What makes a good farmer?

The customary description of a “good farmer” is a major barrier to getting conservation on the ground. How do you define what makes a good farmer? Language plays an important role in how this question is answered.

In 2008 and 2009, Iowa State University ag engineering professor Matt Helmers and sociologist Jacqueline Comito, both part of the Iowa Learning Farm staff, conducted 15 listening sessions in Iowa. More than 300 people, including farmers, Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners, and field staff from ISU Extension, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources took part.

Goals of the listening sessions were to strengthen understanding about farm-level decisions and the impact on the environment, and to understand how local stakeholders think about water quality concerns. One of the key themes that emerged from these sessions was the role language plays in promoting, or undermining, conservation practices.

Historically, the “good farmer” is described as a young male with fields of healthy crops and finely plowed black soil, and is depicted this way in ads and promotional brochures. But this description isn’t necessarily accurate. The average Midwest farmer is around 55 years old, and many are women. And research shows that tilled soil is known to diminish water and soil quality through erosion. The nostalgic image of a “good farmer” persists because it is a socially acceptable view.

Key Points

• ILF held sessions to assess farm-level decisions and their environmental impact.

• Mixed messages abound and can be barrier to using conservation practices.

• Until farmers see clear environmental problems, tillage methods won’t change.

What is a ‘good farmer’?

If we “relanguage” what it means to be a good farmer, will that encourage change in individual conservation practices? The challenge of changing the meaning of perceptions is illustrated by a southeast Iowa farmer who expressed his concerns in one of the listening sessions about a no-till field compared to a tilled field:

“One of the biggest hurdles to me [in convincing others when I first started] was the way the field looked from the time the corn or beans emerge until they cover the ground. It looked like crap. When I went to no-till conferences, we were told that the first thing you do when you’re done planting is to just go away for a couple weeks. Because you drive by a hill that’s been turned black [and] it’s got corn in it, the corn comes up faster; it’s darker green. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to yield more, but it does look better — no question about it. That is when a farmer brags about his field, when it’s coming up. You don’t brag about a field in October.”

Conservationist farmers and natural resource professionals have to change perceptions of what represents successful farming if farming practices are to be changed. Regulations alone will not sustain change; true change is inspired. A transition to a culture of conservation or a change in how we consider the environment is the more daunting challenge.

Change takes inspiration

We receive a good deal of mixed messages concerning conservation and ag productivity. For example, the majority of USDA funding goes toward crop payments — with soil and water conservation programs being underfunded. Also, many listening session participants were uncertain whether water quality was even a problem.

This uncertainty leads to inaction. Until people can see and articulate clearly to themselves and to those in their watershed the problem of water and soil quality and potential long-term consequences, they will not feel the need to change.

The Iowa Learning Farm’s approach to a culture of conservation is an example of how “relanguaging” can increase effectiveness. Rather than expert-led initiatives, ILF uses local farmers who practice conservation to educate and encourage others for continued change. Most of the farmers working with ILF have experienced their own “relanguaging,” which has led to their changed behaviors and their ability to influence others.

Building a culture of conservation involves strengthening the commitment of our values, beliefs and attitudes toward the importance of natural resources. ILF recognizes good conservation practices and encourages others to begin conservation farming to relanguage the definition of the “good farmer.” Until farmers see clear environmental problems, traditional farming and tillage methods will remain status quo.

Brown is a communications specialist with the Iowa Learning Farm.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.