Farmers Think Hard Before Planting Biofuel Crops

by Christina Whalen

Using Kansas as an example, White et al. (2012) examine the various factors that influence farmer decision-making during this controversial era of climate change and energy conservation. A conceptual model for understanding farmer’s decisions was developed from interviews conducted with a diversity of farmers and key informants. Interestingly enough, results demonstrate that most farmers hold a positive perception of the natural environment and don’t have a strong concern about climate change issues. The guiding factors of farmer’s decisions about whether or not to cultivate biofuel crops are the relative advantages of the practice and the ability to discuss the practice with a social network. There is a strong need to create a renewable energy market in the U.S. because of its potential to reduce greenhouse gases and increase production benefits; biofuel crops pose one plausible solution. The paper addresses the following question: considering global climate and energy concerns, what are the main influences on farmer’s decisions regarding land use, specifically the decision to cultivate biofuel crops?

Kansas is one of the least populated states in the U.S. due to its rural, agricultural character. In recent years it has experienced a decline in the number of farms, but an increase in farm size. Farmers are less concerned with planning for future climate change, but instead focus their efforts on more specific and prominent issues such as water supply. However, the state has taken an active role in discussing the potential benefits and use of biofuels, especially ethanol. Kansas currently has 11 ethanol plants and 3 biodiesel plants. But the state’s uncertain future about land use and agriculture due to dramatic climate changes has led scientists to predict that Kansas farming is likely to experience significant disruption and adjustment.

As climate change begins to threaten the future of agriculture, it’s important to understand what drives farmer behavior and decision-making. Recent literature examines factors such as motives, values, and attitudes that construct farmer management and decisions regarding conservation. The studies conclude that farmers prefer practices that don’t hinder farm productivity and that relate to the perception of a “good farm” landscape. Furthermore, studies show that famers usually make production and management decisions using their own local knowledge. When making decisions about growing biofuel crops, farmers’ biggest concerns were visual impact of the land and the risks associated with growing such crops. A study conducted a few years back reveals that younger farmers with higher income and higher education levels were more willing to convert part of their land for bioenergy crops. Another interview-related experiment demonstrates that farmers are skeptical about the economic benefits of biofuels and unsure about the success of an agricultural bio-economy. Farmers are most concerned about crop profitability, the cost of switching to new crops, and the incompatibility of growing biofuel crops with traditional ones.

The connection between farmers and their communities is also another important factor that affects decision-making about biofuel crops. Research shows that corporate-style farms had a negative impact on the unity of the community, leading to less civic engagement. The community also has a strong influence on farmer decision-making through face-to-face communication, local social networks, cultural and social norms, and local support structures.

The study conducted two phases of semi-structured interviews. Sixteen interviews were conducted with key informants with expertise in environmental issues and the other 17 interviews were conducted on a diverse group of Kansas farmers. The interview questions were tailored according to the expertise of the interviewees. Farmers were interviewed in the following topics: farm decision and plans, new practices, programs and policies, weather/climate influence, and attitudes regarding biofuel crops.

The interviews with the key informants demonstrated that organizations and agencies that work closely with farmers view farmers’ decisions as multifaceted and difficult to understand. However, several common themes did emerge from the interviews. On key theme informants found was that farmers make agricultural decisions with the most regard towards potential economic benefit. Farmers investigate advantages that new practices will bring and observe effects of these new practices in other places before implementing them in their own farms. Another factor that informants saw as influential in farmers’ decisions was related to the characteristics of the farmer’s decision setting such as the presence of biofuels processing facilities and farm policies. Informants also observed good stewardship of the farmers as another factor influencing decision-making.

When interviewing the farmers, it became clear that the farmer’s had a skewed perception about the changing environment and climate. They considered short-run weather changes such as extreme heat or cold, but did not consider long-run impacts of climate change, indicating that a farmer would most likely not consider climate change when making innovative agricultural decisions. The farmers’ interviews also revealed that there had to be clear benefits and no risks when changing agricultural practices. The most important factors to them were profitability, lack of risk, efficiency, and environmental benefits. Thus, any new practice such as the cultivation of biocrops on existing land, needs to provide a benefit over the existing cultivation or farmers will not even consider making the switch. Important characteristics of the interviewed farmers include openness to new ideas, curiosity about existing practices, an emphasis on productivity and stewardshipness, a desire to learn about new practices, and experience or knowledge with biofuel crops.

Another aspect of the study revealed the various characteristics of the decision setting: local social networks and broad cultural attitudes, agricultural policies and programs, and social institution. Social networks and broad cultural attitudes are an important part of farmers’ relationships with communities. According to farmers, other local farmers are their most important source of information about new farming techniques and practices. It’s a resource for continual support. Another important part of social networks is the basic quality of life in rural areas. The interviews revealed two different perceptions regarding agricultural policies amongst the key informants and the farmers. When asked what policies would most likely influence farmer decision-making, key informants mentioned a wide variety of federal bills whereas farmers were not well informed at all about these policies and programs. Many farmers expressed conflicted views of government incentives and subsidies for farming activities.

The vast amount of data collected from the interviews reveals the complexity of farmers’ decision-making. It can be concluded that farmers currently have a positive perception of the natural environment and do not appear to have legitimate concerns about climate change. However, decisions are greatly influenced by farm practices—that is a new practice must have clear and tangible advantages over an already existing practice. The interviewed farmers viewed themselves as seeking information, but not innovation, meaning that farmers are open to new ideas, but don’t want to be the first ones to try something new. The study does little to draw any conclusions about the future of agricultural production in Kansas due to the limited farmer sample and collected data. The main conclusion resulting from this study is that agricultural practices that are most likely to resonate with Kansas farmers are those that align with local environmental conditions, provide clear advantages, can easily be learned about through existing social networks, and provide farmers with a sense of independence and contribution to the good of the community. Factors that may have a negative impact of farmer decision-making include incentives and subsidies of new activities through government policies or appeals to mitigate climate change. More research on a larger scale is needed to draw any further conclusions about the future of biofuel cultivation in Kansas.

White, S., Selfa, T., 2012. Shifting lands: exploring Kansas farmer decision-making in an era of climate change and biofuels production. Environmental Management 51, 379—391.

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