Climate change, volatile prices, changing consumption patterns, and increasing competition for agricultural land makes the hard business of farming even more challenging. How do we make our farming systems sustainable and resilient? In search for the answer to this question, we tend to focus on inputs and outputs, forgetting about the people who are at the center of the issue. However, perhaps it is the understanding of farmer behavior that can fill in the gaps in our search for sustainable farming solutions that will work on the ground.
Picking potatoes, Colombia. Photo credit: Santiago La Rotta
What do farmers think when they make decisions about managing their farms? And how do changing conditions influence these decisions? These are the questions we explored in the paper “Researching farmer behavior in climate change adaptation and sustainable agriculture: Lessons learned from five case studies” recently published in the Journal of Rural Studies. Building on five case studies, we developed a framework for studying farmer decision-making and adaptation to change. The cases we looked at included potato farming in the Colombian Andes, slash-and-burn agriculture in the Philippines, winegrowing in California’s Napa Valley, peri-urban maize production in central Mexico, and smallholder cotton farming in India.
The framework helped us to find three critical areas of knowledge we need to explore in order to understand farmer decision-making processes:
1) understanding how farmers respond to environmental and social context;
2) the interaction of many different influences from across scales at the same time;
3) and how farmers act over time.
Framework for studying farmer decision-making and adaptation to change
First, we found that farmers make individual decisions in response to both their biophysical environment and to their sociocultural context. A wine-grape grower in California irrigates based on the weather, a potato farmer in Colombia sprays pesticides in response to infestations - these are examples of responses to the biophysical environment.
Farmer response to social and cultural factors includes, for example, the maize-growing tradition in Mexico based on knowledge from many generations. The farmers identify themselves as maize farmers, they enjoy the taste of their homegrown tortillas, and they see growing maize as “what the land does”. Hence the communities continue to cultivate maize for subsistence even in the face of increasingingly market oriented agriculture and booming demand for land from urbanization.
Maize field in Mexico. Photo credit Amy Lerner
Producers also respond to economic and policy shifts that affect the availability of subsidy programs, regulation of prices for inputs and for their goods at market. So, understanding of what crops are grown, how, and why is rooted in biophysical and socio-economic drivers.
The plethora of factors affecting farmer decision-making leads to the second knowledge area: Individual food producers respond to many factors at the same time, which often interact at different scales. For example, international and national biofuels policies to meet climate goals have local effects on smallholders in the Philippines, where land speculation has led to the appropriation of land from traditional farmers towards large biofuel plantations.
Finally, because farmers make both short- and long-term decisions, it is important to study farmer decision-making over time. In many cases, short-term decisions are prioritized. A good example of such behavior is of potato farmers in the Andes, who react immediately to pesticide-related health concerns from inadequate protective equipment, but who over time go back to their old ways and do not take the necessary precautions to the use of chemicals. On the other hand, farmers perceive long-term factors such as a cultural attachment to small-scale maize farming in Mexico as an important part of self-identity and the most logical use of land, motivating them to persist in maize farming despite a withdrawal of government support programs.
While all the three of these critical areas are important, it is challenging to design research to address them all in one study, particularly because of lack of time and resources. In fact, the need to have all the three aspects only emerged through analysis across cases, and none of the cases completely succeeded in addressing all of them. However, addressing all three areas is important to fully understand how a socio-ecological farm system works, and to make accurate predictions and inform policy.
Future research could take advantage of this framework, making study design more robust, incorporating different methods and involving researchers from different fields over time to achieve deeper understanding. As societies strive for more sustainable solutions to difficult global environmental problems, it is critical to understand human and environment relationships. This new framework provides some lessons to move us forward in understanding food producers worldwide.
This post was written by Amy Lerner, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and Kim Nicholas, of Lund University in Sweden, part of an international research team. The team was led by Giuseppe Feola from the University of Reading, UK, and also includes Meha Jain from Stanford University in the US and Marvin Montefrio of Yale-NUS College in Singapore.