By Ethan White

Farmer Learning Community Insights From The Field: A Chorus of Conservation ’Whys’

July 26, 2021

It seems that so much of the conversation about farmers and conservation centers on why farmers are not implementing conservation, including barriers and limitations to voluntary adoption. Those sentiments sometimes sound like,  “If only we could figure out how to reduce the economic consequences of….” or,  “That will never work with our equipment limitations…” or, “There is so much generational momentum with that practice…” 

Although discussing the barriers and limitations is certainly an important piece to understand why conservation might not be moving forward, it isn’t a particularly helpful way to think if one wants to understand why (and how) conservation is moving forward. For me, working with conservation-oriented farmer groups has been a great reminder of this reality.

Over the past few weeks, I have been busy working with partners across the Midwest setting up and travelling to initial meetings with a few farmer learning community groups. I operate in a facilitation and support role with these groups, and after we go through the basics of introductions–such as how long their farm operations have been around and what they are growing and raising, etc., I like to ask a simple question that sets the tone and direction for all subsequent meetings: “What does conservation mean to you?”

Level Set: Your Own Organization’s Conservation Priorities

Before I continue on with some of the thoughts that I’ve heard from producers, I’d like to pause for a brief sidebar for all of the conservation professionals who might be reading this article. 

The question I want you to consider is the same one I ask farmers: What does conservation mean to you?

Related questions to consider at a personal and professional level include:

  • Why are you working in a field where you primarily (or perhaps tangentially) are concerned with agriculture’s conservation interventions and outcomes? 
  • What is conservation–and what is it not? 
  • How are you personally increasing conservation and sustainability in your life?

Acknowledging and trying to answer these question as a sustainable ag professional is important because: 

  1. It highlights the immense complexity of conservation.
  2. It draws out one’s personal connection and sustainability impact on our world.
  3. It helps us move forward with a mission-critical attitude of humility and compassion, allowing us to empathize with farmers who are working hard to answer these very same questions.. 

Factors That Inform Farmers’ Conservation Priorities

With that humility and compassion top of mind, let’s return to our circle of farmers who are wrestling with these questions. armers I’ve spent time with generally take a few moments to consider the question before responding. As with any small-group setting, it is always a tad uncomfortable to be the first to say why you are there or why you care. Below are some responses I’ve recently heard:

  • “Conservation means to me that I’m going to leave my farm and my land in a better place than I found it. And for my kids, it means that my kids will be able to manage this land after I’m gone, and it will still be good, it will still be healthy.”
  • “It means that I’m going to keep my soil and my nutrients on my land. And I’ll be honest, I’m glad that I don’t see the river getting muddy because my soil is washing away, but for me it is about keeping my hard work and money on my land. I’m tired of watching money wash away.”
  • “One of the biggest things to me is that I am able to spend more time with my family. When I first switched to no-till, I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. I remember one year when all of my neighbors were in the field late in the season tilling, trying to get everything done that they hadn’t… it was late, it was cold, and while they were working, I was watching a movie with my family. That’s when I knew I was on the right track.”
  • “I’m the fourth generation on this farm, it’s been passed on from my great-grandparents to me. The things we are supposed to be doing keeps changing, but they did something right if the farm has made it down to me. And I guess I see it as my job to keep that going, and do like I was taught.”
  • “I was getting killed on input prices, and I didn’t want to play a yield game, I wanted to be profitable. This is a business, this isn’t for bragging rights. I’ve been reducing my tillage and playing with things like cover crops and other rotations to use less fertilizer and pest control. So far it’s working.”
  • “I don’t know if it’s just a Biblical thing or what, but I think it’s about stewardship, just doing the right thing. Taking care of what you have is what you are supposed to be doing.”

There are so many more sentiments farmers share during these conversations, but they tend to fall along these themes: It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fiscally wise thing to do. It’s because of one’s heritage. It’s because of one’s desired legacy. It’s less time and work once you learn to do it. 

If I could place these responses into two different buckets, I would call one bucket “Pragmatic” and the other bucket “Connection”. Depending on the farmer, these buckets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that most farmers probably belong in both of these buckets. 

But there is still a notable difference between them. The “Pragmatic” bucket generally contains business arguments. Those arguments are logical, objective, calculated and able to be clearly defined and measured. This is the way that our business world works and thinks, and while it is a necessary way to understand and interact with our world, it is not the only way. 

The second bucket, “Connection”, is much more amorphous, subjective, nuanced and culturally based. At its core, these arguments are about values, and all of those values stem from a connection to people and a connection to land. They are based on the notion that to honor this connection, a farmer must farm with a decision-making ethic to keep people and land in the forefront. 

As conservation professionals, we’ve become increasingly adept at explaining to a producer the logic of conservation, expecting all farmers to be primarily driven by pragmatic claims. This is good, and this is necessary. But if we limit our outreach and engagement to claims of economic benefit, and the business value of conservation, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to the farmers whom we hope to serve. We must, as individuals, as conservation professionals, and as an agriculture industry, make room for connection to the planet and people to drive our decision making. Spend more time talking with farmers, and I bet you’ll find that most of them already are. 

Image courtesy of Lori Hays

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