Land Ethics: Connecting Producers, Consumers, Land and Food
Farmer and consumer land ethics and opinions and potential participation in local food systems were studied in Washington County, Nebraska. Results indicated an ethic of environmental stewardship for both populations. Consumers were interested in purchasing food from farmers’ markets, local restaurants and grocery stores, and directly from farmers. In contrast, the majority of farmers indicated no interest in meeting this market demand. The predominant agricultural system in the county is conventional corn and soybean production, and most farmers in the study predicted that they would be farming more land under this system in the future.
The overall objectives of the study were to gauge farmer and consumer interest in locally produced foods in Washington County, Nebraska, and to examine land ethics for both of these populations.
Specific objectives included the following:
Obj 1: To examine the current food system in Washington County.
Obj 2: To examine consumer food preferences, local food purchasing history, and interest in future local food purchases.
Obj 3: To examine farmer interest in producing food for local markets and in sustainable farming practices.
Obj 4: To quantify land ethics of farmer and consumers, and to determine if these two populations share similar ethics about land use.
Obj 5: To test for relationships between land ethics and farming practices.
Obj 6: To determine whether or not farmers want to continue farming, if they want their children to farm, and what factors influence these decisions.
Long-term outcomes, as stated in the project proposal included: illumination of a deeper connection between consumers, land, and food; cooperation within farming communities; more local food production; less reliance on purchased inputs and agribusiness; protection of biodiversity; more farmers farming with increased profits; increased consumer health; information about the potential need for further education; and government assistance for sustainable agricultural practices.
The study yielded useful information about consumer interest in local food systems. Survey respondents indicated a high level of interest in purchasing locally produced foods from farmers’ markets, local grocery stores, local restaurants and directly from farms. By contrast, the vast majority of farmers surveyed reported no interest in meeting this demand.
Land ethics of both populations were examined, and found to be quite similar to one another. Using a scale constructed for this study, both farmers and consumers revealed an ethic of environmental stewardship.
In order to communicate results and connections between farmers and consumers in the study, two pamphlets were produced and sent to interested respondents. Information about land ethics and interest in local food systems was included. The goal of this action was to provide farmers with relevant marketing information from consumers and to show consumers how others responded to survey questions. Over half of the study participants requested that results be sent to them.
James Peterson, the Washington County Extension Educator, was consulted on several occasions throughout the data collection phase of the project. Using study results, he published two articles in the Blair Pilot Tribune paper and on the Washington County Extension website. The articles highlighted local food interest and attitudes about land use.
Study results were shared at the Agronomy Society of America (ASA) national meetings in 2003 and in 2004. Each year, a poster presentation was given, and an abstract was published.
An article about the local foods portion of the study was published in the September 2004 Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS) newsletter.
A paper has been accepted for publication and is forthcoming in the Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems journal. The paper title is Marketing Locally Produced Foods: Consumer and Farmer Opinions in Washington County, Nebraska, and is authored by Mindi L. Schneider and Charles A. Francis.
A paper has been submitted to the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture as well. Further work needs to be done on this paper in hopes of publication.
Other outreach projects using the data, and preparations for further publications are underway. We are constantly amazed by the multiple spin-offs of that result from this study.
Results for Specific Study Objectives:
Obj 1: The current food system in Washington County is characterized by a decrease in the number of farms and an increase in farm size. Farmers indicated that they are farming more land presently than they were five years ago, and they anticipate farming even more acres five years in the future. Seventy-one percent of the farmers reported using a corn and soybean rotation, though alfalfa was also included as an addition to this scheme. Half of the farmers surveyed stated that they have livestock as part of their system, with beef cattle being most common and dairy cows least common. Many farmers, however, reported having had cattle, hogs, and chickens in the past. Crops and other farm products are largely marketed through the local grain elevator or wholesaler and through an industry operation. In general, the food production system in Washington County is similar to the conventional mode of production that exists in most of the North Central region.
Obj 2: High-quality, good-tasting, nutritious foods that can be purchased at a good price were most important to consumers in Washington County. Products that were produced in an environmentally friendly manner and support local family farms were also very important. All-natural and organic foods were least important.
Most consumers reported that they had purchased locally produced foods in the past, and 96% report that they had and would purchase local. Additionally, consumers were very to extremely interested in buying direct from farmers, shopping at farmers’ markets, and purchasing local foods from local grocery stores and restaurants. They stated that they were willing to pay prices equal to or 10% more for locally produced foods than for similar conventional items. A clear potential for local marketing of food seems to be indicated from these results.
Obj 3: Farmers in the study were not interested in meeting a local market demand. The percentage of farmers that stated they were “not interested” in the following marketing channels are as follows: Direct sales (48% not interested), farmers’ markets (65% not interested), direct sales to local grocery stores (68% not interested), and direct sales to local restaurants (71% not interested). These data indicate a disconnect between farmers and consumers in terms of local food system development.
Farmers were asked whether or not they use a series of farming practices that are considered to be aspects of sustainable systems. Most farmers reported using no-till and crop rotation. Based on the predominance of the corn and soybean rotation in the county, it can be assumed that the no-till system is used in conjunction with increased adoption of glyphosate-tolerance technologies. Few farmers reported using reduced chemical weed/insect management, composting, cover crops, crop diversification, specialty markets, or organic certification. Also, livestock, rotational grazing, and livestock diversification were not used by most farmers.
Obj 4: In order to quantify land ethics, a scale was developed and used in this study inspired by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic concept and by work in the field of environmental ethics. Both farmers and consumers scored in the “high categorized land ethic category” that corresponds with an ethic of environmental stewardship. Two scale items revealed negative land ethics: (1) most farmers and consumers agreed that humans were created as fundamentally different from other living things, and (2) most farmers agreed that agriculture is a minor cause of ecological problems, and most consumers were undecided about this statement.
Obj 5: Statistical analysis revealed that farmers with smaller farms (less than 200 acres) have higher land ethics than farmers with large farms (1000 or more acres). This relationship held for both acres owned and acres farmed. Similarly, farmers that practiced what was defined for this study as HIGHLY sustainable farming methods scored higher on the land ethics scale than others.
Obj 6: The highest percentage of farmers in the study reported that they are the 4th generation or more to farm their land. Most farmers reported having rented farmland in addition to owned acres. Eighty-two percent of farmers reported that they want to continue farming, and 72% stated that they want to pass their land onto a family member. However, less than half of the farmers stated that they want their children to farm. Personal, land legacy, social, physical, and economic factors were reported as influences to retain ownership of farmland. On the other hand, urbanization was listed as a negative influence on ownership. The proximity of Washington County to the expanding city of Omaha was no doubt an important factor in this result. Residential developers can pay a high premium for farmland, usually resulting in higher profits for farmers than what they receive from agricultural production.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The most useful outcomes of this study are the tools that can be used by other researchers and/or Extension Educators for future studies of land ethics and local food systems. The survey instruments that were developed for the study can be easily modified for use in other counties or localities in the North Central region. The land ethics scale is a unique methodological tool that can also be used.
Studies of this type can be a preliminary step in developing markets for local foods. Results provide baseline data that can be used by Extension Educators, activists, researchers, and farmers in order to better understand the motivations and interests of consumers.