Personal Factors Relevant for the Adoption of SRP
Personal values, attitudes, self-images, and habits were identified as relevant factors and are described below. Table 6 provides an overview of the identified personal factors differentiating them into incentives and barriers.
We found that SRP was perceived to be both compatible and incompatible with farmers’ values they hold toward farmed land. Several farmers, mostly of agricultural cooperatives, engaged in SRP because they want to use fallow land in a productive way. For them it is important that agricultural land is being used instead of lying fallow. They expressed their aversion toward mulching agricultural land once a year and making profits only by receiving subsidies: “This is not agriculture. It is a misuse of the system.” Agricultural cooperatives disliked this behavior and felt responsible for the land, the people living in the rural areas, and the people working for them. One farmer mentioned that fallow land could even provide higher return in case the SRP yield will be lower as expected. Taking this risk suggests that he perceives SRP as a better alternative to fallow land.
On the other hand, many farmers considered food and feed production as a priority. Despite that marginal lands are described as lands of poorer soil quality not suitable for agricultural activities, many farmers use them for feed and food production or as meadows and pastures. Some referred to it as “a moral dilemma” as well as incompatible with their farming values and relationship to land, exemplified in the following sentences: “There is something wrong with the world when we in the western part of the world are so selfish that we can say we will grow energy on agricultural land whereas there are other people in different parts of the world who have no food to eat. That is somehow wrong”, and, “those who have relationship to land would not grow trees on it.” Concerns of food security were raised and some farmers made clear that food security on agricultural land is superior to SRP biomass production, even on marginal lands. The reason why some farmers still engaged in SRP were the higher economic gains from lower quality soils. In general, farmers stated they prefer to engage in other agricultural activities related to food, feed or animal production. However, the reluctance to grow SRP is only partly related to prioritizing food production, as some farmers preferred to grow annual crops for fuel production over SRP.
Another barrier is the fear of losing independency. A hobby farmer considers SRP as a relatively stable crop; however, at the same time, it is not profitable enough to lose his independency by engaging in business with the company. Another farmer explained that by engaging in SRP business with only one business partner he would lose his independency and since he is a part-time, hobby farmer, he is not willing to do so. Especially smaller, private land owners refrain from SRP due to the long-term contracts of at least 10 years. In one case, the landowner requested a higher rent to consent to SRP, which was not agreed to by the farmer. Farmers established SRP either on their own land or on the land leased from Slovak Land Fund, some of them managed to get municipalities’ and churches’ consent or Urbariat’s consent. Urbariat is an association managing mostly forest land but also some agricultural land. The interviews showed that Slovak Land Fund and Urbariats are the most open to SRP. Only a few of the interviewed farmers established SRP on private persons’ agricultural land. Land consolidation was highlighted as a crucial aspect that could make growing SRP easier.
Attitudes toward the contract partner, the aim of the project as well as environmental impacts were perceived as important. Among many farmers, a positive attitude toward the contracting partner was observed. Some of the farmers perceive the industry partner as a reliable partner offering clear vision, commitment, sales, and balanced agreement. Positive attitudes were related to the overall corporate philosophy, their design, their aim to produce biomass for themselves and use fast growing natural resources that could compensate other non-renewable resources and agreed to the purpose of SRP. The fact SRP produces renewables in a short time was perceived rather positively and some farmers positively mentioned the material use of the biomass, as wood from SRP can spare higher wood qualities from forestry. The aspect of the company seeking to become more resource independent by these plantations was positively mentioned by one farmer.
Some farmers also expressed negative attitudes toward the contracting partner. One farmer sees the company as a threat to environment and fears negative impacts of the company’s activities on the region in the future. Moreover, another farmer perceives the established plantations as greenwashing only to “look better to the outside world.” Two farmers did not believe in the purpose of SRP. They consider it to be only beneficial to the business partner. They feel the material and products from SRP will be of low quality and short life span. Nevertheless, those farmers engaged in SRP due to economic benefits and their interest to try something new, but were worried of soil damage. One farmer only engaged in SRP to prevent the company from asking the land owners he leased the land from, being afraid they might discontinue his lease and lease it to the company instead. Some farmers raised their concerns related to the company’s future in Slovakia, which results in a low confidence in the contracting partner. They consider their engagement in SRP as a risky business because they are afraid that the company might not be able to buy the produced SRP biomass at the end of the contracting period. In addition, farmers were afraid that the recultivation of the SRP parcels after 10 or 20 years may not happen, in case the company would decide to shut down its board production site. Farmers are afraid they would then need to take care of the recultivation on their own, resulting in high costs. While expressing these concerns some farmers used examples of multinational companies that had entered the Slovak market for a few years and afterward decided to leave for some other countries, which consequently had some negative impact on Slovakia and its economy. Related to this, the long-term commitment of 10–20 years is perceived as critical.
Several farmers expected positive environmental impacts on soil from SRP by providing soil recovery, water retention, and nutrients from leaves and roots. For example, several farmers believed SRP can ensure better future yields on converted parcels after the SRP life cycle has been completed. They considered SRP as a more environmentally friendly solution in comparison to conventional agricultural needing high amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Some farmers noticed environmental benefits not directly beneficial to agricultural soil such as an increase in biodiversity in the surroundings: “The biodiversity increases in the areas where SRP was established. You can spot deer, birds, boars, etc. in those areas. There will be a paradise in 5 years.” In this context, farmers also perceived social benefits as a result of environmental benefits. A farmer engaged in SRP in order to separate a landfill from the village, which has been negatively influenced by odor emissions. SRP is therefore expected to improve the living conditions for the village residents. Another farmer engaged in SRP because he found growing trees would benefit society more than growing grass (i.e., producing more oxygen) and expressed his concerns about a decrease of forest cover in Slovakia. By growing SRP he felt he was taking part in restoring it.
On the contrary, expected negative environmental impacts represent a barrier. In general, interviewed farmers had limited knowledge on potential environmental impacts related to SRP and environmental concerns were expressed by both farmers engaged and not engaged in SRP. Farmers expressed concerns about future recultivation of the land, root-system breakdown, potential soil exhaustion, future soil use, and water loss. Some farmers mentioned they are worried whether it will be possible to grow traditional crops afterward. For instance, soil exhaustion and water loss caused by SRP were mentioned by one farmer who had some previous experience in growing willows, which damaged the drainage system of his parcel. In addition, fencing needed either prior or after establishing SRP was perceived as a negative aspect causing habitat fragmentation and impacting wildlife rather negatively. One farmer mentioned that he does not feel positive about harvesting and selling the SRP because the soil is being deprived of nutrients and formed humus layer. Farmers who expressed environmental concerns, but nonetheless engaged in SRP did so either because economic aspects overweighed environmental concerns or they were able to recognize also some environmental benefits such as soil recovery and lower need for pesticides and fertilizers. Apart from these aspects, two farmers mentioned gene transfer as a possible threat due to the fact that the poplars are of non-native origin despite them being harvested before bloom. Related to this, societal costs of human health and safety risks due to the non-native origin of planted trees and potential gene transfer were expressed by one farmer. He would have preferred native trees on his parcels if it had been possible.
Being an independent key player on the market was important for farmers’ self-image. Farmers said they aim for profit maximization to be taken seriously on the market and be able to sell their production at a reasonable price. In this context, the reputation related to agricultural activities was found to be an important barrier. A farmer highlighted the continuous success of his farm and that his goal is to stay “one of the best farms” in Slovakia winning prizes for cow breeding and wine production, while SRP does not offer these prestigious recognitions.
In addition, farmers had the opinion that someone else should grow SRP. That shows that SRP was not perceived to be their responsibility. A farmer states that bigger farms should engage in SRP (Note: he farms more than 5000 ha). Another farmer, close to “Trnavska tabula” who also has some of the most fertile soils in Slovakia, feels SRP should be grown in less productive regions of Slovakia, such as the more eastern regions because of their lower soil fertility and lower employment. Another farmer suggests that the Slovak State or foresters should engage in SRP instead of farmers.
Among habits, SRP was perceived as new agricultural activity and missing experience acts as another barrier for farmers: “We have not explored this type of agricultural production yet. I am not saying it’s not good business at all, however if it was that amazing and profitable all the farmers would have already been producing SRP biomass on their lands.” Despite the fact that several farmers did not have much knowledge about SRP, they engaged in it because they gained some knowledge during the meetings with the company. At the same time, some farmers did not have a clear idea on potential benefits or costs of SRP activities, since they did not know anyone already engaged in SRP back then. In one case, the land managers traveled around the region to visit some of the already established SRPs. As the land managers consisted of foresters, not farmers, it was easier for them to become early adopters: “We are foresters, we work with wood on daily basis and so engaging in SRP is the most natural thing for us to do.”
Two farmers said that economic aspects are not primary when making decisions but rather they had a habit of making decisions instinctively or emotionally: “It’s about the feeling. I have to feel it in there” said the hobby farmer. Another farmer said: “I would have to see deeper meaning to it in order to engage in it… I am guided instinctively when making decisions.” It seems however that decisions made with gut instinct are more present when the economic side of the business is already taken care of anyway.
In this study, personal factors related to personal values and habits, such as fear of losing independency, preference for food production and missing experience, were found to overrule the perceived economic benefits and hindered the adoption of SRP. Some farmers aimed for prestige and were interested in other forms of farming such as intensive agricultural practices: “I enjoy other agricultural production more,” “we are more interested in the intensive agricultural practices” – these are examples showing that despite being financially oriented, farmers can have other interests in which case the potential economic gains are insufficient to engage in SRP. Some farmers required additional incentives such as the perceived environmental and social benefits. Thus, economic benefits alone are not necessarily an incentive for SRP.
Situational Factors Relevant for the Adoption of SRP
Among the situational factors we found market conditions and the institutional framework and legal setting to be relevant. Table 7 provides an overview of the different factors differentiating them into incentives and barriers.
Regarding market conditions, the economic benefits from marginal lands and required labor input were incentives. However, they also were a barrier as a result of competition with other uses. A prominent incentive observed was the economic benefit from growing SRP on marginal lands, which is related to the use of low-quality soils (sandy, sloppy, acidic, undercultivated or stony soils) resulting in low yields for crops. The Zahorie region is known for its sandy soils and lower productivity when considered for traditional agricultural practices. Many farmers—mostly agricultural cooperatives—engaged in SRP to make better use of low-quality soils to increase their profit. They stated that they will make more profits on these marginal lands when compared to their previous agricultural activities and thereby are able to reduce financial losses on other parcels. Similarly, one smaller agricultural business company perceives SRP as a helpful alternative in a business area with generally low economic returns.
A crucial aspect related to the economic benefits is the low labor input and low amount of chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides). Hence, SRP was perceived to lower the costs when compared to conventional agricultural practices and therefore allows higher profits. Next to profit, agricultural cooperatives mentioned the unburdening of their employees as an additional incentive, in the form of reduced working hours and easier tasks.
Several farmers positively mentioned the financial, technical, and administrative support the industry partner provided to the farmers by taking care of the measures required to establish SRP. If the industry partner did not take care of it, they would have not considered doing it on their own, as the administrative process was perceived to be too time and energy consuming. Even though farmers did not explicitly discuss the fact that there were no initial investments necessary, one farmer positively mentioned that the company also took care of initial material costs, which made the offer even more profitable to him. In addition, it is positively perceived that no new machinery is needed because the business partner takes care of harvesting.
Nevertheless, farmers said that for them SRP stand in competition with traditional crop production, even on marginal lands. The small economic benefit in comparison to their current agricultural production represents a barrier. For instance, one farmer engaged in vegetable production stated that he must grow as many vegetables as possible on his fields in order to stay competitive. In several cases, marginal lands were used for organic farming. Thus, the competition with organic farming due to low soil quality is a central barrier. As previously mentioned, the Zahorie region has very sandy soils and the agricultural production cannot achieve high yields. Many farmers switched to organic farming after Slovakia entered the European Union in 2004, enabling access to EU subsidies for organic farming. Interviewed farmers involved in organic agriculture claimed that the sandy soils make it impossible to earn profit when farmed conventionally and therefore they decided to start growing crops organically. These sandy soils are suitable for SRP production but because of the environmental subsidies for organic farming, farmers have fewer reasons to engage in SRP. One farmer engaged in SRP mentioned that the soil quality of their organic production areas is even worse than the soil quality where SRP has been planted.
Regarding institutional framework and legal setting, land fragmentation and lack of clear policy as well as the presence of nature protection areas were barriers. A prominent barrier to engage in SRP is land fragmentation in combination with land owner’s consent. It was mentioned by all interviewed farmers engaged in SRP on leased land. The current situation is perceived as an immense obstacle making it very difficult for farmers to engage in SRP. Some farmers reported they were willing to engage in SRP but were not able to: They either held vastly fragmented land with dozens of land owners not suitable to the company’s criteria, or the land owners did not provide their consent. In this context, no clear policy represents another barrier. To several farmers, the goal of EU and Slovak policy of alternative sources of energy or material production does not seem straightforward. Some farmers are cautious about engaging in new agricultural activities because the future development of these activities are unclear. For example, farmers are worried whether today’s subsidies for SRP will be provided in the future.
Moreover, the being close to nature protection areas was mentioned as an obstacle by one farmer. This farmer reported that he was willing to convert to SRP on several more parcels but since these parcels were located close to Natura 2000 protected area, environmentalists did not allow for this to happen. Thus, he is only engaged in SRP on parcels located further away from Natura 2000 protected area.
We found situational factors, such as market conditions and legal framework, to be substantial barriers for the adoption of SRP. Among the group of farmers not engaged in SRP (N = 9), there were three farmers, all from agricultural cooperatives, who would have liked to engage in SRP mostly due to economic benefit (low labor reduces salary costs and need for employees) and, some of these farmers expressed positive environmental impacts of SRP such as waste water treatment and water retention, leaf litter and dead plant material, and better microclimate. However, they either faced obstacles in the form of land fragmentation, landowner’s consent or unsuitable soils (groundwater level was too low, parcel was too small <10 ha). Therefore, not all marginal lands were legally and physically available for SRP production.
In addition, farmers’ willingness to adopt SRP was influenced by their legal entity. Agricultural cooperatives felt more responsible toward rural communities and the agricultural land they lease from them. They prioritized SRP over fallow land and positively perceived the economic benefits and low labor input. They were more willing to convert agricultural land to SRP compared to agricultural business companies (all seven interviewed agricultural cooperatives were interested to engage in SRP).
Contrarily, agricultural business companies had to recognize at least one other personal factor to adopt SRP such as perceived environmental benefits or trying something new. In general, agricultural business companies were more profit-oriented and SRP profits alone were too little for them to act as incentive. Nevertheless, the majority of farmers engaged in SRP were from agricultural business companies. Interviewed farmers not interested in SRP—mostly agricultural business companies—tended either to concentrate on less “mainstream” agricultural activities, such as vegetable production (e.g., onions, cabbage, asparagus production) to maximize profits. One interviewed farmer mentioned: “Agriculture is a very profitable business. However, if you want to make profit in agriculture, you must not grow what everyone else grows. You must not grow wheat.” This highlights the limited financial attractiveness of SRP with regard to the profit orientation of agricultural business companies.