Kansas: Why Farmers Grow Biofuel Crops

Agriculture has been criticized for its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), but there has not been sufficient research investigating how agriculture can be beneficial in a future with climate change. One beneficial solution is biofuel cultivation, which according to the 2009 Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) would significantly reduce GHG emissions (White and Selfa, 2013). As one of the most productive agricultural states, Kansas was chosen by White and Selfa as a valuable case study to investigate factors that influence the farmer decision-making process regarding innovations. Prior to the case study, White and Selfa conducted a literature review on previous studies done nationally and internationally. From the data they developed a conceptual model of key elements involved in farmer decisions. With this model in mind White and Selfa conducted their own study in Kansas by interviewing 16 key informants with expertise in agriculture and environmental issues and 17 farmers. The study concluded that farmers were influential in adopting a new idea such as biofuel cultivation by local environmental conditions, communication through existing social relations, the assurance of farmers continual independence, a contribution to a greater societal good, and whether change was more economically advantageous than previous practices. –Caroline Vurlumis

White, S., Selfa, T., 2013. Shifting Lands: Exploring Kansas Farmers Decision-Making in an Era of Climate Change and Biofuels Production. Environmental Management 51.2, 379-391


Before initiating their own case study, White and Selfa conducted a literature review to learn about farmer behavior. In Sweden several farmers were asked about their opinion on growing energy crops and it was discovered that policies need to consider a farmer’s personal values and attitudes towards bioenergy crops rather than assuming decisions are purely based on economic grounds. In a 2007 Tennessee study, farmers with higher education and income were much more likely to grow switch grass as biofuel. On the other hand, the lack of infrastructure for biomass processing and inadequate policies prevented biofuel crops in one study in the U.K. In studies in Iowa and Kentucky there were concerns about crop profits and equipment prices. This literature review highlighted common themes that influence farmer decision-making and willingness to grow biofuel crops. From this information White and Selfa were able to create a conceptual model for understanding land use decisions made by farmers based on decision setting, natural environment, the farmer himself, and advantage of new practices.
In April and July of 2010 the authors conducted a series of interviews in Kansas to further examine factors that influence farmer decision-making (especially involving biofuel cultivation). Their research was done in two phases; the first phase involved 16 interviews with key informants with expertise in agriculture and environmental issues such as: state agencies, ethanol production facilities and non-profit groups. The second phase consisted of 17 interviews with a diverse group of farmers from 10 different counties in Kansas. All participants were asked questions within their field of knowledge concerning the impacts of environmental issues on farming and decisions, policy influences and farmer decision-making all in regards to biofuels.

In their analysis, White and Selva found many similarities with their existing conceptual model. When making a decision, farmers expressed concerns with the natural environment. They wanted to assure a continual healthy environmental but in general their perception of environment health was fairly positive. In addition, local influences and local conflict over federal policy, the information available to them, and whether a new practice was profitable and more advantageous than previous practices were very important components in their decision-making process. Any efforts to incentivize and subsidize new practices through policy would most likely clash with farmer values. In this study, the authors found out that climate change was not a salient concern amongst Kansas farmers. They were much more concerned with annual weather patterns rather than long term climate models. Weather is already so extreme in Kansas that farmers do not associate changing weather with climate change. There is ongoing research on this project in Kansas which will provide more data on the ideas in this study. The question of whether Kansas will be a beneficial biofuels generator is still unknown. Continued research is needed at the local, state and national level in order to seriously consider implementing biofuel cultivation

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