EXPLORING THE SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS OF AGRICULTURAL EXPANSION IN NEW HAMPSHIRE
Forest ecosystems and agriculture represent coupled socio-ecological systems that are shaped by human activity. The extensification of agriculture (expansion of food production on the landscape) can cause significant changes in land use, and can contribute to the degradation of biodiverse ecosystems and the services these systems provide. Yet the need to increase food production capacity, either through agricultural intensification or extensification, continues to rise. In this dissertation, I address the critical issue of agricultural extensification from several angles.
The first chapter assesses agricultural expansion through the lens of urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) through systematic review of the literature. I considered the availability of global data sets regarding UPA’s impact on ecosystem services and disservices, as well as its land sparing potential. This literature review showed that while there has been an increase in research exploring the intersection between UPA and ecosystem services, there is still a need to include the quantification of ecosystem services and functions to shed light on the ecological tradeoffs associated with agricultural production in the built environment.
The second, third, and final chapters focus on a mixed-methods study aimed at exploring New Hampshire resident perception of agricultural expansion in the state. New Hampshire is experiencing a landscape shift back to agricultural production, as the numbers of farms and area in agricultural production are increasing. As a predominately forested state, increasing agricultural production in New Hampshire would require some forestland conversion, a change residents may not favor.
I surveyed two populations in New Hampshire, self-identified food system stakeholders (e.g., farmers, public health professionals, and technical assistance providers) and a sample from the general population. Roughly 600 residents completed the survey, including 494 individuals from the statewide sample population, and 103 food system stakeholders. The survey included traditional written questions, as well as sets of images to understand how resident perception (visual preference) might influence potential future agricultural land use.
Objectives of this study were to understand resident: (1) general perception of forestland conversion to agriculture, (2) measured level of acceptance of agricultural expansion on the landscape, (3) perception of ecosystem services from different types of farm landscapes, (4) willingness to live next to farms, and (5) consumer behavior related to locally grown food. Additionally, I sought to identify socio-economic factors that account for the differences between each population in terms of their landscape perception and preference.
My findings suggest that there are differences in agricultural landscape preferences and perceptions between the general population and those who consider themselves food system stakeholders. While the response patterns were similar between each population, not surprisingly, food system stakeholders indicated that they were more accepting of agricultural expansion and more willing to live next to farms. In terms of landscape appeal, the statewide sample population rated forestland more appealing than cropland, while the food system stakeholders preferred cropland to forestland. My results show an interesting relationship between agricultural landscape preferences and consumer behavior. I found that overall consumer behavior favors local food purchasing, but while consumers may want to purchase locally grown food, they may not want to live next to the working farms that produce that food. Additionally, my findings suggest that household income and gender are the two most important socio-economic predictor variables related to agricultural landscape perception and preference, and consumer behavior of locally grown foods.
The complexity of human attitudes and behaviors is a challenge for interest groups focused on increasing food production in the state. While my findings are just a snapshot in time, an improved understanding of how residents perceive agricultural expansion in the state, including forestland conversion, their willingness to live next to agricultural land, as well as their consumer behavior of locally grown foods could assist policymakers and land use planners in decision-making related to increasing agricultural production in the state.