By Rebecca Bartels

What It Means To Be A Supportive Change Agent

October 25, 2021

It’s not hyperbole to say that there is more attention on agriculture, and what it means in practice to be sustainable or regenerative, than there has been in human history. With companies like Walmart, General Mills, Cargill, The Fertilizer Institute, IndigoAg, and so many more rolling out iterations of “acres converted to sustainable ag practices” goals, it’s a momentous time to be a part of the movement.

My colleague, Drew Slattery, human dimensions of change lead for the Trust In Food ™ team summed up the philosophy of change needed to make impact in his recent post by saying, “The decisions made for how every single one of our nation’s 800+ million farmland acres are managed is made by a person, or by a group of people… This is about changing people.”

So what does it mean, exactly to support the people impacted by regenerative change across the American agriculture landscape?

I look at it as the difference between project management and change management.

While project management focuses on the technical (including processes, systems, tools), the change management side focuses on the people, and the provision of support and information for enablement, engagement, adoption and use of a change.

Prosci clarifies the delineation by saying:

Project management: To realize project objectives and organizational benefits from successful change by designing, developing and delivering the technical solution—given time, cost and scope constraints—and to utilize resources effectively (i.e., managing the technical side of change).

Change Management:  To realize project objectives and organizational benefits by applying a systematic approach for helping people impacted by change move through their individual transitions, so they can successfully engage, adopt and use a solution (i.e., managing the people side of change).

Both approaches are necessary, and should be provided in tandem, but agriculture is in an especially unique situation, as we’re not talking about supporting a corporate entity’s employees in a time of prescribed change. We’re talking about supporting individual, business-owning decision makers with hundreds of unique variables at play ranging from location, systems, tools, mindsets/beliefs, finances, processes, perceived risk, etc. Furthermore, studies show that farmers uniquely view farming as who they are, not just what they do, raising the stakes for their emotional investment in operational changes.

Fully supporting the human element of change in sustainable agriculture is requiring a level of individualized, data-driven planning that hasn’t typically been part of the average agricultural lexicon in the way it has for other commercial industries. And that has to change. The public pressure farmers are under to “be sustainable” cannot be coupled with a lack of supportive resources to do so.

So what are the organizations on the cutting edge of change management doing to effectively support farmers while they drive towards sustainable conversion goals?

1) Recognizing that farmers are really not homogenous

This may seem obvious. Everyone is different.

But what we’re learning from diving deep into Farm Journal’s 4.1 million record database, and digging into producers’ behavioral and psychographic characteristics, is that down to the county level, and even down to producer demographic subsets within a single county, trust levels, support needs, and sustainable readiness vary drastically.

As an example, we recently looked at the data of farmers within a fifty-mile radius of a single county in Iowa on behalf of a client with a sustainability goal. As we looked at the behavioral and psychographic characteristics of the selected group, a population under 20,000, we noticed some material sentiment differences.

Farmers in the examined population above the median operation size were more likely to be open to learning things from the internet than their peers below the median operation size. Additionally, farmers in the examined population that had beef cows were less likely than their non-cow owning peers to say investing for the future is important to them.

This is just a sample of dozens of insights gleaned, but what comes after the analysis?

2) Turning data into individualized support strategy

Once an organization has taken the time to deeply understand the farmer population in an area with a sustainable conversation goal, including how subsets of that overall group are best reached, what messages and proof cases they’re in need of, and what their fears and motivators are, strategy to support them in a time of change becomes much clearer.

Using the above example, if we know this specific group is unlikely to trust that what they’re learning on the internet is reliable, we need to provide information in another, more trusted forum. Perhaps the data shows they’re very active in community organizations. Perhaps they have a higher level of confidence in printed material. A communication plan that utilizes mailers from a community organization partner becomes a logical, effective direction.

And for the farmers in the beef cow group? If investing for the future isn’t a high priority for them, messaging should be designed that avoids reliance on investment now for a later return as a selling point for practice changes.

The data is critical to devising a change-making community-specific outreach plan, complete with material, in-person engagements, and a well-informed boots-on-the-ground implementing team.

3) Keeping a long-term view of success

Across any change movement, there will be people who are innovators and early hand raisers. There will be fast followers, an early and late majority, and laggards.

In order to fully scope the time it will take to achieve the short term regenerative goals popping up, and create an environment that supports the continuous improvement on what sustainability and regenerative ag means across U.S. agriculture. We, as a group, need to be focusing on strategies that carry past supporting the innovators and early adopters through to methods that will touch the hearts and minds of the early and late majority, or the “moveable middle.” We must reiterate, restudy, and refresh our understanding of the funnel as the people move through the phases of decision making and implementation.

It is important to remember that there are so many factors beyond farmers’ control; from commodity prices, to ongoing consolidation that limits who they can buy from or sell their outputs to, to weather, pests, diseases and policies.

“Farming happens to be one of the more stressful occupations that people engage in in the United States,” said Sean Brotherson, professor and extension family science specialist North Dakota State University. “There’s research that suggests it’s consistently among the top 10 most stressful [and dangerous] occupations.”

Largely, farmers seem to recognize that change is needed. A recent Trust In Food study of the livestock industry that garnered more than 900 producer responses across more than 40 states found that 79% of producers say they should change production practices to meet consumer demands.

The pressure to change is clearly felt. Let’s do what we can to design outreach programs that effectively support the hearts and minds of farmers in their decision making as we strive towards sustainable goals together, recognizing that there’s so much that happens before a change takes place in a field.

Want to brainstorm how to do this together? Drop me a line at rbartels@farmjournal.com

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