Sustainability indicators as management tools to guide farmers, scientists, policy makers and the general public

2006 Annual Report for LS05-178

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $250,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Jon Brandt
North Carolina State University

Sustainability indicators as management tools to guide farmers, scientists, policy makers and the general public


At the Center for Environmental Farming System (CEFS) at North Carolina State University we have a unique systems experiment where a wide range of parameters has been collected since 1998. Using these data as a starting point, our project seeks to develop an approach to relate the data back to the guiding concept of agricultural sustainability. A comprehensive list of attributes of economic, social and ecological sustainability has been identified. A survey using conjoint choice methodology and direct attribute ranking was designed and conducted during October 2006 – January 2007 to estimate the relative impact of different attributes on overall perception of sustainability of different stakeholder groups and experts. Currently, we are working on the identification of possible indicators based on data collected at CEFS that could be used to quantify sustainability. Next, graphical and numerical comparisons will be employed for an overall assessment and evaluation of sustainability of different production systems that can be adapted to natural conditions and socio-institutional constraints. Additional co-operators in this project are: Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Rural Advancement Foundation International and a farmer panel.

Objectives/Performance Targets

  1. To derive a manageable set of indicators to evaluate the environmental, biological and financial aspects of sustainability of organic, BMP, conventional and integrated farming at the system and enterprise (crop/rotation, animal activity) level.

    To collect additional data on specific sustainability indicators for which insufficient information is available from existing projects at CEFS.

    To develop a tool for bringing together various indicators of sustainability in a single picture that shows at a glance where progress is made.


The theoretical sustainability model, identifying economic, social and ecological sustainability attributes was approved at the quarterly meeting in March 2006 and presented as a poster at the National SARE meetings in Ocomowoc, WI in August 2006.
A survey designed to assess the relative impact of different attributes on sustainability was approved at the quarterly project meeting in October 2006. The survey was pre-tested in the fall of 2006 and administered during the period from November of 2006 to February of 2007. Respondents were approached during specialized farmer meetings: Sustainable Agriculture Conference, Mid-Atlantic Dairy Grazing Conference, Organic Grains Panel, and Southeast Vegetable and Fruit Expo.
Two procedures were applied to estimate the relative impact of different attributes on overall economic, internal and external social and ecological sustainability. The direct attribute ranking procedure asks respondents to distribute 100 points among different attributes resulted and results in attribute relative weighs which are based on cardinal scale. As an alternative, conjoint choice experiments were designed to extract the attribute relative impact in a setting where not all of the attribute desirable levels could be achieved simultaneously. This setting resembles more real world situations where decision makers are dealing with complex multi-attribute systems. Both ranking procedures identified the same main attributes but the weights of relatively less important attributes varied for the two procedures. With direct rankings, respondents allocated positive weights to all attributes, whereas in the choice experiment they tended to concentrate on only a few important attributes and allocate zero weights to the rest. The ranking results showed no significant differences between farmers and experts, except for economic sustainability where farmers valued long-run profits higher and subsidy reliance lower compared to experts. In contrast, the choice experiments revealed some significant differences in perceptions of sustainability by farmers and experts.
The survey results were summarized in a paper that was presented at the annual meetings of the Southern Agricultural Economic association in Mobile, AL in February 2007.


J. Paul Mueller

[email protected]
North Carolina State University
Dept of Crop Science
Campus Box 7620
Raleigh, NC 27695-7620
Office Phone: 9195157889
John O'Sullivan

[email protected]
North Carolina A & T State University
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Prgram
P.O. Box 21928
Greensboro, NC 27420
Office Phone: 3363347957
Olha Sydorovych

[email protected]
North Carolina State University
Dept Agricultural & Resource Economics
Campus Box 8109
Raleigh, NC 27695-8109
Office Phone: 9195130185
Cavell Brownie

[email protected]
North Carolina State University
Dept. of Statistics
Campus Box 8203
Raleigh , NC 27695-8203
Office Phone: 9195151935