Social networks in complex human and natural systems: The case of rotational grazing, weak ties, and eastern US dairy landscapes

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Multifunctional agricultural systems seek to expand upon production-based benefits to enhance family wellbeing and animal health, reduce inputs, and improve environmental services such as biodiversity and water quality. However, in many countries a landscape-level conversion is uneven at best and stalled at worst. This is particularly true across the eastern rural landscape in the United States. We explore the role of social networks as drivers of system transformation within dairy production in the eastern United States, specifically rotational grazing as an alternative management option. We hypothesize the importance of weak ties within farmer social networks as drivers of change. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York, we conducted 53 interviews with confinement, low-intensity, and rotational grazing dairy producers as well as 35 interviews with associated network actors. Though confinement and grazier networks had similar proportions of strong and weak ties, confinement producers had more market-based weak ties, while graziers had more weak-ties to government agencies and other graziers in the region. These agency weak ties supported rotational graziers through information exchange and cost sharing, both crucial to farmers' transitions from confinement-based production to grazing systems. While weak ties were integral to initial innovation, farmers did not maintain these relationships beyond their transition to grazing. Of equal importance, grazier weak-tie networks did not include environmental organizations, suggesting unrealized potential for more diverse networks based on environmental services. By understanding the drivers, we can identify barriers to expanding weak tie networks and emergent properties in order to create institutions and policies necessary for change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-259
Number of pages15
JournalAgriculture and Human Values
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Steven Manson PhD, is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Minnesota, United States. He directs the Human-Environment Geographic Information Science lab. He combines environmental research, social science approaches, and geographic information science to understand complex human-environment systems. He is a Resident Fellow at the University of Minnesota, Institute on the Environment and is a past NASA New Investigator in Earth-Sun System Science and NASA Earth System Science Fellow. He received the Young Scholar Award from the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, the Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America, and a University of Minnesota McKnight Land Grant Professorship.

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments We recognize the critical support of the National Science Foundation Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (BCS-BE: CNH-0709613) program as well as NIFA through the University of Minnesota. We thank the farm families and community members who shared their experiences with us. We appreciate B. Vondracek and T. Arnold as long term collaborators on this project; A. Slaat for figure preparation; N. Martini for statistical advise; S. Campbell for interviewing assistance; S. Graves, A. Nessel, S. Huerd for logistical support; K. Clower, A. Berland, D. Bonsal, G. Brand, and J. Immich for fieldwork, GIS, intellectual engagement, and team support over the years.


  • Dairy production
  • Landscape transitions
  • Multifunctional agriculture
  • Resilience
  • Social networks


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