Intersections of Knowledge, New Information Technologies, and Ideas of Good Farming in Southeast Pennsylvania and Northwest Italy

Open Access
Babbie, Kristin Barbara
Graduate Program:
Rural Sociology
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
July 25, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Cynthia Clare Hinrichs, Thesis Advisor
  • sustainable agriculture
  • good farming
  • information communication technology
  • Pennsylvania
  • Italy
  • farming
  • sociology
  • rural
Farms are spaces embedded in variable social and bio-physical contexts that are dynamic and patterned, shaping how farmers manage their operations. Farmers must continually adapt their practices as farm context changes. This thesis explores how farmers understand the social and biophysical contexts of their farms in relation to their: 1) views on and experiences with diverse sources of knowledge including information communication technology (ICT), local knowledge, and agricultural advisors, and 2) perceptions of good farming. Both topics were explored through empirical research based on semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted with 17 grain farmers and four agricultural advisors in southeastern Pennsylvania, and three focus groups conducted with grain farmers in northwest Italy. Located in close proximity to one another, the Pennsylvania farmers varied in terms of age, views about chemical use and soil management, and farm size. The Italian farmers were all members of farming cooperatives that made decisions about production and marketing collectively. Findings from data collection are organized as three distinct manuscripts in this thesis. The first manuscript (Paper 1) considers how grain farmers and agricultural advisors in southeastern Pennsylvania describe different sources of knowledge in farming in light of growing use of ICT and concerns over the sustainability of agriculture. Traditionally, farmers’ reactions to technology in agriculture have been studied through an approach with a pro-innovation bias that prioritizes scientific knowledge. Paper 1 departs from this approach to consider the interplay of local knowledge, knowledge exchange between farmers and their advisors, and ICT as a knowledge source for farmers. The study found that participants used knowledge about their own farms and knowledge from their neighbors to make farming decisions. Additionally, while some farmers co-produced knowledge with an agricultural advisor, others expressed a greater dependence on their advisors to make decisions. In relation to ICT, farmers had mixed views about its convenience, and a few expressed concern that greater use of ICT for farming could replace farmers’ human knowledge and skills. Some viewed ICT as less relevant to older farmers; however on the contrary, a few older farmers discussed their desires and efforts to use ICT. The findings suggest that to promote sustainable agriculture, developers of information technologies must identify creative approaches to designing ICT, as well as take into account the different sources of knowledge farmers consider when making decisions. The second manuscript (Paper 2) takes a lifeworld approach to consider how Pennsylvania farmers’ past experiences, stocks of knowledge, and interpretations of how others farm shape their understandings of good farming. Farmers’ own ideas about good farming are important because of their potential to complicate typically compartmentalized and competing labels such as “alternative” versus “conventional” farming. Findings centered on three primary themes: becoming a good farmer, displaying good farming, and typical perceptions about good farming. One implication of this research is that agricultural paradigms such as alternative and conventional prove difficult to apply at the individual farm level, as farmers meanings of good farming are embedded in their lifeworld, making them complex, dynamic, and sometimes uncertain. The final manuscript (Paper 3) offers an international comparative perspective on the broad topics explored in Paper 1 and Paper 2. It is based on data from three focus groups conducted with a total of 19 members of farming cooperatives in northwest Italy. Relevant to the topic of diverse sources of knowledge and ICT, main themes included the importance of farming cooperatively and the general absence of smartphone usage by these Italian farmers. The Italian farmers viewed use of ICT as less relevant to farming than some Pennsylvania farmers who viewed it as inevitable. Farmers in both countries shared local knowledge with their farming neighbors; however, the Italian farmers described themselves as highly dependent on one another, especially in being members of cooperatives. In terms of good farming, salient themes expressed by the Italian farmers included the importance of passion and displaying good farming through farm appearance for others to see. In large part, the Italian farmers’ views of good farming were similar to those of the Pennsylvania farmers.