Assessing and Modeling Sustainable Fruit Production Practices




Sustainability is a widely touted management goal for agricultural systems, but given the wide range of concepts and management practices that can be classified as sustainable, identifying the specific research needs of farmers and ultimately consumers is challenging and not entirely self-evident. The commonly used concept of sustainability encompasses environmental, economic, and social components. Sustainability is defined to be a balance among these three facets with visual images often depicting a three-legged stool balancing a seat that represents sustainability or three circles in a Venn Diagram with sustainability being the area of overlap. More robust modeling of sustainability has found that sustainability is much more complex then the Venn Diagram model, with the specific practices that can be employed to increase sustainability varying greatly amongst the cropping system, geographic region, and individual farming practices. The goal of this project is to create more sustainable tree-fruit production systems through surveying stakeholder groups and modeling the relative impact of specific practices on the economic, environmental, and social aspects of fruit production.


Research topics that are frequently cited as being important for developing more sustainable farming systems include, but are not limited to, climate change, surface and ground water contamination, biotechnology and genetic modification, nutrient and water use efficiency, the quantity and type of pesticides being used, pesticide residues, soil health/quality, carbon footprints, environmental impacts, biodiversity, crop/product diversification, labor availability, farm worker safety and wages, and organic production. Given such a broad range of topics it can be difficult for growers, consumers, researchers, and extension personnel to succinctly define sustainability, much less rank the importance of different farming practices for increasing agricultural sustainability. Tree-fruit production research often focuses on the management practices that can be used to increase profitability and/or reduce negative environmental impacts. However, it is not clear if these research projects increase sustainability since sustainability is a complex concept.

Additionally, there are limited resources available for sustainable agriculture research. One recent assessment found that only 10% of the USDA’s Research, Extension, and Education 2014 budget was allocated to projects relating to sustainable agriculture (DeLonge et al., 2015). Thus, it is extremely important to identify the specific needs of stakeholders in order to develop responsive and highly impactful strategies for increasing the sustainability of agricultural systems.


The first stage of this project is to survey three key stakeholder groups: tree-fruit producers, tree-fruit researchers and extension educators, and consumers. Funding from the Toward Sustainability Foundation has been obtained to undertake this study. I have also partnered with the Survey Research Institute to help design, execute, and analyze the surveys.


This work is just starting. However, results from these surveys can be used by researchers and extension educators to better understand the underlying perceptions of sustainability by different stakeholder groups. Furthermore, information from these surveys can be used to develop targeted research and outreach programs that speak to very specific stakeholder needs.

Data from the three surveys will be used in a peer-reviewed publication that describes how the different stakeholder groups define sustainable fruit production and how they rank different facets of sustainability, including specific topics within the three sustainability pillars (i.e., environmental, economic, and social).

I will discuss survey results with tree-fruit growers at conferences, such as the Empire State Producers Expo and at regional fruit producer meetings. Growers will gain insight into their peers’ understanding of sustainability, as well as fruit consumers’ perception of sustainability. Understanding consumer perception of sustainability will be important to growers because it will allow them to develop production systems that meet consumer expectations. It will also help tree-fruit growers to determine consumers’ willingness to pay for sustainable production practices that may be more expensive to implement.

Lastly, public and university policy makers can use survey results to create programs that are inline with producer and consumer needs. For example, the survey will define sustainable farming practices that are both readily adoptable by tree-fruit producers and highly desired by consumers and that should receive funding support for research and/or sales promotion.

Researchers involved: 

  • Peck, Gregory

Organizations involved: 

  • Survey Research Institute, Cornell University

International focus: 

  • United States of America

United States focus: 

  • New York