Human Dimensions of Sustainable Agriculture

Environmental Resources Center
University of Wisconsin - Madison

Environmental Resources Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison
445 Henry Mall, Room 202
Madison, WI 53706

The Environmental Resources Center is engaged in research and outreach on the human dimensions of sustainable agriculture. We define the 'human dimensions' as behaviors and actions of people - including management strategies - that have an impact on the land and environment. People work and live within social structures (our communities, laws, institutions, economic systems) that create opportunities and constraints to sustainable behavior. Our research and outreach efforts attempt to understand these dimensions and to reduce constraints while opening up new opportunities.

Our Activities

Our activities have three components: research, outreach and training.

Research Component:

We conduct research on specific groups (target populations) to understand constraints and opportunities associated with sustainable production, and draw lessons from the research to inform U.W. Extension and other professionals who work with farmers.

The issues we address in our research:

  1. What individual farmer behaviors/actions contribute toward on-farm sustainability? How can these actions be supported and promoted?
  2. What barriers do farmers encounter when seeking to manage land and natural resources sustainably?
  3. What opportunities exist to promote sustainable farming?
  4. What opportunities are there for community residents to support sustainable farmers?
  5. How do sustainable farmers get information? What barriers are there to getting needed information? How can information delivery be tailored to specific audiences?

Outreach Component:

We are developing an outreach component to our work that builds off of our research activities. For example, our current research is informing us of how to reach targeted farming populations with specific information; our outreach component will develop delivery mechanisms to distribute information tailored to those targeted groups, such as farmer-to-farmer networks, electronic communications, webinars.

Training Component:

For our 'sustainable bioenergy' projects, we are developing training programs and assessment tools specifically targeted to Extension personnel. The first step of this work has been research oriented; we have inventoried Extension personnel in the 12 states of the North Central Extension District ( to determine current levels of Extension involvement with bioenergy programming, constituent concerns, and training needs.

Human Dimensions Questions Relating to Sustainable Agriculture

  • What are the ecological and community benefits provided by private landowners (farmers) who adopt sustainable land use practices?
  • What are the economic returns-on-investment of sustainable farms for the farmer? Can farmers benefit economically by adopting sustainable land use practices?
  • What are the organizational, management, or financial barriers to adopting sustainable agriculture practices?
  • What institutional opportunities exist to promote sustainable behavior vis--vis farm and land management (e.g., policy initiatives, market opportunities, educational programming)?

Photo credits: Blue Moon Community Farm and Janice Kepka.

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