February 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA1

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North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Professionals' Attitudes Toward Sustainable Agriculture

Conducted in 1995, this study collected baseline data that described North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service professionals' attitudes towards sustainable agriculture. A mailed survey included questions from five categories that defined attitudes toward sustainable agriculture: organizational shared vision; systems thinking; teamwork--interdisciplinary projects and collaborations with organizations outside the university; grassroots involvement; and knowledge of sustainable practices and technologies. This study suggested Extension professionals in North Carolina do not operate using a single, unified definition of sustainable agriculture. More work can be done among Extension professionals to understand all components of a sustainable agriculture system.

Rosanne E. Minarovic
Extension Associate
Internet address: rminarov@unity.ncsu.edu

J. Paul Mueller
Department of Crop Science

North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina


When one thinks of an organization's vision, it is usually assumed that those working for the organization are committed to a unified vision. In reality, organizations consist of individuals with diverse educational and personal backgrounds, often with different value systems. Diversity adds richness to an organization by providing members the opportunity to gain an appreciation for various points of view and access a broad array of expertise. A challenge for any large organization is to build a shared vision where members are committed to a common goal and work towards reaching that goal.

Organizations can begin to build a shared vision when members have similar attitudes that support an organization's mission. Attitudes are mental images a person forms about a concept based on their knowledge, feelings, and actions toward it (Alreck & Settle, 1985). The organization achieves its goal when members share a vision of intended outcomes and collaborate to accomplish objectives.

This study was conducted to develop benchmark data documenting North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service (NCCES) professionals' attitudes toward sustainable agriculture. Extension professionals' attitudes toward the concept of sustainability and their vision for agriculture is fundamental in building a strong sustainable agriculture program for North Carolina.

Purpose of the Study

NCCES's emphasis on agricultural sustainability intensified with the formation of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Sustainable Agriculture Task Force in 1992. This broadened the scope and depth of the program by bringing together research, Extension, and teaching faculty and advisors from outside the university to focus on common goals. Although sustainable agriculture was recognized as an important Extension program, Extension professionals' knowledge, and support for the concept was limited. According to Boone (1985), members of an organization "must understand and be committed to its mission and philosophy, the organization's objectives or ends must be understood at all levels of the organization" (p. 85). That commitment is the underpinning that drives programming efforts. Extension professionals committed to the sustainable agriculture program are: committed to the philosophy and objectives of the Extension organization; understand how the concept of sustainability relates to the mission of the organization, and are aware that the organization must change and adapt in order to respond to the changing needs of its clientele (Boone, 1985).


The study employed a descriptive research design. Participants were selected from a predetermined population of 500 NCCES professionals who worked in the area of agriculture: administrators, department heads, specialists, county directors, agriculture agents, and some 4-H agents. Of the 500 questionnaires sent out, 253 questionnaires were returned from the first mailing and 105 questionnaires returned from the second mailing (32 were non-useable). A total of 369 questionnaires were used for analysis, reflecting a 73% return rate. Data were analyzed using Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS).

Concepts that Promote Sustainable Agriculture Within an Organization

The scope of this research included five concepts identified by the researcher that supported sustainable agriculture within an organization. The concepts are shared vision, knowledge, teamwork, grassroots involvement, and systems thinking in research and problem solving on the farm. Shared vision is an organization's foresight that is bound together by a common purpose or goal. Senge stated "visions spread because of a reinforcing process of increasing clarity, enthusiasm, communication, and commitment." An organization's visioning process can slow down or stop if diverse views overcome the programming focus and cause conflict. "People see different ideal futures" (Senge, 1990 p227).

Extension professionals' knowledge about the concept of sustainability is necessary in order to move the program forward. Professionals must remain current on agricultural information and technologies. As a educational organization, Extension must understand the needs and problems of its clientele so it can select the appropriate information to help farmers understand their short and long term goals and provide them with tools for problem solving (Doll & Francis, 1992). For example, address problems by implementing problem-solving techniques that consider whole-farm activity and preventative measures, rather than problem-solve by eliminating symptoms, with no consideration of why the problem occurred or how short-term solutions will impact the whole system.

Today's agriculture is complex and agricultural research and Extension must consider environmental implications (such as water and soil quality, impact of production on wildlife), social issues (for example, national food security, preservation of rural communities and farmland, and food and farmer safety), and profitability. Teams of interdisciplinary experts can address complex problems and provide comprehensive information on agriculture.

Grassroots involvement empowers citizens to solve local problems. All stakeholder groups: farm communities, agribusiness, environmental and nonprofit organizations, and consumers are encouraged to actively participate in the development of research or education programs that address local issues. Farmers, environmentalists, and community groups are increasingly interested in contributing to the land-grant agenda (Stevenson, 1992).

When researchers, Extension educators, and farmers work as peers, the traditional, 'top-down' approach to research and education becomes a horizontal structure (Watkins, 1990). According to Gerber (1992), Lockeretz (1987), Doll & Francis (1991), and Lockeretz & Anderson (1990), substantive farmer participation in research and Extension gives farmers the opportunity to participate in generating knowledge that can affect their livelihood. Forming linkages with farmers exercises shared responsibilities in research and Extension, giving programs creditability in the eyes of the farmer.

Teamwork refers to various groups coming together to achieve a goal. Teamwork includes interdisciplinary research and educational planning and coalitions of community groups, agriculture organizations, and farmers. During a time of downsizing and budget cuts, organizations find it necessary to share resources and expertise. To gain a holistic perspective, many granting agency guidelines require multi or interdisciplinary participation in sustainable agriculture proposals. There are various styles of teamwork and it is important to implement the correct model of teamwork according to the needs of a project. In agriculture, independent research and Extension, as well as team approaches, may be necessary.

Systems thinking in agriculture involves examining farms holistically, attempting to understand the impact and inter-relatedness of each component of the whole farm. The cause of a production problem is addressed, in addition to treating the immediate symptoms. Systems research has been found to be appropriate for sustainable agriculture because it integrates information to solve complex problems. According to Francis (1994, p153), "as we begin to examine more of the total activities in a micro-agroecosystem, it becomes apparent that the interactions among components and the integration of biological elements are complex. Yet it is the design and management of these complex systems and the measurement of inputs and outputs that help us understand the complexities and better organize production systems for our use."

Table 1
Results of the Combined Questions for the 5 Concepts
that Define Attitudes Toward Sustainable Agriculture
Concept Agree
Undecided Disagree
n % n % n %
123 36.4 209 61.6 7 2.1 3.8 .39
87 16.4 262 77.8 20 4.2 3.5 .39
Teamwork 148 41.8 192 54.3 14 3.9 3.7 .48
103 29.7 226 65.1 18 5.2 3.7 .47
Knowledge 81 23.9 253 74.0 8 2.4 3.7 .37
4.00 - 5.00 = strongly agree/agree
3.00 - 3.99 = undecided
1.00 - 2.99 = strongly disagree/disagree


Survey questions were grouped according to the concept represented and analyzed. Table 1 shows the percentage and overall mean for the five concepts: shared vision, systems thinking, teamwork, grassroots involvement, and knowledge.

Shared Vision

Conclusion 1: Based on the results of the shared vision statements, overall participant's attitudes reflected a shared vision for sustainable agriculture. Results indicated that 74% agreed NCCES had a strong commitment to sustainable agriculture. Although, what constituted sustainable agriculture was questioned, since the Farm Bill definition was not provided in the questionnaire. Results indicated that respondents did not share a single definition for the concept. Many participants stated that all agriculture was sustainable and North Carolina agriculture had always been sustainable.

Results indicated the need for a stronger, unified, vision for sustainable agriculture. As one specialist commented, "we must be able to communicate a vision for sustainable agriculture. Right now, there are conflicting visions, that is the biggest problem". According to American Institute of Biological Sciences, AIBS, (1995), lack of a unified vision was identified as a barrier that impacted research projects and approaches used by scientists nationally.

Ninety-eight percent agreed on the importance of using environmentally sound practices in all farming operations, large or small. Eighty-six percent agreed, they had a responsibility as Extension professionals to support--through research and education--the long-term integrity of the environment. Participants agreed (97.5%) a proactive perspective was necessary when developing Extension programs, in order to consider possible future consequences.

According to respondents, the most important challenge was creating an agriculture that was profitable. Throughout the survey, participants stressed the importance of an economically sustainable agriculture. There was doubt whether sustainable agriculture could be profitable. Some participants commented that economic sustainability could not be achieved using environmentally sustainable practices.

Conclusion 2: Ambiguity existed among NCCES professionals in reference to social sciences involvement in agriculture. The means for questions associated with social components of sustainable agriculture were relatively lower, suggesting that social sustainability was not as strongly endorsed by the participants throughout the survey. Seventy-two percent agreed that most educational programs developed by NCCES focus on the physical and biological sciences rather than social sciences. Participants were agreeable about involving farmers (75.8%) in the research and educational process and involving rural communities (71.0%) in problem-solving local agriculture issues. The idea of preserving rural farm communities was not strongly supported by participants (58.7%). Sixty-seven percent agreed (20% undecided) when asked if the social impact of production agriculture was often overlooked in research. Fifty-three percent agreed, 27.8% were undecided, and 19.7% disagreed that strong community participation was necessary to develop sustainable agriculture.

According to Lyson (1998) Land Grant faculty from various academic disciplines define the concept of sustainability differently. More faculty subscribed to enhancing environmental quality than to increasing profitability and quality of life issues, social and community dimensions were considered less important.

Systems Thinking

Conclusion 3: Participants' attitudes about systems thinking reflected that they understood the importance of the concept in research, education, and problem-solving on the farm, and were knowledgeable about practices used in farming systems, but when asked about actions taken to implement a systems thinking philosophy, there was no indication of strong Extension efforts. Most participants agreed (82.0%) that there was a need for more long-term, whole farm research because single commodity research did not investigate interrelationships within an agriculture system. Participants agreed (80.2%) that systems research required collaboration among researchers from social, biological, and agricultural sciences. Sixty percent agreed the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a designated facility for sustainable agriculture research, was needed to conduct systems research (some participants were not informed about the facility).

Participants agreed the NCCES encourages sustainable practices in farming systems such as the application of organic matter that improves soil properties, efficient use of inorganic fertilizers (81.8%), and the integration of livestock in a farming operation (72.1%).

Participant responses were divided (30.8% disagreed, 30.8% undecided, and 38.4% agreed) when asked if lack of systems research was a barrier to the adoption of sustainable agriculture. The three main barriers identified as preventing NCSU from moving forward with sustainable agriculture were: (a) attitudes and the need for a paradigm shift; (b) limited funding; and (c)confusion about the definition.

Participant responses were also divided when asked if NCCES educators developed programs that emphasized whole-farm agriculture systems (35.9% disagreed, 29.8% undecided, 34.3% agreed) and if agents taught clientele holistic approaches to problem-solving (31.7% disagreed, 35.6% undecided, and 32.8% agreed). Sixty-three percent agreed (26.8% undecided) that government agriculture programs and policy do not address agriculture holistically, problems are addressed individually and often have conflicting objectives to other programs and policies.


Conclusion 4: Participants were interested in working on collaborative projects with members from other disciplines, although, a collaborative approach was the least used method to establish linkages. Participants agreed that the concept of interdisciplinary teamwork and collaboration was important in research and education efforts. Although, the most used method to establish linkages was one-on-one contacts to exchange information and resources, the least used approach was collaboration. Participants felt there were barriers to working collaboratively, such as institutional barriers which place strong emphasis on traditional research methods and publishing, and a lack of reward for Extension work. Fifty-seven percent agreed (26.2% undecided, 16.9% disagreed) institutional constraints, were a barrier to interdisciplinary research. Sixty percent agreed Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) was needed to provide interdisciplinary research. Many participants thought existing research farms should be involved in sustainable research in addition to CEFS.

Grassroots Involvement

Conclusion 5: Participants' attitudes about grassroots involvement reflected limited support for local involvement in agriculture research and Extension programs. Participants agreed (75.8%) farmers should have more involvement in agriculture research. Seventy-nine percent agreed North Carolina needs more programs that focus on extending a commodity's value by educating communities about processing and marketing opportunities. But when asked if revitalizing rural communities was an important goal of NCCES, 58.7% agreed. Fifty-five percent agreed a responsibility of Extension professionals was to develop agricultural programs that promote the preservation of rural community life. When asked if strong community participation was necessary to develop a sustainable agriculture, 52.6% agreed, 27.8% were undecided, and 19.7% disagreed. Overall, there was not strong agreement for grassroots involvement of agricultural Extension.


Conclusion 6: Participants' attitudes about sustainable agriculture practices and technologies reflected that they understood that agriculture sustainability involved more than the development of new technologies, but participants' mixed responses indicated indecisiveness about some sustainable concepts. Participants agreed (80.1%) there was a need to change some of the accepted methods of agriculture production practiced over the past 50 years because of the adverse environmental impacts. Seventy-eight percent understood that sustainable agriculture involved more than implementing sustainable farming practices. Participants stated management, marketing, and profitability as other important factors in a sustainable farming system.

Participants agreed that crop and livestock diversity, no-till practices, preservation of farmland, and soil and water conservation are components of sustainable agriculture. Participants were less agreeable that the following support a sustainable agriculture system: global niche markets, organic production, low-input agriculture systems, the importance of maintaining national food security, developing agriculture systems according to the agroecological and social needs of a region, and stimulating economic growth of local businesses and rural communities.


Overall, results indicated a positive response regarding the attitudes of NCCES professionals towards sustainable agriculture. However, some concepts that support environmental, economic, and social sustainability were not strongly endorsed by the respondents. Sustainable agriculture is a complex term that means different things to different people. This study confirmed that the term continues to be interpreted individually. There is a need to clarify concepts under the sustainable agriculture umbrella so it is understand how environmental, economic, and social concepts are interrelated and to grasp North Carolina's vision for sustainable agriculture.

Many were unsure about the meaning, while others adapted a meaning that supported their own belief about what constituted sustainable agriculture. According to the results of the State of the South Project (Worstell, 1994), lack of a clear definition of sustainable agriculture was one of the main barriers to implementation. The Worstell study revealed that agents needed broader training in sustainability concepts in addition to information about practices and technologies.

According to Rogers (1983), introducing a new idea or concept can be accelerated through communication and education. To initiate the process, leaders at the top of the Extension organization, administrators and department heads, can relay the vision vertically and horizontally through the organization. It is a leader's responsibility to build a shared vision by increased communication with members in the organization.

The sustainable agriculture program in North Carolina is gaining momentum. The Sustainable Agriculture Task Force has grown and developed six Sustainable Agriculture Work Groups. Teams of university faculty, Extension agents, NGO representatives, agency personnel, industry representatives, and farmers are working together to address strategic programming planning efforts in the following areas: (a) mission and vision, (b) training agricultural professionals, (c) sustainable agriculture curricula, (d) sustainable agriculture faculty/institute and rewards program, (e) Center for Environmental Farming Systems, (f) farmer based research.

Since sustainable agriculture research and education is not 'business as usual,' research and Extension activities should include the following methodologies: (a) holistic approach to agriculture, (b) interdisciplinary projects; (c) networking, coalition building; (d) systems research, (e) needs assessment and impact assessments, and (f) grassroots involvement. If agents and other agriculture professionals are to be trained and students pursue a career in agriculture, an understanding of the basic framework of sustainable concepts is critical to the success of research and Extension activities. This study suggests that more work can be done among agriculture professionals to understand the philosophy of sustainability and to prepare them for practice in the future.


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Author Note

Funding for this research was provided by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and the North Carolina Agriculture Research Service.


The authors want to thank the Communications Ad Hoc Review Committee for their hard work, dedication, and foresight in developing the editorial review process. They also thank Ann Senuta and Sydni Gillette for reviewing early drafts of this manuscript.