December 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA1

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Barriers to Adopting Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Land management practices used by and attitudes toward change to sustainable practices by Utah farmers and ranchers are described. A questionnaire was sent to 964 farmers. Despite the apparent use of sustainable practices by farmers, the majority stated that economic factors, availability of information, and Federal farm programs were primary constraints limiting adoption of sustainable practices. Without a greater effort by Cooperative Extension, sustainable agriculture practices may not be adopted by Utah farmers and ranchers. It is believed that extra effort is needed to focus on specific groups of farmers to help transfer information about sustainable farming practices.

Daniel Drost
Assistant Professor (PS&B)
Internet address:

Gilbert Long
Professor (ASTE)

David Wilson
Research Assistant (ASTE)

Bruce Miller
Assistant Professor (ASTE)

William Campbell
Professor (PS&B)

Departments of Plants, Soils and Biometeorology (PS&B) and
Agricultural Systems Technology and Education (ASTE)
Utah State University
Logan, Utah

Numerous studies have evaluated sustainable farming systems (Lockeretz, 1988; Roberts & Lighthall, 1992; Taylor & Dobbs, 1990). Most found that farmers adopt sustainable practices because they want to be good stewards of the soil, to reduce ground and surface-water pollution, to produce quality produce with reduced amounts of chemicals, and to reduce health risks to farm families and livestock.

Regardless of perceived benefits, transition problems often limit the adoption of sustainable farming practices (Auburn, 1994; Taylor & Dobbs, 1990), as do marketing options and a lack of useful up-to-date information. Furthermore, individual farm production practices, environmental constraints, and perception problems often limit the adoption of many sustainable practices. Improved knowledge of the present farming system will allow researchers, Extension educators and farmers to develop research agendas and adopt practices that meet present and future farming needs (Roling, 1988).


This study assessed current farming practices and barriers to adoption of more sustainable practices by farmers in Utah.


Extension agents and Natural Resource Conservation Service directors from each Utah county identified a group of 12 farmers perceived to be using sustainable practices. Information from these farmers was used to construct a questionnaire that would be used in a random survey of farmers. Additional questions were developed from existing literature. The questionnaire was designed to elicit information about present production practices and farmers' feelings about sustainable agricultural. A total of 964 farmers were selected from a population of 7009 Utah farmers and ranchers. The questionnaire and follow-up mailings followed Dillman's (1978) total design method.

Part one assessed farmers' feelings and beliefs about sustainable agriculture. Farmers were asked to rank the level of importance of different components of sustainable agriculture. Part two asked farmers and ranchers to answer 31 questions about their present agricultural practices, including such areas as cultural, pest, manure, livestock and range, and irrigation management. Unsolicited comments along with specific demographic and economic information was also collected.

Findings and Interpretations

Of the 634 (66%) surveys returned, 351 (55%) indicated that they were presently farming or ranching. Those classified as absentee owners or those not currently farming (283) were not analyzed. The study showed Utah's typical farmer or rancher is 53 -years-old, has some post-high school education, has been farming for 31 years, and earns approximately 51% of the family income from farming operations.

A series of questions on general farming practices asked farmers and ranchers whether they "had used," "were using" or "will use" a particular cultural practice. Forty percent were using minimum tillage, 19% practiced no-till, and 41% used fallow periods. Cover crops were used by 56% and double cropping by 31% of the farmers. Eighty one percent applied manure to their land and 71% rotated manure applications among fields. Most of the responding farmers and ranchers (86%) had long term crop rotations in which alfalfa (93%) was the dominant legume in the rotation. Many indicated that they would increase their use of crop residues, cover crops, double cropping, and rotations in the future.

Seventy percent of the respondents stated that they have not reduced fertilizer and pesticide use during the past three years. Although integrated pest management (IPM) practices have been strongly emphasized in Utah, adoption of IPM does not appear evident. Clearly farmers develop and use cultural practices they are comfortable with and therefore minimize production risk associated with crop failure or yield reductions.

Decisions to adopt more sustainable practices, therefore, must be compatible with the existing production system and overcome the resistance to change farmers possess (Roling, 1988). For example, of the responding farmers, 52% and 45%, respectively, do not credit alfalfa plowdown or animal manure when calculating nutrient needs. Of those farmers who credit nutrient contribution, only 8% decreased the fertilizer inputs accordingly. Moreover, 42% of the respondents did not use soil tests, 76% did not conduct field trials, and 91% did not use strip tests to determine nutrient needs or rates.

In Utah, animal manure continues to be viewed as a disposal problem rather than a nutrient resource. Few farmers have adequate manure storage facilities, and many apply manure to frozen ground, where it is vulnerable to runoff. Farmers who earned a larger proportion of their income from the farm tend do a better job of crediting the nutrient contribution of manure than farmers who earned a smaller proportion of their income on farm (Table 1). However, neither group properly evaluated the contributions of cover crops to the desired crops nutrient requirements.

Table 1
Farm income and nutrient crediting patterns for manure and cover crops.
Farm Income (%) Manure Credited (%) Cover Crops Credited (%)
>80 63 53
<80 48 45
chi square 6.13* 1.14
* significant at P=0.05.

Many of the farmers believed they practice sustainable farming. However, as one respondent commented, "By your definition of sustainable agriculture I'm doing a fine job. By my definition, agriculture is not sustainable. It won't pay the bills. Therefore, I work off farm full time." Another stated, "If you tried to report back to me in an essay about my farming operation, it would be a lot different from what actually takes place. Things are not as black or white as you would have them." It is clear that farmers understand sustainability requires economic viability as well.

Roberts and Lighthall (1992) outline a three tier model of the decisions farmers make about change to alternative production systems. The tiers are market and policy imperatives (market competition, innovations, regulations), the production and accumulation system (land, labor, capital), and the agro- ecological environment (soil, topography, climate).

When combined with the operators' characteristics (age, experience, values, risks), the model can predict whether a production strategy will increase profits through economies of scale or improved efficiencies.

Farmers in Utah and elsewhere use these factors to make decisions in their farming practices. All farmers have a unique set of farming practices and characteristics with which they are comfortable; this can impede change.

Farmers and ranchers were asked to rank the barriers commonly believed to limit their adoption of sustainable practices (Table 2). Most farmers perceive these practices to be too costly. Ikerd (1990) states that economic considerations and incentives are needed to encourage change to a different system. Several respondents agreed. "Sustainable agriculture must sustain the farmer and must be voluntary. Any farmer that is still in business is doing a good job of maintaining the soil that supports his livelihood."

Table 2
Barriers to the adoption of sustainable farming practices.
Barrier to Adoption Mean Score* Rank
Financial 1.5 1
Maintaining Profits 2.5 2
Lack Knowledge or Skill 2.6 3
Federal Farm Programs 3.3 4
* 1=most important, 4=least important

Minimizing financial risk was clearly an important factor in adopting sustainable practices (Table 2). Older farmers were more resistant to adoption of low-input practices and perceived them to be unfeasible or impractical. Many felt the transition to sustainable practices may not occur in their lifetimes and doubted sustainable practices would be beneficial or profitable. In addition, those approaching retirement are unlikely to risk learning and applying new production practices, especially if there are added costs with adoption. Roberts and Lighthall (1992) reported similar findings.

When asked to rank those factors that are required to convert to sustainable practices (Table 3), farmers cited more time, information, and management were required if the system was to be successful. Batte, Jones & Schnitkey (1990) noted that Ohio farm size, farmer age, and information source as important factors in determining the resource used. It is apparent that Utah farmers act on the same set of principles.

Table 3
Factors required by farmers for further conversion of their farming operation to sustainable practices.
Factors Required Mean Score* Rank
More Time and Management 3.10 1
Increased Marketing Effort 3.20 2
More Nutrient Information Needed 3.25 3
Different Equipment Required 3.85 4
Reduced Income for a Time 3.85 4
Increased Tillage Required 4.20 6
Cost Sharing by USDA 4.70 7
* 1=most important, 7=least important

Ninety percent of those surveyed considered themselves sustainable. Most expressed interest in being good land stewards, maintaining their quality of life, insuring the health of families and livestock, and working towards the continuity of the family farm. However, many farmers felt that they were being squeezed by the government, urbanization, and environmentalists to make changes that were not necessary or not feasible. As one stated, "If farmer's pay was better, he could operate less land and do a better job of practicing sustainable agriculture practices."

Summary and Implications

Utah's farming practices are not easily changed. For example, while farmers and ranchers practiced nutrient cycling, fewer than half credited the nutrients in legume plowdown or animal manure when calculating their fertilizer needs. Many farmers need to utilize nutrient management diagnostic tools available to them. As King, N. Rollins & T. Rollins (1995) noted, the usefulness of information is positively related to developing working relationships with the information provider.

Unfortunately, down-sizing by Cooperative Extension may limit information transfer. With reduced manpower it will be necessary to focus efforts on farmers or groups of farmers who are receptive to change and willing to participate in the research or Extension process. Since specific groups of farmers (fruit, vegetables, grain, beef, dairy) have specific needs, extra effort is needed to focus on these groups individually to help them adopt sustainable agricultural practices. We recently completed a study of Utah's vegetable growers to provide this focus. Those findings show that increasing farmer participation in selecting and conducting appropriate research facilitates adoption of new and sustainable practices.

Utah farmers did not express alarm over environmental issues. This lack of concern, economic constraints to change, and traditional farming practices are barriers to adoption of sustainable techniques. Alternative farming practices usually require more skill, time, information, and management (National Research Council, 1989). Extension must explain the benefits of sustainable practices and tailor studies toward the interest of farmers. Without grower participation in the design and implementation process, growers will be reluctant to adopt sustainable practices.


Auburn, J.S. (1994) Society pressures farmers to adopt more sustainable systems. California Agriculture, 48(5), 7-10.

Batte, M.T., Jones, E., & Schnitkey, G.D. (1990) Farm information use: An analysis of production and weather information for midwestern cash grain farmers. Journal of Production Agriculture 3(1), 76-83.

Dillman, D.A. (1978) Mail and telephone surveys: The total design method. Wiley Press, New York, New York.

Ikerd, J.E. (1990) Agriculture's search for sustainability and profitability. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 45, 18 -23.

King, R., Rollins, N., & Rollins, T.J. (1995, August) Factors influencing the adoption of a nitrogen testing program [7746 bytes]. Journal of Extension [On-line serial], 33(4). Available E-mail: Message: send joe research 2 august 1995.

Lockeretz, W. (1988) Open questions on sustainable agriculture. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 3, 174- 181.

National Research Council. (1989) Alternative agriculture. National Academy Press, Washington, DC., 448 pp.

Roberts, R.S. & Lighthall, D. (1993) A developmental approach to the adoption of low-input farming practices. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture 2, 93-96.

Roling, N. (1988) Extension science: Information systems in agricultural development. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Taylor, D.C. & Dobbs, T.L. (1990) Sustainable Agriculture: Focus on producers. South Dakota Farm and Home Research, 40(1), 15-18.

Author Notes

Research funding for this study was provided by the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-4810 (journal paper no. 4444) and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Policy and External Affairs. The study was entitled " Measuring Sustainable Agriculture in Utah." Questionnaires are available from the authors on request.