farming. Many public policies influence farmers’ management choices, and the influences they have on farmers’ choices frequently depend on the farm type. For example, federal farm commodity, domestic food aid, and nutrition programs (which make up the bulk of national government expenditures under the Farm Bill) have considerable influence on industrial, larger commercial farms, while agrienvironmental, niche-market development, and land use policies (often implemented at the local level) tend to be more important to the viability of smaller farms (such as those with annual sales below $250,000). Policy influences are summarized in the second section of this chapter.
The third section provides an overview of public and private knowledge institutions that play a role in fostering a change in farmer behavior and decision making by generating new knowledge and innovations and disseminating them among farmers. Those institutions include not only national and state research and extension services, but also private institutions ranging from large agribusiness research and development divisions to farmer-based learning and networking groups.
All three major types of institutional contexts—markets, policies, and knowledge institutions—are shaped by larger societal forces that have particular goals and objectives. In agriculture, different stakeholder groups and social movement organizations are constantly working to shape the structure and behavior of public and private institutions. The fourth section of this chapter uses some of the key groups and organizations to illustrate how they work to shape the viability and movement of farms along a sustainability trajectory.
Two farmers facing similar contextual factors do not always respond in the same way to the incentives and disincentives created by markets, policies, and new knowledge. Decisions by individual farmers to pursue (or not to pursue) different farming practices and systems depend also on what sort of land or other resource endowments they have available; their existing farming approaches, knowledge, and skills; and their goals and motivations, including personal ethics, religious beliefs, or world view. The last part of this chapter examines evidence linking different characteristics of farmers with a willingness or likelihood to change production systems.
In the face of many different drivers and constraints, the large corn producer in the Midwest, the Southwestern cotton grower, the rancher in the Mountain states, the Southern part-time vegetable grower, the Northeastern dairy farmer, and the peri-urban hobby farmer face distinctly different challenges in their efforts to operate viable enterprises that preserve the natural resource base and produce all the additional benefits desired by society. Figure 6-1 presents a simplified illustration of the various types of influences on farmers, including broad contextual factors surrounding the agricultural system, the mediating role of local assets and farmer values, and the emerging trends that could facilitate movement along the sustainability trajectory or make it more challenging in the future than at present.
Farmers participate in agricultural markets as buyers and sellers. As buyers, they seek high-performing, competitively priced production inputs (for example, seeds, livestock, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel, and machinery). As sellers, some—those with less differentiated products—tend to compete mainly by lowering the cost of their production; thus, they are participants in a low-cost supply chain. Others—those with more differentiated products—tend to compete mainly by producing the most consumer-valued attributes of their product