Multiple Forms of Uncertainty as a Barrier to the Adoption of Sustainable Farming Practices

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2012: $24,830.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Western
State: Montana
Graduate Student:

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: wheat
  • Vegetables: lentils, peas (culinary)


  • Crop Production: crop rotation, continuous cropping, no-till, application rate management
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: risk management
  • Pest Management: economic threshold, field monitoring/scouting, cultivation
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Advocates of sustainable farming practices often criticize conventional producers for resisting the use of more diverse cropping systems, for applying high levels of inputs and for being reliant on industrial food distribution systems. While some of these criticisms may be warranted, they fall short in their understanding of the sociological and economic barriers to the adoption of more ecologically balanced farming practices. Producers respond to perceived risk by seeking to reduce economic and environmental variability. Their strategies for doing so are usually focused on the use of highly specialized crops, technology and external inputs rather than diversified crop rotations and other agroecological techniques. If large-scale farming systems are to truly achieve greater ecological and economic sustainability, then it will be imperative to understand why many farmers’ decision-making processes favor the suppression of ecological dynamics. In particular, it is necessary to identify the specific decision points and socioeconomic incentives that lead farmers to avoid diversification. This project will develop a detailed account of these decision points and will pinpoint specific barriers to the adoption of sustainable agriculture (as defined by the American Society of Agronomy: that will form the basis of subsequent policies and advocacy efforts.

    This study will directly identify such barriers within the dryland wheat farming systems of the Northern Great Plains (NGP) of Montana. Due to the highly complex nature of sociological interactions between farmers and environmental/economic conditions, this project will first initiate a set of case studies to build a foundation for understanding farmer risk perception and management. Three cooperating wheat farmers representing different levels of risk-adversity will be the focus of these participatory investigations. As the case studies progress, a series of producer surveys will be designed that target a wider assortment of farmers and chronicle their various response mechanisms. Using the forum of producer workshops and field days, this first series of anonymous surveys will then be distributed to a broad group of producers.

    Finally, to expand the scope of this project beyond a purely academic accounting of socioeconomic barriers, the results of the anonymous surveys will be interactively disseminated through a second series of workshops and through various media outlets. It is hoped that by making the survey and research results completely transparent and obtainable, both producers and sustainable agriculture promoters will more clearly understand the barriers to adoption of sustainable practices and formulate common responses for overcoming them.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Further establish rapport with each of the three farmers, building an increased understanding of the farmers’ management styles. A final product from this phase and Objective 2 will be a report outlining the qualitative differences between each farmers’ perception of risk.(September 2011 – February 2012)

    2. Qualitatively assess the farmers’ reactions to five forms of uncertainty within their systems: (January 2012 – June 2012)
    a. Topographic (spatial) variability
    b. Weed and pest variability
    c. Climatic variability
    d. Variability in price of inputs (fertilizer, fuel and herbicides)
    e. Variability in the prices received for commodities

    3. Design a survey to assess the reaction of a larger group of farmers to uncertainty: (March 2012 – July 2012)

    a. How much of a threat each farmer perceives for the five different forms of uncertainty
    b. What management tools the farmer considers for managing each form of uncertainty
    c. What management tools the farmer currently uses to manage each form of uncertainty.

    4. Administer the designed survey through a first series of five workshops and producer outreach events. (July 2012 – December 2012

    5. Use the three case studies and survey data to assess the relative response of the farmers to uncertainty. In particular, categorize the responses based on whether they perceive each source (Objectives 2a – e) of uncertainty to be a threat and what tools they think are viable to deal with the uncertainty. (December 2012 – March 2013)

    6. Produce an extension webpage, a Mont Guide (extension publication) and develop the workshop presentation to target producers. Webpage to be located at and/or
    (March 2013 – June 2013)

    7. Facilitate the second series of three workshops to a larger group of producers to disseminate results. (May 2013 – September 2013)

    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.