SDSU researcher looks at alternative farming

SDSU researcher looks at alternative farming Research underway at South Dakota State University will provide a better understanding of alternative farming as an element of rural development in the northern Great Plains.

Meredith Redlin, assistant professor of rural sociology, is surveying organic farms, game farms, agri-tourism and home-based industries that produce farm products. She's conducting interviews and compiling case studies on 10 alternative farming operations in each of four states: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.

"The knowledge we hope to gain is models of successful alternative ag operations, models for financial generational transfer to successfully maintain those operations, particularly in de-populating areas," Redlin said.

"Many of those alternative farming operations are what's left of the small to mid-size family farm. The real successful rural communities are surrounded by small to mid-size family farms. They're important to the vitality of rural communities. They maintain the stability of the rural community."

Redlin will gather information on managerial strategies and ask whether the alternative farm is a temporary endeavor or something that will be transferred down and kept in the family.

"It will be interesting to find out how many alternatives are out there," Redlin said. "That information hasn't been gathered in one place before. There are more alternatives all the time and they're often attached

to traditional farming operations. But more are going to total alternative," which is the focus of her study.

Redlin worked with farm organizations and producer groups to find people willing to be involved in the survey. She will conduct 40 interviews in all, 20 each year of the two-year project.

"Of course, we have to work around farm schedules, which doesn't make summer a very good time," she said.

After the two-year study is complete, a Web site will be created that will represent the case studies and provide information from national organizations, such as the Organic Farming Research Foundation and USDA.

"We'll provide accessible information on these issues," Redlin said.

Each farm group will get a technical report to distribute to their membership. The survey results will also be written in sociology journals and scholarly publications.

Redlin's work ties in with research she did for her dissertation in the 1990s. She updated the Buffalo Commons proposal measures that determined which counties qualified as Buffalo Commons and interviewed farmers and ranchers about how they perceived their relationship to the environment and agriculture.

The Buffalo Commons theory was developed in the 1980s by Rutgers professors who believed that vast tracts of the American West were unsustainable and eventually would return to more natural uses, such as buffalo grazing.

Redlin interviewed farmers in traditional white communities, Native American farmers, Hutterite colonies, organic and large-scale independent farmers.

"What emerged was a sense that people don't understand rural life, which makes it hard to be proactive in fulfilling rural communities' needs," Redlin said. "There's this perception of hardship.

"Less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population is engaged in farming. In that sense, there's a real cultural gap. Bridging the gap is where lots of alternative agriculture comes in."

Just as Redlin's past research ties into her work now, her current study leads to a next step: a look at entrepreneurialism in general in the Great Plains.

"That will take us away from just the farms and take us into the rural communities themselves, give us a look at the economy that's occurring," she said. "There's a linkage there and it really focuses on wanting vital rural communities. That not only benefits the entire state, but affects the quality of life for the people who live there."

For more information, call Meredith Redlin at (605) 688-4084.

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