Quality of Life Effects of Conventional, Transitional, and Sustainable Production Systems of Rural Communities and Family Farms in the Western Corn Belt

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $37,786.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Federal Funds: $10,000.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $16,000.00
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
John Allen
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans
  • Animals: bovine, swine


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, analysis of personal/family life


    [Note to online version: The report for this project includes tables that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or ncrsare@unl.edu.]

    The relationship between quality of life influencing farm households for three farming system types in northeast Nebraska were the focus of this study. The three farming systems were identified by a cluster analysis of a statewide survey of cropping practices. After identification of three distinct clusters of cropping practices, the three groups were labeled “conventional”, “transitional”, and “sustainable” (Allen and Bernhardt 1995). In order to assess the quality of life outcomes associated with the different farming systems and their adjacent communities, three objectives were identified: 1. Analyze the linkages of four whole farm systems in northeastern Nebraska to surrounding communities; 2. Analyze how these farm systems are perceived to influence local community well-being; and 3. Analyze probable structural impacts of the four systems on farms and rural communities in northeastern Nebraska. Because the assessment of the relationships local farm households have with the surrounding rural community was the objective, this study was carried out in a northeastern Nebraska watershed. Given this objective and associated objectives of the ACE project, the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District (NRD) was selected. The study identified tradeoffs associated with quality of life, e.g. a farming system could rank high on one or several dimensions of quality of life, but low on others, knowledge which should help farm households and rural communities with planning and priority setting.

    Two methodologies were used in the study. In-depth qualitative interviews with farm household and local community members will be used to gather information about their concerns regarding local agricultural patterns and their impacts on the rural community. A quantitative survey on quality of life issues related to agriculture and its linkages with the rural community was also used to supplement the qualitative data gathered from the interviews.

    Among the major findings were: (1) Farmers saw few differences in farming practices between the farming systems; (2) Each system had different adoptions in mind for the continued viability of their operations; (3) Different norms and quality of life issues pervaded the three farming systems; (4) The significance of the intergenerational and land lease issues in the region; (5) labor constraints faced by the different systems; and (7) the switch from a nuclear family operation (e.g. husband, wife and children) to father-son or brother partnerships.


    Interest in the quality of life issues related to agriculture and rural communities has existed since the USDA commissioned Goldschmidt’s comparison of large and small scale agriculture in California in 1946. The study became embroiled in controversy when he found that smaller-scale agriculture resulted in a higher quality of life on a variety of measures for the surrounding community than did larger scale industrialized agriculture (Goldschmidt 1978). More recent attempts to replicate Goldschmidt’s work have not always supported the thesis that large scale, industrialized agriculture results in lower quality of life than smaller scale family farms, particularly in the Midwest (Green 1985, Van Es et al 1986, Flora and Flora 1986). A major reason for the conflicting findings is that the newer studies often use different measures for critical variables such as farm “scale” and “quality of life”, also the geographical unit of analysis is typically changed from communities to entire counties or groups of counties. Finally, more recent studies often substitute statistical tests of significance for Goldschmidt’s use of qualitative and historical data. Despite the controversy surrounding the Goldschmidt thesis and its measurement, the relationship of different agricultural systems to the surrounding community remains of interest as evidenced by the recent comparative analysis of conventional and sustainable farming systems by the Northwest Area Foundation Sustainable Agriculture Initiative. Following Goldschmidt, sustainable agriculture proponents often argue that smaller scale, more diversified farms will produce greater benefits for the surrounding community than will continued growth of monocultural, large scale farming. Typically, however, studies attempting to evaluate this hypothesis analyze only economic and environmental outcomes associated with the farming systems under comparison.

    The structure of agriculture can be a significant factor influencing rural community well being or quality of life (c.f. Goldschmidt’s seminal work on the negative effects of industrial agriculture on rural communities in California).(2) Three major systems of agriculture labeled “conventional,” “transitional,” and “sustainable” have been identified in the northeastern region of Nebraska (ACE project 1993). Following Goldschmidt and the more recent sustainable agriculture literature, one would expect these agricultural systems to have differential impacts on local communities and the farm households within each system if the size of operation, ownership structure, or hired labor varied significantly (see Table 1 for significant differences between clusters related to size of operation and ownership structure). Researchers working in the Goldschmidt tradition have focused largely on how farm structure is related to quality of life in the surrounding community. Largely ignored is how the community itself may influence farm structure. Of particular interest in this study were how community level factors such as marketing structure, local farming heritage and information networks shaped farm household decisions regarding production practices.
    Note 2: The rural sociological theoretical tradition defines “structure” of agriculture by three primary components: (1) size of the operation; (2) ownership structure, e.g. owner-operator versus tenant; and (3) use of hired labor.

    Given the dual policy interest in identifying which farming system best serves family farms and rural communities, it is important to identify and analyze how local community social structures may facilitate or constrain farmers’ ability to choose more sustainable farming systems over less sustainable systems. Proponents of sustainable agriculture have argued that sustainable agriculture offers a viable alternative to increasing concentration and specialization in conventional agriculture. Following the Goldschmidt thesis, one would expect sustainable agriculture to have greater positive benefits for local communities than continued growth of conventional farming systems. Among recent work in the sustainable literature which defines hypotheses regarding the relationship between sustainable agriculture and rural communities is the Northwest Area Foundation study, Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community, which lists the following propositions regarding the relationship:

    [1.] “Sustainable agriculture promotes smaller farms and more people by requiring generally greater management and labor, thereby providing the necessary population thresholds needed by many rural businesses. 2. Sustainable farmers display greater trade loyalty to local businesses, because they are more committed to preserving farm neighborhoods and local communities (Lasley et al 1993). 3. Sustainable farming retains greater value in the local area by using more inputs produced on local farms or in local communities, rather than contributing to the current loss of value to distant cities and businesses.” (Planting the Future, p. 132)

    The authors do mention the possibility that if sustainable farmers use fewer agribusiness products, a transition to sustainable agriculture would hurt the local economy (Bird et al 1995, p. 132), a research assumption that was tested by Dobbs and Cole (1992) in South Dakota and found to be true unless significant premiums were attached to organic products.

    One of the key assumptions of the sustainable agriculture movement is that sustainable agriculture fosters collaborative efforts among sustainable farmers on a variety of fronts, including knowledge exchange (Hassanein and Kloppenburg 1995) and the tendency to buy products produced by other area farmers (Bird et al 1995). A final assumption of the movement is that diversified production not only fosters ecological health, but also increases the operation’s economic health by spreading the “risk” associated with the various crops and livestock being grown. Both concepts, collaboration and diversity as a key to health and flexibility, have also gained currency in the economic development literature since Piore and Sabel (1984). New rural community literature often endorses inter-community collaboration as a means of increasing rural community viability (Cigler et al 1994; Flora 1990), a concept which seems to have grown from Granovetter’s (1973) work on the strength of weak ties.

    The concept “quality of life” has also been revised since the “social indicators movement” first emerged in the 1970s. When it was recognized that using only economic measures such as per capita income to measure development or quality of life was insufficient (i.e. they fail to take into account stratification within society) (Miles 1985), other “objective” measures of quality of life were developed with “subjective” measures being added later. Given findings that individuals from rural areas appear to assess quality of life differently than those from urban areas (Wasserman 1982; Miller and Crader 1979; Dillman and Tremblay 1977; Goudy 1977; Johnson and Knop 1970), designing measures relevant to individuals living in rural areas has been even more challenging. A primary assumption driving the social indicators movement is that identifying areas of life individuals believe are critical to life quality will help identify development priorities and objectives which met residents’ needs and values. While quality of life indicators have been criticized in the past for failing to identify relevant policy issues, more recent work in the area has attempted to overcome this problem by designing measures with more direct policy implications (Innes 1990; Baldwin et al 1990).

    A recent report by National Sustainable Agriculture Quality of Life Task Force, chaired by John Ikerd, has attempted to clarify the relationship between sustainable agriculture and quality of life. The task force has sought to expand the analysis of quality of life beyond the typical concerns with environmental and economic outcomes associated with competing production systems to include an analysis of issues such as family dynamics and satisfaction with occupation. Using methods of measuring quality of life suggested by the SAQOL Task Force to measure the quality of life associated with the cropping systems identified in Nebraska will allow comparison of the quality of life associated with each production system.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1: Analyze the linkages of four different whole farm systems to surrounding communities.

    Objective 2: Analyze how conventional, transitional and sustainable farms are perceived to influence local community well-being.

    Objective 3: Analyze probable structural impacts of conventional, transitional and sustainable farming systems on farms and rural communities in northeastern Nebraska.

    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.