New Research Identifies Four Farmer Types with Differing Perspectives on Soil and Water Conservation

Iowa State University researchers publish study in Land Use Policy Journal

December 11, 2020, 10:10 am | J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr.

AMES, Iowa -- Soil and water conservation is critical to the long-term sustainability of Iowa agriculture. Farmers can use a range of soil and water conservation practices to maintain agricultural productivity while minimizing impacts to water and wildlife.

Although numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations have been working for decades on different outreach strategies to promote conservation practice use, adoption of key practices such as cover crops and no-till is not yet widespread enough to address resource concerns.

Conservation practices.Iowa State University researchers affiliated with the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Naturally reGenerative Enterprises (C-CHANGE) project recently published a study in the journal Land Use Policy that they hope will help stakeholders to develop more effective conservation extension and outreach programs. Post-doctoral researcher Suraj Upadhaya led the study that also included sociology professor and extension sociologist J. Arbuckle, and Lisa Schulte Moore, professor in the department of natural resource ecology and management.

The study, which analyzed multiple years of survey data from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, identified four types of farmers – Conservationist, Deliberative, Productivist and Traditionalist – based on different characteristics of each group.

The analysis examined 109 variables measuring farmer characteristics, many of them related to conservation, including awareness, attitudes, beliefs and motivations for and barriers to practice adoption, as well as the types of information sources that farmers trust for conservation information.

Different farmer types

“Conservationist” farmers (28% of the sample) scored highest on measures of stewardship ethics and were most interested in soil health and innovative practices such as prairie strips.

“Deliberative” farmers (27%) also appear to be conservation-oriented, but cited high levels of perceived agronomic and economic barriers to practice adoption compared to other groups.

“Productivist” farmers (18%) placed the greatest importance on high yields and use of the latest seed, chemical and equipment technology, and also emphasized efficient input use.

“Traditionalist” farmers (27%) were least interested in innovative soil health and prairie strips practices, least trusting of all information sources except for commodity groups, and their conservation practice use was motivated primarily by concern about compliance with USDA program compliance provisions and potential regulations.

Guiding outreach

“Iowa farmers are diverse, and this research can help to guide outreach that takes differences and similarities into account,” said Upadhaya. “For example, the Deliberative group farmers tended to perceive high agronomic and economic barriers to conservation. This points to a need for outreach focused on helping such farmers increase their confidence and capacity to overcome these barriers.”

The researchers found a number of other potentially important differences between types.

“One of the most interesting findings was that the Conservationist group reported the highest levels of quality of life, while the Productivist group reported the lowest levels of quality of life,” said Arbuckle. “We’re conducting analyses to further examine the relationships between conservation ethics and behaviors and quality of life. If it turns out that conservation-oriented farmers are happier farmers, that would be quite something.”

Because most of the variables included in the typology building analysis were internal characteristics like attitudes, the next steps in this research will be to compare the groups on observed characteristics such as farm size and type and actual use of different conservation and agronomic practices.

“We hope our research on farmer types can be used to improve the effectiveness of soil and water conservation programs and increase practice adoption,” Upadhaya said.


Original photo: Conservation practices.

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