Tourism literature is saturated with reports on the ways in which tourism affects the natural environment; however, little research has been conducted regarding tourism’s impact on human relationships with the environment. In an initial step toward bridging that gap, I explored the ways in which Texas agritourism operators value their land and construct their relationships with the natural environment. In addition to a literature review, I used a survey, website content analysis, and semi-structured interviews. With my research data, I tested Urry’s (1992) four ideal types of societal relationships with the environment: stewardship, exploitation, scientization, and visual consumption. My participants possess diverse relationships with nature and most individuals demonstrate aspects from more than one of Urry’s categories. In addition, I encountered strong relationships with nature that were not compatible with Urry’s four categories; therefore, I propose the addition of two ideal types: spiritualization and sociality.
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The Enlightenment, urbanization, and globalization combined to create an ideal situation for agricultural tourism to emerge. Little academic research has examined the ways in which tourism affects human relationships with the natural environment. This research explores the environmental values of Texas farmers and ranchers who engage in agritourism.
Agriculture in Texas
Agriculture has played a major role in the history of Texas, and it continues to impact the culture and economy of the state today. Nearly 80% of all the land in Texas is currently under some form of agricultural production and, as the second largest agricultural state within the United States, Texas leads the country in the production of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, cotton, hay, wool, and mohair (Texas Dept. of Agriculture, 2011). Agriculture and land ownership are so important to Texas culture that Gunter and Oelschlaeger (1997) referred to Texans’ relationship with their land as a “love affair.” Texans also respect and value agricultural heritages. Over 4,000 farms and ranches throughout the state have been honored through the Family Land Heritage program, which recognizes agricultural operations that have been in continuous operation by the same family for at least 100 years (Texas Dept. of Agriculture, 2010a).
The process of globalization has impacted the current economic situation for farmers and ranchers in Texas and throughout the world. Previously competitive markets for fruit, vegetables, animal products, and cash crops have been inundated by worldwide supplies, resulting in significantly decreased prices. (For a brief history of agricultural globalization, see Veeck, Che, & Veeck, 2006.) A variety of effects have accompanied the globalization of agriculture; for example, Aide and Grau (2004) reported that reduced prices for crops like corn and coffee caused many small-scale farmers on marginally productive Latin American land to abandon their farms and migrate into urban areas. Facing similar struggles, small-scale farmers and ranchers in the United States who desire to keep their operations in business must recuperate their lost income and often resort to nontraditional agricultural methods. In many cases, at least one member of the household secures outside employment. However, entrepreneurial farmers and ranchers have also developed creative on-site income generating opportunities. For example, some have chosen to grow nontraditional crops (e.g. lavender), cater to niche markets (e.g. organic), sell finished and value-added products (e.g. meals, knitted wool scarves), or to host visitors (e.g. bed and breakfast, farm tours). Several of these methods, including hosting visitors, had not previously been options for agricultural operations because markets for the products or services did not exist.
Tourism in Texas
Tourism is a growing industry in the state of Texas. While the national recession caused state (and national) travel earnings to shrink during 2009, the industry began recuperating from the decreases the very next year (Dean Runyan Associates, 2011). In 2010, total direct spending for travel in Texas, which included air transportation, travel agent fees, and on-site destination spending, totaled $57.5 billion. The top attractions in the state include The Alamo, Galveston Island, the Hill Country, the State Capitol, and San Marcos Outlet Malls (Eslinger, 2011). The travel industry employs over 525,000 Texans; therefore, the livelihood of over half a million people is directly impacted by the quality of the Texas tourism industry (Office of the Governor, 2011b).
In many cases tourism programs initially use existing transportation and communication infrastructure, which produces a relatively convenient method for economic development. Texas has commenced financial assistance for rural communities to promote economic development through tourism. One program, previously called Texas Yes! Hometown STARS (Supporting Tourism And Rural Success), offered a reimbursement program for dollars spent marketing rural community events. (Texas Yes! was renamed the GO TEXAN Rural Community Program in 2008, which incorporated it into the greater statewide GO TEXAN marketing scheme.) Hanagriff, Beverly, and Lau (2009) assessed the effectiveness of the program based on rural events that occurred during 2006 and 2007. They concluded that the program was overwhelmingly successful; each dollar spent and invested by Texas Yes! resulted in a direct visitor spending return of investment of $7.50. The communities in the study hosted heritage-themed or agriculturally-related events most frequently; therefore, state incentives have promoted the celebration of rural heritage and agriculture.
The industries of agriculture and tourism link together when farmers and ranchers invite visitors to their property. This agricultural tourism, or agritourism, may include a wide variety of activities, such as nature tours, overnight stays, horseback riding, pick-your-own produce, educational classes, and visiting farm stores. In some cases, farms and ranches have diversified their income via tourism; however, many newer farms and ranches have emerged with the primary intention of engaging in agritourism.
Agritourism has been referred to as farm tourism, agrotourism, and rural tourism. A recent article in a popular magazine even referred to it as a “haycation” (Fennelly, 2011). Phillip, Hunter, and Blackstock (2010) have argued that agritourism is a subcategory within rural tourism and, therefore, should not be represented as the entire category of rural tourism (see also Clarke, 1999; Nilsson, 2002). This categorization is further complicated, though, due to the existence of urban and suburban farms. While agriculturalists perceive agritourism primarily as a method of agricultural economic diversification, tourism researchers categorize agritourism as a sector of the travel industry. The agricultural operators, however, generally perceive themselves as farmers and ranchers, rather than tourism operators (Busby & Rendle, 2000; Sharpley & Vaas, 2005).
Academic literature offers numerous different definitions for agritourism (for overviews, see Phillip, Hunter, & Blackstock, 2010; Busby & Rendle, 2000). In most definitions the activity must occur on a “working” farm or ranch where agricultural activities are actually practiced on a full- or part-time basis. This qualification is problematic, however, because it excludes off-site farmers’ markets from being categorized as agritourism (Phillip et al., 2010). For the purpose of this study, agritourism is broadly defined as a visit to an agricultural setting for recreation, educational purposes, or leisure. Therefore, it encompasses working and nonworking farms and ranches as well as all degrees of visitor interaction with the practice of agriculture, whether that contact is staged or authentic.
While “agritourism” is a common term in academic literature about agricultural tourism, its usage in popular culture and by agricultural operations is sporadic. Some places and regions, Oklahoma for example, have employed the word agritourism in statewide promotion and marketing of farm-related tourism (see http://oklahomaagritourism.com/). Many agritourism operators, however, simply use the name of the individual activity that they offer (e.g. fishing, pick-your-own produce, corn maze) to describe their tourism product or service, rather than using the umbrella term of agritourism.
Europeans have engaged in agritourism for over 100 years, but U.S. Americans have more recently developed an interest. Urban dwellers have always visited relatives in rural areas, but U.S. farms began catering to nonfamily visitors in the 1960s and 1970s by offering petting zoos and horseback riding. In the 1980s and 1990s farm-related vacations and tours also emerged in the United States (Holland & Wolfe, n.d.). The exigencies of the agricultural lifestyle and the increased need for diversification have caused agritourism to become more prevalent in recent years. Agritourism is not simply a Western phenomenon, but rather it occurs in multifarious forms worldwide (see Choo & Jamal, 2009; Harvey & Kelsay, 2010). The international non-governmental organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is one such example. WWOOF places volunteers (i.e. agritourists) at participating organic farms and ranches around the globe. In exchange for volunteer labor, the farm and ranch hosts “offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles” (WWOOF, 2011).
Tourism is often encouraged as a method of rural development, but it is coupled with qualms that the development will negatively impact local culture, heritage, and tradition. Heritage and cultural tourism, for example, have been accused of standardizing and sanitizing local cultures (Bunten, 2008). Differences in tourist and local socioeconomic statuses may breed additional problems. Travel expenses are often paid with discretionary income; therefore, most tourists are from middle- and upper-class economic statuses. Local hosts, especially in rural and developing areas, may have significantly lower average incomes compared to their tourists. Seeing the (sometimes relative) affluence of tourists can create a desire to emulate the tourist lifestyle, thereby abandoning local values and traditions (Archer, Cooper, & Ruhanen, 1995; Gӧssling, 2002). Agritourism creates a space for economic development while simultaneously continuing and reinforcing agricultural heritages and educating others about the agricultural lifestyle (McGehee, 2007; see also Bowen, Cox, & Fox, 1991; Hjalager, 1996).
Agritourism in Texas
“Nature tourism” is a commonly used term in Texas when referring to tourism that occurs on farms and ranches; however, nature tourism does not fully encompass all of the tourist activities offered by agricultural operations, for example, heritage-related tours and farm stores. While rarely labeled “agritourism,” Texas farmers and ranchers actively invite visitors to participate in on-site activities, educational opportunities, and to purchase products. Texas AgriLife Extension Service compiled a list of 438 agritourism operations throughout the state; however, I located many additional operations through online searches. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (2009) most recent census of agriculture, which occurred in 2007, over 5,000 farms in Texas reported income from agritourism and recreational services. However, this census statistic does not include farms and ranches where visitors are not a direct source of income; therefore, the exact number of agritourism operations in the state of Texas is unknown.
Humans and the Natural Environment
Human perceptions of nature are socially constructed and historically and geographically specific; therefore, there is not one “nature,” but rather multiple natures exist (MacNaughten & Urry, 1995). Throughout the course of human history, nature has been viewed as terrifying, life-giving, and nearly everything in between those two extremes. Perceptions of nature facilitate the relationship between humans and nature, and these corresponding relationships have also varied widely. In fact, in some cultures a relationship with nature was impossible because humans were perceived as being part of nature. Our relationship with nature defines the role(s) for nature in our society. If our perceptions influence our actions, then are the two interconnected and mutually constitutive?
Urry (1992) asserted that society’s relationships with nature can be categorized into four ideal types: 1) stewardship: carefully tending for nature in such a way as to leave it as an inheritance for others, 2) exploitation: perceiving nature as a resource, separate from society, to be used by humans to its fullest potential, 3) scientization: behaving as if nature is an object of study that can be controlled and manipulated, and 4) visual consumption: perceiving nature as an aesthetic landscape to be viewed, but not used.
In addition to these four ideal types, nature has also been perceived as spiritual and/or a creation of divine origin. In this way, nature has been regarded as powerful, worthy of respect, and often worthy of fear. However, strong differences in perception occur between different belief systems. Animists perceive the natural world as fully interconnected with the spiritual world; humans are simply one part of the natural world along with animals, plants, rocks, and other physical entities (Nanda & Warms, 2011). In contrast, monotheistic belief systems are anthropocentric and place humans in the center, assuming that the divine crafted the earth for human use (Verhagen, 2008).
Leaving the Land
During the Enlightenment period and the entrance of modernity, religion lost its authoritative influence and nature lost much of its perceived power as humans developed scientific, rather than supernatural, explanations for the natural environment. (In spite of this transition, there continue to be broad cross-cultural variations in the perceived divisions between the natural and the supernatural.) Urry’s notion of scientization was at work as religious ideologies were replaced with scientific worldviews. The idea of progress emerged, along with the assumption that humans have the right and the ability to control nature; in fact, the subjugation and domination of nature was deemed as essential for progress (Allan, 2005; MacNaughten & Urry, 1995). In this way, Urry’s notion of a relationship of exploitation was also evident.
During this time period, industrialized capitalism gained dominance as the primary economic system in developed countries. The transition from feudalism to capitalism necessitated a corresponding evolution in the perception of nature. In systems of feudalism and agriculturalism, humans worked directly with the land as a means of production; whereas in capitalism, much human production is physically removed from the land. Nature is commodified within capitalism and transforms from having a use value to being a commodified product with an exchange value (King & Stewart, 1996).
The daily lives of individuals in today’s concrete-filled, urban, and suburban Western societies often include negligible interaction with nature. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (2004), approximately 80% of all U.S. Americans live in urban areas. This lack of interaction has many consequences, including some related to children’s play that would have been difficult to imagine 50 years ago; for example, in San Diego, approximately 90% of all children living in the inner city do not know how to swim. Of all children in the U.S. ages 9-13, only 6% choose to play outside on their own during a typical week. This mounting lack of direct interaction between children and nature has been termed “nature deficit disorder” (Louv, 2007). In addition, designations such as “national park” and “protected area” support the assumption that nature is not connected with everyday life (King & Stewart, 1996). Some scholars have theorized that this alienation from nature engenders a desire to return to nature (Bell & Lyall, 2002).
Anthropology has long recognized how Westerners regularly define the “Other” as linked to the natural environment (Ortner, 1984; see also Said, 1979). Tourism serves as one temporary method for reconnecting with nature. While traveling, Westerners often seek locations possessing a recognizable and explicit connection between humans and nature (Dorsey, Steeves, & Poras, 2004). Partially as an outcome of this, ecotourism has rapidly gained popularity among Westerners. This form of tourism combines visits to picturesque, “exotic,” and less-developed settings with interactions involving “natives” of the locations. While tourists generally observe mundane, daily local practices, they persist in labeling the place as exotic due to the inhabitants’ direct connection with their land—a foreign idea in a world of offices and industrial agriculture.
Today, economically developed countries exhibit varying perceptions of nature. In most cases nature is perceived as something to be controlled or managed. As previously mentioned, concrete is liberally poured over natural areas in order to “make use” of the spaces; industrial agriculture treats nature as a system to be mechanized for maximum output. Additionally, today’s Westerners consider nature a potential source of pleasure and a type of luxury, an idea reinforced by expensive, resort-style vacations to pristine, “natural” locations (Bell & Lyall, 2002). Resulting from the environmental movement, perceptions of nature have also begun to include feelings of awe and a duty to protect (Peck, 2007). Urry’s notion of stewardship is present in this view as individuals use nature with care and possess a conscious awareness of the future impact of their personal decisions. A new academic field of environmental philosophy has also emerged. These scholars examine societal and individual environmental ethics, a concept Holden (2003) defined as being “concerned with redefining the boundaries of obligation to the environment and evaluating the human position towards it” (p. 97). According to Holden, the tourism industry as a whole has progressed towards a conservation ethic but still remains highly anthropocentric.
The purpose of this research is to learn more about non-traditional agritourism operations in the state of Texas. Specifically, I am interested in farmers and ranchers who invite and welcome visitors to their property. Because of the broad definition I used for agritourism—a visit to an agricultural setting for recreation, educational purposes, or leisure—some of the agricultural operators included in my study would not classify themselves as agritourism operators. Similarly, many of the participating farmers and ranchers would not refer to their visitors as “tourists.”
A major goal of my research involves exploring the ways in which agritourism operators value their land and construct their relationships with the natural environment. Sanders (2005) reported a shift among many large-scale Texas ranchers from the so-called “frontier hero,” who conquers the land, to a steward of the land. Is this also true for farmers and ranchers who invite visitors to their property? Through the course of my research, I also developed an interest in the way in which farmers and ranchers understand environmental sustainability and in the sociality of agritourism—specifically, the ways in which they use the natural environment to create a social community.
Tourism literature is saturated with research related to the ways travel affects the natural environment (for examples, see Kuvan, 2005; Neto, 2003; Nim, 2006; Russell & Wallace, 2004). However, there is little research related to the ways in which tourism affects human relationships with and perceptions of the natural environment. Gӧssling (2002) echoed this sentiment, and he conducted research in Zanzibar to explore human-environment relationships in the context of tourism and sustainable development. He critically concluded, “tourism can be seen as an agent of modernization, which decontextualizes and dissolves the relationships individuals have with society and nature…” (p. 550). The context of international “sun, sand, and sex” tourism, however, differs greatly from the context of Texas agritourism. In a first step toward my research regarding tourism’s impact on human relationships with the environment, it is necessary to define what those relationships are; only then can we explore the ways in which agritourism, or any other form of tourism, affects the relationships.
In addition to a literature review, this study used several data-gathering methods. In this way, I was able to corroborate ideas and viewpoints that appeared via more than one method and also able to amend hypotheses when I received conflicting information. The study was reviewed and approved by the University of North Texas Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects prior to disseminating the survey and recruiting interview participants.
I used an online survey in order to obtain input and perspectives from a broad geographical range of Texas farmers and ranchers. I obtained a list of 438 Texas agritourism operations and their corresponding websites from Texas AgriLife Extension Service. From that list, I visited each website in order to obtain an email address for the operation. Operations that did not match this study’s definition of agritourism were removed from the list. In addition, operations that were no longer in business or did not have an email address were also removed from the list. The information provided by AgriLife Extension Service was supplemented by online searches for agritourism operations in the state of Texas. Websites used for these supplemental searches included Texas Bed and Breakfast Association (www.texasbb.org/), Texas Department of Agriculture (http://www.gotexanwine.org and http://www.picktexas.com), LocalHarvest, Inc. (http://www.localharvest.org), and PickYourOwn.org (http://www.pickyourown.org).
The survey was created with Qualtrics software and contained 12 questions, including a mixture of multiple-choice and open-ended responses. None of the questions required a response; therefore, participants had the option to skip any question they preferred not to answer. A link to the survey was included in an invitation email and sent to participants. While this distribution method was inexpensive compared to postal mail, it also limited the survey only to farmers and ranchers who have a working and readily accessible email account. One reminder email message was sent approximately one week after the initial invitation request. In total, the online survey was emailed to 400 agricultural operations located across the state of Texas. Forty-seven email addresses bounced back as undeliverable; therefore, 353 agricultural operations received the invitation to participate in the survey. Seventy-six surveys were returned producing a response rate of 21.5%.
Seven semi-structured interviews were conducted: one with an employee of Texas AgriLife Extension Service and six with owners of agricultural operations (one vineyard, two ranches, and three farms). Transportation and time limitations did not allow me to travel across the entire state of Texas; however, farm interviewees were located in different geographical regions of the state, including the Panhandle Plains, Prairies and Lakes, and the Pineywoods. AgriLife Extension Service was invited to participate because the organization offers assistance to farmers and ranchers and its employees are familiar with the goals, practices, and norms of agricultural production in Texas.
I deliberately selected the farm/ranch interviewees in order to talk with persons from diverse backgrounds, heritages, religious beliefs, and environment-related perspectives. About half of the interviewees have worked in agriculture their entire adult lives and are utilizing land that was passed down to them from their parents; others moved from the suburbs within the last ten years to begin farming. Over half of interview participants expressed Christian religious beliefs. All interviewees are married and range in age from 30s to 60s. Levels of education range from the completion of a high school diploma to the completion of a master’s degree. Similarly, the selected agricultural operations represent a broad range of traditional and nontraditional agricultural activities, including raising cattle, sheep, alpacas, and chickens; growing cotton, wheat, wine grapes, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and sugar cane; managing community supported agriculture (CSA); hosting on-site weddings or overnight guests; and coordinating corn mazes and annual farm festivals.
All interviews were conducted on-site at the farm, ranch, or office. In all six of the farm/ranch interviews, I was also offered a tour of the property, which afforded me a brief glimpse of the daily workings of the operation. With the permission of the participants, all interviews were audio recorded and later transcribed.
Website Content Analysis
A content analysis was completed on 30 Texas agritourism websites. Five of the six agricultural operators who participated in an interview were also included in the website content analysis. (The sixth operation does not have a website.) The additional 25 operations were chosen at random from the list of farms and ranches invited to participate in the online survey. Obviously, a limitation to any website content analysis is that participants must have an active website.
The content analysis explored several different themes, including family heritage, activities offered for visitors, descriptions of nature, and motivations for each operation’s agricultural practices. The advanced search mode of the Google.com search engine was used in order to search for specific words throughout the website, including organic, steward(ship), sustainable(ility), conserve(ation), tradition(al), authentic(ity), tourism, and agritourism. A Google.com search is limited to text and html tags, however, which means that words included on a web page in the form of an image may not be detected via Google. The investigator personally read every page of each site in an attempt to minimize this limitation. The results of this analysis were so broad, that they will not be identified specifically in this paper, but will be used liberally to inform the subsequent interview and survey discussions. The results of the content analysis may be analyzed in greater detail at a later time.
The State of Agritourism in Texas
Just over one third (35.6%) of farmers and ranchers participating in the online survey have owned their land for ten years or less. The majority (78.1%) of survey respondents have owned their land for 50 years or less. Farmers and ranchers with land owned by family members for over 100 years accounted for only 15.1% of survey respondents. See Figure 1 for a graphical representation of these percentages.
For the most part, agritourism is a relatively recent phenomenon in Texas. 42.5% of survey respondents began inviting visitors to their property within the last five years, and an additional 26.0% began inviting visitors within the last six to 10 years. Only 1.4% of respondents have invited visitors to their property for over 50 years. See Figure 2. Interview participants affirmed this recent time frame; four of the six farmers and ranchers who participated in an interview began inviting visitors within the past 10 years. Only one interview participant has welcomed guests at the operation for over 20 years.
According to survey participants, the five most common reasons why visitors visit their farm or ranch are to purchase products produced at the farm/ranch (70.7%), to participate in a tour of the facility/operation (54.7%), to attend a wedding or other group event (38.7%), to pick their own produce or Christmas tree (32.0%), and to view wildlife (25.3%). In addition to these nontraditional agricultural activities, survey and interview participants also engage in a variety of traditional agricultural activities. The most reported traditional activities were raising cattle and horses and growing hay, vegetables, wine grapes, and berries.
According to the survey, farmers’ and ranchers’ primary motivation for hosting visitors is to earn income (84.7%). However, over half of the respondents also reported a desire to share the beauty or uniqueness of their land (69.3%) and to educate visitors about nature (58.7%). Only 26.7% reported an interest in teaching visitors about their heritage as a motivating factor for inviting tourists to the property. See Figure 3. However, several farmers and ranchers mentioned the opportunity to educate visitors about farming/ranching and to promote the agricultural industry. One interview participant said:
Mainly it was the food. Healthy food and teachin’ people how to eat healthy, and more so teachin’ the science of alkalinity—ph levels in your body. And just promoting farming agriculture in general, especially the food production. Just seems important to keep that knowledge up to date and seems like a lot of people go the opposite way with farming now. I’d like to see a lot more younger people get involved in agriculture, so I like to teach that.
Another interviewee said:
We can get people here and they’ll look around and say, “Oh my god. Look at all this wasted space. Where’s the concrete and asphalt? This is awful.” …And, you know, you try to tell them, “Where are you gonna raise cattle at if you don’t have all this? At the grocery store? You gonna grow your meat at the grocery store?”
Similarly, other survey participants wrote:
- “educate them about the value of farm operations”
- “educate them about sustainability, land health and nutrition”
- “promote Texas wine production”
Recognizing Visitor Impact on the Land
Survey respondents were asked to report the ways in which the presence of visitors has impacted their land. The question was an open-answer format, and 42.4% reported that visitors had no impact, minimal impact, or no negative impact. For example, one survey respondent wrote, “The impact has been very slight because we guide all tours and set limits on where they can go.” Another respondent simply said, “No adverse impacts.” Almost half of the respondents (48.5%) reported positive impacts from the presence of visitors, such as, “Our customers/tourist[s] feel a special bond as well to our land and the preservation of it” and, “Remains farm land vs. selling the land for housing development.” Several respondents also commented that the presence of visitors has brought income that may be used to improve the land. Only 7.6% of respondents reported negative impacts due to the presence of visitors. Some of these impacts included, “Less wildlife due to people pressure,” and “Largest negative impact is road traffic on erodible slopes.”
Laws, Regulations, and Programs
All participants were asked if any laws or programs impact the way in which they run their farm/ranch or the way they use their land. Over half (58.3%) of the survey respondents answered “No.” One interview participant echoed this by concisely saying, “No. Not in Texas.” Respondents who answered affirmatively offered a wide range of regulations from water rights and utility easements to pesticide application licenses. One survey respondent wrote, “Absolutely too many to list, each of which are somewhat minute, however when combined create a quagmire of duties and activities that stifle the real work of our operation.” Of respondents who answered “Yes,” only 13.3% specifically mentioned the agricultural tax exemption. An additional 10.0% reported a positive impact from a law or program other than the tax exemption; for example, one farmer wrote, “Extension service and soil conservation service programs have been helpful from a technical and a cost-share basis.”
Perceptions of Nature and Reasons to Value Land
When asked what makes their land important to them, the majority of survey respondents answered natural beauty (82.7%), personal ownership (81.3%), it’s where I live (80.0%), and it’s a source of income (76.0%). An interviewee affirmed several of these sentiments with the following comment, “What’s important about the land, to me, is that in the abstract system that we have, it is ours. We can choose to use it responsibly. And if we do use it responsibly, then it can provide for us.”
Only 29.3% of survey respondents reported that their family heritage makes their land important to them. See Figure 4. However, heritage was discussed by over half of the interview participants. In regard to why he values nature, one farmer said:
Four generations it’s made all of us a living. …You know, there’s a lot of pride in the land. There’s a lot of heartaches and hardships as well. But, well, I guess being four generations out, you see the pride that your father had in it, pride that your grandparents had in it, the changes that have happened.
Another farmer echoed this heritage-related value by saying:
Probably the family history. My relationship with my grandfather more than anything. We had a really good workin’ relationship. I was a really willing worker for him. Had an open ear to what he had to say and teach me. So that’s probably the biggest thing that I like about this place, and bein’ able to do what I do is because of him.
Other reasons survey participants offered for valuing their land included:
- “Pride in what I grow”
- “It’s one of my connections to God”
- “It gives me a sense of place in the world”
- “Geographically the intersection of 3 distinct eco environments”
Survey participants were asked to list three to five words they would use to describe nature and the natural environment in Texas. This particular question was skipped more than any other question on the survey; nearly 15% of respondents chose not to answer it. In spite of this, respondents provided over 130 different words to describe nature in Texas. The diversity of words was immense, and nearly 100 of the words were offered by only one respondent. The five words provided most frequently were: beautiful, diverse, hot, dry, and unique.
Other words provided by survey participants described physical characteristics (e.g. humid, mountains, prairie, vistas), the perceived current state of nature (e.g. abused, cared for, encroached, shrinking, threatened), emotions aroused by nature (e.g. freedom, invigorating, satisfying, relaxing, thrilling), and a religious or reverent connotation (e.g. awe-inspiring, God, mysterious, soulful, spiritual). Many words bestowed human-like characteristics or agency upon nature (e.g. ally, forgiving, inviting, temperamental). In several instances, different participants offered very contradictory words (e.g. peaceful and hostile, clean and polluted, simple and intricate, important and politically unimportant, friendly and violent).
When asked to describe nature and the natural world in their region of Texas, two interview participants described nature in terms of the weather and agriculture. For example, one interviewee described the blackland prairie by saying:
Hot and dry. [laughs] Um, for the most part, it’s very fertile. I’m sure you’re aware it was the cotton capital of the area for many years, which is why when you drive around, almost everything has been clear cut. You can see for 20 miles where they’ve just clear-cut forests and planted cotton. …It’s a great environment to grow stuff in [pause] when we’re not in a drought. There was a pretty bad drought before we moved out here. The last couple of years we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had more rain than just about anywhere else in Texas, which did great for us last year. But, I think it’s hit and miss. It’s a great place for cattle ‘cause there’s plenty of grass, plenty of grazing space. It’s a good place for crops.
Another interviewee also described nature by describing agriculture but focused on the physical work and the sociality of agriculture. He said:
Hard. I mean, it is not easy. But I think there are many benefits to that as well. I don’t know who you’ve come across, but a lot of the people here—their character, their values, their morals—are because of life bein’ hard. You know, I think there’s a lot of good people here, for the most part. And I think the land, the climate, the geographical location, all of that have contributed in part to that. …So, I would say the nature of the people, you won’t find any better.
When asked to describe nature and the natural world on the farm, another interview participant described the features that made the land aesthetically appealing. We were interrupted after she began answering the question, and she picked the conversation back up by saying:
So, we were talking about what made the land attractive. It’s high. You have a view. It makes you feel like you’re in the wide open country. People just really enjoy the peacefulness of the property. We have lots of wildlife—coyotes, foxes, hundreds of birds, lots of bluebirds… It makes you feel like Texas is described: wide open, big sky. At night the stars are just brilliant.
Ideas Regarding Environmental Sustainability
When asked what they thought about the idea of environmental sustainability, the majority of survey respondents answered that sustainability is the goal of their farm/ranch (64.9%) and that it is similar to good land stewardship (64.9%). See Figure 5. The Extension Agent with whom I spoke also associated sustainability with stewardship and expressed a preference for discussing the concept in terms of stewardship:
There’s not a strong enough definition out there in the world. Sustainability is something we talk about a lot through my agency. I talk to landowners, but it is such a, kind of a nebulous word. …I like the term “stewardship” better than “sustainable.” It makes more sense to me.
A nominal number of survey respondents answered that they receive a subsidy for sustainable practices (5.4%), they don’t understand what sustainability means (5.4%), it’s a nice idea in theory but not practical (4.1%), and it is a crazy idea from some green liberals (6.8%). Over 30% of respondents also chose to write additional comments to this particular question, which included:
- “It’s our responsibility”
- “I have never liked that word”
- “Farmers are the best lands stewards already and do not need a left wing term or program to act responsibly toward our own property”
- “It is a desirable goal but in many locations of Texas, it is difficult to accomplish and sustain”
- “Economic and environmental sustainability should be the goal of every farm in America”
The farmers and ranchers who were interviewed demonstrated a range of understandings and feelings regarding sustainability. For example, a farmer of over 600 acres who hosts an annual corn maze and fall activities said the following regarding sustainability:
I mean, it’s a great idea. The hard part is takin’ somethin’ in theory and puttin’ it in practice. You know, I would love nothin’ more than to be fully organic. But, until people are willin’ to pay for organic, you know, we could sit down there and grow organic pumpkins, but, wow, I’d hate to think of what it’d cost me. You know, a pumpkin that we’d sell for $7 would probably be $15. And so, there’s just not a big demand for that [pause] yet. You know, there is a demand for organic gardening. I see a lot of that. But when you can go to the supermarket and buy four ears of corn for a dollar, there ain’t no way that I can grow that out here. So, we constantly have to be geared toward environmentally-friendly, environmentally-sustainable. I mean, that is our goal. In practice, it’s a whole other ballgame. But I do think you have to have that as a foundation. I mean, you’ve got to be geared that way or you won’t be, you won’t be around. You know, I can rape the land, and in ten years, I’ll be out of business.
A small vineyard owner echoed the necessity of caring for the land, but also emphasized the importance for the land to be productive:
[We] are very interested in conserving our natural resources. Water in Texas is a really important issue, so that’s why we did so much on the rainwater collection and on contouring the land so we could put the pond in and water, you know, collect all that run off. Instead of just letting it go, use it. Our philosophy is that the land should be made productive, but also, then made better by our practices. So, um, it’s really important to us. And if we plan to stay on ten acres and be productive, we must take care of the soil.
Several farmers referred to sustainability as a system where the plants and animals work together. When describing the way in which another farmer executes this concept, a small-scale CSA farmer said:
And what he does is he intensely grazes areas with his cows. Then he moves them and moves them around. Then he follows them with his chickens who clean the pasture of the parasites, go through the manure, spread the manure. He fertilizes with both chicken poop and cow manure, and gets it spread all by itself. So he has worked out all these fabulous sustainability systems.
A rancher who hosts day visitors and overnight guests associated environmental sustainability with sustaining a traditional agricultural lifestyle. She said:
So many people are, you know, in towns now. They don’t really know anything about just being out in nature. Kids don’t know how to play with rocks or out in the dirt, but, you know, that’s an important part, especially here in the Panhandle, of our heritage is the outdoors and being able to sustain the lifestyle that we’ve all grown up with. And to expose other people to that, I think is very important.
Most research participants demonstrated a desire to act sustainably in whatever ways they interpreted that to be. However, the motivations for choosing sustainable action varied among the research participants. Several websites demonstrated Christian religious motivations, either explicitly or implicitly. For example, one website states, “Our philosophy of farming is to be good stewards of the land that God has entrusted us…” Religious motives were not the only impetus, though; another interview participant stated very clearly, “We just don’t want chemicals in our food.”
Use of the Word “Agritourism”
Only one survey participant and two of the six farm/ranch interview participants used the word “agritourism.” (The Extension Agent used the term, too.) In my initial, cursory review of over 400 websites, I only found the word “agritourism” on two of the sites. In addition to not labeling their operation as agritourism, some farmers and ranchers did not perceive their operation to be any form of tourism. For example, one survey respondent wrote, “We only give tours to our vendors and to students. No tourists.”
The findings of my research demonstrate that Texas farmers and ranchers understand environmental sustainability in a variety of ways and possess diverse relationships with nature. Each interviewee demonstrated aspects from more than one of the previously discussed categories suggested by Urry. Below I will highlight the assorted ways in which Texas farmers and ranchers do and do not concur with Urry’s categories. In addition, I encountered strong relationships with nature that were not compatible with any of Urry’s four categories; therefore, I propose the addition of two more ideal types—spiritualization: care and reverence for nature resulting from beliefs in its divine origin or composition, and sociality: utilizing nature as a means for creating social community.
Urry (1992, p. 2) referred to land stewardship, “so as to provide a better inheritance for future generations living within a given local area.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (n.d.), stewardship is defined as “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Therefore, the denotation of stewardship encompasses the method for accomplishing stewardship; however, Urry defined the concept solely in terms of the end result without clarifying any methods or motivations for the relationship. If Urry truly only wanted to represent the end product in his conceptualization, I find his use of the word stewardship to be problematic; many people will assume the defined methods of stewardship are inherent within Urry’s end result. For example, several interview participants noted that they were practicing stewardship when engaging in particular farming methods. One farmer said, “I was tryin’ to do no-till cotton 15 years ago. [laughs] It was not too easy. And now, it’s commonplace, which is good. To me, that’s better stewardship of the land.” Because of this confusion between the method and the end result, I suggest renaming the category to “inheritance” in order to clearly demonstrate that the relationship is based on the end result—a better inheritance—rather than the methods involved in the relationship.
Urry’s conceptualization of stewardship does not presume that actions stem from religious sentiments. However, the word possesses a religious connotation for many people today. As mentioned above, Christian religious convictions led several farmers to choose to act in methods that they perceived as sustainable. One nonreligious farmer who was interviewed drew a direct connection between stewardship and religion. He described two Christian farming families in his local area by stating:
They’re both uber-religious, and they do it because that’s the way God wants us to do it. You know, “We shouldn’t use any chemicals or anything else.” And probably over 85 or 90% of the people I’ve talked to that are doing what we’re doing in some shape, form, or fashion are, you know, it’s all about being responsible stewards of the land, and it’s a very religious deal for them.
Not everyone associated stewardship with religion, though. The Extension Agent that I spoke with confirmed that he sees and hears the word stewardship used often, but “not so much in the religious terms.” In spite of not everyone perceiving a connection between stewardship and religion, I believe the association is strong enough to recommend a new label for the category.
Peterson and Horton (1995, p. 148) conducted interviews with ranchers in the Hill Country region of Texas and developed a conceptualization of stewardship that differed greatly from Urry’s. They defined three characteristics that ranchers use to signify good stewardship: common sense based off previous agricultural experience, independence to autonomously make ethical decisions, and an understanding of the connection between human health and land health. A farmer of 400 acres who practices both traditional and modern farming methods clearly illustrated the independence aspect of this typology:
We definitely strive to be sustainable, you know, and use our resources wisely. However, I do think that the government tryin’ to enforce that and pass laws is wrong. So, I think, my viewpoint is I want more emphasis on education. Educatin’ the people and landowners more so than a governmental intervention. That I really would oppose. It’s, uh, agriculture’s been around for a long, long, long time without government being involved and tellin’ the people what to do. So, I’m opposed to that side. However, I do support sustainability on farms and ranches, but I think it would come easier in the form of education than in the passing of laws.
While this passage illustrates pieces of Peterson and Horton’s conceptualization of stewardship and demonstrates the dictionary definition of stewardship in the effort to wisely manage resources, it does not fit Urry’s definition for a stewardship relation with nature because it focuses on methods rather than end results.
Several research participants combined Urry’s definition of an exploitative relationship with the land (discussed in detail below) together with his definition of a stewardship relation. This occurred most frequently when they described their own (or others’) stewardship. For example, the Extension Agent defined stewardship as, “Thinking through how you utilize the land and, in my case, how do you leave it better than when you found it.” Another farmer stated, “Our philosophy is that the land should be made productive, but also then made better by our practices.” In this combined relationship, land is used but not misused. The combination of these two concepts is similar to the definition of sustainable economic development proposed by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. WCED’s final report (1987) defined development as sustainable when it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
One farmer expressed concern regarding the process of development and the impact it will have on future generations:
But there’s so much progress, I guess you could call it. I’m sure you saw all the construction on the way in. As everything expands, we lose so much. …The wildlife that should be here, aren’t. And there’s always the solution, well, if you want it, you can move further out. But not in my lifetime or their lifetime, but obviously at some point, we’re not gonna be able to move any further out. So somebody has to put in a stopgap and say, “We need to preserve these spaces.” …There’s still gonna be people around, hopefully, in a few thousand years, and they’re gonna have to deal with what we’re doing now. So, more people need to do the right thing and the better thing and try to make an improvement, which I hope we do in some way or influence someone else in some way to do it.
In this way, he hoped to demonstrate Urry’s stewardship relationship with the environment by doing his part to assure that future generations have usable, rural land. However, like the other participants who demonstrated stewardship, the methods inherent in the process were just as important as the end result.
Family is implied in Urry’s notion of stewardship since the end goal is to provide for the “future generations” in the local area. As previously mentioned, agricultural heritages are revered in Texas, and half of my interview participants were continuing family heritages. Every farmer and rancher I spoke with expressed pride and enjoyment in their work, in spite of the difficulties. However, several interview participants also demonstrated ambivalence in regard to their children entering the agriculture industry; in fact, one farmer indubitably informed me that he hopes his children do not choose to farm. A rancher expressed a similar, though less emphatic, desire for his children:
Mēgan: Are there any plans for one of the kids to take over eventually? …Would that be your hope?
Rancher: Oh, I don’t know. Depends on what they want to do. A lot of work, a lot of hard work. It’s like having a dairy, you know. You can’t just get up and go somewhere. ‘Cause you got all the animals to take care of. Even if there aren’t people here, you’ve still got the animals. Keeps you really tied down.
Urry (1992, p. 2) defined a relationship of exploitation with the environment as “seeing nature as separate from society and available for its maximum instrumental appropriation.” Similarly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary (n.d.) definition of exploit is “to make productive use of: utilize.” However, the word possesses strong negative connotations that are not present in either Urry’s or the dictionary’s definition. Exploiting is commonly associated with misuse or use without any regard to care. A perception of nature as “separate from society” also implies some level of objectification of nature and distancing oneself from the land.
In all six of my interviews with farmers and ranchers, I did not encounter anyone who intentionally misused or harmed their natural environment. The Extension Agent I spoke with concurred by stating, “I haven’t seen anybody, what I would say, abusing anything.” Rather, all of the interviewees demonstrated some level of care for their land and/or their animals, whether it was through no-till gardening, rotational grazing, selecting more environmentally-friendly fiber dyes, or a medley of other practices. Therefore, my assessment of farmers and ranchers who demonstrate Urry’s relationship of exploitation will focus purely on his definition and will include no connotation of abuse or neglect.
As I mentioned above, many participants combine the methods defined within Urry’s exploitative relationship together with the end results in his stewardship relationship. The combination of these two relationships is often perceived as sustainable. For example, one farmer said:
We didn’t really think there was a good reason to purchase land in the country and just sit on it. Our concept was that the land should pay for itself, be productive. …And if we plan to stay on ten acres and be productive, we must take care of the soil.
In this way, the land is fully employed but simultaneously nurtured. Similarly, the appropriate and wise use of resources was perceived as sustainable; another farmer said, “We definitely strive to be sustainable, you know, and use our resources wisely.”
Each of my interview participants expressed Urry’s exploitation relationship with their goals to fully capitalize on their natural resources; for example, the farmer with a corn maze chose the location in order to better use the corner of a field section. He said:
So this is a 30-acre corner, and corners have always been a pain to farm. That out there under the pivot is irrigated. This here, we can irrigate it. It just takes a lot more work. …So, we were just looking at what can we do with our corners. So, that’s how we chose the location.
When talking about new landowners, most of whom are of retirement age, the Extension Agent said, “And so many of them want some projects that are gonna be worthwhile, whether they’re making money from them or breaking even. But they want to do something with their property.” Farmers and ranchers who have an exploitative relationship with their land believe they are wasting resources if they are not fully used. In this way, the environment is perceived as possessing a strong instrumental value.
It is unclear whether or not Urry intended for his exploitation label to carry a negative connotation. If this was not his intention, then I propose renaming the category to “instrumental” or “utilization” in order to better encompass the definition with no unintended connotations. However, if the negative connotation was intentional, then an additional category is necessary for individuals who practice full utilization of their land but simultaneously demonstrate care with their practices. Either way, Urry’s category would be ameliorated through clarification of the motives and practices involved in the so-called exploitation.
Even with these changes, however, the category of exploitation (or utilization) is still very much an ideal type and there will always be exceptions. For example, when answering the question, “What makes your land important to you?” one farmer described his spouse’s relationship with the land by stating, “She’s one of those people that [believes] you can’t really own land. Nobody really has a right to sell it, and we should all use it to the best of our ability.” In this way, his spouse clearly demonstrates an exploitative relationship with nature in the belief that we should use land to the best of our ability; however, she simultaneously disagrees with the exploitative relationship in her belief that land cannot be “owned” by humans. It is, therefore, intertwined with society, rather than separated, and should not be objectified so that it may be “owned.”
Urry (1992, p. 2) defined a relationship of scientization with the environment as “treating the environment as the object of scientific investigation and hence some degree of intervention and regulation.” Similar to the exploitation relationship, nature is objectified; however, through the process of scientization, it is also systematically studied for the purposes of manipulating and controlling. Science can be defined simply as a body of knowledge gained through systematic testing; therefore, many aspects of farming and ranching—from choosing appropriate seeds/breeds to methods of irrigation—fit into the definition of science.
All agricultural operations use science because they manipulate the land and/or care for animals in a way that would not occur outside of human intervention. Some farmers and ranchers refer to their use of science as simply learning from experience; for example, one farmer explained how she adjusted the structure of a chicken coop after a predator attack in order to avoid encountering an identical situation in the future. Others, however, more formally demonstrate a relationship of scientization. For example, the vineyard owner that I spoke with shared the following information with me about various forms of training grapevines:
We use a form of training called Geneva Double Curtain. We also use quadrilateral trellising. And then we have the standard VSP to compare it with—that’s vertical shoot positioning—and, because of the way we train the grapes, the quadrilateral plan is, instead of just having the stalk and two arms, which is the VSP system, we bring two trunks up, train them to the opposite side, and then split those into four arms, two on each side. And that means that your plants produce 30 to 40% more, especially with the type of grape we’re growing. But the, uh, the orange muscat is on VSP, and one row that we’re comparing. Our A&M rep wanted to just test and see which one produced more grapes, and it’s easy to see which one even before we weigh them.
The different training methods and the measured differences between them are clear examples of a relationship of scientization; there is formal investigation occurring as the vineyard owners intervene in the natural grapevine growing process in order to determine the most productive training methods.
Similar to Urry’s relationship of exploitation, he described the practices involved in the relationship of scientization—treating the environment as an object of study—but did not suggest the motives leading to the practices or the results of the relationship. Therefore, these motives and results could vary among different agricultural operations. The farmer of 600+ acres informed me that his incentive for utilizing science and technology is because they make the process of farming easier. He said, “You know, more has happened in the last ten years in agriculture than the previous hundred. Technology is just unreal. …So, from a farmer standpoint, we embrace a lot of this technology, and it makes life easy.” However, he went on to share some uncertainties that he possesses regarding a particular scientific technology.
You know, genetically-altered plants where we can spray Round-Up over the top. Don’t have to spray insecticides hardly at all anymore. On paper and in theory, that’s great. It makes our life easy. The effect that it has on the consumer, you know, who knows? I’ve read a lot of stuff, you know. GMOs is what they call them—genetically modified organisms—that there may be some issues with them. …But, uh, I don’t know. We might look back and our kids might look back and say, “You know, it wasn’t the best thing,” but I don’t know. You know, we eat round-up ready corn, genetically modified. I don’t know what effect it’s gonna have on me. About all we can do is go by the FDA, what they release, and what they say is okay. Because there’s a lot of that, you know, I’ve read the pros and cons and research papers. A lot of it depends on who’s doin’ the research. So, I don’t know what the truth is. I know it has made our life easier.
The Extension Agent affirmed this farmer’s questioning of research by saying, “If science and politics and money, if those three are involved, you can’t trust the science.” Therefore, a relationship of scientization with the environment can make agricultural life easier, but it may also create personal ethical issues that are not easily resolved.
Similarly, some techniques developed via science can raise questions regarding the authenticity of the agricultural product. Regarding GMO corn, another farmer said:
I have never been able to confirm it, I guess, but a lot of reputable sources say that when you grow the corn from Monsanto, you have to spray what is basically Round-Up on it, or it won’t grow. So, you have to buy the seeds from them, and then you have to buy the chemical to spray on it to make it grow. To me, that’s not corn. It’s something, but it’s not corn, you know?
In this way, agricultural products can be altered by humans through the use of science to such a degree that some people no longer perceive them as natural.
The concept of scientization feels contradictory to the foundations of organic and non-invasive farming. While these methods of farming still use science and scientific techniques, farmers practicing organic and non-invasive farming tend to be drawn toward methods that are perceived as more natural, less scientific, or from previous generations. One farmer described some of these practices:
I’m interested in the ecosystem of a garden. How animals can impact or benefit your garden. You know, we raise a lot of various animals here—horses, cows, sheeps, chickens. We use all the byproducts of these animals. It goes back into ecosystems. So that’s, that’s pretty sustainable, but that’s not a new deal. It’s, like I said, it’s an ancient practice. It goes back many, many thousands of years. So there is a new movement of people really wantin’ to be sustainable, and it’s really trendy, but I try not to be the new trendy style. It’s just, I gravitate to ancient practices, so I see it as something very old.
Similarly, some farmers have intentionally reverted back to older methods because they realize they are more effective and efficient. One farmer described another agricultural operation by saying, “And they went to no-till, organic growth because they realized that it was better. They get higher yields doing it that way. They can charge more for it, and they get more of it.” The farmers who are returning to older and/or more “natural” practices challenge the belief that science, as it emerged through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, is the best way for agricultural production.
Urry (1992, p. 2-3) defined the concept of visual consumption as “constructing the physical environment as a ‘landscape’ (or townscape) not primarily for production but embellished for aesthetic appropriation.” The idea of visual consumption is inherent in tourism where visitors’ intentions frequently involve seeing and experiencing new locations. The same is true in agricultural tourism where the physical farm or ranch environment is one of the primary draws for visiting.
Each of the agricultural operations that I interviewed demonstrated some level of concern or active engagement in producing an attractive (and sometimes authentic) landscape; however, the vineyard, which also hosts weddings and other events on-site, serves as the clearest example. The owner described the process as she and her husband sought an appropriate piece of property to purchase:
We wanted it to have some aesthetic appeal. …We wanted a feeling of openness and a view, so that when people come, they feel like they’re in the country. So, that was important. We have a very nice view to the north, and the property sits well, so it was aesthetically appealing, even though it didn’t have giant trees or a wonderful old barn we could fix up.
While each of the agricultural operations that I interviewed demonstrates a desire to create aesthetically appealing space, each operation is also a working farm or ranch. In this way, they do not entirely fit into Urry’s relationship of visual consumption; their agricultural “landscape” is intended for production in addition to visual consumption. In fact, for some of the operations, the production is primary and the aesthetic appeal comes secondary.
Visual consumption transcends the boundaries of the physical environment into the online world. Five of the six agricultural operations that I interviewed have an active website. This internet presence represents their physical environment in such a way that even persons who are unable to physically visit may visually consume the natural environment on the farm or ranch. One farmer who has regular online visitors who live outside of the local area informed me, “I work really hard to sort of faithfully represent what the physical place is in the ethereal world of the internet.”
As previously mentioned, Urry’s ideal types exclude any sort of religious or spiritual relationship with the environment. However, nature has been perceived as spiritual and/or a creation of divine origin, both historically and in the present day. Therefore, I propose a fifth ideal type—spiritualization: care and reverence for nature resulting from beliefs in its divine origin or composition.
Animists perceive the pieces of the natural world as interconnected with the spiritual world; therefore, the natural environment is a spiritual place. While animist relationships with nature are lacking in Urry’s ideal types and fit under my proposed category of spiritualization, I am not aware that any of my research participants practice animism or any other nature-based system of worship. However, over half of my interview participants are believers of the Christian faith. (In fact, during my entire research process, including the cursory review of 400+ websites, I did not encounter any religious beliefs other than Christianity, except for a small number of people who are nonreligious.) Because of this, much of my discussion will focus on Christianity and its accompanying relationship with nature; however, individuals from different belief systems may practice this spiritual relationship in diverse ways.
As I previously quoted above, a nonreligious farmer described the way he perceives two other local farming families and their religious connections to nature:
They’re both uber-religious, and they do it because that’s the way God wants us to do it. You know, “We shouldn’t use any chemicals or anything else.” And probably over 85 or 90% of the people I’ve talked to that are doing what we’re doing in some shape, form, or fashion are, you know, it’s all about being responsible stewards of the land, and it’s a very religious deal for them.
This lifestyle, where specific farming practices are and are not used in accordance with the perception of what God wants, was also prevalent on several of the websites that I reviewed. Phrases, such as “the way God intended,” were not uncommon and demonstrate that, for some farmers and ranchers, the Christian religion can shape or even dictate the relationship they have with their land and the practices they use when engaging with their land.
Spiritualization can also be demonstrated in a general appreciation for useful products that are perceived as natural and, therefore, given to humans directly from God.
I love products that people can’t really improve on. Like honey, for instance. You know, the bees make the honey. There’s no way that human beings can make it any better. It is what it is, and the bees did it all. All we did was collect it. Even in eggs, the same thing. The less we mess with them, the better. …So, I like to stay close to that stuff, the stuff that can’t be improved by human beings. The stuff that’s given to us, you know, straight from God. There’s nothing in between.
This relationship of spiritualization is not limited to the land in general or to nature in its entirety. In some cases religion can direct more specific types of relationships or create meaning where there otherwise might not have been. For example, one farmer described how her religion directed her to have a relationship with a particular kind of animal:
I always just thought sheep were awesome. Sheep are a major, um, kind of, um, reference in the Christian faith, and so it’s been important to me for that reason. Shepherds, sheep, it’s a very big part of that, and all of the symbolism is very meaningful to me, so I just, sort of, had a soft place in my heart for sheep.
As a result of the symbolic meaning placed upon them by religion, the sheep are valuable beyond their instrumental value as animals; they also possess a symbolic value with its premise rooted in religion.
This appreciation of nature and “the natural” can be demonstrated in varying levels of intensity. While interviewing the Extension Agent, I asked him to describe the typical and atypical ways that he has witnessed farmers and ranchers relating with their land. When describing some individuals who desire to be organic, he described one extreme level of passion:
A lot of individuals, kind of the way I break it down a little bit, on the one end the individuals that want to be as natural as possible, which is the vast majority. But on the other end, there’s individuals that it’s almost a religion to them. I mean, that every moment of every day is, they’re thinking about what is natural. Everything from water filters to buying, only buying organic baby food, or natural raw milk. They almost elevate it to a religious standpoint that their whole life revolves around natural. Natural only.
In this way, the spiritualization relationship with nature can become so formalized and personally fundamental that it becomes a religion itself.
Through the course of my research, I became acutely aware of the way in which farmers and ranchers who are engaged in agritourism use their natural environments to create and develop social environments. Whereas traditional farmers frequently work in seclusion or with a few family members, nontraditional farmers and ranchers who invite visitors onto their land regularly engage and interact with new people. One interviewee drew a direct connection between her agricultural product and the way in which she interacts with people. She said, “…it’s about integrity. It’s about dealing with people. Because my wool is real and my wool is good, it encourages me to be real with people in my relationships.” Therefore, I also propose a sixth ideal type to Urry’s list—sociality: utilizing nature as a means for social community.
Whether my interview participants claimed to be introverted or extroverted, nearly everyone stated that meeting and getting to know new people was a highlight of their work; in fact, several even reported developing close friendships with their “customers.” For the farmers and ranchers who do tend to be introverted, the shift to an occupation that involves regular interaction with the public can be a difficult transition. However, the social interaction still becomes a fulfilling piece of the work. One farmer described the evolution in this way:
The people that have come out here have been so encouraging. That’s probably one of the biggest blessings of what we’ve done, is the feedback of the people who’ve come. It keeps us goin’. Whereas when we were just farmin’, you know, you’re pretty isolated. You’re kind of a loner-type individual. And that transition’s been hard for me, but it’s been well worth it. Dealin’ with the public is not always easy, but at the end of the day, the things that they have said—the encouragement—it makes it well worth it.
Two of the three interview participants who intentionally left the suburbs to begin living in a rural area reported that their initial decision was simply about themselves. One farmer realized through the process of farming and growing crops that they simply produced too much for themselves; it needed to be shared. The other farmer reported an “aha!” moment after inviting a suburban friend to spend the day with her on the farm:
She helped me dig in the garden, and we had a great day. We got really exhausted. We sweated. We had a ball. She called me later that night and said, “[farmer’s name], thank you so much. That was so healing to me. That was so refreshing, and it was just what I needed.” And it kind of dawned on me that this just wasn’t for me; this property wasn’t really for me, it was for me to share.
This particular farmer described childhood experiences of visiting a family member’s cattle farm, experiencing its smells, and always having a desire to return. She informed me that she and her husband moved away from the suburbs because they “prefer a rural lifestyle.” I initially interpreted her comment as a desire to return to nature. However, after listening to her speak passionately about the social aspects of her work organizing and running a CSA, I wondered if perhaps her desire to leave the suburbs and begin a rural lifestyle was actually to return to a strong social community.
Not everyone experiences the sociality of the natural environment. As previously mentioned, many traditional farmers who complete their work in relative isolation do not experience nature as a means to social relations, nor do they expect to do so. However, when farmers intend to create a social community through their agricultural work, but are prevented from doing so, the results can be frustrating and disheartening. I spoke with a farmer who moved from the suburbs about three years ago with his wife and two young children. The family is nonreligious and do not have a direct farming family heritage. Their original goal was to become a “community-centered” farm, but their plans have been halted and reworked due to their lack of acceptance into the local, rural community.
My original intention was to be much more involved in the local community, whereas everyone who buys from us right now is in [major city]. We have, the local community has not been particularly, I don’t want to say friendly. Friendly’s not the right word. They’re very friendly. But we’re from somewhere else. You know, there’s very much of a small town mentality. There’s a guy up the road, who is a nice guy. I’ve actually started letting him work on our cars. And I talk to him all the time. He’s, one of the first times I talked to him, he said, “You know, you should go introduce yourself to so and so. They’re from somewhere else, too.” …So, it’s, uh, it’s interesting trying to develop a sense of community in a community that’s not open, I guess.
In this way, not only did the actions of others result in this family’s personal lack of acceptance in the local community, but it has also discouraged them from pursuing agricultural work that would build social cohesion within the community.
Limitations and Future Research
As mentioned in the methodology section, the methods used in this study limited the research participants to farmers and ranchers who have a working email address and, for one of the methods, to those who have an active website for their agricultural operation. In 2007, only 52% of Texas farm operations reported having internet access (McCorkle, Hanselka, & Nelson, 2009); however, this statistic includes all agricultural operations, both traditional and nontraditional. While this limitation undoubtedly affected my research, I also assume that agricultural operations that invite visitors on-site are more likely to possess some form of internet presence or online communication compared to traditional operations.
Time was a puissant limiting factor in my study. This research was completed as part of a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The period time of time between receiving approval from the university Institutional Review Board and submitting my final report was six weeks. Also, as a tourist in Texas myself, I encountered transportation-related limitations. For this reason, all interviews occurred in the northern half of the state. (It is worth noting the irony, however, that I spent over 25 hours driving in order to complete a study partially focused on environmental sustainability.) The timing of my study, with interviews and surveys being completed mid- to late-July, corresponded with harvest season for many agricultural products and, therefore, was not ideal for much of my research population. While my participants were generous with their time, I recommend that future studies request participant involvement at a time other than the summer harvest season. Also, it is important to note that my research was conducted during a period of severe drought and uncharacteristically high daily temperatures.
Future research could involve more thorough and detailed studies, which could be useful for noting subtle differences in the ways farmers and ranchers relate with the natural environment. Interviewing persons from more regions of the state of Texas could determine whether or not regional differences exist, and conducting the same study in a different area of the United States or in a different country could reveal regional differences that exist on a macro level. How do gender, age, and ethnicity impact an individual’s relationship with nature? Does this differ based on location? Furthermore, completing similar research with farmers and ranchers who do not participate in agritourism could serve as an interesting comparative study; are there differences in the environmental values of agritourism operators compared to traditional agriculture operators or industrial agriculture operators? What about the visitors and tourists who participate in agritourism? What are their environmental values and how do they compare to the values of the farmers and ranchers providing the agritourism opportunities?
Perhaps most importantly, though, this study was a first step toward research into the impacts of tourism on human relationships with the natural environment. As an initial phase, my research outlined the relationships that Texas agritourism operators currently hold with their natural environment. Future research can now examine the ways in which tourism affects those relationships. Similar research may also be conducted on other forms of travel (e.g. mass tourism, ecotourism, adventure tourism, etc.) to learn whether the impacts of agritourism differ from other types of tourism.
Continuing Conversations about Sustainability
While their approaches and motivations differ greatly, my research showed that most farmers and ranchers are sincerely interested in caring for their land. In addition to this, several interview participants actively attempt to stay abreast on agricultural-related research, including the environmental effects of the methods and technologies they employ. Facilitating open and tolerant dialogue amongst the farmers (and perhaps other community members) about environmental issues could serve as another means for education and for positive community building. Several organizations throughout the state appear primed to lead these conversations, including Texas AgriLife Extension Services, Texas Parks and Wildlife, or even the Texas A&M University Office of Sustainability.
However, because of the numerous ways in which environmental sustainability was defined by my research participants—from careful utilization of natural resources to maintaining a rural lifestyle—discussing environmental care only with sustainability terminology could easily result in misunderstandings. It will be essential to be cognizant of language preferences during these conversations and to adjust language depending on the audience. For example, the idea of land stewardship appears to resonate with some people more than sustainability; however, stewardship possesses repulsive religious connotations for other individuals. So, while not all farmers and ranchers will express interest in sustainability, most will be attracted to at least one of these concepts: land stewardship, responsible use of resources, being green, organic practices, humane practices, as natural as possible, conservation, or ethical agriculture. The motivations and perceived methods associated with each of these terms may differ based on the person, but the shared foundation of care for nature is a strong starting point for dialogue and community building. Research conducted by Sanders (2005) affirmed that Texas farmers and ranchers feel a sense of responsibility to care for their land. She asserted that landowners would be receptive to programming designed to assist them improve their care for their land, especially if the programming were adaptable to their particular sense of land responsibility.
Opportunities for Social and Business Networking
Currently there does not appear to be a strong network amongst agritourism operators; this is demonstrated most clearly by the fact that most of the farmers and ranchers participating in my research did not self-identify as an agritourism operator. Because so many of them demonstrate a sociality relationship with nature, I assume they would be enthusiastic about connecting with one another. During interviews, two farmers specifically spoke about an interest in collaborating with other farmers to either reduce expenses or to generate additional business. Even something as simple as a formalized means for sharing best practices could lessen the learning curve for farmers and ranchers entering into agritourism.
Similarly, it appears to be important for new farmers and ranchers, especially those without farming heritages, to have access to formal and/or informal support networks. These networks would be most valuable for families who are new to a rural area and who will not develop community connections through some of the more common routes (e.g. church, involvement at children’s school, off-farm employment). With the value that Texas places on the state’s agricultural heritage, more support could be offered to the truly new farmers in the state.
Potential for Statewide Agritourism Promotion
Though the focus of my research was not directly related to marketing, it became clear to me that Texas holds a relatively untapped agritourism market. The state possesses a diverse range and plentiful amount of agritourism opportunities—enough to draw both in-state and out-of-state tourists to participate in travel experiences in Texas. However, neither the Texas Department of Agriculture’s strategic plan (2010b) nor the Office of the Governor, Economic Development and Tourism’s marketing plan (2011a) specifically detail large-scale plans for marketing agricultural tourism as a whole. (The Department of Agriculture does intend to market and invest in Texas wine production.) More than one interview participant spoke about the benefits of having a region known for something (e.g. the dude ranches near Bandera), namely that it attracts additional visitors. Marketing Texas’ agritourism and raising awareness that it already exists could greatly assist the farms and ranches that currently invite visitors. In addition, it could create more opportunities for rural economic development while preserving farmland and ranchland.
The goal of my research was to explore the ways in which Texas agritourism operators value their land and construct their relationships with the natural environment. By examining data gained primarily through a survey and interviews, and by utilizing Urry’s categorization of ideal types of societal relationships with nature, I outlined numerous ways in which my research participants illustrate each of the four ideal types: stewardship, exploitation, scientization, and visual consumption. In addition, I encountered strong relationships with nature that were not compatible with Urry’s categories; therefore, I proposed the addition of two ideal types—spiritualization: care and reverence for nature resulting from beliefs in its divine origin or composition, and sociality: utilizing nature as a means for creating social community.
My research participants evinced very different understandings regarding the concept of environmental sustainability. Similarly, they each demonstrated a desire to use their natural resources wisely and appropriately, but the perceived methods for accomplishing this also differed. Open dialogue amongst the farmers, ranchers, and other persons in a particular local area could facilitate empathy and tolerance between individuals of diverse motivations and assist in building community. This community development combined together with agritourism, which allows for economic development while continuing agricultural heritages, could transform fading rural areas into economically-vibrant, environmentally-conscious, and socially-cohesive communities.
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