In the new era of modernization and globalization, agribusiness, especially orchards management, becomes a challenging venture as there is a pressing demand regarding the quality of products [1
]. The overexploitation of natural resources and agriculture intensification are two major drivers which significantly threaten natural landscapes and global sustainability [2
]. All the fundamental components of agricultural production, from the seed or plant planting to culture and nourishing them, until harvesting and marketing, need to be managed carefully with a higher intensity for coping with the challenges of current food demands without hampering the ecological balances and diversity. Nowadays, the careful management of farms has become a focal point that supports the current trends of production intensification in a specialized way while facilitating ecological friendliness [3
]. However, facilitating specialized fruits production tactics has become a prominent way to promote ecological construction while enabling farmers’ poverty alleviation and economic development [4
Interestingly, specialty fruit crops represent an innovative production method that enhances the substantial portion of agricultural production value [5
]. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines specialty crops by covering fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops. Specifically, the study focuses on fruit production because it represents many specialty crops [6
]. However, China’s orchard fruit industry mainly covers cultivating, managing and processing grapes, citrus, apples, pears, peaches and other related fruit production and processing industries [7
]. Seemingly, the orchard fruit industry is an essential component of China’s agricultural industry structure [8
] which has higher competitive advantages, fosters benefits than conventional agriculture and helps farmers achieve rapid growth in agricultural income [9
]. The government is also highlighting the importance of specialty crops in various ways. For example, in November 2016, the State Council of China issued the notice regarding the 13th five-year plan for poverty alleviation to combat poverty, which proposed combining the national ecological construction project and highlighted the importance of several orchard industries with ecological and economic benefits [11
]. Moreover, in 2018, the “No. 1 Central Document of China” emphasized to “further promote the greening, quality supervising, specializing and branding the specialty agricultural products [12
However, as the main agribusiness agent, the behavioral responses of the farmers should be captured effectively for understanding the development of the special orchard-based fruit industry [13
]. According to Corris [15
], farmers’ ecological cognition mostly relies on their interpersonal understanding, perception and plan of action, which is mostly altered by several externalities. Yang et al. [16
] defined farmer ecological responses behavior as “the set of knowledge, skills and thought that can alters or minimize the negative externalities” which lead them to face external environmental changes spontaneously for taking the planting decisions and behavior accordingly. Some scholars have roughly divided the key factors affecting farmers’ behavioral decisions into external and individual factors [17
]. While some scholars highlighted that individual characteristics such as household characteristics, household heads perceptions, social impacts, educational status, training facilities and interpersonal innovativeness could be decisive factors in understanding farmers’ behavior [19
]. However, some academics have different opinions on whether farmers’ cognition influences their decision-making behavior [22
]. Some scholars believe that there is a positive correlation between behavioral cognition and behavioral actions, which leads behavioral cognition directly to the actor’s behavioral intention and decision [24
]. Seemingly, some scholars also point out the inconsistency between farmers’ cognition and behavioral decision-making process and they also pointed there is no significant causal relationship between farmers’ cognition and decision-making [26
]. The divergence between cognition and behavior of economic agents is reflected as cognitive conflict [28
The existing studies on farmers’ responses and decision-making behavior towards new technology and its influence have been relatively wealthy [30
]. In contrast, very few publications have been traced to quantify the farmers’ ecological cognition in response to special orchard fruit planting behavior. There is a lack of research on whether a specific technology or measure will affect farmers’ decision-making behavior [33
]. However, maximizing the orchards fruit farmer’s economic return and the ecological benefits of specialty orchard fruit planting still need to be explored compressively [35
]. Fewer studies have focused on the ecological factors on farmers’ decision-making and response behavior within the context of orchard farmers [36
]. Several external and internal factors frequently influence farmers’ decision-making behavior and these variables should be explored cohesively [37
]. Seemingly, the key factors that affect farmers’ ecological behavior regarding specialty orchard fruit planting have not been explored adequately yet. The inner relationship between these critical factors has not been explored critically also by existing pieces of literature.
Therefore, the study intends to analyze the following research questions: (i) Does farmers’ cognition of ecological agriculture influence their response to specialty fruit productions? (ii) Does farmers’ adoption of water conservation measures influence their response to specialty orchard fruit planting? (iii) What other factors influence farmers’ response to specialty orchard fruit planting? (iv) Finally, which factors are the deep-rooted root causes of constraints on farmers’ response to specialty orchard fruits planting? The answers to the above questions are convenient in screening the potential driving forces affecting farmers’ planting of specialty orchard farming and opening up the channel to increase farmers’ income and protect the ecology simultaneously. The study selects Shaanxi and Ningxia provinces as the research area covering the Loess Plateau region of China. The research focuses on how the adoption behavior of planting specialty fruits and its degree impacts the farmers’ income, water conservation and eco-product price cognition, which quantifies as the prime strength and novelty of the study. Interestingly, to the best of our knowledge, the inner relationships between specialty fruit productions behavior and farmers’ ecological cognition have not been studied previously.
2. Conceptual Framework
The specialty forestry and fruit industry and its planting decision have a significant relationship between economic benefits and ecological protection maximization [38
]. The primary purpose of planting any sort of crops or orchards is to sell products to gain income, so the study takes the theory of farmers’ behavior as the primary theoretical basis [39
]. According to the theory, the rational farmer can be further subdivided into complete rational and limited rational farmers. The complete rational farmers believe that the rational person’s goal depends on optimization or utility maximization, but the hypothesis of complete rationale is relatively complicated [40
]. Therefore, Russell and Simon [41
] proposed the “limited rationality hypothesis,” which argues that farmers’ decision-making behavior is “subjectively perfectly rational, but objectively limited to do so.” Therefore, from the most basic gist of the limited rationality hypothesis, the maximization of benefits in farmers’ decision-making process is only for the subjective knowledge of decision-makers [42
In contrast, cognition plays a vital role in farmers’ decision-making process and, specifically, the level of ecological agriculture cognition is an essential factor influencing farmers’ special forestry and fruit planting [43
]. Different scholars have different definitions of ecological agriculture cognition. For example, Tang et al. [44
] defined farmers’ cognition as the interpersonal concern and perception regarding any specific situation that impacts their interests. Zhu and Wang [45
] defined ecological agriculture cognition as farmers’ subjective knowledge and thought about the ecological agriculture production models. By evaluating the above definition, the study defines ecological agriculture cognition as “how farmers obtain information through various channels, analyze and understand it in order to capture the maximum value within limited resources”. We evaluate farmers’ cognition of ecological agriculture as three distinct criterion (cognition of eco-agriculture in increasing income, water conservation and eco-product price).
The cognition of eco-agriculture in increasing income reflects the objective reality of farmers’ cognition by capturing the household’s economic solvency from the ecological development [46
]. Farmers who understand this issue deeply will be optimistic about the future income increase brought by planting unique orchard fruits and then paying more attention to ecological agriculture and specialty orchards fruits industry [48
]. Mouron et al. [49
] studied Swiss Apple orchards and found that environmental cognition substantially helps choose the best pesticides and organic farming tactics, which eventually helps farmers’ increase household income. As a result, it could be estimated that farmers will be more enthusiastic about planting specialty orchard fruits and expanding the planting rate. Based on this, the study proposes Hypothesis 1:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
The cognition of eco-agriculture increase income positively influences farmers’ response to specialty forestry and fruits planting.
The cognition of eco-agriculture water conservation reflects the result of farmers’ awareness of the objective reality that the development of eco-agriculture can maintain maximum use of soil and water resources [50
]. Therefore, the development of ecological agriculture, especially in the unique forestry and fruit industry, farmers’ ecological cognition can positively affect soil and water conservation [51
]. The more farmers know about the importance of ecological soundness, the more they can understand the criticality of developing specialty forestry and fruits for soil and water conservation and ecological protection [52
]. Therefore, it can be assumed that the more the farmer possesses a positive attitude regarding ecological safety, the more they will be willing to develop unique forestry and fruits and expand the planting rate. Based on this, the article proposes Hypothesis 2:
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
The cognition of eco-agriculture water conservation positively influences farmers’ response to specialty forestry and fruits planting.
The cognition of eco-product price reflects the result of farmers’ objective reality that the price of ecological agricultural products is different from the other conventional products [53
]. Product price is an important driving force for farmers to improve the mode of the agricultural operation and adjust the structure of agricultural operation [54
]. Specialty orchard fruit products are an essential type of ecological product that is found to gain more price than the other fruit as it is widely recognized as organic and relatively safer food [4
]. In several studies, it has been found that ecological friendly oriented fruit successfully refers to high-value fruit than the other conventional fruits (such as Weibel et al. [56
] and Canavari et al. [57
]). The higher the price recognition of unique orchard fruit products farmers can get, the more they will develop their particular orchard fruit industry and expand the planting scale [58
]. Based on this, the study proposes Hypothesis 3:
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
The cognition of eco-product price positively influences farmers’ response to specialty forestry and fruits planting.
The above hypotheses are graphically illustrated in Figure 1
, which we used as the study’s conceptual framework.
This study crafted its findings based on research data from 416 farmers in specialty forest fruit growing areas in China’s Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces. Regression analysis was conducted using an econometric model to explore the influence of ecological agriculture cognition on the response behavior of specialty forest fruit growing. The study first found that ecological agriculture cognition significantly influenced farmers’ specialty forest fruit planting and quantity decisions. The finding also highlights that farmers’ ecological agriculture cognition could dramatically improve farmers’ specialty forest fruit planting behavior. The findings of this study are consistent with Xue et al. [70
], Wang et al. [71
], Li et al. [72
], Azadi et al. [73
] and Das V. et al. [74
], who also found that farmers’ cognition is an essential factor in farmers’ behavioral decisions. The above findings are also consistent with the theory of planned behavior [75
], which suggests that attitudes, subjective norms influence individuals’ actual behavior and perceived behavioral control, which influences individuals’ cognition and rectifies their actual decision-making behavior [25
]. In particular, the study by Zhang et al. [77
] indicated that farmers’ perceptions of pesticide residues would positively impact farmers’ adoption of eco-friendly agricultural production, which is consistent with the study’s findings.
The effect of the cognition of eco-agriculture increases income on farmers’ response to planting specialty orchard fruits is positive. It shows that the higher the expectation of ecological agriculture income increase, the more farmers are willing to develop ecological agriculture. The possible explanations are as follows: first, ecological agriculture improves the economic benefits of farmers by improving agricultural land-use efficiency and labor productivity. The economic benefit is the primary factor to stimulate farmers to engage in ecological agriculture, which determines farmers’ planting behavior [78
]. Seemingly, the effect of the cognition of eco-agriculture water conservation on farmers’ response to planting specialty orchard fruits is positive. The possible explanation is that ecological agriculture is resource-saving agriculture, which can improve the land-use rate, output rate and have a water-saving effect [79
]. In developing ecological agriculture, the “green” vegetation cover reduces water evaporation and conserves water sources, essential for soil and water conservation. However, soil and water conservation can protect scarce cultivated land resources, reduce crop yield risk, bring long-term benefits to farmers [80
] and improve the level of ecological agriculture specialization [50
]. Therefore, soil and water conservation and ecological agriculture promote each other. Specialty orchard fruits are typical representatives of commercialized ecological agriculture [81
]. The effect of the cognition of eco-product price on farmers’ response to specialty orchard fruit planting is also positive. The possible explanations are as follows: first, the market demand for ecological products is increasing with the improvement of social and economic movement, green transition and healthier food supply options. On the other hand, the market price is also relatively higher. Thus, price cognition of ecological products is steadily improving, promoting ecological agriculture and gradually transforming the ecological advantages of ecological agriculture into economic advantages [82
The production mechanism and style of smallholder farmers have their particularity. In pursuing utility maximization, it should meet the consumption needs of family members and obtain market profits by participating in market transactions [83
]. Typically, farmers seek a balance between consumer needs and market profits. With the implementation of ecological agriculture, the family planting structure has been adjusted and farmers increase their total income by planting crops with relatively high market prices. Compared with other agricultural products, the commercialization rate of specialty orchard fruits is higher [84
], which means that the proportion of the specialty forest and fruits used in the market transaction is relatively large and the marketization degree is also high [85
However, the study differs from some of the existing studies. For example, our study showed that gender did not affect farmers’ specialty forest fruit growing behavior. This is not consistent with the investigations of He et al. [86
] and Abdulai et al. [87
]. The main reason for this difference is that with the increasing labor exodus in China, the labor force for agricultural production in rural areas has shifted mainly from male to female producers, thus leading to a gradual dilution of the gender factor [88
]. In addition, our study found significant differences in the factors influencing farmers’ decision-making behavior and quantity decisions for specialty forest fruit planting, where the scale of agricultural planting was not the main factor influencing whether farmers planted specialty forest fruit. In contrast, ecological agricultural training was an essential factor influencing farmers’ specialty forest fruit planting rate. Zakaria et al. [90
] found that farmers can learn about new technologies through training and application courses and by learning to promote new technologies, they can enhance their agricultural operations. It is similar to our study. Therefore, the government should consider strengthening the empowerment of decision-makers, raising their awareness of environmental protection by planting special forest fruits and encouraging their active participation to improve the decision-making behavior of farmers in the planting of unique forest fruits.
Based on micro survey data of 416 orchard farmer’s households in Shaanxi and Ningxia provinces, the study uses the bounded rationality theory as a theoretical framework. A double-hurdle model was used to analyze farmers’ responses for quantitative decision-making behavior. Moreover, the study uses the ISM model to analyze how the cognition of eco-agriculture increases income, the cognition of eco-agriculture water conservation and the cognition of eco-product price affecting farmers’ behavior regarding specialty orchard fruit planting. Seemingly, the study also constructs a hierarchical structure relationship among the influencing factors and profoundly explores the root factors affecting orchards farmers’ characteristics by using ISM. The main conclusions of this paper are as follows: first, the farmers who planted specialty orchard fruits accounted for 74.28% of the total sample farmers. The average planting scale was 4.29 mu and the average planting rate of characteristic orchard fruits was 49.86%. Second, farmers’ ecological agriculture cognition has directly affected farmers’ behavior and it has acted as a root factor to influence the farmer’s behavior. The higher the degree of farmers’ cognition of eco-agriculture increase income, eco-agriculture water conservation and eco-product price, the more inclined they are to plant specialty orchard fruit, which also verifies the correctness of hypotheses 1 and 2. The higher cognition level regarding eco-agriculture increases income and eco-product price lead the farmer to expand the specialty orchard fruit planting and it verifies the correctness of Hypothesis 3. Third, farmers’ endowment differences and regional factors are found as root factors affecting farmers’ responses to specialty orchard fruit planting. Fourth, regional variables, farmers with younger household heads, more training in ecological agriculture, higher annual household income and a higher degree of agricultural specialization have a higher probability of planting specialty orchard fruits. At the same time, farmers with more training in ecological agriculture, higher annual household income, smaller agricultural planting scale and a higher degree of agricultural specialization develop specialty orchard fruits on a larger scale.
The development of specialty orchard fruits has both ecological and economic benefits, which is a practical and effective way to ensure ecological security and increase farmers’ income in the Loess Plateau area. However, how to promote farmers’ response to the planting of specialty orchard fruits has become a vital issue. Therefore, the government departments should introduce policies to strengthen government guidance and improve farmers’ awareness of ecological agriculture based on farmers’ diversity characteristics. The specific recommendations are as follows:
The government should highlight the benefit of ecological products and the betterment of ecological agriculture. The government should also uphold the special characteristic of the ecological orchard to produce a brand effect, economic benefit and social benefit. For this thrives, concerned authorities should promptly arrange cultural festivals and experience exchange meetings to capture the added value of ecological products. The government should extend the supports of agricultural demonstration zone to practically displays the innovative tactics, methods and another technological advancement should also be properly circulated. The concerned authorities should also arrange specialized training facilities to enhance farmers’ expectations of the rising price of characteristic orchard fruits, improve the ability to capture market equilibrium power and promote the peaceful development of characteristic orchard fruits. The government should strengthen the information-sharing platform to minimize the knowledge gap. Modern planting techniques and management concepts should also be highlighted via agricultural skills training programs. The farmers and agricultural service providers should be integrated for solving technical problems in agricultural production to improve farmers’ specialization in specialty fruit production. There is a rising concern to refine the existing agro-environmental policies based on differences in individual farm household characteristics. The farmers’ diversity and micro incentive measures should be introduced from the regional capital structure, technology, land and water use. The policies should focus on promoting large-scale operations and give small farmers space for being developed.