Social and Cultural Factors Affecting Sustainable Farming Systems and the Barriers to Adoption
Current research in sustainable farming systems tends to focus on agronomic and profitability
issues, neglecting social and cultural factors. Little information is available about the social,
cultural, economic and environmental consequences to farm families and rural communities of
adopting more sustainable systems.
1) Determine the family and enterprise preconditions or barriers to adopting sustainable farm
2) Identify and assess the environmental and economic consequences for the rural community of
families farming with sustainable versus conventional systems.
3) Develop an innovative educational program that identifies the real-life costs and benefits to
families using sustainable versus conventional farming methods.
A paired comparison of 60 farm families was employed (30 using sustainable systems and 30
using conventional systems) to determine why some families opt for sustainable practices, and
their neighbors who resemble them in many ways do not.
Although not a random sample, the two groups do not diverge significantly along the dimensions
usually expected to account for farming-system contrasts: age, education level, off-farm
employment, farm size, soils or a representative field’s productivity. The paired groups, however,
are distinctive socially. A whole-farm design was used that included the entire farm household.
This approach brought to light factors other than profitability that effect whether sustainable
farming systems are adopted, and whether once adopted persist through a transfer of
management from one generation to the next. Families using sustainable farming systems had an
environmental or health event linked to adoption, have traditions of environmentalism,
systematically do on-farm experimentation and are generally prudent about resources in homes
as well as in farming. Tractors are older, for example, and homes lack central air conditioning
among the sustainable group.
Findings indicate that rather than making a deep philosophical paradigm shift to environmentally
sensitive farming (though not excluding it), sustainable families are characterized by a
predisposition to use resources prudently in every dimension of their lives. Adoption of
sustainable systems is therefore as much as for efficiency and financial motives as it is for
environmental factors. Families farming conventionally, but sharing more characteristics
identified with sustainable families, potentially are those best targeted for educational programs.
Socially sustainable situations (maintained through an inter-generational transfer) have long-term
implications for whether adoption of sustainable-farming systems persists. Social sustainability
in the long-term may rank as importantly for educators as achieving an initial shift from
Based on the findings of this study, it is suggested that sustainable agriculture’s advocates soften
their messages aimed at non-adopters, as not everyone approaches resources in a way that makes
them candidates for adoption. Targeting all audiences with missionary zeal appears to be