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


    Large-scale dryland agricultural systems in North America are under increasing pressure from highly variable bioclimatic and economic stressors. Simultaneously, society is increasingly demanding that these systems become more sustainable ecologically and environmentally. The purpose of this study was to understand how these stressors influence the adoption of sustainable farming practices. Additionally, this project sought to identify leverage points within the decision-making process of producers that could be harnessed to promote adaptability and resiliency.

    Using a mixed quantitative and qualitative approach that synthesized historical data, farmer interviews, and surveys, we discovered that dryland farmers in the Northern Great Plains (NGP) of Montana have experienced increasing economic stress since the 1970s and unpredictable yet damaging stress from drought. Spatial variability and weed/pest pressure were not primary stressors; however, they were occasionally strongly influential. Economic and climatic pressures constrained the ability of producers to adopt sustainable practices, depending on the immediacy and synergistic effects of the stressors.   

    To facilitate greater adoption of sustainable practices, we identified the use of systematic on-farm experimentation as a primary means of promoting ecological and climate-resilient practices. Starting with trials that build on producers’ trust in the value of rotations, these experiments could then be expanded to other practices. Finally, peer-to-peer farming networks emerged as the most effective means for promoting experimentation; thus, an effective strategy would be to identify early-adopter farmers who could facilitate a culture of experimentation.


    Dryland agricultural systems in the Northern Great Plains (NGP) are typified by low economic margins, high levels of biophysical variability, and high sensitivity to fluctuations in precipitation. Producers respond to these uncertainties by seeking to reduce economic and environmental risks. Their strategies for minimizing exposure are usually focused on the use of highly specialized crops, technology, and external inputs rather than diversified crop rotations and agroecological techniques. In order to facilitate the increased use of ecological management, it is important to understand how various forms of uncertainty propel farmers towards specific risk-reductions strategies. This requires knowledge about the actual and perceived vulnerability of NGP farming systems and of the decision-making process by which producers respond to stressors.

    The most prominent uncertainties within NGP agricultural systems are climate, prices of inputs, crop prices, weeds/pests, and the spatial distribution of biophysical crop production factors. Weeds, pests, and their spatial distributions may have significant impacts upon crop productivity (Maxwell and Luschei 2005); some producers may experience significant effects while others may remain relatively unscathed. The spatial distribution of other yield-influencing factors such as soil water holding capacity can also impact sub-field scale productivity (Florin et al. 2011) and may lead to management approaches that are conservative with regards to minimizing productivity losses, despite obvious inefficiencies.

    Climate and economic uncertainties are more obvious factors that may influence the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices and farm vulnerability in general. With increasing recognition of the potential impacts of climate change on agricultural production (e.g. Lobell et al. 2008), there is elevated concern over the vulnerability of crops and commodity farming systems to changes in temperature and precipitation. Simultaneously, drastic swings in commodity and input prices over the last few decades have produced highly volatile economic outcomes that challenge management decisions on individual farms. Together, these twin stressors have the potential to synergistically interact to threaten large numbers of commodity-reliant farms. What will ultimately determine the vulnerability of these farms is the magnitude and variability of the stressors, the tools that farmers have to mitigate impacts, and the ability of farmers to assimilate new practices that are better adapted to novel conditions (Berkes et al. 2007, Tarleton and Ramsey 2008).

    The ability of farmers to resist the stressors outlined above, while gradually adopting more sustainable agricultural practices, depends on the tools that are available for mitigation and on the adaptability of farmers (individually and collectively) to novel conditions (Berkes et al. 2007). Historical events (McLeman 2008), farmer perceptions of risk and uncertainty (Sunding and Zilberman 2000), and pathways of social agricultural learning (Roling and Jiggins 1998) all lend insight into this adaptation process. Furthermore, qualitative understanding of the relationship between information sharing, learning, adaptive capacity and resilience can create a window into the adaptability of farmers and how it may be enhanced to endure climate change, fluctuating prices, and spatial variability (Tarnoczi 2011).

    To explore the stressors that impact dryland agricultural systems and how they shape farming practices, we chose to focus on a geographical region that is already impacted by high levels of uncertainty. Specifically, the Northern Great Plains (NGP) of Montana is an agricultural region that primarily produces dryland wheat and has a semi-arid climate (et al. 2004).

    No previous research has explored the social adaptability and vulnerability against the backdrop of exposure to multiple stressors.This assessment of vulnerability for these farming systems was designed to fill this gap in understanding. To do so, we first reviewed the vulnerability of NGP farmers within a historical context. Second, the research explored the number and quality of options that farmers have to mitigate the impacts of these stressors. Finally, a conceptual map of the pathways of adaptation was constructed in order to understand the generalized adaptability of NGP farmers to multiple stressors. Together, these components and their exploration via quantitative and qualitative methods helped describe the resilience of marginal dryland agricultural systems and the barriers to adoption of sustainable farming practices.

    Project objectives:

    Original Objectives

    1. Establish rapport with each of the three case study farmers, building an understanding of their management styles, perceptions of risk, and responses to vulnerability
    2. Qualitatively asses the case study farmers’ reactions to five forms of uncertainty within their systems:
      – Topographic/Spatial variability
      – Weed and pest variability
      – Climatic variability
      – Variability in price of inputs (fertilizer, fuel and herbicides) – Variability in the prices received for commodities
    3. Design a survey to assess the reaction of a larger group of farmers to uncertainty
    4. Administer the designed survey through a first series of five workshops and producer outreach events.     
    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.      
    6. Produce an extension webpage, a Mont Guide (extension publication) and develop the  workshop presentation to target producers. 
    7. Facilitate the second series of three workshops to a larger group of producers to disseminate results.   

    Updated Objectives

    • Ten additional in-depth farmer interviews completed with Montana Grain Growers Associationa (MGGA) board members and seven with randomly selected MGGA conference participants.
    • Interviews transcribed, coded, and analyzed for themes
    • Publication materials prepared for submission
    • Results presented at Resilience 2014 conference
    • Report completed and relevant results displayed online

    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.