Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 245–259 | Cite as

Social networks in complex human and natural systems: the case of rotational grazing, weak ties, and eastern US dairy landscapes

  • Kristen C. NelsonEmail author
  • Rachel F. Brummel
  • Nicholas Jordan
  • Steven Manson


Multifunctional agricultural systems seek to expand upon production-based benefits to enhance family wellbeing and animal health, reduce inputs, and improve environmental services such as biodiversity and water quality. However, in many countries a landscape-level conversion is uneven at best and stalled at worst. This is particularly true across the eastern rural landscape in the United States. We explore the role of social networks as drivers of system transformation within dairy production in the eastern United States, specifically rotational grazing as an alternative management option. We hypothesize the importance of weak ties within farmer social networks as drivers of change. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York, we conducted 53 interviews with confinement, low-intensity, and rotational grazing dairy producers as well as 35 interviews with associated network actors. Though confinement and grazier networks had similar proportions of strong and weak ties, confinement producers had more market-based weak ties, while graziers had more weak-ties to government agencies and other graziers in the region. These agency weak ties supported rotational graziers through information exchange and cost sharing, both crucial to farmers’ transitions from confinement-based production to grazing systems. While weak ties were integral to initial innovation, farmers did not maintain these relationships beyond their transition to grazing. Of equal importance, grazier weak-tie networks did not include environmental organizations, suggesting unrealized potential for more diverse networks based on environmental services. By understanding the drivers, we can identify barriers to expanding weak tie networks and emergent properties in order to create institutions and policies necessary for change.


Multifunctional agriculture Social networks Dairy production Resilience Landscape transitions 



We recognize the critical support of the National Science Foundation Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (BCS-BE: CNH-0709613) program as well as NIFA through the University of Minnesota. We thank the farm families and community members who shared their experiences with us. We appreciate B. Vondracek and T. Arnold as long term collaborators on this project; A. Slaat for figure preparation; N. Martini for statistical advise; S. Campbell for interviewing assistance; S. Graves, A. Nessel, S. Huerd for logistical support; K. Clower, A. Berland, D. Bonsal, G. Brand, and J. Immich for fieldwork, GIS, intellectual engagement, and team support over the years.


  1. Batie, S.S. 2003. The multifunctional attributes of northeastern agriculture: A research agenda. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 32: 1–8.Google Scholar
  2. Belletti, G., G. Brunori, A. Marescotti, and A. Rossi. 2003. Multifunctionality and rural development: A multilevel approach. In Multifuncitonal agriculture: A new paradigm for European agriculture and rural development, ed. G. Van Huylenbroeck, and G. Durand, 55–80. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  3. Berkes, F., J. Colding, and C. Folke (eds.). 2003. Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Boody, G., B. Vondracek, D.A. Andow, M. Krinke, J. Westra, J. Zimmerman, and P. Welle. 2005. Multifunctional agriculture in the United States. BioScience 55: 27–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brummel, R., K.C. Nelson, and P. Jakes. 2012. Burning through organizational boundaries? Examining inter-organizational communication networks in policy-mandated collaborative bushfire planning groups. Global Environmental Change 22: 516–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burt, R.S. 2000. The network structure of social capital. Research in Organizational Behavior 22: 345–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caron-Flinterman, J.F., D. Roep, and A. Luijer. 2010. Bridging incompatible regimes: How the formation of intermediary regimes drives system innovation. Si Agro Workshop Proceedings 16–18 June, Lelystad, Netherlands, 2010-06-182010-06-18.Google Scholar
  8. Che, D., A. Veeck, and G. Veeck. 2005. Sustaining production and strengthening the agritourism product: Linkages among Michigan agritourism destinations. Agriculture and Human Values 22: 225–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Collins, S.L., S.R. Carpenter, S.M. Swinton, D.E. Orenstein, D.L. Childers, T.L. Gragson, N.B. Grimm, J.M. Grove, S.L. Harlan, J.P. Kaye, A.K. Knapp, G.P. Kofinas, J.J. Magnuson, W.H. McDowell, J.M. Melack, L.A. Ogden, G.P. Robertson, M.D. Smith, and A.C. Whitmer. 2011. An integrated conceptual framework for long-term social-ecological research. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9: 351–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dal Fiore, F. 2009. Communities versus networks: The implications on innovation and social change. American Behavioral Scientist 50: 857–866.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Folke, C. 2006. Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analysis. Global Environmental Change 16: 253–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Franks, J. 2010. Boundary organization for sustainable land management: The example of Dutch environmental co-operatives. Ecological Economics 70(2): 283–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Frost, J.N., and R. Lentz. 2003. Rooted in grass: Challenging patterns of knowledge exchange as a means of fostering social change in a southeast Minnesota farm community. Agriculture and Human Values 20: 65–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gantzer, C.J., S.H. Anderson, A.L. Thompson, and J.R. Brown. 1990. Estimating soil erosion after 100 years of cropping on Sanborn Field. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 45: 641–644.Google Scholar
  15. Geyer, R. 2003. Beyond the third way: The science of complexity and the politics of choice. British Journal of Politics and International Relations 5: 237–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Granovetter, M. 2005. The impact of social structure on economic outcomes. The Journal of Economic Perspectives 19: 33–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Granovetter, M. 1983. The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Sociological Theory 1: 203–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Granovetter, M. 1973. The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360–1380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hansen, M.T. 1999. The search-transfer problem: The role of weak ties in sharing knowledge across organizational subunits. Administrative Science Quarterly 44: 82–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hassanein, N., and J. Kloppenburg Jr. 1995. Where the grass grows again: Knowledge exchange in the sustainable agriculture movement. Rural Sociology 60: 721–740.Google Scholar
  21. Ison, R., N. Röling, and D. Watson. 2007. Challenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: Investigating the role of social learning. Environmental Science & Policy 10: 499–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jensen, K.C. 1995. Grazing trend changes feed company opportunities. Feedstuff 17 July.Google Scholar
  23. Jordan, N., and K.D. Warner. 2010. Enhancing the multifunctionality of US agriculture. BioScience 60: 60–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kriegel, T., and G. Frank. 2005. A ten-year economic look at Wisconsin dairy systems. Madison, WI: Center for Dairy Profitability.Google Scholar
  25. Kroma, M.M. 2006. Organic farmer networks: Facilitating learning and innovation for sustainable agriculture. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 28: 5–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lamprinopoulou, C., A. Tregear, and M. Ness. 2006. Agrifood SMEs in Greece: The role of collective action. British Food Journal 108: 663–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Liu, J., T. Dietz, S.R. Carpenter, M. Alberti, C. Folke, E. Moran, A.N. Pell, P. Deadman, T. Kratz, J. Lubchenco, E. Ostrom, Z. Ouyang, W. Provencher, C.L. Redman, S.H. Schneider, and W.W. Taylor. 2007. Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science 317(5844): 1513–1516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lyons, J., B.M. Weigel, L.K. Paine, and D.J. Undersander. 2000. Influence of intensive rotational grazing on bank erosion, fish habitat quality, and fish communities in southwestern Wisconsin trout streams. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 55: 271–276.Google Scholar
  29. Magis, K. 2010. Community resilience: An indicator of social sustainability. Society and Natural Resources 23: 401–416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mariola, M.J., K.E. Stiles, and S. Lloyd. 2005. The social implications of management intensive rotational grazing: An annotated bibliography. Madison, Wisconsin: Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin-Madison.Google Scholar
  31. Matthews, R., and P. Selman. 2006. Landscape as a focus for integrating human and environmental processes. Journal of Agricultural Economics 57: 199–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. McPherson, J.M., P.A. Popielarz, and S. Drobnic. 1992. Social networks and organizational American. Sociological Review 57: 153–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. McMichael, P. 2011. Food system sustainability: Questions of environmental governance in the new world (dis)order. Global Environmental Change 21: 804–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Nott, S.B. 2003. Evolution of dairy grazing in the 1990 s. Staff Paper #2003-07. East Lansing, Michigan: Department of Agricultural Economics, Michigan State University.Google Scholar
  35. Olsson, P., C. Folke, V. Galaz, T. Hahn, and L. Schultz. 2007. Enhancing the fit through adaptive co-management: Creating and maintaining bridging functions for matching scales in the Kristianstads Vattenrike Biosphere Reserve. Sweden. Ecology and Society 12(1): 28.Google Scholar
  36. Ortiz-Miranda, D., O.M. Moreno-Perez, and A.M. Moragues-Faus. 2010. Innovative strategies of agricultural cooperatives in the framework of the new rural development paradigms: The case of the Region of Valencia (Spain). Environment and Planning 42: 661–677.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Paine, L.K., R.M. Klemme, D.J. Undersander, and M. Welsh. 2000. Wisconsin’s grazing networks: History, structure, and function. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Science Education 29: 60–67.Google Scholar
  38. Paine, L.K., and C.A. Ribic. 2002. Comparison of riparian plant communities under four land management systems in southwestern Wisconsin. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 92: 93–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Polasky, S.E., D.Pennington Nelson, and K.A. Johnson. 2011. The impact of land-use change on ecosystem services, biodiversity, and returns to landowners: A case study in the State of Minnesota. Environmental & Resource Economics 48: 219–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Portes, Alejandro. 1998. Social capital: Its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 24: 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. PATS (Program on Agricultural Technology Studies). 2007. Structural change in WI dairy 1987–2007: Divergence in size and system. Fact Sheet No. 25. Madison, WI: College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin.Google Scholar
  42. Putnam, R.D. 2000. Bowling alone. The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  43. Randall, G.W. 2001. Present day agriculture in southeastern Minnesota—Is it sustainable?. Waseca, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center.Google Scholar
  44. Raymond, K.L., and B. Vondracek. 2010. Relationships among rotational and conventional grazing systems, stream channels, and macroinvertebrates. Hydorbiologia 669: 105–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Selman, P., and M. Knight. 2006. On the nature of virtuous change in cultural landscapes: Exploring sustainability through qualitative models. Landscape Research 31: 295–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sovell, L.A., B. Vondracek, J.A. Nerbonne Frost, and K.G. Mumford. 2000. Impacts of rotational grazing and riparian buffers on physicochemical and biological characteristics of southeastern Minnesota, USA, streams. Journal of Environmental Management 26: 629–641.Google Scholar
  47. Steyaert, P., M. Barzman, J.-P. Billaud, H. Brives, B. Hubert, G. Ollivier, and B. Roche. 2007. The role of knowledge and research in facilitating social learning among stakeholders in natural resource management in the French Atlantic coastal wetlands. Environmental Science & Policy 10: 537–550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Taylor, J., and J. Foltz. 2006. Grazing in the dairy state: Pasture use in the Wisconsin dairy industry, 1993–2003. Madison, Wisconsin: Program on Agricultural Technology Studies.Google Scholar
  49. Thompson, G.F. 2004. Is all the world a complex network? Economy and Society 33: 411–424.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Urry, J. 2004. Small worlds and the new “social physics”. Global Networks 4: 109–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Verburg, P.H. 2006. Simulating feedbacks in land use and land cover change model. Landscape Ecology 21: 1171–1183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Vondracek, B., K.L. Blann, C.B. Cox, J.F. Nerbonne, K.G. Mumford, B.A. Nerbonne, L.A. Sovell, and J.K.H. Zimmerman. 2005. Land use, spatial scale, and stream systems: Lessons from an agricultural region. Environmental Management 36: 775–791.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Warner, K.D. 2006. Extending agroecology: Grower participation in partnerships is key to social learning. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 21: 84–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wilson, G.A. 2010. Multifunctional “quality” and rural community resilience. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35: 364–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wilson, G.A. 2007. Multifunctional agriculture: A transition theory perspective. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Winsten, J.R., C.D. Kerchner, A. Richardson, A. Lichau, and J.M. Hyman. 2010. Trends in the Northeast dairy industry: Large-scale modern confinement feeding and management-intensive grazing. Journal of Dairy Science 93: 1759–1769.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wiskerke, J.S.C., B.B. Bock, M. Stuiver, and H. Renting. 2003. Environmental co-operatives as a new mode of rural governance. Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science 51: 9–25.Google Scholar
  58. Zimmerman, J.K.H., B. Vondracek, and J.V. Westra. 2003. Agricultural land use effects on sediment loading and fish assemblages in two Minnesota (USA) watersheds. Environmental Management 32: 93–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristen C. Nelson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Rachel F. Brummel
    • 2
  • Nicholas Jordan
    • 3
  • Steven Manson
    • 4
  1. 1.Departments of Forest Resources and Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation BiologyUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.Environmental StudiesLafayette CollegeEastonUSA
  3. 3.Department of AgronomyUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  4. 4.Department of GeographyUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations