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Digging Deeper: A Case Study of Farmer Conceptualization of Ecosystem Services in the American South

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The interest in improved environmental sustainability of agriculture via biodiversity provides an opportunity for placed-based research on the conceptualization and articulation of ecosystem services. Yet, few studies have explored how farmers conceptualize the relationship between their farm and nature and by extension ecosystem services. Examining how farmers in the Southern Piedmont of South Carolina discuss and explain the role of nature on their farm, we create a detail-rich picture of how they perceive ecosystem services and their contributions to the agroeconomy. Using 34 semi-structured interviews, we developed a detail-rich qualitative portrait of these farmers’ conceptualizations of ecosystem services. Farmers’ conceptualization of four ecosystem services: provisioning, supporting, regulating, and cultural are discussed, as well as articulation of disservices. Results of interviews show that most interviewees expressed a basic understanding of the relationship between nature and agriculture and many articulated benefits provided by nature to their farm. Farmers referred indirectly to most services, though they did not attribute services to biodiversity or ecological function. While farmers have a general understanding and appreciation of nature, they lack knowledge on specific ways biodiversity benefits their farm. This lack of knowledge may ultimately limit farmer decision-making and land management to utilize ecosystem services for environmental and economic benefits. These results suggest that additional communication with farmers about ecosystem services is needed as our understanding of these benefits increases. This change may require collaboration between conservation biology professionals and extension and agriculture professionals to extended successful biomass provisioning services to other ecosystem services.

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The authors would like to thank Furman’s David E. Shi Center for Sustainability Carolinas Food and Farming Student-Faculty Research Initiative funded by The Duke Endowment.

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Correspondence to Courtney E. Quinn.

Appendix: Interview Protocol

Appendix: Interview Protocol

Farm/Farmer History

To start, I would like to know a little bit about your personal history with farming as well as the history of your farm…

  1. a.

    When did you first start farming?

  2. b.

    Did you grow up around farming?

  3. c.

    Did your parents farm?

  4. d.

    Grandparents? (older generations?)

  5. e.

    Did they farm on this land or somewhere else?

  6. f.

    When did you begin farming here?

  7. g.

    How did you learn to farm?

  8. h.

    Is your farm in one contiguous parcel or separated?

  9. i.

    Do you know who owned the land previously and what did they use it for?

What would you consider a large farm/small farm?

  1. a.

    So then do you consider yourself a (large/small) scale farmer?

  2. b.

    What are the benefits to your size farm?

  3. c.

    What are the challenges of your size farm?

Farmers in the Upstate

I would like to ask you more general questions about farming and farmers in the Upstate.

  • What type of person farms in the Upstate?

  • Why do you think they farm?

  • What makes a good farmer? (wait for response and prompt with below if necessary)

  • Farming practices? (farm organization, use of technologies etc.)

  • Social practices? (i.e., being involved with community, farming organizations etc.)


Farming has changed so much in the past century. I’d like to hear your opinion on these changes.

  • Have your feelings about farming changed over your life?

  • What are the greatest challenges you have faced in the past? Now?

  • What do you most enjoy? Is this the same as in the past?

  • Is farming changing in the Upstate?

  • Are the people who farm changing? (age, gender, race, type of farming practices)

  • Do you see urban/suburban development as a threat to the farming community in this region?

How does farming influence culture in this region?

  • What role does farming play in the Upstate?

  • Do you think that most people are aware of farming and agricultural issues in the Upstate?

What do you most hope to see for the future of farming in this region?

  • What most needs to be sustained or conserved with respect to farming?

Land/Nature Conservation I would like to ask you some questions about the importance of land, farmers’ connection to the land, and nature

What is farmland?

  • Do you think of your farmland as part of nature?

  • Do you think of yourself as someone who works in nature?

What does your land mean to you?

  • What does it mean for your family?

  • How important is it to you that your land continues to be farmed?

  • What sort of things do you do to be a steward of the land?

  • Have you ever been approached about special protections for your land?

  • How important is it for you that this land remains farmland after you retire?

Nature Conservation

  • If someone approached you about conserving nature on your land, how much do you think you’d be willing to do?

  • How does nature benefit your farm?

  • Do you have any wildlife habitat on your farm? (areas you do not use for production)

  • Do you have any specific practices to control water or soil run-off?

  • Do other farmers care about the environment?

  • Do other farmers in the area do anything on their farm specifically to benefit nature?

  • Would you be interested in eco-tourism at your farm (birding tours?)

What sort of outdoor recreational activities do you enjoy?

  • Do you hunt or fish?

  • Do you do those activities on your farm? If not, where else?

  • Do you identify/notice/take an interest in wildlife on your farm? birds, mammals, insects


Selling products is just as important to farming as growing products. I would like to ask just a few questions about where you sell your products.

  • Do you sell directly to consumers? How?

    • CSA

    • Roadside stand

    • Pick your own

    • Farmers markets

  • Do you sell to grocery stores?

  • What sorts of consumers purchase from you?

  • Has the type of consumer changed over time?

  • Does your farm have a website?

  • Do you participate in South Carolina Grown program?

  • Are you certified for any special labeling?

    • Organic?

    • Biodynamic?

How competitive is the market for farm products in this area?

  • Who are you competing with?

  • Do farmers in this area work together to grow or market products? Why or why not?

How familiar are you with the local/organic food movements?

  • What do you think about the local/organic food movement?

What advice would you have for upcoming farmers?

  • What sorts of challenges might upcoming farmers face?

  • Do your children want to farm?

Agricultural Practices

  • What sorts of agricultural techniques do you use?

  • Have you always farmed this way? What practices have you changed over the years? Why?

  • Do you use any specific techniques to preserve fertility of the land?

  • Have you ever tried other methods of farming? Were they successful?

  • Do you rotate crops? IPM? Terracing?

Do you draw income from non-farm sources?

  • Has this amount of income increased or decreased in recent years?

  • Do you think you will need to draw more or less income from non-farm sources in the future?

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Quinn, C.E., Quinn, J.E. & Halfacre, A.C. Digging Deeper: A Case Study of Farmer Conceptualization of Ecosystem Services in the American South. Environmental Management 56, 802–813 (2015).

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