CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Research has found that building a relationship of trust between a conservation practitioner and farmer has the most positive impact on implementing conservation practices on the farm.
Chris Morris, an Iowa State University Ph.D. candidate in rural sociology and sustainable agriculture, was a recent guest on an Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction podcast presented by University of Illinois Extension and hosted by Todd Gleason, media communications specialist.
Morris has studied social and structural factors that influence farmer adoption of conservation practices and how programs, policies, education and technical assistance can be best used to encourage and support farmers to grow food, fiber and fuel more sustainably.
He referred to multiple research projects that looked at factors that influence conservation practice adoption.
One study looked at the effect of Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation plans on practice adoption.
“What we found with that study was it wasn’t actually conservation plans that made the difference, but that multiple interactions with conservation professionals over time through technical assistance was actually the most consistent predictor of conservation practice adoption,” Morris said.
“So, in other words, building a relationship of trust over time between a conservation practitioner and a farmer was the thing that made the most positive impact on getting conservation on the ground.”
He also worked with the Soil and Water Conservation Society on the “Conservation Practitioner Poll” project, surveying conservation practitioners across six Midwestern states.
“One of the main findings from that project is according to conservation professionals it’s one-on-one technical assistance, preferably in the field with farmers, that contributes the most to success as far as getting conservation on the ground,” he said.
“Multiple interactions with conservation professionals over time through technical assistance was the most consistent predictor of conservation practice adoption.”— Chris Morris, Ph.D. candidate in rural sociology and sustainable agriculture, Iowa State University
“Interestingly, what the conservation practitioners told us is that’s usually the thing they get to spend the least amount of time on in their jobs and yet it’s the thing that they find the most effective for getting conservation established.”
Part of his dissertation examines how experiences of trauma can affect farmer decision-making.
“So, things like floods, droughts, on-farm injuries, the 1980s farm crisis, increasingly relying on agricultural inputs that are always increasing in price, going through boom-and-bust commodity markets, even stress over time itself can be traumatic,” he said.
“What we’re finding is that these potentially traumatic experiences can have a real effect on farmer decision-making, particularly when it comes to risk aversion.”
A major focus of his research focuses on the largest barriers to conservation practice adoption.
He also referred to the research conducted by Pranay Ranjan and Linda Prokopy of Purdue University who have reviewed the scientific literature from the past several decades on barriers and motivations for conservation adoptions.
The three top factors Ranjan and Prokopy found in terms of barriers were economics, incorporating new practices into farm management and social pressure on farmers.
“I want to talk about the economics part because a lot of times people will just hear that and think farmers may be reluctant to install conservation practices because of the cost of those practices or the potential for reduced income,” Morris said.
“But my research looking into trauma found the story is a lot deeper than that. It’s not just that farmers might have a decrease in their yield and therefore their income. Anyone who works with farmers knows that a lot of farmers are working on very thin profit margins from year to year, and in many years many farmers will actually take a loss.
“What that means is that doing something new, incorporating new conservation practices into their farm management, not only is that risky, but if they potentially have a catastrophic failure and something goes really wrong, it’s not just that they might have a loss of income. They might be at risk of losing the farm.
“Farming is not just a job to farmers. It’s a way of life. Many of these farmers may be working on land that has been in their family for several generations. So, the thought of doing something potentially risky doesn’t just come down to simple economics. It comes down to the risk of potentially losing their way of life and losing a family legacy.”
Morris hasn’t seen any literature that specifically looks at the difference between conservation adoption rates of farmers approached by conservation professionals versus approached by farmers, but said both approaches are important depending on the farmer.
“A lot of times farmers will trust other farmers more so than they will a conservation professional that may be coming from a government agency,” he said.
“So, being able to network with other farmers, ask them questions about how they implemented a certain practice, what things went wrong, what they would recommend doing in the future, a lot of times that’s a lot easier avenue for them to begin to explore using a practice as opposed to a conservation professional coming in and just recommending something like that.
“That’s one of the reasons that field days and workshops where you can get farmers together are really important, and I think that when conservation professionals attend those field days, as well, they’re also helping build those relationships of trust not only with farmers, but between farmers. That’s something that can be really productive.”
Going back to his research, Morris said it all really comes down to relationships of trust.
“We know that there are a wide variety of factors that influence human behavior. Human behavior is really complicated. It’s one of the hardest things to model, but we do know trust has a huge factor on behavior outcomes,” he said.
Morris recommends that conservation professionals do the work of having multiple interactions with farmers over time, one-on-one, face-to-face, in the field if possible.
“We know from conservation practitioner experience, as well as talking to farmers, that that’s something that really has a positive impact on conservation adoption. And it’s important that conservation professionals don’t just leave it there in terms of developing a conservation plan, getting a practice installed and then walking away,” he said.
“You really have to come back and review those principles with the farmer, do some follow-up and make sure that they are integrating those practices successfully into their overall farm management.”
On the farmer’s side, Morris noted the “coffee shop effect.”
“We know that in rural communities farmers talk to each other. A lot of times they’ll gather at the coffee shop, and they sort of interrogate each other about what they’re doing,” he said.
“So, maybe one farmer tries implementing cover crops and he might hear other farmers say his fields ‘are looking pretty weedy there.’ Or, maybe another farmer tries no-till and someone might tell her, ‘your fields look kind of trashy.’ Those are words that I’ve heard from farmers.
“If a farmer who has tried a new practice is willing to engage with his or her peers and say, ‘well, actually it’s not weedy out there, I’ve incorporated a multi-species cover crop that is benefiting my soil health and reducing the amount of nitrogen that I have to put on the field every year,’ they can come at it from a conversational standpoint. They can use those relationships of trust to have an influence on farmers in their community.
“We also see the effect of farmers driving by their neighbors, looking at their fields, seeing what they’re doing. I would encourage farmers to reach out to their neighbors and ask if they’d like to come to their place and talk about what they’re doing.
“Obviously, there’s a bit of risk in opening yourself up like that, but I think if you’re going to make a difference in soil and water conservation in the Midwest, all of us are going to have to do things that are inherently a little bit riskier. Ultimately, if that contributes to relationships of trust, that can be a positive impact.”