Whether it be to appease the ever-growing demand for organics or to become more environmentally friendly, conservation agriculture is on the rise. As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, this agricultural approach is described as having a focus on improved and sustained productivity, increased profits, and food security while preserving and enhancing the environment. There are many different practices that can fall under the title of conservation agriculture, however most definitions include these general ideas. To some, it seems like the obvious solution for everyone practicing conventional agriculture, which generally uses a lot of inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides) and intensive tillage, to begin transitioning to conservation agriculture in order to sustain our planet. So why don’t they?
Under the broader umbrella of improving water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed, the focus of my project this summer was to see how conventional farmers can be encouraged to adopt best management practices (BMPs). The BMPs that we concentrated on included no-till, riparian buffers, cover crops, managed grazing, nutrient management plans, and manure management. I was specifically interested in how social connections might affect BMP adoption. Does the amount of social connections between farmers increase their likelihood to adopt BMPs? Do trust networks between neighbors influence BMP adoption?
To begin exploring these questions, my research partner Elise Martinez and I drove around the Red Cedar Watershed administering surveys that farmers either took in person or mailed in. The survey includes questions about what conservation practices the farmer uses, values, and interactions with county and agency staff. Out of 777 active farmers in the watershed, we received 180 responses, a response rate of 23%. We also conducted interviews with people involved in the farming community and attended farm visits in order to augment our numbers with qualitative data. For my questions that focused on social connections, I relied on our last survey question which asked participating farmers to name up to five people that they trust for farming advice. I used these connections to build a social network map of the Red Cedar Watershed.
I focused my results into four categories: a social network map, farmer connections and heat maps, leisure, and visibility. The social network map, created through KUMU, showed the relationship between the amount of BMPs used and the influence of a neighbor’s BMP use. There is a significant positive correlation between a farmer’s BMP use and their neighbors’ BMP influence, meaning that farmers who were influenced by their neighbors use more BMPs. This relates directly to our findings of farmer connections, which further illustrates that it matters for farmers to be in the network. Farmers who are connected to fewer than one person on average say that their neighbor’s BMP use hinders their own use, and farmers connected to approximately three people say their neighbor’s BMP use supports their own. Similarly, I created heat maps that show that the middle area of the Red Cedar Watershed is the most connected, and that there is only one small area in the watershed where farmers listed trusting their closest neighbors. At first, this seems to say the opposite from the social network map, however it is really bringing to light a missed opportunity…farmers ARE influenced by their neighbors, however these are not the people they immediately think to list as a trusted person. Therefore, it is important to foster trusting relationships between farmers and their neighbors in order to increase BMP use.
Next, using statistics run through STATA, I created a regression line that represents the relationship between leisure time and BMP use: the more a farmer values leisure time, the more BMPs they use on their land. Therefore, it is necessary for farmers to value and use leisure time to increase their social connectivity and ultimately improve their conservation agriculture practices. Lastly, I created a correlation chart that represents the relationship between the influence of a neighbors’ BMP use and each type of BMP. The statistically significant BMPs were cover crops, midfield buggers, riparian buffers, fencing, conservation easements, managed grazing, and manure management, many of the BMPs that are the most visible for farmers to see one another utilizing.
Overall, to increase BMP adoption it is crucial for farmers to be socially connected in order to build trust and share knowledge. It is clear that farmers trust one another for farming advice and that knowledge is often adopted from neighbors. This research and these findings are very important because they highlight how interdisciplinary solutions need to be. Encouraging farmers to transition from conventional to conservation agriculture is not just a matter of making it financially feasible or increasing equipment access: it also includes the necessity for farmers to receive worthy information from people that they trust, typically information that is tried and true.
This summer was my first experience doing a long term research project, and as a sustainable agriculture student, these findings will always inspire me. I love growing food and am so happy to be part of my farming community back home, and having my research back up my instinct that social connectivity is vital in the transition to conservation agriculture is very gratifying. Going forward with my higher education goals, it will be important for me to keep in mind how much community matters, both in terms of negating isolation and for trust and knowledge sharing. I hope these findings will inspire others to foster these social connections between farmers moving forward in the conservation agriculture world.