Finding beauty in the agricultural landscape: How the social and demographic uniqueness of a population relates to preferences for farmland practices

Peter Howley, Cathal O. Donoghue and Stephen Hynes. "Exploring public preferences for traditional farming landscapes." Landscape and Urban Planning, no. 104 (2012): 66-74.

Agricultural land provides the public with more goods than just the food and fiber for sale in markets. Farmland also provides public environmental and social goods – benefiting water and soil quality for example, or providing aesthetic beauty or strengthened identities for those who find cultural significance in farms. Nonetheless, expanding populations and increased economic wealth contribute to urbanization and development of agricultural land. Furthermore, economic pressure to feed the most people per farm has caused a shift from traditional rural extensive farming to industrial intensive agriculture—which is less likely to provide the same environmental and social benefits to the public.

To make better policy, decision makers must understand the public's values and preferences.  Howley, Donoghue, and Hynes, a team of scientist from the National University of Ireland and the Rural Economy Development Programme, joined together to determine whether there are distinct personal characteristics that can impact preferences for agricultural landscapes. They published their findings in a 2012 article in Landscape and Urban Planning.

Through a national survey, Howley's team measured whether population demographics and environmental value orientations impact how people rank the beauty of traditional or industrial agricultural landscapes. Demographics include age, place of residence, familiarity with the landscape, and gender. Environmental value orientations include an individual's beliefs about the environment and how that person relates to nature. Environmental values are relatively permanent and are life goals or principles that guide people's behavior and decision making. Some examples of environmental value orientations are those with nature-centered or human-centered value systems.

Interviewees were asked to rate the beauty of agricultural landscapes using different photos of farms. Some of the farms in the photos used traditional extensive farming and some used industrial intensive farming practices. Traditional farming systems mix cultivating crops with raising livestock on semi-natural grasslands. Industrial farming practices focus on simplified crop rotations and are less likely to include these semi-natural grasslands. The team also asked the interviewees to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with 12 statements about the environment to capture the interviewees' environmental value orientations. 

Eighty three percent of respondents found the quality of the surrounding landscape a very important or important factor in choosing where to live. Almost 85% of those surveyed mentioned that they were very concerned or fairly concerned about the environment. Howley's team suggested that respondents' perceptions of their surrounding landscapes are important to the public and that the public is generally concerned with environmental issues.

The respondents found the rural extensive agricultural landscapes more aesthetically pleasing than the intensive industrial agricultural landscapes, although the individuals appeared to find all the farming landscapes beautiful.

Several demographic variables were found to have an effect on individuals' landscape preferences. Older people, females, and those who already live rurally were more likely to prefer traditional farm landscapes.

Individuals labeled as "multi-functionalists" – people who value the multi-functionality of an agricultural landscape and how it can provide a range of marketable and non-marketed goods – were much more likely to rate traditional farm landscapes as extremely beautiful. The "environmental apathetic" – people who have a negative attitude towards farmland – were less likely to rate the traditional landscapes as extremely beautiful.

As developmental pressures force farmland into urbanization and economic pressures drive farmland to become more productive, decision makers can encourage policies that capture the environmental and social goods from agricultural land that are valued by the general public. One way to do this is to tailor policies by local population demographics and preferences for agricultural landscapes.

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