The Adoption of Conservation Agriculture: What Do Producers Think?
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There are several factors that have led to the eutrophication of Lake Menomin, but many cannot be remediated. With that being said, one of the causes of “the green lake” is agricultural runoff, specifically excess nutrient runoff. Conventional land management on farms has led to soil erosion and nutrient movement from the land to surface water. Studies show the adoption of conservation on agricultural operations can reduce soil erosion, nutrient movement, and increase soil infiltration. This not only benefits the land and water, but also the farmer.
Over the course of this summer, my research has focused on interviewing and surveying farmers across The Red Cedar Watershed. These individuals were kind enough to take time out of their busy work schedule to speak to me about land management on their operation, and what factors influence their decisions. The farm operations included in my research ranged from small-scale dairy operations, both small and large beef operations, an organic orchard, and cash crop operations. All operations implemented conservation in their land management practices, although to different degrees and for different reasons. My research focused on the implementation of conservation in land management practices in an agricultural setting, and what factors influence farmer’s decisions.
All interviews were semi-structured, and questions were formulated to determine land management practices used on each operation. Specifically, those that apply to soil health, reducing nutrient movement, and reducing soil erosion (i.e., grassed waterways, conservation/no-till, soil testing, and cover cropping). I went on to discuss the factors that influence their decision to adopt conservation in the farmer’s operation, and what factors act as barriers. In addition, open ended questions were added to a survey based on whether farmers do or do not use certain conservation strategies. Once all interviews and surveys were complete and transcribed, a thematic analysis followed. This is where common themes are identified to help answer a question, and it was done through the process of coding. Each code corresponded to a theme that was formulated based on prior research, possible responses, and actual responses. After sifting through each transcript and survey response, several themes stuck out that influenced the adoption of conservation, as well as those that acted as barriers.
The factors that influenced the adoption of conservation depended on the individual and the specific practice. For some, conservation was simply imbedded in their practice, as an organic farmer recounted “We want to be able to manage the land that we have stewardship over in a way that is building soil, and is protecting our water, [and] protecting our watershed.” While other producers were influenced by ecological factors, there were economic factors that also dictated how they managed their land.
With no-till, a few farmers adopted the practice to simply save time. They quickly saw other benefits that no-till is associated with, again ranging from ecological to economic. This included soil health, resiliency, and return on investment. In a way, soil health and resiliency go hand in hand. Soil health is defined as the capacity for soil to support and sustain plants, animals, and humans. In other words, soil health breads resiliency. One dairy farmer I interviewed discussed the role soil health plays in the continuation of his operation, “I want to keep as much soil in the game as I can, that's my primary [reason] because I'm a fourth-generation dairy farmer and I don't want to be a last.” All farmland has a life expectancy, but production can be extended through land management practices that promote conservation.
Overall, many farmers’ main concern with the land management practices implemented on their operation was return on investment (ROI). The input costs of land management changes depending on the practice, and conventional tillage can be quite costly. On the other hand, the implementation of no-till can drastically reduce the operation’s input cost and increase the operation’s ROI. The impact no-till can have on yields is often seen as a major drawback, but as one farmer put it, “I don't think yield is a big drawback for us, I look at efficiency more than I do yield…it's really a return on investment.” There is a misconception that all farmers are only concerned over yields, and although it is a factor, ROI is often a more important factor.
I found myself wondering how farmers came to these conclusions. For some, it was due to their own experience, while others were influenced through engagement. Organizations that engage with farmers (for example, the NRCS) help promote the adoption of conservation in land management. This was seen with one farmer’s experience, “I credit [The NRCS] with getting the entire farm to go to no till…and he had been working on my dad for years at that point. But it was just that one little ‘Hey, what do you think? Is it time?’” Over time, and with financial incentives, these organizations can act as a critical player in future change.
The primary barrier to change is change itself. I know, it sounds redundant, but with change comes cost and uncertainty. Some operations simply do not have the equipment required for conservation practices, while others are continuing the land management practices of previous generations because they know it works. The uncertainty that comes with change is exacerbated through the current state of the economy and agricultural markets.
Prioritizing the voices and concerns of producers in The Red Cedar Watershed is the first step towards widespread change. Giving assistance and insurance to operations who are in the process of adopting conservation in their land management practices is needed. This will reduce the weight of the uncertainty that comes with change. Lastly, increased funding to the organizations that engage with farmers is also necessary. This engagement is responsible for much of the progress that has been made, and that progress should be highlighted and celebrated.
What we do to the land is reflected in the water.