Houser, M. K. 2018. Nitrogen fertilizer management in the context of the midwestern corn agro-ecological system: An environmental sociological analysis. Dissertation, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

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Farmers’ agricultural management behaviors are influenced by structural politicaleconomic factors and overtly connected to the biophysical environment. However, to this point environmental sociology, a field dedicated to studying environment-society interactions, has given little consideration to agriculture as a topical context. Through this dissertation, I bring an environmental sociological approach to the study of farmers’ behavior at the individual-level, focusing on their management of nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen (N) fertilizer is considered an agricultural input essential to supporting the food demands of the growing global population. Inefficient agricultural N fertilizer use in the United States contributes significantly to hypoxia, ground water pollution and climate change. Adoption and implementation of efficient N management practices could substantially mitigate this input’s environmental consequences and adapt agricultural production in the region to the challenges of climate change. Preliminary research has argued numerous social and ecological factors at multiple scales influence farmers’ N application management decisions, but the vast majority of current literature on the topic explores only individual-level demographic and psychological factors.

To enhance the current literature on farmer N management decision making, I utilize theoretical frameworks and concepts from sociology and environmental sociology to examine N fertilizer use among Midwestern corn farmers in five states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio. Across these chapters, I broadly employ a Marxist political-economic approach to examine how social structural context influences farmers’ individual-level decisions and behavior related to N use. The deployment of this approach offers the current farmer decision making literature an environmental sociological perspective, revealing how farmers’ management decisions are constrained by material (i.e. physical) macro-level political-economic factors and ideological (i.e. social-psychological) factors that emerge from this structural context. In connecting individual-behavior to macro-level social structure, this work offers a novel crossscale (i.e. marco«micro) application of political-economic frameworks, which to this point have primarily been applied at the macro-level. Through this approach, I strive to integrate an environmental sociological perspective into the agriculture and natural resource literature and bring the topical context of agriculture further into the gaze of the core environmental sociology literature.

To accomplish these goals, I use a three paper format. Across these empirical papers, I focus on farmers’ application rate of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, as it is widely considered the dimension of management most influential in determining the amount of N pollution levels from agriculture. In the first paper, I use Luke’s Third Dimension of Power concept to understand why farmers’ desired to maintain their current economically and environmentally inefficient N application rate. In the second paper, I examine how the political economy of agriculture influences farmers’ adaptive management practice adoption in response to a material impact of climate change in the Midwest, heavy rain events. In the third paper, I extend the politicaleconomy of technology literature and question the foundational assumptions of the agricultural literature by examining whether the adoption of nitrogen best management practices actually leads to less nitrogen pollution using application rate as a proxy measure.

Associated Treatment Areas:

  • Human Surveys

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