An Analysis of Environmental Management Approaches with Six Midwestern Dairy Farms: Informing Progress Toward a Sustainable Agriculture

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $148,851.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Mrill Ingram
Environmental Resources Center, UW-Madison

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: general animal production
  • Education and Training: technical assistance
  • Energy: energy use
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: holistic management
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures


    A comparison of 6 different agricultural-environmental approaches identified strengths and gaps within each program. Case studies of farmers utilizing each of these programs illustrated how agricultural sustainability is farmer driven, and three practices – commitment to stewardship, transparency of operations and involvement of community, and continual improvement through planning, monitoring, assessment, and action – are common among successful managers. We asked farmer collaborators to develop an Environmental Management System (EMS) to explore whether the EMS planning process would complement the other programs. Implementation of an EMS helped farmers prioritize environmental aspects and led to action to improve environmental farm management.


    The environmental impact of farming in Wisconsin and the quest to understand “agricultural sustainability”

    Working lands are synonymous with Wisconsin, with 15,300,000 acres of land being managed on 76,000 farms (Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, 2006). When all land – public and private – is considered, agriculture ranks as the principal land use for the state, with 37 percent of land in agricultural production. Of privately owned land, 46 percent is in agricultural production (Foltz and Turnquist, 2006, pg. 4). With close to 14,000 dairy farms in the state in 2007, Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape is dominated by family-scale dairy farms. The large acreage of land being managed by individual producers implies that farmers have a tremendous collective impact on the environmental health of Wisconsin’s land and water resources.

    The concept of agricultural sustainability addresses how farming can be done in such a way as to mitigate potentially negative impacts, and – in the best of practice – advance the ecological health of land and water resources. Sustainable agriculture generally embraces three main goals: environmental health, economic profitability, and social equity and quality of life (Allen 1993; Feenstra et al. 1997; Horne & McDermott 2001; MacRae et al. 1990). The paths to sustainable farming are diverse, and will vary according to landscape, type of farming operation, and farmer management. While farming practices vary, there are recognized elements of environmentally beneficial practices. These include Integrated Pest Management, rotational grazing, increasing soil organic matter, diverse and locally adapted crops, water conservation and pollution prevention, effective nutrient management, energy efficiency, wildlife habitat preservation, and a sensitivity to ecological niche and landscape diversity (Bird et al. 1995; Lockeretz 1997; SAN n.d.). Other practices associated with agricultural sustainability include: the restriction of using genetically modified organisms; restriction on uses of antibiotics to avoid development of resistance; animal health and well-being through access to the outdoors; and increasingly, promotion of access to local/regional markets.

    The three main goals of agricultural sustainability are interconnected: concern for the ecological integrity of land, water, and air resources is not sufficient for sustainability. Sustainability also has to take into account the human factor – that farmers can remain on the land demands economically sustainable enterprises and vibrant, healthy rural communities. It has long been recognized that there is an environmental cost to agricultural production, in addition to nonenvironmental costs (such as impacts on workers, communities, and consumers). Rural Sociologist Fred Buttel has used the term “societal costs” to encompass the various aspects of agricultural production that lend toward undesired externalities, such as degradation of the environment and natural resources. Societies have imposed “institutional interventions” – to greater and lesser degrees – to mitigate against these costs and to internalize them as factors of production. The two most common forms of internalizing costs – regulation and market incentives – make use of government regulatory controls, modification of pricing signals to indicate societal preferences, and government cost-sharing programs (which combine regulatory and market incentives) (Buttel, 2003).

    Indeed, farming is increasingly guided by a plethora of regulatory and market-based programs. Regulatory programs impose operational restrictions and guidelines to assure that farming practices work to the benefit of the public good and protect commons resources. Market-based programs respond to cost-signals from the market and provide information to consumers about the nature of the product and, at times, the invisible aspects of production practices that led to the creation of the product. In the U.S., these market based incentives offer alternatives, such as organically produced, which has led to a strong organic production sector. In Europe, stronger market-driven supply chain signals have led to retailers’ implementation of quality requirements for their growers. In order to capture market share, large scale retailers adopt quality and safety standards, and intern communicate these standards to the consumer. Supply chain pressure can have a stronger impact that market incentives (such as certification schemes) in that they affect larger scale agricultural production, distribution, and processing enterprises (Gunningham, 2007: 307).

    Across nations, governments – in order to reduce the costs of implementing regulatory programs and as response to resistance to mandatory regulation – have promoted voluntary programs to improve the sustainability of farming operations. Management systems such as Environmental Management Systems (EMS) have been tested and promoted as a means of setting a voluntary standard and providing a protocol for implementation of environmental improvements. These voluntary programs have alternatively been heralded as ‘flexible’ or chastised as ‘toothless.’

    While there is great variation in environmental management approaches – be they voluntary, regulatory, market incentive, or a combination of these – adopted by various farmers, it is difficult for an outside observer to assess the effectiveness of any particular approach, or of the ‘environmental sustainability’ of any particular farm. Likewise, farmers utilizing various approaches tend to emphasize particular aspects of sustainability, as per the emphasis of the approach employed.

    Management is a common theme in discussions of sustainable practice. As John Gardner has written: “The most significant aspect of a more ecologically sustainable farm is the least observable: the difference in its management. Management is the fundamental key to identifying a sustainable farm,” (in Bird et al. 1995, 49). Professors Rick Welsh and Thomas Lyson, in an unpublished essay entitled “The Management Question in Sustainable Agriculture,” suggest that farm management differs based on whether the farmers adhere to a neoclassical view of the world, and adjust their farming practices to conform to that viewpoint, or whether farmers adhere to a less formal view of good farm management, such as a sustainable view. Sustainability allows more variables to enter into the equation of what constitutes good farm management, and thus goes beyond production economics to include ecosystem integrity, quality of life, and the roles played by all members of the farming operation. Welsh and Lyson write, “We need to be less dogmatic in what constitutes a good or bad manager. Part of doing this is moving beyond the ideology that productivity and profitability are of primary importance and always positively correlated. A different calculus needs to be employed that gives equal weight to the issues of social and ecological integrity and sustainability.” (Welsh and Lyson, date unknown, pgs. 19-20).

    There is a need in the ever-expanding discussion about the goals of sustainability and in the efforts of people – particularly farmers – to put ideals into practice, to have a solid grasp on how different existing management structures are informing progress toward sustainability on the ground.

    The first major goal of this research project was to examine six existing management programs and to identify the explicit environmental goals of each of these approaches. Case studies of six farms viewed as exemplary by those familiar with each particular management approach further elucidated how farmer management is a critical aspect of program effectiveness and of environmental stewardship.

    The second goal of the project was to use the Environmental Management Systems (EMS) to address the sustainability gaps in the six examined environmental management approaches, and to identify options, priorities and feasible strategies for filling those gaps. For each of the six case study farms, our project “coach” worked with the farmers to develop a continuous improvement EMS. Farmers identified priority environmental aspects to work on, and established an environmental performance and improvement plan. Benefits and constraints of utilizing an EMS were identified through this process. Finally, we detail how we believe that an EMS can be an effective supplemental planning process (to already existing programs) that supports farmer-driven management toward sustainable practices.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1: Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each environmental management scheme based on its written directives, recommendations and procedures.

    Objective 2: Develop a case study of each farm to help us assess how the different schemes operate in practice and to ground-truth our analysis of the documentation.

    Objective 3: Develop an environmental management system for each farm to address gaps in environmental performance.

    Objective 4: Improve the viability of the EMS process to move all types of farms toward genuine sustainability.

    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.