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

2013 Annual Report for GW12-004

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

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


With this project we aim to understand how uncertainty reduces the propensity of farmers to experiment with sustainable farming practices. Since initiation, three case-study farmers have been extensively interviewed and observed to form a preliminary understanding of how five bio-economic forms of uncertainty influence their decisions. From this baseline, a survey was designed and distributed to 300 farmers to broaden insight into the decision process. A high non-response rate and high heterogeneity has emphasized the need to focus on a smaller subset of farmers. The next phase will involve in-depth interviews with a smaller group of representative farmers.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  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 from Objective 2 will be a report outlining the qualitative differences between each farmers’ perception of risk. September 2011 – February 2012

    Qualitatively assess the 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), and variability in the prices received for commodities. January 2012 – June 2012

    Design a survey to assess the reaction of a larger group of farmers to uncertainty: how much of a threat each farmer perceives for the five different forms of uncertainty; what management tools the farmer considers for managing each form of uncertainty; and what management tools the farmer currently uses to manage each form of uncertainty. March 2012 – July 2012

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

    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

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

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


As of the end of 2012, a significant proportion of this project has been completed. However, during the process of fulfilling the objectives, the results have indicated a need for re-calibrating the methodology to gain a deeper understanding of the barriers to sustainability. The case studies and survey have shown there to be a high level of heterogeneity among farmers, which necessitates either a more focused approach with a smaller set of farmers or a more superficial analysis of a broader group of farmers. I will choose the former. To explain this choice, I will outline the progression of objectives and how they have led to the alternate approach.

Building rapport with the case-study farmers and gaining an understanding of their individual perceptions of risk has been more straightforward than expected. By choosing to participate in this project, each of the farmers elected to expose themselves to questions, hence they were more than willing to share experiences, thoughts and perceptions. Eliciting responses that fully conveyed the decision process required more serious, in-depth inquiry; however each was receptive of this process. The culmination of time spent with each farmer and of recorded, transcribed and coded interviews was a preliminary report outlining the themes that governed their collective decisions. This report highlighted several important ideas.

Most importantly, it was recognized that while uncertainty plays a large role in specifically determining the management practices that farmers use, what was more important was how they psychologically responded to that uncertainty. Specifically, how each farmer gathered and sifted through information as a means of managing the uncertainty was a strong determinant of the final strategies they chose, whether “sustainable” or “un-sustainable.” Themes that emerged from in-depth interactions with them included an emphasis on personal experience, the importance of credibility and the necessity of drawing on a wide array of information sources.

To respond to these developing themes during the construction of the survey administered to a wider group of farmers in October 2012, questions concerning the five forms of uncertainty and the learning/information sorting process were included. Before dissemination, this survey was approved by the Montana State University Institutional Review Board to ensure confidentiality, anonymity and the appropriate nature of the questions.

During six day-long workshops that were provided as a means for producers to re-certify their pest management credentials, the two-page survey was disseminated to approximately 300 individuals. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, there was an extremely high non-response rate, which has made inference from the available responses quite difficult. Furthermore, it became apparent that the complex nature of the decision process could not adequately be represented by a simple survey, and that more detailed, probing interviews were warranted.

Moving forward, further work with the three case-study farmers will be performed to refine current themes. Additionally, in-depth interviews will be conducted with a wider group of farmers that will be more representative of farmers throughout the Northern Great Plains as a whole. These farmers will be selected through snowball sampling, and each interview will be recorded, transcribed, coded and analyzed for themes to assess consistency with previously collected data.

Finally, the previously used survey will be disseminated at additional producer meetings during the late spring and early summer of 2013 to boost the response rate.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Preliminary results indicate that producers’ decisions are driven far more by economic concerns and their individual learning pathways than by climatic, topographic or weed/pest variability. Although this statement may not be overly informative, there is substantial nuance behind this platitude. Most importantly, efforts to improve sustainability must recognize that producers strongly filter information sources according to those which they perceive to be credible. These information sources, which may include farm magazines, extension agents, personal experiences or otherwise, appear to be unique to each farmer. Individual producers focus strongly on only a few sources to the exclusion of others, hence what may be effective for one may be completely ineffective for another.

In addition to focusing on a select few sources, each farmer is often heavily bound by the perceived need to survive financially into the next year. Periods of higher prices both open up the opportunity for experimentation, but also nudge farmers to be conservative as a hedge against difficult market or climatic conditions. If, during the period when cropping decisions might be made, influential information is received from any of their sources, they may choose to experiment with a new practice. However, if no information is received during that period, then the producer is likely to continue with previously used strategies.

These preliminary results imply that to increase the adaptability of farmers and adoption of specific practices, distributing ideas socially through credible sources is critical. Furthermore, dissemination events must coincide with the economic ability of farmers to experiment, and with their willingness to take small risks with new practices.


Bob Quinn
Participating Farmer
333 Kamut Lane
Big Sandy, MT 59520
Office Phone: 4063783105
Gary Arnst
Participating Farmer
870 Valier Hwy
Valier, MT 59486
Office Phone: 4062793522
Chuck Merja
Participating Farmer
211 Adams Rd
Sun River, MT 59483
Office Phone: 4067995955