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

2014 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


Understanding farmer adaptability in the face of uncertainty requires knowledge of the influences that have shaped their decision-making, their goals of production and where they seek information for managing novel conditions. The interviews and surveys completed for this project are providing insight into these influences and how adaptability and experimentation with sustainable practices may be encouraged. The themes identified from initial data collection are currently being refined and will be validated with a set of short interviews this winter. Once the results have been distilled and translated into a coherent theoretical framework, they will be presented at an international conference, to local audiences of farmers, and to the public via an online Montana State University extension website.

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 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 (topographic/spatial, weed/pest, climatic, input prices and prices received) within their systems. (January 2012 – June 2012)
  3. Design a survey to assess the reaction of a larger group of farmers to uncertainty (March 2012 – July 2012)
  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 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 and a Montana 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)

Updated Objectives:

February 28, 2014: Additional in-depth farmer interviews completed
March 31, 2014:   Interviews transcribed, coded and analyzed for themes
April 31, 2014: Publication materials prepared for submission
May/June 2014: Results presented at AFHVS and/or Resilience 2014 Conference
August 2014: Report completed and relevant results displayed online
October 2014:  End of project.


As revised within the request for extension that was approved in October 2013, the deadlines associated with the updated objectives have not yet elapsed. However, several significant developments have taken place since October that will assist with the completion of the project.

First, the survey approach (IRB approved) that was previously canceled on the grounds of feasibility has been completed by a total of 55 respondents. The goal of the survey was to broaden the representation of farmers beyond the three case study participants. It has provided a substantial expansion in data about the ability of farmers to respond to climatic variability, knowledge on their adaptability under stressor scenarios and information about the process by which they obtain information for responding to novel conditions.

The survey was disseminated online to 700 members of the Montana Grain Growers Association (MGGA) and in-person to thirty participants at a meeting on precision agriculture in Great Falls, MT. Although the response rate was low, the level of variability in the answers indicates that no further surveys will be necessary (although a potential voluntary response bias has been noted). Qualitative and quantitative responses within the surveys are currently being coded and analyzed to assess consistency with the three case study farmers.

In addition to the survey responses, contact information for 40 farmers was obtained from the MGGA. Interview questions are under development that will help elucidate gaps in the themes identified from the previously collected data. Interviews will be ongoing until conceptual saturation has been reached and an adequate theoretical understanding of farmer adaptability and information gathering pathways has been validated.

Finally, an abstract for a poster presentation, titled “A Probabilistic Framework for Analyzing Long-term Resilience of Dryland Agroecosystems to Economic and Climatic Change” was submitted and accepted to the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier, France. This presentation/conference will provide a venue for communicating the quantitative work associated with this project, and more importantly, the qualitative findings that are a direct result of this SARE grant.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Based on the additional data provided by the survey, it appears that the characteristic of investigative curiosity is crucial to determining how farmers respond to variability and challenging climatic conditions. The influence of parents and key mentors early in the farmers’ lives seems to strongly shape their intrinsic curiosity and propensity to consider a wider range of management techniques. This influence carries weight throughout the farmer’s life and can serve to guide each individual towards alternative methods of management.

In addition to key mentors, the influence of peers is of primary importance (ranked eight out of 10 for importance of information source). This finding validates previous research that emphasizes the role of neighboring and local farmers in determining the range of practices and management techniques under consideration. For example, when considering alternative crops to use in rotation, farmers often appear to rely on the perceived performance on neighboring farms before deciding whether or not to use that crop on their own farm. Furthermore, there appears to be constant comparison to nearby farmers, which could potentially create an incentive to minimize experimentation in order to avoid peer judgment if the experiment failed.

The inferences noted above are still being revised as more data are collected. However, the developing theoretical foundation points to leverage points within a farmer’s life and within their social circles that could potentially be employed as entry points for promoting sustainable practices. Indeed, the data suggest that early mentors are critical for instilling the values of reducing soil erosion, using crop rotations and for internalizing a sense of curiosity that values ongoing experimentation and adaptation.

As mentioned previously, these results will be presented at the Resilience 2014 conference in May. In addition, once the theoretical foundations are validated, the results will be coalesced into an academic paper for publication. Field days during summer 2014 will also be targeted for dissemination to a non-academic audience, and the results will be displayed online for public viewing.


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