October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB1

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Targeting Extension Efforts for the Adoption of Sustainable Farming Practices

Factors affecting the adoption of sustainable practices by onion and sweet corn growers are described. Telephone and mail surveys were used to assess growers' perceptions and actual use of sustainable agricultural practices. Results illustrate that differences in land ownership, education and crop acreage influence a growers use of sustainable practices. Access to information, farming experience and time constraints all influence cropping patterns. Research and Extension efforts therefore need to be tailored to the unique needs of these different commodity groups.

Daniel Drost
Associate Professor (PS&B)
Internet address: dand@ext.usu.edu

Gilbert Long
Professor (ASTE)

Kimberlee Hales
Research Assistant (ASTE)

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

Researchers often compare conventional farms to sustainable farms; unfortunately, the classification schemes used to differentiate farming systems depends on who classifies the farm operation (Lockeretz, 1990). When trying to compare the two, what one asks and how one measures a farming operation makes a difference in whether that farm is considered conventional or sustainable. An earlier study (Drost, Long, Wilson, Miller & Campbell, 1996) noted that most farmers consider themselves sustainable while researchers question this classification. Because farms and farming systems vary, emphasis must be placed on developing farming practices that fit the specific biophysical and socioeconomic environments of each farm, rather than getting too detailed in farm classifications.

Some have questioned whether sustainable agricultural research will make any contribution to small farm development if it continues to emphasize technology and investments that try to dominate the environment and focus on large farms (Francis and Hildebrand, 1989). While some diffusion of information occurs from progressive farmers to small, part-time farmers, targeting outreach efforts to representatives of homogeneous subgroups can increase the speed of the diffusion process (Roling, 1988). To be successful, sustainable farming systems must be adapted to the conditions of each site (Lockeretz & Anderson, 1993), because success depends on the farmer's observation and implementation within the constraints of each farm and its environment. The objectives of this study were to determine future educational needs by determining the differences between onion and sweet corn growers' use of sustainable farming practices.


Telephone and mail surveys were used to gain information about the crops, field operations, nutrient management, and integrated pest management (IPM) practices of vegetable growers in Utah. From 310 possible vegetable growers, a random sample of 170 was drawn of which 99 were producers on a commercial scale. Seventy growers (71%) responded to the telephone survey and 50 (51%) returned the follow-up mail survey. A complete breakdown of all crops grown and growers' demographics can be found in Drost et al. (1997). Of the vegetables grown, 34% of respondents grew onions and 33% grew sweet corn as their primary vegetable. Therefore, our comments will focus on the similarities and differences between these two groups of growers and their use of sustainable practices.

To assess a farmer's knowledge and attitude toward selected sustainable practices, a perceptual index was designed. A detailed reporting of this index can be found in Drost, Long & Hales (1997). In addition, a farming index representing the cultural practices used by each respondent was also formulated (Drost et al., 1997). The farming index weighed various cultural practices in an attempt to help determine if existing farming practices were reasonable. The farming index, together with the actual practices used by growers, serves as baseline data and will help determine if future Extension and research efforts are being utilized by these growers.

Pearson's correlation was used to compare the perceptual and farming indices to characteristics of the farm and farmer. Analysis of variance was performed and t-tests used to determine differences in indices for onion (n=24) and sweet corn (n=23) growers based on land ownership (owners or renters), education level (high school or college), acres farmed (more or less than 35 acres) and income generated from vegetable farming (more or less than 35%). This list was not exhaustive, but included several indices that have been used in past research (Francis, King, DeWitt, Bushnell & Lucas, 1990; Young, Goreham & Watt, 1991).

Findings and Interpretations

Onion Growers: Field operations, nutrient management and IPM, years farming, age, and education level were not correlated with the onion grower's perception of sustainable agriculture (Table 1). Thus, the perceptual index cannot be used to assess a farmer's actual practice without further refinement. This is not surprising since in an earlier study (Drost et al., 1996), many farmers already consider themselves to be sustainable.

Table 1
Correlation matrix for onion grower's perception
and farming index (field operations, nutrient management
and IPM use), years farming, income from vegetables and
education level.
Farming Index Years Income
Field Nutrient IPM
Field -0.32
Nutrient -0.05 0.06
IPM -0.29 0.07 0.09
Years 0.01 0.08 -0.34 0.06
Income -0.19 0.22 0.23 0.20 -0.22
Education 0.31 -0.11 -0.02 -0.49** -0.08 -0.45**
** significant at P0.01.

The use of IPM practices was negatively correlated with a grower's education level (Table 1). Those onion growers with more education used fewer IPM practices than growers with less education (r=-0.49; P0.01). In addition, better educated growers earned a lower percentage of their income from onion farming. Successful IPM use requires accurate pest identification, continual field monitoring, control action guidelines, and methods of prevention and control of the problem when identified (Schwartz & Bartolo, 1995). Because more educated growers appear to spend more time off farm, it seems reasonable to assume that they have less time to practice principles of IPM. Instead, they apply pest management practices that will do the job in the least amount of time.

This does not suggest that they would not apply IPM practices if they were available or if they secured a greater proportion of their income from onions. Onion growers in Utah believe there are few effective IPM methods available for use, the steps are hard to follow and deemed less effective than using traditional control methods. In addition, urban growth in Utah's traditional onion growing areas means crop rotation, a recommended IPM practice, is not always a viable option.

Onion growers were further evaluated by looking at ownership, education, acres farmed and income earned from farming practices (Table 2). Land ownership, acres farmed and income earned did not influence field preparation, nutrient or pest management practices. However, farmers with less education tended to apply more IPM practices than those with college education. This difference is attributed to more farm experience, spending more time on-farm, and better time management that results in better crop management. While owners grow fewer acres than renters, they earn more of their income from the crop. In addition, farmers with high school education earn roughly 59% of their income from onions while farmers with some college education earn about 37% from onions. Farmers who earn a greater proportion of their income from farming also use consultant and Extension advice more often than those who earn less income on farm (Drost et al, 1997).

Because educated farmers tend to work off-farm, they may lack access to the information available from consultants and extension and have less farm experience (Drost et al., 1997), putting them at a disadvantage. Information availability and experience, two keys to successful farming, may partially explain why full-time onion farmers use practice IPM more than part-time farmers. Increasing a grower's involvement in the gathering and transfer of information should speed up adoption (Stroup, Hilderbrand & Francis, 1993). The challenge now is to increase the involvement of these less-experienced, part-time farmers in the research and Extension effort.

Table 2 Onion growers differences in perception of sustainable agriculture, field operations performed, nutrient management
practices, IPM use, acres farmed and income earned (%) by
land ownership, education level, farm size and income earned
from the crop.
Percept Farming Index Values Acres Income
Field Nutr. IPM
Owners 22.0 13.3 10.6 18.8 40.8 67.1
Renters 22.9 13.1 8.2 18.2 53.6 34.0
t-test ns ns ns ns * **
HiSch 22.2 13.2 8.6 19.3 62.4 58.6
College 23.0 13.1 10.6 17.2 61.2 36.6
t-test ns ns ns ** ns *
>35 acre 21.8 12.7 9.6 18.1 92.8 44.1
<35 acre 23.1 13.5 9.1 18.8 31.6 54.5
t-test ns ns ns ns ** ns
>35% 22.1 13.5 9.8 18.7 51.6 70.7
<35% 23.0 12.7 8.7 18.3 74.2 24.8
t-test ns ns ns ns ns **
ns,*,** not-significant or significant at P<0.05 or 0.01.

Sweet Corn Growers: There was a significant correlation between the perception of sustainable agriculture and the use of IPM practices by sweet corn growers (Table 3). Growers with positive feelings about sustainable agricultural practices tend to be more receptive to and practice more IPM techniques. Research and Extension efforts on IPM with corn earworm in four northern Utah counties appear to be paying dividends. In addition, if farmers employ IPM practices, they also are more aware of issues related to nutrient management (r=0.55; P0.01). It is believed that if similar research or extension efforts were made in the areas of field operations and nutrient management, additional positive results would be measured.

Table 3
Correlation matrix for sweet corn growers'
perception and farming index (field operations, nutrient
management and IPM use), years farmed, income earned from
vegetables and education level.
Farming Index YearsIncome
Field Nutrient IPM
Field -0.15
Nutrient 0.18 0.22
IPM 0.54** -0.15 0.55**
Years 0.01 0.49** -0.02 -0.07
Income 0.03 -0.14 0.03 0.29 -0.20
Education 0.08 -0.57** 0.06 0.07 -0.56** -0.19
** significant at P0.01.

It is believed this is the case because the longer a sweet corn grower has farmed the more conservation tillage practices he employs (r=0.49; P0.01). However, more educated farmers tend to use more field operations than less educated farmers (r=-0.57; P0.01). More experienced, less-educated farmers practice field operations that are necessary and timely and therefore considered more sustainable than sweet corn growers with less farm experience (r=-0.56; P0.01).

In addition, without the exposure to available information on the long term effects of excessive tillage on soils, less experienced farmers may not realize the impact of their actions on long term productivity. Rather then letting less experienced farmers learn by their mistakes, research and Extension efforts should be directed to improve the cooperation between those practicing conservation tillage and those needing to learn about those practices.

Closer evaluation of sweet corn land owners and renters indicates that owners are the ones practicing IPM on their farms (Table 4). However, while owners tend to grow less sweet corn than renters (18 vs. 49 acres), they also have less land to scout for insects, diseases and weeds. Better educated sweet corn growers use more field operations in growing the crop than less- educated growers. Since less-educated growers earn more income on farm and are not constrained by time, they perform field operations that are timely and necessary.

In addition, growers with more than 35 acres of sweet corn also use fewer field operations than smaller farms. With more acres to manage, only those field operations deemed necessary are performed since time and costs keep operations to a minimum

Table 4
Sweet corn growers differences in perception of
sustainable agriculture, field operations performed,
nutrient management practices, IPM use, acres farmed and
income earned (%) by land ownership, education level, farm
size and income earned from the crop.
Percept Farming Index Values Acres Income
Field Nutr. IPM
Owners 22.5 15.7 8.7 19.5 18.2 39.8
Renters 24.0 14.8 11.7 16.6 49.2 36.5
t-test ns ns ns * ** ns
HiSch 23.2 16.0 10.1 16.2 30.2 45.9
College 23.1 14.4 9.9 16.2 33.7 28.5
t-test ns * ns ns ns ns
>35 acres 22.6 16.2 11.9 15.6 59.0 29.9
<35 acres 23.5 14.6 8.6 16.7 10.7 44.8
t-test ns * ns ns ** ns
>35% 23.6 15.5 10.6 17.2 32.3 64.8
<35% 22.6 15.0 9.5 15.2 31.0 9.4
t-test ns ns ns ns ns **
ns,*,** not-significant or significant at P < 0.05 or 0.01.

These data suggest that a blanketed research and Extension effort may not meet the needs of different farmer groups. This study shows that there are unique differences between the cultural practices of onion and sweet corn growers, thus a targeted extension approach to each crop seems warranted (Francis & Hildebrand, 1989; Lockeretz & Anderson, 1993). This targeting within each crop however, needs to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the subgroups. Research and Extension efforts have to be tailored to the needs of the less-experienced educated farmer differently than to the less-educated experienced farmer. The challenge to extension is getting these growers to participate in extensions educational activities.

At present, few onion growers limit field operations, practice IPM or have effective nutrient management strategies. Adoption of different farm practices result in trade-offs on- farm. For example, decreasing chemical inputs (herbicides) could increase the number of field operations (cultivations) which may not be acceptable to growers.

Extension and research efforts at Utah State University are beginning to address these and other farmer concerns. Some of the broader research priorities have been determined by onion growers during 1996 winter meetings. Growers identified water and nutrient management, IPM approaches to controlling onion pests, and crop establishment as issues needing investigation. Having set these priorities, a team effort between irrigation, soil, entomology, pathology, and physiology researchers and Extension personnel with strong input and cooperation from farmers will create a more sustainable onion production system (Stroup, Hildebrand & Francis, 1993). However, in order for these changes to be adopted, researchers need to listen to the farmer, provide materials that are relevant to their needs, and ensure that they are kept abreast of and involved in the information gathering effort.

The adoption of IPM practices in sweet corn shows that a small effort on the part of research and Extension can go a long way toward achieving more sustainable production. However, more effort is needed to address the questions that sweet corn growers have related to nutrient management and field operations. A focused research and Extension approach to homogeneous sub-groups of farmers can result in more effective diffusion within the group (Roling, 1988). Farmers have been shown to look to other farmers with similar problems and needs for advice (Drost et al., 1997). To the extent that the collaboration begun in this project continues those farmers will also include Extension as sources of information.

Summary and Implications

While most farmers surveyed indicated they understood what was best for their land, their actual practices (measured by the farming index) indicated the reality of earning a living in the face of shrinking profit margins. Only a few of the part-time farmers have the contact with research and Extension needed to benefit from the advances made in today's agriculture. Rather than letting these less experienced farmers learn by their mistakes, research and Extension efforts should be directed to improve cooperation between those farmers practicing sustainable agriculture and those needing to learn these practices. Targeting extension efforts toward these homogeneous sub- groups will insure that appropriate information on field operations, nutrient management and IPM use will be shared by all members of the group.


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Stroup, W.W., P.E. Hildebrand, and C.A. Francis. (1993). Farmer participation for more effective research in sustainable agriculture. In: J. Ragland & R. Lal (eds.) Technologies for sustainable agriculture in the tropics. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, pp.153-186.

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Author Notes

Funding for this study was provided by the Utah Department of Agriculture, PO Box 146500, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-6500 and Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322-4810 (journal paper no. 6082). The study was entitled "Utah Vegetable Producers: Attitudes Toward and Use of Conservation Practices".