Date of Award

Summer 8-19-2016

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Ecology and Environmental Sciences


Xuan Chen

Second Committee Member

Laura Lindenfeld

Third Committee Member

Samuel Hanes

Additional Committee Members

Jessica Leahy

Caroline Noblet


Milk production has played an integral role in the culture, landscape, and economy of Maine’s agriculture. Maine dairy farmers have faced numerous sustainability challenges to economic, environmental, and social aspects of their industry. Like many other complex social ecological systems, the Maine dairy industry faces a gap between scientific knowledge and actionable management or policy. A cultural dichotomy exists between conventional and organic farming. Shifting the focus from this binary, metrics such as social capital may play a key role in solving sustainability issues. Difficulties arise in the governance of complex social ecological systems when the scales of assessment, management, and policy do not match principal challenges. Despite efforts by many, Maine dairy challenges may be fueled by a state political system that is restricted by term limits and short legislative sessions. Piecemeal policy-making leads to assessment and policy outcomes that do not take the complexities of the system into consideration.

In the case of the Maine dairy industry, using mental modeling and social network analysis: 1) we seek to explore a method that may improve understanding in cases of disintegration between sustainability policy and action; 2) we test whether social capital, measured using Maine dairy farmers’ information networks, spans perceived boundaries between conventional and organic management and between different farm sizes, and; 3) we investigate the scale problemscape for long-term success of the Maine dairy industry.

We found no significant difference in the importance of the economic, environmental, or social factors that dairy farmers considered to be the most challenging to industry sustainability. Social capital, rather than farm management practice or size, is a critical variable for better understanding industry sustainability. We found gaps between the current industry policy structure and the management and assessment scales required to address sustainability challenges. The barriers to effective long-term management, assessment, and policy are numerous for the Maine dairy industry. Our findings suggest that solutions concentrating on only one sustainability factor are unlikely to work in the long-term. Solutions may lie in a more holistic evaluation process, and inclusion of social capital and scale assessments to effectively link science and policy.