When farmers are pulled in too many directions: comparing institutional drivers of food safety and environmental sustainability in California agriculture

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Aspirations to farm ‘better’ may fall short in practice due to constraints outside of farmers’ control. Yet farmers face proliferating pressures to adopt practices that align with various societal visions of better agriculture. What happens when the accumulation of external pressures overwhelms farm management capacity? Or, worse, when different visions of better agriculture pull farmers toward conflicting management paradigms? This article addresses these questions by comparing the institutional manifestations of two distinct societal obligations placed on California fruit and vegetable farmers: to practice sustainable agriculture and to ensure food safety. Drawing on the concept of constrained choice, I define and utilize a framework for comparison comprising five types of institutions that shape farm management decisions: rules and standards, market and supply chain forces, legal liability, social networks and norms, and scientific knowledge and available technologies. Several insights emerge. One, farmers are expected to meet multiple societal obligations concurrently; when facing a “right-versus-right” choice, farmers are likely to favor the more feasible course within structural constraints. Second, many institutions are designed to pursue narrow or siloed objectives; policy interventions that aim to shift farming practice should thus anticipate and address potential conflicts among institutions with diverging aspirations. Third, farms operating at different scales may face distinct institutional drivers in some cases, but not others, due to differential preferences for universal versus place-specific policies. These insights suggest that policy interventions should engage not just farmers, but also the intersecting institutions that drive or constrain their farm management choices. As my framework demonstrates, complementing the concept of constrained choice with insights from institutional theory can more precisely reveal the dimensions and mechanisms that bound farmer agency and shape farm management paradigms. Improved understanding of these structures, I suggest, may lead to novel opportunities to transform agriculture through institutional designs that empower, rather than constrain, farmer choice.

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Agriculture and Human Values