Studying what influences students to return to family farm

Bar graph that shows results of a survey about Men and Women's Likelihood of Returning to their Family Farm
The students found that male Iowa State students were much more likely to say they would go back to their family farm than women, with more than 70% of men saying they would return versus just over 20% of women.

By Whitney Baxter

What factors influence a student’s decision to return to the family farm following college graduation? That is what students in Katie Dentzman’s sociology class sought to find out this semester.

Dentzman, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, typically has students in her SOC 350: Women in Agriculture and the Food System class create a set of survey questions surrounding a topic of their choice, employing survey creation concepts they’ve learned in class. This semester, however, a common theme surfaced among the students’ proposed surveys – what factors influence students’ decision to return to their family farm or seek off-farm employment?

Rather than evaluating each survey individually, the students combined and analyzed all their data.

“It was a lot of fun to see the small trends having significant impacts on the data,” Dentzman said.

Each student chose a different area to focus their questions on. These included how things like the farm size, the number of siblings a student has, the marital status of the student’s parents, and what major the student was studying impact their intention to return to a family farm.

“There’s not a lot of data out there on diverse farmers, so it was neat to be able to identify gaps in the existing research and come up with survey questions to help fill in those holes,” said Lydia Moses, senior in agronomy.

Once the students had narrowed down their questions, they randomly selected junior- and senior-classified students from College of Agriculture and Life Sciences academic departments. A total of 69 students submitted responses to the surveys.

Based on the survey results, the students found that 41% of students from a family farm were either “definitely not” or “probably not” going to return to the farm after college graduation. Further, 21% were unsure if they would return, and 38% reported they would “probably yes” or “definitely yes” return to the farm.

Bar graph showing the percentage of men and women who are most likely to return to the farm, based on the farm's size
Results of the students' surveys indicated that male Iowa State students were more likely to return to a very large-scale family farm, while women were more likely to return to a small or mid-sized farm.

They also discovered that male students were more likely to return to the farm, with 70% of the male survey respondents saying they would return compared to just 20% of women respondents. When considering the size of the farm the students would be returning to, male students were more likely to return to a large-scale family farm, and women students were more likely to return to a medium- to small-scale family farm.

Of course, further research would need to be done to paint a more accurate picture, but Dentzman said the results have been revealing for students.

“It opened my eyes to the perspective of gender and the difficulties some may face in agriculture,” said Hallie Sandeen, senior in agronomy.

“I learned a lot about how to write questions in order to get the type of responses I was looking for,” added Mickayla McGill, senior in agricultural and life sciences education.

Dentzman will offer a similar class this fall – SOC 350: Human Diversity in Agriculture and the Food System. She said the class meets the U.S. diversity credit requirement and is the only ag-related diversity course on the 2023-24 class list. Students are encouraged to enroll in the class now before it fills up.