Why Do They Quit? Identifying Key Determinants of Beginning Farmers’ Decisions
As the U.S. farmer population continues to age, recruiting and supporting beginning farmers is a vital priority for local, state, and national level agricultural organizations. Through interviews with beginning farmers and young people who recently quit farming, this comparative ethnographic project seeks to establish the range of factors that contribute to a beginning farmer’s decision to leave agriculture. Data collection has been completed for this project; Rissing conducted semi-structured interviews with 14 people who decided to stop farming within their first five years of running small-scale, direct market operations in Iowa. She also completed over 50 interviews with people still farming and a range of others involved in Iowa agriculture (see details below). Analysis is currently underway and preliminary results indicate relationship stressors, the instability inherent to renting land, and exhaustion/burn out as factors that can precipitate a new farmer’s decision to leave agriculture.
The primary objective of this research is to understand why some beginning farmers, after overcoming the initial barriers to entering agriculture, decide to stop farming within their first five years while others running apparently similar businesses continue. We are particularly interested in the relative importance of farm finances and profitability—do only those beginning farmers running unprofitable businesses decide to quit? If not, what factors are more likely to predict a new farm’s longevity?
By analyzing farm financial data and transcripts from interviews with former farmers alongside data from beginning farmers still in production, the project aims to identify previously unrecognized risk factors for going out of business. Data analysis is currently underway. In the final year of the project we seek to more fully explore the preliminary themes of relationship stress, burn out, and desire for a more stable life style that have emerged thus far. Furthermore, many former farmers interviewed for this project were running profitable businesses, yet they still decided to quit; therefore, a second goal for the remaining year is to better understand the relationship between a farm’s finances (i.e. profit margin) and its longevity. Comparisons with farmers who are still in production—including through follow-up visits during summer 2017—will help capture the nuanced distinctions between these two groups’ stories. Through developing this analysis and partnering with grassroots organizations and academic institutions for dissemination, we hope to spark conversation and reflection among beginning farmers, helping them to anticipate, plan for, and ultimately avoid such difficulties.
Between June 2015 and August 2016 (NCR-SARE funding starting in September 2015), Rissing conducted ethnographic fieldwork with beginning farmers, former farmers, and a range of other agricultural stakeholders in Iowa. As part of Rissing’s broader doctoral dissertation work, the SARE funded component aimed to compare the experience of young people still farming to those who had decided to quit in order to better understand the factors that promote or undermine beginning farmers’ success—not only barriers to entry, which are well documented, but the events or decisions that can lead an established beginning farmer to leave agricultural production. The project’s methodology and accomplishments to date are summarized below.
This project’s methodology unfolded along the timeline outlined in the original proposal. Based in Ames, Rissing visited beginning farms in all quadrants of the state, focusing on central, northeastern, and eastern Iowa where direct market agriculture is more common. During summer 2015, data was collected primarily through participant observation by volunteering on small-scale, direct market farms. These farms were predominantly a mix of horticulture (annual vegetable and orchard production) and livestock operations, although small grain farms and dairies were also included. After establishing relationships during these informal visits, Rissing was able to easily schedule semi-structured interviews with farmers over winter 2015-2016. During spring and summer 2016, Rissing continued volunteering on farms, finished interviews, and began visiting beginning farmers in conventional grain production.
In total, 118 visits to 63 farms across the state were completed; of these, 52 were beginning direct-market farms, 4 were beginning commodity grain farmers, and 7 were established alternative farms. In addition to these visits, Rissing conducted 44 recorded interviews with beginning alternative farmers, 12 interviews with people who had decided to quit farming (2 of these interviews were with couples, so 14 former farmers were interviewed total), 4 interviews with Farm Services Agency (FSA) managers, 4 interviews with agricultural bankers, and 2 interviews with parents of beginning farmers. The assistance of Practical Farmers of Iowa was invaluable for connecting Rissing with former farmers; their staff contacted all farmers who had withdrawn from their Savings Incentive Program for beginning farmers to ask if they would be interested in participating in this project. This approach yielded several interviews, as did additional snowball sampling. As with all ethnographic projects, the actual scope of fieldwork is broader than can be represented through such accounting – Rissing also volunteered at markets, caucused, carpooled to field days, attended retreats, hiked, met up for coffee and ran errands with farmers and former farmers. This approach yielded a rich body of field notes, photographs, and audio recordings. All SARE-funded interviews have been transcribed, a codebook has been developed, and analysis in MAXQDA is ongoing.
To date, the SARE-funded component of Rissing’s doctoral dissertation project has contributed to two outreach presentations:
Rissing, A. “Global to Local in Iowa Agriculture.” Guest lecture in Culture and Agriculture course. Department of Anthropology, Grinnell College. Grinnell, IA. May 2016.
Rissing, A. “Anthropological Fieldwork and Iowa Agriculture.” Department Seminar.Department of Sociology, Iowa State University. Ames, IA. April 2016.
And three conference presentations:
Accepted: Rissing, A. “Loving the Work Isn’t Enough: New Farmers Deciding to Quit in the Midwest.” Society for Applied Anthropology. Santa Fe, NM. April 2017.
Rissing, A. “Entrepreneurial Visions and Stewardship in Iowa Agriculture.” American Anthropological Association Annual Conference. Minneapolis, MN. November 2016. Session Co-organizer & Chair: Economic and Environmental Negotiations in Contemporary U.S. Agriculture
Rissing, A. “Conversation and Confrontation in Iowa Agriculture.” Central States Anthropology Society Annual Conference. Kansas City, MO. April 2016.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
This analysis will contribute to the graduate student PI’s doctoral dissertation, which will be publically available through the Emory University library and digitally available through ProQuest Dissertation and Theses Database. A number of peer-reviewed articles based on this research are currently underway, as are several submissions to anthropology and food studies conferences. In addition to academic routes, project findings will also be disseminated through popular blog posts and newsletter pieces, aimed both at the general public and farmers in particular. Finally, results from this project will also contribute to the development of at least one undergraduate course on U.S. foodways and agriculture that the graduate student PI is designing.
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