Academic Minute Podcast

Jeff Liebert, McGill University – Get Big or Get Out: How Farm Size Affects the Use of Sustainable Management Practices

How does farm size affect sustainability practices?

Jeff Liebert, postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, looks into this question.

Jeff Liebert is a Postdoctoral Researcher jointly appointed in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Jeff recently completed his PhD at Cornell University where his work on agroecology drew on methodologies and theories from both the biophysical and social sciences. Using an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach, Jeff’s graduate research explored the motivations and barriers to using agroecological farming practices among US farmers. Through this research, Jeff collaborated with farmers, extension educators, crop consultants, NGOs, government agencies, and other scientists from around the world. As a postdoctoral researcher, Jeff is focused on untangling the complex, spatially explicit ways that ecological, social, economic, and political dimensions of farm management interact to enable or hinder climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes across Canada.

Get Big or Get Out: How Farm Size Affects the Use of Sustainable Management Practices

In the 1970s, when former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz proclaimed that farmers must “get big or get out,” organic agriculture in the United States was primarily a movement of small-scale farmers growing produce for niche markets. Today, organic agriculture looks a lot different with 15% of all retail produce sales in the US attributed to organic fruits and vegetables, and organic food sales totaling nearly $57 billion dollars a year.

To serve an expanding market, large-scale farmers have entered the organic sector, prompting concerns that organic agriculture is ‘conventionalizing.’ This process (of conventionalization) describes how some organic farms are becoming increasingly similar to industrialized, conventional farms: that is, biologically simplified, highly mechanized, and export-oriented.

To better understand whether conventionalization is occurring, we surveyed organic fruit and vegetable farmers throughout the US. Our analyses focused on farm size and the use of agroecological practices, which can improve agricultural sustainability by delivering ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling and pollination.

We found that the fewest agroecological practices were used on large farms, and that these farms exhibited greater conventionalization than small or medium farms. We also found that the probability of using specific agroecological practices depended on farm size, which has implications for policymakers seeking to increase practice adoption. Engaging in more interdisciplinary, participatory research with farmers, farmworkers, and other stakeholders can help bring agroecology to scale and co-create more just and sustainable food systems.


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