Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Loaded Question: “So is it too late to fix our lakes?”

            In a practical sense, as this summer’s research draws to a close, it is hard to for me to come to the realization that the majority of what I have been doing for the past eight weeks by surveying farmers and analyzing their responses is coming to an end.  But by the same token, I know that my true contemplation on all that I have learned is only just beginning.  In experiences past, I strongly believe that these situations of endings that feel more like beginnings have been some of the most rewarding, challenging, and memorable ones yet.

This summer’s research seems to have fit this scenario exactly as described.  After qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing about 180 survey responses from a list of active farmers in the Red Cedar Watershed, we have been absorbing all kinds of information about these farmers’ practices, values, and experiences interacting with different agencies and organizations.  We also explored ways to represent farmers’ social networks by asking farmers to list individuals that they trust for farming advice.  In the final weeks of this research project, our sociology team of three has spent many hours poring over regression models of several different kinds and reviewing our notes from interviews with key actors within the conservation agriculture movement here in Dunn County, as well as notes from the farmers that we have been surveying throughout the past few months.  As challenging as it has been to pinpoint our findings at times, one element has been prominently featured in my research findings—the importance of educational opportunities for farmers.
Our survey was designed to assess how farmers’ felt about participating in several types of these educational opportunities ranging from livestock management to economic projections to soil health.  Amongst all of these options, group conferences on Best Management Practices (BMPs) were shown to be an especially powerful form of education for farmers in terms of increasing their likelihood of adopting conservation agriculture techniques. (Best Management Practices are those that which improve the long-term physical stability and biological integrity of the farming landscape and examples include: no-till, cover crops, manure management, grass waterways, nutrient management plans, conservation easements, livestock fencing and managed grazing, and riparian buffers.) After this initial finding, my research narrowed in on one specific question: Why might farmers with the lowest levels of BMP usage attend more group conservation agriculture conferences? In other words, I wanted to know what sorts of factors should be considered in order to get these farmers with low BMPs interested in embracing group conferences focused on conservation agriculture as a form of education.
As with many scientific questions of this nature, it was a formidable (if not nearly impossible) goal to assert a definitive or causal answer to this question. Instead, we were able to extract some very explicit factors that correlated with farmers who had low levels of BMPs that were also interested in attending group conferences on BMPs.  The variables that showed a statistically significant correlation with this particular group of farmers turned out to be: 1) Neighbors’ BMP usage 2) Farmers’ social connections (i.e. with agencies and farmer-led organizations) and 3) Soil test frequency. These variables could then be tied into the larger conclusion from my research that education for farmers—especially in the form of group conferences on BMPs—matters for growing conservation agriculture practices in the Red Cedar Watershed. By considering the effectiveness of farmers’ participation in group BMP conferences, our research supported a recommendation for promoting group conferences as a direction to steer farmers towards moving forward.
As mentioned before, this ending “conclusion” as described for now has only begun to feel like a starting point for further research. To me, much of our qualitative data has been indicative of a larger and perhaps even more overwhelming theme at work. As it stands, a problem worth mentioning is the aging generation of farmers, who lack sufficient replacements in their line of work, in the Red Cedar Watershed.  With the increasing pressures that these farmers are facing today economically and the lowering returns on their efforts to act sustainably as they may have generations ago, the farmers I have spoken to this summer seem placed in nothing less than an uniquely difficult position now.  Through my qualitative observations, it has become clear that there is a clear and wide gap between how highly farmers value and recognize the natural resources on their land and their limited ability to continue preserving its biological integrity, especially in terms of water quality, as single actors in a complex system. As I am finding, this is not a concern that affects farmers exclusively. Only a few days ago, I was describing the conclusions of my research to a local shop owner in downtown Menomonie.  She raised the question that I believe many residents of the Red Cedar Watershed have on their minds: So is it too late to fix our lakes?
As this question hung in the air for both of us, I thought hard about my answer.  In a technical sense and from what I have gathered from the biology team, if agricultural inputs of phosphorus were to cease completely this instant today, it still would not be enough action to remediate the situation to a healthy, ecologically-restored equilibrium tomorrow.  Unfortunately, this scientific reality is not a rare one among many environmental pollution problems across the globe, but naturally, it is not the answer that most people want to hear either. As I contemplated ways to diplomatically, yet truthfully, answer this shopkeeper’s rather daunting question, I found myself following a personal tendency to look for the silver linings in environmental problems instead.
The answer I shared with her focused on my belief that the power of new generations is often underestimated. I shared with her how our survey has shown steady improvements in education programs over time by comparing past participants with current participants. I shared with her how younger farmers are creating more of a demand for conservation agriculture equipment, such as no-till drills, and how the economy is actively responding to that need. I shared with her stories of conventionally operating farmers who are noticing the way their neighbors are changing their land management techniques to be more sustainable and economically rewarding at the same time. Finally, I shared with her some words of wisdom from one of my interviews with an older farmer this summer: “People used to think of farming as a natural resource… I believe that when you buy a piece of land, you are signing up to be a trustee." I believe there is a choice to make. One option is to look at agricultural issues as if it is a shame we have departed from this particular school of thinking. The other is to look at these same issues as if there is a new beginning to be found in returning to the kinds of roots that this farmer described to me.  Personally, I find that this summer’s research experience has left me rather partial to embracing new beginnings, rather than endings.


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