Growing Conservation Agriculture: Farmers and Ag Education
University of Wisconsin--Stout
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Our summer’s sociological research on farmers had an ending that felt more like a beginning, hopefully offering some optimism to the question of “Is it too late to fix our lakes?”. After analyzing about 180 survey responses from a list of active farmers in the Red Cedar Watershed, we absorbed all kinds of information about their practices, values, and experiences interacting with different agencies and organizations. We also explored ways to analyze farmers’ social networks by asking farmers to list individuals that they trust for farming advice, knowing that farmland is the dominant determinant of both land and water quality. In short, conservation agriculture matters a lot for water quality, and we need to know more about farmers’ constraints in transitioning more to improving the long-term physical stability and biological integrity of the farming landscape. In the final weeks of this research project, our sociology team of three spent many hours working on statistical regression models of several different kinds and reviewing our notes from interviews with various people within the conservation agriculture movement here in Dunn County, including both farmers and those who work with farmers extensively. As challenging as it has been to pinpoint our findings at times, one element has been prominently featured in my research findings—the importance of educational opportunities for farmers. Our survey was designed to assess how farmers’ felt about participating in several types of educational opportunities ranging from livestock management to economic projections to soil health. Among these education options, attending conferences on conservation agriculture, particularly along with other farmers, seemed to be an especially significant form of education for farmers in terms of increasing their likelihood of adopting conservation agriculture techniques. Components of conservation agriculture include: no-till, cover crops, manure management, grass waterways, nutrient management plans, conservation easements, livestock fencing and managed grazing, and riparian buffers. After this initial finding, my research narrowed in on one specific question: Why might farmers with the lowest levels of conservation agriculture usage attend more conservation agriculture conferences with other farmers? In other words, I wanted to know what sorts of factors most influence farmers with low amount of conservation agriculture to embrace such conferences. As with many scientific questions of this nature, it was a formidable (if not nearly impossible) goal to assert a definitive or causal answer to this question. The variables that showed a statistically significant correlation with this particular group of farmers turned out to be: 1) how much their neighbor’s conservation agriculture usage supports their own adoption, 2) farmers’ social connections (e.g. with government agencies and farmer-led organizations), and 3) how frequently they test their soil. Considering the effectiveness of farmers’ participation in conservation agriculture conferences, our research suggests that integrating farmers, especially those not yet doing conservation agriculture, into social networks with other farmers doing so. It is also important to link those farmers more productively with government agencies like the Natural Resource Conservation Service or county Land and Water Conservation Divisions, among others. As mentioned before, this “conclusion” feels more like a starting point for further research and initiatives. To me, our findings are indicative of a larger and perhaps even more overwhelming theme at work. As it stands, a problem worth mentioning is the aging generation of farmers who lack sufficient replacements in their line of work in the Red Cedar Watershed. With the pressures that farmers are facing today economically and the perception of lowering returns on their efforts to act sustainably (which seems to not actually be the case in the long term, as you will see from our LAKES REU economics research in other articles, coming soon to the Dunn County News), the farmers I spoke to this summer feel placed in nothing less than a uniquely difficult position. Through my observations, it has become clear that there is a wide gap between how highly farmers value and recognize the natural resources on their land and their limited ability to preserve its biological integrity, especially in terms of water quality, as single actors in a complex system. As I am finding, this is not a concern that affects farmers exclusively. Only a few days ago, I was describing the conclusions of my research to a local shop owner in downtown Menomonie. She raised the question that I believe many residents of the Red Cedar Watershed have on their minds: So is it too late to fix our lakes? As this question hung in the air for both of us, I thought hard about my answer. In a technical sense and from what I have gathered from the biology team, if agricultural inputs of phosphorus were to cease completely this instant today, it still would not be enough action to remediate the situation to a healthy, ecologically-restored equilibrium tomorrow. The legacy phosphorus is quite large in the lakes at this point. There would need to eventually be some things done in the lakes as well. Unfortunately, this scientific reality is not a rare one among many environmental pollution problems across the globe, but, naturally, it is not the answer that most people want to hear either. As I contemplated ways to diplomatically, yet truthfully, answer this shopkeeper’s rather daunting question, I found myself following a personal tendency to look for the silver linings in environmental problems instead. The answer I shared with her focused on my belief that the power of new generations is often underestimated. I shared with her how our survey has shown steady improvements in education programs over time by comparing past conservation agriculture conference participants with current participants. I shared with her how younger farmers are creating more of a demand for conservation agriculture equipment, such as no-till drills, and how the economy is actively responding to that need. I shared with her stories of conventionally operating farmers who are noticing the way their neighbors are changing their land management techniques to be more sustainable and economically rewarding at the same time. Finally, I shared with her some words of wisdom from one of my interviews with an older farmer this summer: “People used to think of farming as a natural resource…I believe that when you buy a piece of land, you are signing up to be a trustee." I believe there is a choice to make. One option is to look at agricultural issues as if it is a shame we have departed from this particular school of thinking. The other is to look at these same issues as if there is a new beginning to be found in returning to the kinds of roots that this farmer described to me. Personally, I find that this summer’s research experience has left me embracing new beginnings.
University of Colorado at Boulder