Incentives and Barriers to Sustainable Wheat Farming
What Motivates Innovation?
What Impedes Sustainability?
By: S. Tianna DuPont
"The ultimate goal of agriculturists and environmentalists is the same - to
have an abundant and nutritious food supply produced in an environmentally safe
manner, " says the National Wheat Growers Association.
Yet, agriculture still degrades the land.
We can see this in Walla Walla County.
Last September very heavy rains created deep gullies in wheat fields and
filled streams and ditches with our rich topsoil. Not only soil, but pesticides
and fertilizers contaminate our water supplies.
Between 1994 and 1998 only 20-49% of the rivers and streams in the Walla
Walla Watershed met the EPA’s criteria for all designated uses, such as
drinking water and fish habitat.
that the National Wheat Growers Association is correct. Farmers and environmentalists do have common goals. The
farmers I interviewed told me that they want to be good stewards of the land.
“Every farmer is a conservationist.”
Yet in many circumstances the barriers to environmentally friendly practices
outweigh the best of motivations. My question is why is this the case?
What are the barriers that prevent some farmers from adopting
conservation strategies and what are the factors that motivate others to do so?
In order to consider why farmers
who want to farm sustainably sometimes do not choose what appears to be the most
environmentally friendly option, I interviewed farmers, extension office
officials, scientists, and other important members of Walla Walla’s farming
community. I defined
environmentally friendly practices as those practices suggested by the National
Coope Extension Service and National Association of Wheat Growers’ guide to Best
Management Practices for Wheat. This
guide is pertinent because it and information about the practices it suggests
are easily available to Walla Walla wheat farmers through the local WSU
extension office, McGregor’s Farm Supply, the Walla Walla County Conservation
District office, and the Walla Walla County Weed Board.
I found four main types of
barriers specific to Walla Walla wheat farmers.
Sustainable practices were often difficult for farmers interviewed due to
the environmental conditions of their farms, information availability,
economics, and a lack of supportive industries and institutions.
Regardless of incentives, the
rainfall and soil conditions of certain farms made sustainable practices
difficult. For example, farmers
could not rotate with leguminous nitrogen fixing crops if they had less than
sixteen inches of rain per year. Farmers
in high rainfall areas may have dense residue, which many types of no-till
equipment cannot seed through. And
in wet springs farmers are afraid their equipment will mire if they ground-spray
instead of air-spray.
Lack of pertinent information often inhibited sustainable practices as well. Farmers interviewed did not have the information concerning which biological control measures are available for wheat that is provided by weed control officials in other counties. Neither did farmers always know about other Walla Walla farmers’ successful use of paper pulp and biosolids.
Farmers often cited
economic constraints to the adoption of sustainable practices. Because the price of wheat is currently only
$2.70 a bushel, farmers did not feel that they had the flexibility to
invest in new practices. This is especially the case for practices such as rotational
crops that receive an even lower price in the present market than wheat, or
practices that involve large expensive equipment such as no-till.
These economic restrictions are
related to the lack of industry/institutional support systems.
In the Walla Walla area there are few canneries for leguminous crops and
no crushers for rotational crops such as canola, sunflowers or mustard.
Nor are there local sources for bloodmeal or other organic fertilizers.
Thus, in order to grow many rotational crops or use certain organic
fertilizers there are added transport costs.
In current economic conditions these added costs make the cost of
production more than the price of wheat.
Farmers must contend with many
technical, economic, informational, and institutional barriers before they can
adopt environmentally friendly Best Management Practices.
But there is an additional factor. Farmers
often described divisions between themselves and the ‘environmentalists,’
which made change more difficult. Farmers
often do not think environmentalists know what is best for the land they farm.
And even if they do, farmers may feel they are unfairly asked to change
by environmental groups whose members are not doing their part.
When farmers feel targeted by badly informed or hypocritical
environmentalists, they are less likely to want or be able to change.
I explored the creation of this
barrier and found that often farmers had individual interactions with
“environmentalists,” such as during land-use-planning sessions that
cultivated animosity between them. Other
farmers sited disagreement with environmentalists as rooted in regional issues
such as the salmon debate. These
farmers felt that environmentalists were not taking their needs into account, or
felt they were hypocritical and their science unsubstantiated.
I found that these claims coincided with critiques made by environmental
backlash groups such as the “Wise Use” movement.
Such critiques point out that for further environmental legislation to be
effective without distancing farmers, it and the environmental community must
work to include farmers and respond to their needs.
environmental community often uses legislation to encourage sustainable
practices and address barriers such as those my study uncovers. National Resource Conservation Service programs always
influence erosion management, and burn options are inevitably constrained by
Clean Air legislation, rules and fees. Yet,
farmers I interviewed often complained about the inadequacy of current
legislation. Most common were
critiques about the inapplicability of certain legislation to meet site-specific
criteria and the absence of agricultural proponents' voices within the creation
and implementation of these laws. In
order to understand what policies and implementation strategies will be useful
in the future, I looked at current legislation.
By examining what legislation currently impacts farmers, how it was
created, and its effectiveness I hoped to gain insight into how legislation can
be most useful. I closely examined
the Clean Air Act and its resulting burn policies.
This example is important to consider because multiple farmers pointed
out the controversy surrounding these rules and because agricultural burn policy
constrains farmers who may need to burn for no-till BMPs.
By looking at who influenced both the Clean Air Act and the following
agricultural burning programs I found that although federal legislation provides
a catalyst for change, local level legislation avoids disenfranchising farmers.
In order to make sustainable wheat farming a more viable option more information must be available about alternatives, support structures must be increased, and the economic situation must be addressed. But this cannot be done without the involvement of local farmers. If local farmers are left out of the planning process, not only might they feel disenfranchised and not want to participate, but plans for sustainability are liable to ignore site specific details crucial for change.
Cooperative Extension Service and National Association of Wheat Growers,
John Hickman et al. Best Management Practices for Wheat ed.
Steve Watson KSU Coope. (National Association of Wheat Growers and Water
Quality Cooperative Extension, 1994), 2.
Mark Sherry, Walla Walla County Wheat farmer, interviewed by author,