Wednesday, August 13, 2014

8 weeks over... still struggles with titles

Here it is, folks! My previous blogs have touched a bit on my summer research but without much detail. In part, this is because my research project took time to develop and really take shape. Now that the summer is over, I will do my best to summarize my research and findings.

This summer, I studied the farmer-led councils that exist in Dunn, Peirce, Polk, and St. Croix counties. These councils are part of a recent initiative that aims to give farmers a voice in deciding what incentive programs would be most effective for improving soil health and water quality. Throughout my summer of research, I noticed a few topics that kept popping up. These are my findings:

When talking with county workers, I discovered the county has difficulty enforcing environmental regulations. The regulations currently in existence are difficult and time consuming to enforce, and many of the farming practices encouraged by the county are not legally required at all. In the past, counties have attempted to incentivize farmers to switch to environmentally friendly practices by offering cost-share money, but that has its limitations. The farmer-led councils were developed in response to this problem to provide more flexible funding for incentivizing environmentally friendly practices. The councils allow farmers to decide which practices they think are worth incentivizing.

Distrust of Government
Previous experiences with government regulation have caused some tension among the farming community. Often, this discourages farmers from voluntarily working with government officials unless necessary. Interestingly, the farmer-led councils have broken this trend by attracting farmers who hope that by taking a proactive approach, they can potentially stave off more regulation.

Even within the farmer-led councils, some farmers are hesitant to trust government studies on the connection between farming practices and water quality. For those who desire to see proof for themselves, the farmer-led councils present a unique solution. Voluntary farmers can install a water-monitoring device on any field of their choice, which measures the amount of runoff coming off that field. The data from all the water-monitoring devices can give farmers a good idea of which crops and planting methods contribute the most or least amount of runoff.

Many people are excited by the potential of the farmer-led initiative, yet a few barriers exist that could slow progress. The availability of funding is one concern. While the farmer-led incentive money currently comes from a private source (the McKnight Foundation) the long-term sustainability of this funding is uncertain. One of the largest challenges to finding incentive money is the need for funding that is free from “strings attached.” The farmer-led councils must have flexible funding available for them to use as they see fit.

On the staffing side of things, the county departments involved in creating the farmer-led councils are also short of money.  Time is money, and it takes a lot of time to build relationships between the farmers within each council and between the council and the county. Currently, each county has dedicated one employee to work with the councils part-time on the farmer-led initiative. In order for the farmer-led initiative to expand, however, more paid staff time may be necessary in the future.

In closing, I think it is important to note that the farmer-led initiative is a long-term project that has only just begun. It will take time to see results. I hope that the future LAKES REU students can continue to study the initiative as it progresses over the next two years because although my time here is over, and I’m back in Iowa…

…this research is just beginning.

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