FARMER BEHAVIORS FOR SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION
Farmers face increasing challenges from environmental change, including climate change, increasing extreme events, and navigating policies and regulations that aim to combat these challenges. Meredith's and her students' work explores how and why farmers make decisions about sustainable agriculture practices, and the barriers and opportunities to increase adoption at multiple scales. Below are current projects focused in this area in the lab.
Improving Cover Crop Adoption and Performance
Cover crops offer the potential to improve environmental outcomes in agriculture, but adoption is still currently low. This USDA-funded Sustainable Agriculture Systems grant catalyzed the Precision Sustainable Agriculture network, which works across 27 states with dozens of institutions, non-profits, and industry partners to conduct field trials, develop decision support tools, and understand the adoption ecosystem for cover crops. Meredith and the lab are leading the farmer and research team survey data collection and network analysis and develop new models for understanding multiple kinds of farmer adoption of sustainable agriculture practices.
Proposed framework for adoption of sustainable agriculture practices, using cover crops as an example. Figure Credit: R. Honce
Dairy Farmers and Climate Smart Practices
Dairy production is both a contributor to climate change and may be heavily impacted by climate change. This project, in collaboration with researchers at UC Davis and Colorado State University, examines the adaptation and mitigation strategies needed to help keep the U.S. dairy sector viable and to meet the US Dairy industry pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. Funded through a USDA Interdisciplinary Engagement in Animal Systems (IDEAS) grant, Meredith and the lab are leading the largest U.S. dairy farmer survey on climate practices to date. The project will also conduct a nationally representative survey of consumers to assess their perceptions of the dairy industry, climate change and animal welfare.
Climate Change Adaptation for US Farmers and Rural Communities Using Data Science
Climate change will impact the places that species can live and thrive, while also impacting human livelihoods and communities. In this National Science Foundation funded project using data science approaches, Meredith and the lab are working with ecologists and data scientists to develop an integrated understanding of the ways that species range shifts will change and impact rural communities and adaptation. Meredith and the lab are leading the national effort to integrate diverse datasets at the local, county and state level to better predict farmer adoption of climate adaptation practices, and model future adaptation behaviors. The project will also explore where new species may arrive and thrive, and whether communities are equipped for those changes. The team- known as BARRACUDA (Biodiversity and Rural Response to Climate Change Using Data Analysis) includes researchers from UVM and University of Maine.
Dairy cows at the Nestle Dairy Farming Institute in China, a new teaching and learning center for Chinese farmers and dairy industry professionals. Photo Credit: M. Niles
BARRACUDA team logo from University of Maine and University of Vermont.
California Farmers and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
In 2014, the California legislature passed and the Governor signed the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires that local agencies establish governance structures known as Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), tasked with developing plans to achieve groundwater sustainability by 2020.
This project worked in Fresno, Madera, San Luis Obispo, and Yolo Counties, California. The project worked with the California Farm Bureau Federation and the local County farm bureaus in each county. In Yolo County, the project was also a collaboration with a multidisciplinary group of scientists (groundwater hydrologists, agricultural scientists and social scientists) from Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), ERA Economics, and University of Vermont. The project explored how farmers perceive water changes in recent years, preferred strategies for water management, and perspectives on SGMA implementation. Complementary work from SEI and ERA Economics developed models with groundwater and economic components to assess how varying management strategies may influence the balance of groundwater and economic sustainability.
Double line surface drip irrigation in an almond orchard in Yolo County, Ca. Photo Credit: Phil Hogan, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Woodland, CA.
In October 2016, we conducted farmer focus groups in Yolo County, California to explore farmer perspectives on SGMA and water management. This research brief highlights the results:
Research Brief: Farmer Perspectives of California Water Management and the Implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
The focus group research was summarized in an article in a special issue of California Agriculture focused on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
In 2018, the survey and project was expanded to Fresno, Madera, and San Luis Obispo Counties with funding from The Water Foundation. The results from all four counties are found in research briefs.
Developing Resources for Farmers' Climate Adaptation Needs
This project explored farmer's challenges with climate change and the resources and tools they need to assist with climate change adaptation. The project developed three tools with farmers through focus groups and disseminated them through a series of workshops. The USDA funded project worked with small, medium and beginning farmers and ranchers in Vermont and Maine, and shared resources more broadly throughout New England.
The project focused on three practices- irrigation, agroforestry, and tarping for no-till and cover cropping. We developed three tools for each practice including an economic calculator to estimate the costs, a visualization tool to see what the practices look like when implemented on a landscape, and a review brief of the benefits and tradeoffs of the practices. More information can be found on the website: https://nefarmclimate.com/.
Sample economic calculator developed for the potential implementation of agroforestry practices.
Dairy Farmers and Decision-making
Manure is an important part of a dairy farm- it serves as a vital resource for crop production and can even be used as an energy source with the right technology. Dairy farmers manage manure in their systems and make decisions daily about how to operate their farms. This project aimed to better understand how farmers make decisions about new technologies and practices and what barriers farmers face when adopting strategies to suit their farms. Working with dairy farmers and the dairy industry the project identified key factors that affected farmer decision-making, resources and technical assistance that could better assist farmers with technology adoption and what resources could best help them achieve their goals.
Three papers have resulted from this work:
1. )Tradeoffs in US dairy manure greenhouse gas emissions, productivity, climate, and manure management strategies
2.) A review of determinants for dairy farmer decision making on manure management strategies in high-income countries
3) Manure management strategies are interconnected with complexity across U.S. dairy farms
In addition to this project, Meredith previously wrote a case study with Harvard Business School in collaboration with Dr. Ray Goldberg and Nestle on their Dairy Farming Institute in China and its unique business collaboration model found here.
Network analysis showing the relationships between manure handling and storage systems on U.S. dairy farms (Niles et al. 2022).
Hurricanes, Islands and Agricultural Resiliency
This project led by Luis Alexis Rodriguez Cruz, a former PhD candidate in The Lab. 2017’s hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector, with a reported $245 million in agricultural production losses, and $1.8 billion in agricultural infrastructure damage. Hurricanes are one of many challenges Puerto Rican farmers are facing due to climate change, and other socioeconomic factors. More broadly, island countries and territories are known for their specific vulnerabilities in this changing climate such as land loss, sea-water intrusion, food insecurity, and isolation. Hence, the importance of understanding farmers’ experiences with these events, and how their perceptions and psychological distance of climate change impact adaptation behaviors. This project contributed to an emerging body of work addressing climate change adaptation and agricultural resiliency in island food systems.
A livestock field in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico. Photo Credit: Luis Rodríguez-Cruz
Research was carried out in collaboration with the Extension Service of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, who surveyed 405 farmers across Puerto Rico to understand the obstacles they faced towards recovery after Hurricane Maria, their perceptions on climate change, food insecurity and policy. and to better comprehend their farm systems, socioeconomic conditions, and their actual and intended agricultural practices. The project resulted in multiple briefs and peer-reviewed publications.
Research brief: Hurricane Maria's Impact to Puerto Rican Farmers. In English and here in Spanish.
Integrated Crop and Livestock Systems
Meredith was part of an international group of researchers exploring integrated crop and livestock systems around the world. Her particular interest was on farmer's adoption of integrated crop and livestock systems, perceived benefits and challenges of the systems, and the policies that can hinder or drive adoption of such practices.
Meredith's system of expertise was in New Zealand, where she is investigated the integration of sheep into vineyard systems. Her published work found that sheep integration created both ecological benefits through reduced mowing and herbicide use as well as economic benefits to farmers for input and labor savings. This paper catalyzed additional projects in Vermont and New York to study the practice's relevance for the Northeast.
Additional information on our international group can be found here.