Factors Driving Grain Producers to Convert to Organic Farming Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2016: $12,000.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2019
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Nancy Grudens-Schuck
Iowa State University


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Education and Training: decision support system, display, extension
  • Farm Business Management: market study, risk management, value added
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture

    Proposal abstract:

    While consumers’ demand for organic food is booming, organic grain shortages present a particular bottleneck to the expansion of the organic industry. A USDA case study has shown that the largest challenge for organic livestock producers is the lack of a steady source of organic feed, and its affordability. Unsuccessfully, organic food companies appeal to farmers to increase domestic supply of domestic organic grain. Agricultural organizations also encourage more grain producers convert to organic farming. The response is underwhelming. To increase the number of organic grain producers, a crucial question needs to be asked, “Why do farmers convert from conventional farming to organic farming?” The second question is, “Why are more farmers not converting to organic farming?” Although organic agricultural extension specialists may have some answers, few studies in the U.S. have made a systematic inquiry. In Europe, Austria and Asia, several relevant studies have been conducted. However, none of them focuses on organic grain. Moreover, the structure of the agricultural industry is very different from in the U.S. This project targets grain producers in Iowa, an important grain producing state. This project will (1) identify factors that facilitate farmers’ decisions on organic conversion; (2) identify barriers farmers have encountered before and after organic conversion; (3) model how the factors and barriers affect the decision-making process; (4) identify reasons why farmers discontinue organic farming; and (5) identify educational needs of farmers who express different levels of interest in conversion. This project will use a social science approach, with a mixed-method research design. The first phase will be a qualitative study through interviews. The second phase will be a quantitative survey. By sharing this project’s findings with educators in extension and agricultural organizations, more effective educational programs will serve potential organic farmers. This study will further help to increase the number of organic grain producers, and eventually provide the basis for an increase the domestic supply of organic grain. This study will help organic livestock producers with a steady and affordable organic feed supply. Organic food processers will be able to expand their product lines with a stable source of ingredients. In addition, more organic farming acreage means fewer synthesized chemicals will contaminate water or other natural resources.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    There are five objectives for this project: (1) identify factors that facilitate farmers’ decisions on organic conversion; (2) identify barriers farmers have encountered before and after organic conversion; (3) model how the factors and barriers affect the decision making process; (4) identify reasons why farmers discontinue organic farming; and (5) identify educational needs for farmers who are at different levels of interest in converting.

    To achieve the research objectives, this project employed a mixed method research design- Sequential Explanatory Design. Phase I: qualitative study. Phase II: quantitative study. Phase III: integration and outreach.

    During the Phase I (Sep 2016- Mar 2017), A grounded theory study will be conducted. Grounded theory is a systematic approach for generating substantive theories from a qualitative data set (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Grounded theory brings a new point of reference to existing assumptions and helps explain the “real world” (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The data collection method is the individual semi-structured interview. Interviews will be conducted of certified organic grain producers and former organic grain producers who have tried organic farming but ceased their organic certification. Participants will be reached through mailing list of the Iowa Organic Association, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. The USDA Organic Integrity Database also provides complete list of organic operators and surrenders. Interview protocols will be developed and pilot tested. The initial interview questions will address the decision to convert to organic farming, challenges encountered and strategies implemented, personal and family experience in farming, production methods, farming philosophy, personal value and motivations. The investigator will partially transcribe the interview, develop the grounded-theory focused codebook, and analyze data by using qualitative data analysis software NVIVO.

    In Phase II (Apr 2017 - Oct 2017), generalizable conclusions will be drawn from quantitative survey’s results. A survey instrument will be developed based on the grounded theory. The theory will show how the factors and barriers that influence farmers’ decision making on organic conversion. Specific measurements and constructs variables will be finalized based on findings from the qualitative study. Because of the qualitative study, validation of the survey instrument will be in an advantage. Based on the literature review, dependent variable will be organic farming adoption status. Other constructs may include intentions of organic conversion, environmental ethics, personal and family health concern, economic incentives, information availability, perceived risks and so on (Canavari, Cantore, & Lombardi, 2008; Karki, Schleenbecker & Hamm, 2012; Stofferahn, 2009; Wiegel, 2009). The survey will ask participants to list and rank their educational needs regarding organic grain production and conversion. Participants will be asked to submit their additional concerns or needs related to organic farming adoption. A random sample will be drawn from all Iowa grain producers. The sample’s mail list will be purchased from a marking research company, US FARM DATA. Mailing surveys will be delivered with follow-up postcard reminders. Gift card drawing will be an incentive to increase response rate. Both descriptive and inferential statistics will be used to present findings. A Multinomial Regression Model will be built to explain how the factors and barriers influence famers’ decisions on organic conversion.

    In Phase III (Nov 2017 –Mar 2018), the investigator will integrate findings from qualitative and quantitative studies. Several conference and academic journal article publications will be written. Presentations and blog articles will be made for supporting organizations including Iowa State Extension’s Beginning Farmer Center, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Organic Association, Ohio Ecological Farm, Food Association and Oregon Tilth.


    Canavari, M., Cantore, N., & Lombardi, P. (2008). Factors explaining farmers’ behaviours and intentions about

    agricultural methods of production. Organic vs. conventional comparison. Proceedings from 16th IFOAM Organic

    World Congress, Modena, Italy.

    Glaser, B G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research.

    Chicago: Aldine/Atherton.

    Karki, L., Schleenbecker, R., & Hamm, U. (2012). Factors influencing a conversion to organic farming in Nepalese

    tea farms. Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development in the Tropics and Subtropics 112(2), 113-123.

    Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

    Stofferahn, C. W. (2009). Personal, farm and value orientations in conversion to organic farming. Journal of

    Sustainable Agriculture, 33(8), 862-884.

    Wiegel, W. J. (2009). Adoption of organic farming systems in Missouri. (Master degree thesis). Retrieved from

    ProQuest (Order No. 1504730).


    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.