Agriculture and Climate Change: Evidence on Influencing Farmer Behaviours

This report sets out to answer a number of questions relating to farming behaviour and meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets.

3. Factors Influencing Farmers' Attitudes and Behaviours

3.1 Introduction

Farmer attitudes and behaviours are influenced by a range of economic, external, internal and social factors. The evidence in relation to each of these factors will be discussed in this chapter, although of course it is a combination of factors that ultimately affect behaviours (a complexity which will be considered in later chapters).

Much of the literature on influencing the behaviours of the general population will also be relevant to farmers, and it is worth beginning by considering the key points from this before focusing specifically on the farmer population.

3.2 Factors influencing behaviours (general population)

In going about their daily lives, people will generally do what they have always done, what impulse tells them to do, or what their neighbours or friends do, even when this might not be the most beneficial option for them. People do not conduct a complicated cost-benefit analysis when faced with a choice and, often, they are well aware that their own actions are not in their best interests (for example, the obesity 'crisis' will not be solved unless we as individuals give up sedentary lifestyles that, by and large, we know are damaging to our health (Prendergrast et al, 2008). In a paper examining behavioural change theory from an economic perspective, Prendergast et al focus on three key drivers of behaviours: external factors (financial and effort costs) internal factors (habits and cognitive processes) and social factors (learned behaviour, personal and societal values, in-group dynamics, and social commitment). Key points are summarised below:

External factors

  • Monetary and transaction/effort costs - the affordability of choices, compared with the financial resources people have at their disposal, and the conditions which enable people to take advantage of these choices (such as accessibility or availability of information); or which act as barriers (complexity, inconvenience).

Internal factors

  • Habit - everyday decision-making does not involve objectively weighing up all the available information. Individuals lack the patience and time to repeatedly consider their decisions: habits reduce the effort required to function effectively. Life-transition stages are significant in this context, because of the opportunities they provide for breaking established routines and forming new ones
  • Personal capacity - while consumer choice has been generally perceived as a factor which increases people's sense of control and, subsequently, their motivation, there is a danger that information overload and an abundance of options may demand too much effort on the part of the individual
  • Framing and emotions - people tend to make choices depending on how information is 'bracketed.' Policy makers can use this information to frame problems in a way which makes the desirable choice more likely to be chosen. People's emotional responses are also susceptible to the way in which information is presented
  • Loss aversion - potential losses tend to be weighted more heavily than potential gains. People are also likely to place additional value on what they currently possess, particularly when asked to exchange it
  • Immediate gratification and pay offs - people tend to prefer present gains over what may be gained in the future. This makes it more difficult to justify investment or actions that involve future pay offs. People will also put off unpleasant tasks and avoid active decisions.

Social factors

  • Learned behaviour - people look to those around them for guidance on how to behave when faced with choice and uncertainty. Actions taken by others can boost the perception that a request is legitimate and justified
  • Personal and societal influence - what people value is partly prescribed by their wider culture. This shapes the values which they consciously pursue, as well as their subconscious behaviours
  • In-group dynamics - people's behaviour as consumers is dictated by the social connotations they associate with certain products and activities
  • Social commitment - this requires people to stand by agreements and fulfil their obligations. Once a belief or commitment has been expressed publicly, the individual exhibits a strong tendency to act in a way that is consistent with the commitment.

A Defra discussion paper (Collier et al, 2010) includes a further useful insight from behavioural economics: that people value fairness and attain some fulfilment from the levels of satisfaction and behaviours of others. For example, they may be willing to forego a benefit in order to punish someone they feel is acting unfairly. The key implication is that individuals may not display the 'rational' behaviour that standard economic preference theory would suggest.

The above summary is not intended to be comprehensive (for a full review of behaviour change models and theories of change, see Jackson, 2005; Darnton, 2008; Chatterton, 2011). However, the intention is to highlight the range of factors influencing the behaviours of farmers as individuals, before moving on to the specific circumstances of the agricultural context.

3.3 Factors influencing farmer behaviours

The factors considered above will all affect the business decisions of farmers, including what to produce and how to produce it (farm management practices). However, there are additional considerations which relate specifically to farmers and to climate change. Farmers are different from other population groups in that climate is the primary determinant of agricultural productivity and, therefore, changes in the climate influence many components of agricultural systems, including crops and livestock production, input supplies, soil quality and water supply. Farming is also, historically, subsidised, to supplement volatile farm income, manage the supply of agricultural commodities, and influence the cost and supply of such commodities. In addition, farmers' decision making processes are more complex than those in other sectors, because agricultural activities depend on, and have a large impact on, natural resources. For example, when farmers are aware of how their own practices contribute to natural resource management, and to their role in the local community, the effect of this awareness on the financial incentives and disincentives will be more complex than in cases where profit maximisation is the principal motor of decision making (Sasaki, 2012).

Farmer attitudes and behaviours are influenced by economic, external, internal and social factors. Each of these is considered in the section below. It should be noted that, in relation to farmers, a distinction is made between economic and external factors. Although there is a certain amount of crossover between the two, a number of specific economic factors influence farmer behaviours, and the main emphasis of the following section is on these factors.

Economic factors

Market volatility

Above all, agricultural systems are dynamic, since producers and consumers are continuously responding to changes in crop and livestock yields, food prices, input prices, resource availability and advances in technology. At present, direct payments support the income of farm households and provide farmers with some flexibility to adjust land use to prevailing market decisions. Any future reduction in levels of subsidy has implications for a range of business decisions made by farmers, including their ability to respond to the market.

Some parts of the industry are more dependent on support than others. An assessment of Farm Business Income without any subsidy (carried out as part of the Brian Pack Inquiry into the Future of Support for Agriculture in Scotland, 2010) indicated that only the average dairy and general cropping farms in the sample would be viable if support were to be removed. No other farm types would be viable although, in the case of cereals, profitability would vary significantly from year to year reflecting fluctuations in input and output prices (Scottish Government, 2010).

Economic motivation

Research carried out in 2009 examined the drivers and decision making of land managers in Scotland. Given the unpredictability of agricultural systems, it is perhaps not surprising that the research found that, only once economic conditions had been satisfied, could land managers focus on other priorities. However, 'economic motivation' ranged from trying to make as much profit as possible, to trying to break even, and it was not always easy to distinguish the two (Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, 2009). The researchers suggested that even those study participants who appeared to be managing land at break-even, in order to maintain other lifestyle factors, might be doing so in part to cash in the asset (forestry or land) without losing value through inheritance tax. Therefore, although breaking even may look like a lifestyle choice, it may actually be about long-term economic gain.

Whether or not to participate in environmental schemes

Research has explored the factors which motivate farmers to participate in agri-environment schemes: economic considerations are acknowledged to be the primary driving force. In research by Wilson and Hart (2000), participants in 10 EU countries were interviewed. The research found that 'financial reasons,' 'a secure source of income' and the fact that schemes fitted well with existing farm management plans were all important to the majority of farmers. The authors noted that this mirrored findings from national and international studies highlighting the financial imperative behind scheme participation.

Davies and Hodge (2006) also summarised earlier research in which adoption decisions hinged on the 'goodness of fit' between a farmer's own management plan (based on available resources and personal preferences) and the package of incentives and restrictions inherent in a particular scheme design. However, as noted by Slee et al (2006), there is a core of farmers (labelled variously 'productivist,' 'conservative' and 'traditional,' who are uninterested by optional-entry environmental schemes, even where material gain may be made from such engagement. Slee et al note that the notion of being recognised as a 'good farmer' is almost completely disconnected from good environmental management. Where environmental gain can generate a 'win-win' situation, with the farmer benefiting through more efficient use of inputs and consequent effects on profit, it is easier to 'sell' environmental enhancement. However, someone needs to identify and develop the 'win-win' - 'it may not be apparent at first glance.'

Issues relating to non-profitable farming systems

A number of farming sectors across the EU are under threat, and extensively farmed land is being abandoned as systems fail to maintain a sustainable level of income. Non-economic farming systems tend to be extensive, managing larger proportions of land under rough and common grazing. However, they also tend to be valuable from an environmental perspective. The loss of these farms will have an impact on the management of potentially valuable public goods but, if they are to be maintained, it is important that farmers are economically incentivised to continue farming production.

Subsidies for the production of public goods are available under rural development schemes. However, these schemes tend to ignore the costs of the labour element required, and therefore, potentially, are operated at a financial cost to the farmer. Research in 2011 (Barnes et al, 2011) explored the issue of so called 'non-economic' farming systems, and tested several payment formulas to increase farm incomes to sustainable levels. The authors acknowledged the importance of testing the formulas further, but pointed out the importance of doing so as soon as possible. If the SFP were to be removed or reduced, as may be likely in the mid- to longer-term, a much larger number of farming systems would become non-economic. It is clearly important that mechanisms are in place to support the most valuable public goods being produced.

Economic factors: messages from the opinion former interviews

Virtually all the opinion formers, across the various sectors, considered cost and/or profitability to be the most important single factor that influences farmers' adoption (or non-adoption) of climate change mitigation measures. Although measures do not necessarily have to be profitable, it is important to farmers that they do not cost anything, and that the incentives on offer are commensurate with the scale of the challenge.

Having capital to invest is particularly important in relation to renewables projects, which require high levels of capital outlay. Farmers may be keen to implement these measures, but ultimately find 'some of the ideals are just too expensive to fund'.

Market factors, particularly the cost of fuel and fertiliser, are key drivers in the adoption of measures. Interviewees considered it inevitable that the increasing cost of fuel will lead to greater interest in efficiency savings. They also felt that the desire to increase efficiency will be likely to lead to greater use of energy monitoring, carbon footprinting and, eventually, water auditing.

External Factors

In the context of farmer behaviours, 'external factors' refers to physical, environmental, farm business structure, financial and time factors on farm management; all of which can have an impact on farmer behaviours.

Capacity to change

External factors create the context within which farmer behaviour can or cannot be influenced. Regardless of how willing the farmer is to alter their management practices, they must also have the capacity to change. Adopting some environmental behaviours is simply not possible within certain farm environments; for example, the practice may require a particular farm type, or a specific geographic location (Burton et al, 2006). This effect is likely to be particularly pronounced in Scotland, because much of the country is mountainous and 60% of the land has poor soil (Willock et al, 1999b).

Farm size and type

Many authors consider farm size to be one of the most important determinants of the adoption of environmental measures, with larger farms being more likely to participate in schemes (for example Manley and Smith, 2007; Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, 2009). This makes sense intuitively: staff on small farms may have less time and opportunity to research and implement environmental measures, for example; and there may be fewer investment opportunities on small farms. Discussing earlier research, Defrancesco et al (2007) concluded that research results are not consistent, and that farming type may have more influence. Research by Wilson and Hart (2000) indicated the extensive grassland farms are more likely to participate in schemes than intensive livestock and arable farms.

Farmer demographics

A useful summary on farmer demographics is provided by Ahnstrom et al (2008). Several studies claim that older farmers are less willing to change farm management practices, and that younger farmers, and those who have received more education, tend to be more willing to adopt new technologies and join conservation schemes. Farmers living on old family farms are likely to develop greater sympathy with the land and appear to be more interested in conservation-oriented farming, compared to relative newcomers to farming. Ownership of a farm creates emotional links and willingness to honour and maintain the status of the land.

External factors: messages from opinion former interviews

Diversity of farm and land type

Interviewees noted that there is a diverse range of farms in Scotland, and climate change mitigation measures can be practical for some businesses, yet impractical for others. Many agricultural practices only work on specific land types and geographies and, therefore, uniform regulations are not equally suitable in different regions. For example, soils in Dumfries and Galloway may be able to take fertiliser, while soils in Aberdeen cannot. As different farm types do not allow the same efficiency savings, there is a need for 'nuanced, adaptive policy' to recognise this. Agricultural lobby groups, in particular, raised this as an issue.


It was also noted that adoption of mitigation measures is often only possible for those who own their land. Interviewees felt that landlords can be reluctant to fund environmental initiatives for tenant farmers. If tenants self-fund, there is no guarantee that they will get the cash returned if/when they leave. This may make banks more cautious when considering whether to loan money to tenant farmers.

Availability of time

The issue of time was raised by many of the interviewees. They pointed out that farmers often work 14 hour days and have many other concerns to deal with, often of greater immediacy; for example, dealing with the wet harvest of 2011. Farmers may well be aware of mitigation options and could even wish to take advantage of them, but may not have the spare time to deal with planning and implementation.

One interviewee noted that running an anaerobic digester 'takes maybe 30 minutes a day and you have to be a lot more careful about what you put through your slurry system. When you list all the extra bits and pieces you have to do, people think 'oh maybe I'm not going to bother.''

Internal Factors

Internal factors, such as attitudes, values and beliefs, also have an important impact on farmer behaviours. Different groups of farmers may be subject to very similar external factors, yet their behaviours vary substantially, as a result of pre-existing beliefs and value systems.

The relationship between attitudes and behaviours is a complex and reciprocal one. Farmer attitudes may be altered without any corresponding behaviour change, just as behaviours can be changed without necessarily affecting attitudes[11]. However, one of the most popular models for testing the link between attitudes to behaviours, the Theory of Reason Action (Ajzen and Fischbein, 1980), later extended to the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991) has been successfully applied within an agricultural context (Artikov et al, 2006; Bergovoet et al, 2004; Elliot et al, 2011). Nevertheless, it has been suggested (Burton et al, 2006) that attitudes have a greater effect on behaviour in particular circumstances; for example, when the attitudes in question are consistent with underlying beliefs, based on high amounts of issue-relevant information and personal experience, and were formed as the result of considerable issue-relevant thinking.

The literature on farmer attitudes towards climate change is small, and what exists does not acknowledge the diversity of opinion across the farming community. Dairy farming is an industry which could potentially mitigate a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Barnes and Toma (2012) developed a typology of Scottish dairy farmers from a large survey on attitudes, values and behaviours towards climate change related issues in Scotland. The sample was constructed using the June Agricultural Census database in 2009. Approximately half of the 550 farmers surveyed believed that average annual temperatures will increase in the future, and 32% agreed that climate change will only impact negatively in the long term. Despite this, only 16% were receptive to adopting practices which would reduce emissions (Barnes and Toma, 2012). This 'value/action gap' is not unique to agricultural environments and is well-established in the broader behaviour change literature (Darnton, 2008).

In many situations, people may also need to acquire new skills and self-perceptions that allow newly acquired attitudes and intentions to be translated into actions. However, even when new skills have been learned, there is no guarantee that actions will follow (Burton et al, 2006).

The evidence shows that habit is an important influence on how people act. Once people develop routines and become accustomed to particular actions it can be difficult to influence them to do otherwise. This has already been noted in relation to the general population, but is particularly pertinent when considering farmers, who may have a strong personal attachment to the approaches which they have been taught and to the familiar ways in which they have always managed the farm. Even if a new approach has a clear economic benefit, this may not be sufficient to overcome the value that the farmer ascribes to the familiarity of the status quo (Macgregor and Warren, 2006).

However, the literature also shows that for farmers, as for the general population, there are specific 'moments of change' when it is easier to make alterations to farm management practices. These 'moments of change' arise periodically when fundamental farm management changes are required, such as when farmers plan to exit, diversify, extend or intensify production. Such windows of opportunity are particularly important because on these occasions, change is inevitable and all of the options available will have costs (either financially or in terms of farm management). Consequently, farmers are likely to be more receptive to suggestions as to how change may be accomplished most efficiently. It is important to capitalise upon such moments because after the decision has been made, farmers are likely to be locked into the chosen practices for some time (whether financially, practically, psychologically or ideologically) (Burton et al, 2006).

Internal factors: messages from opinion former interviews

Caution/forward planning

Interviewees suggested that, in general, farmers tend to be cautious by nature, which may make them resistant to change. Also, they work to long timescales and, once they commit to decisions, they are often tied into specific actions for years. No matter how beneficial a new practice may appear to be, therefore, a certain amount of delay is inevitable before it is adopted widely.

Times of transition

Interviewees noted that there is potential for fresh thinking about future plans when a son or daughter joins the family business. Also, due to the extra 'pair of hands,' there is often more time available for strategic thinking. New farmers often seek advice, and younger farmers may be more receptive to climate change messages. The potential for facilitating change at times of transition was highlighted across the opinion former sectoral categories.

It was suggested that one way to influence farmers during succession is through the Whole Farm Review Scheme. This is designed to help farmers and crofters to develop environmentally and financially sustainable businesses. The review is carried out with the help of an accredited farm business adviser, who reviews the agricultural business's recent performance, identifies the main strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and develops an action plan to improve the business:

Social Factors

Social networks

Individual attitudes and behaviours do not take place in a vacuum, but are influenced by the social context in which they occur. Farmers' decisions are affected by the views and behaviours of their peers and neighbours as well as other family members and society at large. To gain a richer understanding of behaviour, this wider context must be considered to consider how strong such influences are, as well as whether they can be affected by policy makers. Willock et al (1999a, 1999b) integrated socio-economic, psychological and farming variables within a comprehensive framework in a study of over 200 Scottish farmers, using a number of scales to measure attitudes, farming objectives and farming implementation. The results of the study emphasised the importance of social and psychological factors in the decision making processes of farmers.

Farmers are influenced by the behaviour of their peer group. The literature shows that proficiently carrying out skilled farming improves both how farmers perceive themselves and how other farmers view them (Burton, 2004). It is suggested, by Ahnstrom et al (2008), that for environmental schemes to be successful, they must enable farmers to enact and display skilled behaviour.

Capitalising upon existing social networks can be an effective way of influencing farmer behaviours. For example, if respected authorities within farmer communities endorse environmental measures, this will lend them more credibility than the same information disseminated via government sources. Similarly, if environmental measures are judged negatively by peers this will probably have a detrimental impact on levels of uptake (Burton et al, 2006; Defra, 2008).

Farmers who are innovators or early adopters of technology also have the potential to influence their more cautious peers, so it would be useful to know more about the factors influencing adoption behaviour. Research by Diederen et al (2003) analysed the choice of a farmer to be an innovator, an early (or late) adopter and a non-adopter. The research found that structural characteristics explain much of the difference between types of farmer, and factors such as age, and farm size and type may dictate whether and when adoption is a viable proposition at all. However, the research also found that innovators and early adopters differ from each other in terms of behavioural characteristics - with innovators making more use of external sources of innovation and being more involved in the actual development of innovations.


The farming community contains a diverse range of decision makers who respond to drivers (including policy levers and economic influences) in different ways. These various groups each have their own value systems and differing approaches to determining best agricultural practice. To maximise effectiveness, policy-makers must consider these different 'agri-cultures,' i.e. how the groups' distinct views, beliefs and behaviours inform their responses to particular policy measures (Dwyer et al, 2007; Burton et al, 2008). For example, most farmers may consider themselves primarily as 'food producers' rather than environmental managers. This inevitably affects their attitudes to environmental measures, as well as their decision-making processes (Macgregor and Warren, 2006). They may view environmental actions as 'not their job.' The literature also shows that farmers might be aware of environmental problems, but do not see their farming operation as part of the problem; or might see the environmental problem and see their operation as part of the problem, but the economic situation on the farm does not permit conservation actions to be taken (Ahnstrom et al, 2009).

Who is making the decisions?

Despite the evidence indicating the importance of social factors, farmers participating in a number of previous attitudinal studies have stated that they do not take these social factors into consideration when making farm-management decisions. This may seem counterintuitive; however, rather than taking this self-reported independence at face-value, some analysts suggest that farmers' responses to survey questions are more indicative of how they would like to be perceived. When they are asked if family members and peers influence their decision making, saying 'no' is a matter of pride, and therefore their responses do not necessarily reflect realities on the farm (Burton et al, 2006; Manley and Smith; 2007).

Research into farm decision making has traditionally focused on individual farmers. However, over recent decades, increasing farm size and diversification of activities on UK farms have led to increased involvement of spouses and children in decision-making processes. Inevitably, family members of different ages/genders/ educational background will be influenced by different factors and make different decisions, so it is important to consider this aspect of the decision making process when considering how farmers' behaviours may be influenced (Burton et al, 2006; Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, 2009).

The existing literature relating to the influence of other family members is summarised by Burton et al (2006). The evidence suggests that, in larger complex farm businesses in particular, decision making is spread around family (and even non-family) members. Burton et al report that, although few studies have studied family decision making, research in Canada amongst 36 farm families investigated the goals of respective family members. The authors found that differences in opinion usually arose when young people wished to try new methods, while senior farmers wanted to stick to old ways (Taylor et al, 1998). There is evidence that roles are apportioned to family members within the farm, and some work has looked at decision making within families. However, Burton et al point out that issues such as communication within the family and the operation of power structures within family decision making processes remain almost entirely unexplored.

In a study of Scottish dairy farmers, Barnes et al (2012) asked farmers to identify the main influences on their decision-making. The majority of farmers consulted the family on matters of day to day decisions and strategy. However, in terms of environmental issues and dairy policy in general, the media are the most significant source of information. These media consist of general press articles as well as the farming press (Farmer's Weekly, for example).

The existence of multiple decision makers has important implications for policy makers because the characteristics of the decision-maker can influence their uptake of measures. If, for example, messages are targeted towards older farmers with a high-school education, but decisions are being made by their university educated sons and daughters, the measures are unlikely to be effective. Better understanding about who is making particular decisions would allow policy measures and messages to be tailored more appropriately.

Social factors: messages from opinion former interviews

Influence of peer groups

Interviewees noted that farmers are influenced by the activities of their peer group. If they see neighbours carrying out mitigation activities, they will probably be more inclined to try new practices themselves, particularly if they can see that these actions are having positive consequences. Competition between farmers also plays a role here, as people do not want to be 'shown up' by their peers.

Similarly, messages about mitigation measures can be more effective if they come from neighbours, peers, and other members of the farming community, rather than from the government or NDPBs.

3.4 Some implications for policy development and delivery

One message that comes across very strongly, both from the literature and from the interviews with opinion formers, is that farmers are influenced by their social networks. For this reason, it is particularly important to encourage, endorse and promote the behaviour of innovators and early adopters.

Farmers' capacity to change is a key consideration in influencing behaviours. Factors such as size of farm and land type dictate whether particular measures are practical. Designing payments and incentives to target farmers in particular circumstances may make it easier for them to adapt their business decision making. In addition, it is clear that there are specific 'times of transition' when farmers are likely to be more receptive to new ideas, or to have the time to think more strategically about their businesses.

Key points from the literature

Key drivers of behaviours in the general population are: external factors (financial costs and effort); internal factors (habit, personal capacity etc); and social factors (personal and societal values, social commitment etc). Naturally all of these apply to the decision making processes and behaviours of farmers.

Many additional considerations are specific to farmers and to climate change, since changes in the climate influence many components of agricultural systems.

  • Economic factors influencing farmer behaviours relate to: market volatility (the dynamic nature of agricultural systems; present and future levels of subsidy, market prices and operating costs); the nature of economic motivation; quality assurance issues; whether or not to participate in environmental schemes; issues re non-profitable farming systems
  • External factors create the context in which farmer behaviours can, or cannot, be influenced. These include: capacity to change (some environmental behaviours are just not possible within certain farm environments); size and type of farm; farmer demographics
  • Internal factors, such as attitudes, values and beliefs, are influential, although with farmers, as with the general population, there are wider issues about the links between attitudes and behaviours and the implications about changing one without the other. Farmers tend to be cautious by nature, and they work to long timescales so, once they commit to decisions, they are often tied into specific actions for years. However, there are specific 'moments of change' when it is easier to make alterations to farm management practices
  • Social factors include ways in which farmers are influenced by the views and behaviours of family members, peers and neighbours. The farming community contains a diverse range of decision makers, who respond to policy levers and economic influences in different ways. It is also important to consider who is responsible for making decisions on the farm. If the farmer is not acting alone, how might the characteristics of others affect farm business decisions?

Opinion formers also wished to stress that:

  • Measures do not necessarily have to be profitable to be adopted by farmers, but it is important that they cost little or nothing to implement, and that the incentives on offer are commensurate with the scale of the challenge
  • Farmers work long days and deal with many issues. They may be aware of mitigation options, and interested in taking advantage of them, but lack the time to deal with planning and implementation.

Some implications for policy development and delivery

  • Since farmers are influenced by their social networks, desired behaviours in the innovator/early adopter group need to be encouraged, endorsed and promoted
  • Farmers' capacity to change is a key consideration in influencing behaviours. Designing payments and incentives to target farmers in particular circumstances may make it easier for them to adapt their business decision making.


Email: Angela Morgan

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