Evaluating Relative Impacts of Conventional and Sustainable Farming Systems on Rural Communities
The overall purpose of this project is to develop a conceptual framework and computational tool
kit appropriate for estimating the potential impacts on rural communities as farmers move toward
more sustainable systems of farming.
1) To facilitate community self-appraisal of the potential to increase local employment and
income by supporting transitions of local farmers from conventional to more sustainable systems
2) To facilitate practical, community-specific evaluation of potential impacts of more sustainable
local agricultural sectors on the overall long run sustainability of rural communities.
3) To promote an understanding and realization of potential positive linkages between
sustainable systems of farming and sustainable rural communities, considering the economic,
environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.
Methods and Results:
Farmers and community leaders from three communities, one each in Missouri, Nebraska and
Minnesota, provided information for development and validation of the conceptual and analytical
models used for assessment of community impacts of alternative farming systems. Inquiries of
these studies focused on first-round or direct economic impacts associated with differences in
resources, inputs, and outputs resulting from specialized, input intensive conventional systems
compared with more diversified, alternative, or sustainable farming systems.
A detailed study of expenditure patterns of 30 farmers in southwest Minnesota indicates little
differences in spending impacts on local communities between farmers who classifies themselves
as sustainable versus those who classified themselves as conventional. However, significant
differences were found between large and small farmers and between crop farmers and those who
had both crops and livestock. Smaller farms and farms with livestock had significantly greater
positive impacts on the local economy than did their larger, more specialized counterparts.
A similar survey was carried out in the Hartington and Wynot communities in northeastern
Nebraska. The Nebraska study compared detailed economic data provided by 28 farmers, half of
which were classified as “conventional” and the other half as “sustainable,” based on current
farming methods. The sustainable farms were found to be only about one-half as large as the
conventional farms in terms of acres farmed, head of livestock, and total sales of commodities.
However, the sustainable farmers actually reported a higher average farm income, or return over
direct costs per farm, in spite of their smaller size.
The Missouri portion of the study was based on two alternative scenarios for returning land
currently enrolled in the CRP program to agricultural production in Putnam County, Missouri.
The conventional scenario was designed to reflect currently typical farming methods in north
Missouri. The alternative or sustainable scenario assumed increased use of crop rotations, input
management strategies, and reduced tillage methods for cropping system and utilized planned, or
management intensive, rotational grazing systems for livestock production.
Returning CRP land to crop and livestock production under either the conventional or alternative
system would result in more than a two-fold increase in total direct, or first round, economic
activity compared to current CRP payments. Total economic impacts under the alternative
scenario were projected to total $7,860,000: $2,368,200 direct effects (excluding farm income),
$925,700 indirect effects, and $4,565,000 induced effects (including farm income). This
compares with $6,269,400 under the conventional farming scenario: $2,087,500 direct effects
(excluding farm income), $776,000 indirect effects, and $3,406,000 induced effects (including
farm income). Farm income could be expected to rise to $2.4 million and $3.4 million,
respectively, for conventional and sustainable systems compared with $1.7 million in total CRP
payments for the county.
Potential Contributions and Practical Applications:
Community leaders, including farmers, will be able to use the procedures and models developed
under this project to assess differences in community impacts among alternative community
development strategies, specifically strategies that might enhance the sustainability of local
agricultural systems. A simple microcomputer spreadsheet template was developed for use in
educational programs to help farmers and community leaders understand the potential impacts of
changes in farming systems on local economic activity and employment.
Major emphasis should be placed on encouraging on-farm trials and demonstrations of
sustainable crop and livestock systems. Farmers must convince themselves, as well as the other
members of their communities, that more sustainable alternative farming methods can contribute
to the economic viability of their farms, can support mare farm families per acre or per dollar of
investment, and can thus contribute to the overall quality of life in rural communities. Impact
studies can only show “potential” impacts. Ultimately, these impacts must be demonstrated under
actual farming conditions in actual farm communities.