Incentives and Barriers to Sustainable Wheat Farming

What Motivates Innovation?

What Impedes Sustainability?

A Case Study on the Use of Best Management Practices for Wheat in the Walla Walla Valley

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.[1]  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.

I believe 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.[2]  “Every farmer is a conservationist.”[3] 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.

The 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.

[1] 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.

                        [2]Marc Small, Walla Walla County Wheat Farmer, interviewed by author, November 2000.

[3] Mark Sherry, Walla Walla County Wheat farmer, interviewed by author, Decemember 2000.