainable agriculture and food systems. Third, through engaging in community-based participatory research in sustainable agriculture, the multidisciplinary project team will be able to design innovative research-based training programs for undergraduate and graduate students in sustainable agriculture and food systems. This will enrich the learning experience of our students. Finally, the development of state-wide and regional collaborative networks among universities, Cooperative Extension services, government agencies, and community-based organizations will facilitate sharing of best practices, collaborative research projects, opportunities for exchange of training and learning opportunities, and address need unique to specific groups of farmers, and thereby advancing the regional capacity for innovations to improve profitability, stewardship and quality of life.

    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.