Perceptions and Attitudes of Small Farmers in Tennessee Towards Sustainable Agriculture and Some Survival Strategies

S. Dennis, E. Ekanem, S. P. Singh, and F. Tegene,

Tennessee State University

Nashville, Tennessee

Definition of Sustainable Agriculture

There are numerous definitions of sustainable agriculture that include a range of environmental, economic, and social characteristics. For example, the American Society of Agronomy defines sustainable agriculture as one that, over the long term: (1) enhances environmental quality and the resource base on which agriculture depends, (2) provides for basic human food and fiber needs, (3) is economically viable, and (4) enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The objective of this paper is to show changes in the structure of small farms in Tennessee in comparison to the United States between 1982-1992, assess their perceptions and attitudes towards sustainable agriculture, farming practices they have adopted and problems they face. A random survey of small farmers in West and Middle Tennessee was conducted in the Spring and Summer of 1996 using a mail questionnaire and face to face interviews. A descriptive method used to analyze the information shows that most farmers in Tennessee have used cover crops, crop rotation and no till practices in the last five years to improve the overall sustainability of their farm operations. It also indicated that farmers believe sustainable agriculture is not a passing phenomenon and is good for society in general and rural communities in particular.


Issues relating to structure of agriculture, the environment and sustainable development have emerged as important contemporary areas of debate within and outside of agriculture. A discussion of these issues is likely to receive increasing attention by agriculture and natural resource related professions well into the 21st century.


A random survey of small farmers in West and Middle Tennessee was conducted in the Spring and Summer of 1996 using a mail questionnaire. Issues used in this poster involve the following: farmers' definition of sustainable agriculture, how they would classify themselves on the conventional-transitional-sustainable continuum, types of problem(s) they face, new practices they have adopted and their perceptions, beliefs and attitudes towards sustainable agriculture. Fifty-seven completed questionnaires are used to derive results reported in this poster.

Discussion of Results

Despite the decline in the number of small farms, an overwhelming majority, (91%). of all farms in Tennessee, are still small. The majority of respondents describe Sustainable Agriculture (SA) as "environmentally Sound Practices" followed by "Conservation Tillage," "Profitable Agriculture," and "Diversified Farming Practices." Only 10% described it as "Socially Acceptable" and 14% as "Organic Farming." Only 10% of respondents consider themselves and "Sustainable Farmers" but 25% considered themselves as moving in that direction.

This may be encouraging. Most farmers (86%) ranked economic problems as most important or important, whereas 55% ranked environmental or natural resource problems as most or important. It is important to note that almost 40% ranked these problems as least important. Most farmers (27%) indicated cover crop, crop rotation, and no tillage as practices they have adopted in the last five years to improve the over all sustainability of their farming operations.

It is encouraging to note that large number of farmers agree with the belief that Sustainable Agriculture is good for society and agriculture is essential for rural communities as indicated by higher mean scores.

Some Survival Strategies

Be dynamic, get informed and explore new opportunities

Utilize family talents

Adopt new and appropriate technologies

Pursue greater diversification and better land use

Reduce use of purchased inputs and consider utilizing on farm inputs

Manage soil erosion, diseases, etc., using all available means

Participate in community life including farmers group

Improve management skills and be realistic

Accentuate the benefits of small operations

Share local concerns with public officials at various levels, establish national leadership to achieve an end

Explore niche markets and marketing strategies before starting to produce a new product.

Previous Page
Next Page

Return to Table of Contents
Return to Title Page