Participatory assessment of progress, barriers and opportunities for sustainability in Southern agricultural systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2013: $100,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. James Worstell
Delta Land & Community

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: sorghum (milo), grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Fruits: apples, avocados, berries (cranberries), citrus, olives, pineapples
  • Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, peas (culinary), radishes (culinary), brussel sprouts
  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, goats, sheep
  • Animal Products: dairy
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, livestock breeding, manure management, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, preventive practices, range improvement
  • Crop Production: agroforestry, biological inoculants, cover crops, crop rotation, double cropping, intercropping, multiple cropping, nutrient cycling, application rate management, ridge tillage
  • Education and Training: decision support system, extension, focus group
  • Energy: bioenergy and biofuels, solar energy
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, agricultural finance, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: afforestation, habitat enhancement, soil stabilization
  • Pest Management: biological control, field monitoring/scouting, genetic resistance, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, agroecosystems, holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture
  • Soil Management: composting, organic matter, soil analysis, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, new business opportunities, social capital, social psychological indicators, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Twenty years ago, Southern SARE was instrumental in developing an analysis of the constraints and opportunities most crucial to development of sustainable agricultural systems in the South. This study was published in 1995 as “Southern Futures: Opportunities for Sustainable Agricultural Systems” and referred to as the State of the South (SOS). 

    This present project will integrate the survey and databases employed in SOS 1995 with additional survey data and secondary databases (in collaboration with University of Mississippi's Center for Population Studies) to determine the progress the South is making toward sustainable systems. In preparation for the survey and database analysis, we will hold extensive workshops and interviews with farmer/entrepreneurs who have been successful in creating sustainable whole systems from production through marketing in regions where of the South where such systems are less prevalent. 

    Progress toward environmentally sound production systems was a major focus of SOS 1995 and will be in this study. A consensus of thousands of farmers and agricultural professionals who participated in SOS 1995 was that environmentally sound production systems require integration with locally-owned marketing and processing systems in order to be sustainable. Without sustainable marketing and processing systems, even the most biologically sustainable system will not be able to prosper. 

    Since then, many state and federal programs have been developed to remove this constraint. However, some parts of the South consistently receive more SSARE grants and generate more locally owned processing and marketing enterprises than other regions which are very similar geographically and demographically. Yet, in all Southern states, sustainable local/regional food systems have arisen in the last 20 years. 

    We will employ a participatory comparative case study method to explore such systems in order to build a model to be refined and tested through the survey and database analysis. To do so, these farmer/entrepreneurs will first engage in a highly interactive workshop hosted by Kentucky State University. The workshop will enable participants to juxtapose their experiences with the experience of counterparts operating in both more and less successful regions. The goal is to catalyze consensus among participants on key barriers to sustainability. 

    Using the ecological resilience framework increasingly applied in agroecosystem sustainability studies, this consensus will then be turned into a generalized model when we bring together larger groups of sustainable producers across the South.  The resulting consensus will then be integratied with suvey data and comparative secondary database indicators, we will establish quantitative models of sustainable production systems developing in integration with locally owned processing and marketing. 

    We will then apply the models to develop research and education project prototypes to remove constraints and catalyze integrated production, processing and marketing systems in parts of the South where such enterprises are underrepresented and more resilient and sustaiinable agricultural systems across the South.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Project progress and success will be measured by achievement of the 17 outputs listed below for the project activities. Each activity is associated with a particular Objective as noted in its number. These outputs will be tracked by the PMET to insure the project is acheiving its goals. Outputs are also detailed along with Activities in the project Timeline section. 

    Objective 1) Qualitative exploration of constraints to sustainable agricultural systems through a workshop/tour and case studies of farmers who have achieved sustainable LOVAs in regions where success is scarce. 

    Activity 1.1. Key stakeholders in five states whowill participate in a rolling workshop/tour of successful LOVAs. This rolling workshop will enable farmer/entrepreneurs to compare their own enterprises to successful enterprises in other areas. The results of these interactions will inform survey creation of Objective 2. 

    Output 1: Evaluation of SOS 1995 survey by stakeholders to determine questions which should be added. Input to Objective 2. 

    Output 2: Case study participants will reflect on the development of their enterprise through comparison to other successful integrators of production, processing and marketing. Input to Activity 1.2. 

    Activity 1.2. Qualitative exploration of constraints to sustainable agricultural systems will use standard semi-structured interviewing methods with the goal of developing case studies of successful systems in regions where success is scarce. We will examine how successful local/regional food system entrepreneurs overcame barriers in regions which have seen less LOVA generation (in AR, MS, TN and AL) though similar geographically and demographically with more successful regions in KY, NC and VA. 

    Output 3: Complete interviews with case study participants in four states. This output is input to cross-case comparison. 

    Output 4: Cross-case comparisons with be completed. Unique features of each case will be included in the overall model of LOVA development. This output will be input for Activity 1.3, input to selection of databases accessed in Objective 3, and input to survey development in Objective 2. 

    Activity 1.3. After participation in workshops of Activity 4.1, we will expand the interviews of Activity 1.1 into decision case studies similar to those used in business and law schools. 

    Output 5: Complete decision case studies will be published in peer reviewed journals and available for agriculture and natural resource education. 

    Objective 2) Assemble quantitative data on constraints and opportunities through a survey of agricultural system managers throughout the South. Survey will include all questions in original SOS survey plus questions exploring emergent issues. 

    Activity 2.1. In conjunction with interviews in Activity 1.2, we will pretest questions from the original 15 questions of the first State of the South survey (Worstell, 1995, pp. 161-163) study along with new questions addressing issues and trends emerging since 1995. A robust survey instrument will be constructed using standard methods to compare results from 1995 and explore new areas. 

    Output 6: A robust survey instrument will be developed as input to Activity 2.2 

    Activity 2.2. With assistance from Kentucky State University, State Farm Bureaus, NRCS and SSAWG, we will compile a list of the target respondents' email addresses. Through Survey Monkey, we will manage the sample, monitor completion rates, send out invites, reminders, etc., and the data will be immediately Excel and SPSS compatible. Results will be tabulated and available online through Activity 4.3. 

    Output 7: Survey results will be compared to SOS 1995 results, used to modify models developed in Objective 1, and published online after peer review. Output will be used as input to Activity 4.1. After examination in workshops of 4.1, additional survey questions will be included in a revised survey which will be input to Opportunity Workshops in Activity 4.2. 

    Output 8: Final survey results will be published online and in peer reviewed journals 

    Objective 3) Detail major challenges to Southern agricultural systems by integrating secondary databases of indicators of sustainable agricultural systems with survey data from Objective 2. 

    Activity 3.1. County and county-equivalent data from across the Southern region states will be integrated and analyzed. 

    Output 9: Based on outputs of Objective 1, county level data will be chosen, integrated, analyzed, tabulated and published online after peer review. This output is input to Activity 4.1. 

    Activity 3.2. Analysis will be used to identify areas of need and to inform multi-level analysis of the survey data collected through Objective 2. 

    Output 10: Databases and indices will be integrated with survey data to develop new indices. All results will be related to models developed in Objective 1 and published on-line after peer review. 

    Activity 3.3. Organize data from Activity 3.2 to address consensus barriers resulting from Activity 4.1. 

    Output 11: After analysis by stakeholders in Activity 4.1, additional databases will be added, integrated, analyzed, tabulated and published in peer reviewed journals. This output is input to Objective 5. 

    Objective 4.) Lay foundation for removing key regional constraints identified in Objectives 1, 2 and 3 by developing farmer/entrepreneur-researcher networks in recalcitrant Southern agroecoregions. 

    Activity 4.1. Two Regional Conferences will examine results of survey and secondary database integration and use mediated modeling (van den Belt, 2004) to arrive at consensus on barriers to sustainable local food system. 

    Output 12: Consensus on barriers to sustainable agricultural systems will be identified by stakeholders and incorporated in a model which will be input to Activity 3.3. 

    Output 13: Prototype research and education projects which remove constraints identified in all prior activities. These outputs will be input to Outreach and Information Dissemination in Objective 5. 

    Output 14: Networks formed to achieve Output 1 will continue to work on the projects of Output 1 and recruit more researchers and educators to their effort. 

    Activity 4.3. Project staff will publish all case studies, proceedings of conferences and before print versions of all reports on a State of the South website. Agendas will also be online, as will registration for all conferences and webinars and training materials for concepts and results of the project. 

    Output 15: An interactive website for individual online training, webinars, presentation and dissemination of the decision model, and evaluation surveys will be available to contribute national and international training in concepts and results of the project. The State of the South website will be launched with results of Objective 1 and updated at least monthly throughout the project with data from all project activities. The website will monitor the number of people accessing the information posted, which will allow us to know the size of the audience we are reaching electronically. The website will include with a feedback section for participants to comment on the information available. This output will not only lead to training for thousands of people, it will also encourage participation in project activities including Activity 4.2 and all activities under Objective 5. 

    Objective 5. Achieve widespread activities to remove constraints through presentations and publications based on analysis of all data from the first four Objectives. 

    Activity 5.1. At regional conferences (Southern SAWG, Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network and various other state organizations), we will present results and engage attendees in focus group activities to stimulate thought on barriers to sustainable agricultural systems in the South. 

    Output 16: Presentations will be used as means to recruit participants for Activity 4.2 with goal of establishing multiple and productive farmer/researcher/educator networks. 

    Activity 5.2. By December 2015, summarize all research into a publication summarizing models and prototypes, case studies, survey, and secondary databases to establish opportunities for establishing sustainable agricultural systems in the Southern region. This publication will be accompanied by publications in early 2016 of findings in peer reviewed journals and presented at conferences internationally. 

    Output 17: A comprehensive final report similar to the SOS 1995 publication will be widely distributed and available for free download on the State of the South website. Portions of the study will be submitted for publication to peer reviewed journals.

    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.