Sustainable farmer innovations in emerging local food systems
Ellis, Justin Sinclair
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The view of what constitutes agricultural innovations has evolved from the productionist era, which began in the 1930s, to today’s emerging interests in sustainable agriculture and the development of local food systems. Agricultural innovations have historically been assumed to be science and technology focused, address yields, profits and production challenges and arise from research science and private firms before being diffused to farmers who are the adopters. Sustainable agriculture has developed by a somewhat different path by which innovations often originate from practitioners as opposed to research science, utilize tools beyond the production environment to achieve social and economic benefits, attempt to address broader problems of social, environmental and economic challenges, and utilize innovation adaptation and development processes in addition to adoption processes to address challenges. This study focuses on understanding innovation processes undertaken by the most rapidly growing segment of sustainable farmers; small scale, resource limited, and newer farms engaged in the creation of local food systems. Sustainable agriculture in general, and this sub-group in particular has been poorly studied to better understand how innovation shapes individual farms and emerging local food systems. An emerging food system located in the northeast Georgia Mountains was chosen for an intensive four-year study that included 28 farms, focused on two new farmer networks, and identified 208 total innovations. This innovation inventory provided a new diagnostic tool to evaluate where farmers focus their creative energies towards solutions to problems. This study finds that sustainable farmers are not just adopting innovations they are also adapting and developing innovations. They recombine different forms of knowledge arising from their personal skills and backgrounds, resource availability, evolving information sources, and specific problems and challenges found on their farms and in their communities and then develop novel, sometimes original solutions to problems. These processes occur individually in the form of farm-based innovations, and collectively in the form of network-based innovations. These observations challenge the view of farmers as “merely passive recipients of knowledge and technology and demonstrates instead their capacities” for innovation (Kroma 2006, p.12).