Most programs designed to promote soil health focus on encouraging farmers to adopt a prescribed set of practices, like cover cropping or nutrient management. Penn State Rural Sociology Doctoral Candidate Jennifer Hayden argues that a new approach is needed — one that instead works with farmers as they balance all the many influences particular to their own individual, unique farms. Hayden spent two years researching farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to understand agricultural soil health. Here, Hayden describes what she learned, and suggests a new model for helping farmers improve soil health.
I spent the past two years researching four very different farm cases in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I was looking at how soil health is created or undermined on these farms and on neighboring farms. I talked to 47 people, mostly farmers and other agricultural professionals. The conversations focused on three soil health-related practices: tillage, rotation and nutrient/amendment management.
When I analyzed the 400-plus pages of transcript data, I found that there are ten common categories of influence on farmers’ soil-management decisions. These are not variables, but whole categories of influence that house all the human and non-human influences on soil health on a given farm. The ten categories that create, or impair, soil health are: worldview, farming norms, learning, policy, labor, technology, crops, landscape & soil, manure and the system (i.e. roughly organic or conventional). Within and across categories, the influences interact.
While it is nice to have a tidy list of ten influential categories on soil health, these categories miss a lot of the nuance that is found in the individual case studies. Reflecting on this, I think what this list and the comparative case studies really illustrate is how current approaches to promoting agricultural conservation practices are often inappropriate because they cannot account for all of the social and biophysical particularities of any one farm.
These current approaches usually fall under an adoption of best management practices (BMP) framework, which is underpinned by the diffusion of innovations theory. While it has seen many iterations over the years, the central idea of this theory remains consistent and compelling: if innovative farmers are targeted for adoption of new agricultural technologies, other farmers will follow.
Many rural sociologists turned away from this model early on because it fails to account for important questions around the development of technologies, the uneven distribution of the benefits of those technologies and the larger institutional context within which farms operate. But it seems these critiques and the important lessons they offer have not circulated very widely, leaving many others who are working on natural resource conservation to continue down the adoption-diffusion path, even though it has proven to be inadequate for predicting farmer conservation behavior.*
My recent research helps to illustrate why we need to think through conservation practices in different ways outside of the limiting view of adoption of a certain practice; we have to consider the whole farm and all of the influences on that farm, because in some cases there are farms where a BMP is not used that have much better Cornell Soil Health Test ratings than those where the BMP is strictly adhered to. This highlights two main points for Extension work that emerged from my study, the first being that adoption-diffusion is an inappropriate premise for research and outreach concerning conservation practices on farms, and the second being that focusing on particular practices themselves is not actually that constructive.
In the end, what I found was most positively influential in terms of soil health was 1) if the farmer was part of a group or identity that had an explicit goal of soil health and 2) if the farmer was connected to a group or identity that valued farmer knowledge-making rather than outside expertise. This last point speaks directly to the problem of the adoption-diffusion premise; if soil health outcomes are better in cases where farmers do not value outside expertise, then attempting to target farmers from the outside with supposed best-management practices is going to miss the mark. Instead, farmers who experiment and observe and share their own experiences with other farmers are the most likely to have the best soil health outcomes.
If the purpose of our work as researchers and extension agents concerned with sustainable agriculture is to see more farms managed in ways that are ecologically benign or even restorative, then focusing on adoption of best management practices is not that useful. The adoption/practice focus belies the complexity of whole farm cases. Farms and people are as complicated as soil, and the interaction between all the many human and non-human influences that shape farm-level conservation outcomes is unwieldy. My study did a decent job of tracing many of the relationships that create soil health on farms in this watershed, but more importantly the study concludes that if we want to help farms conserve, or improve, resources like soil and water, we need to be working with farmers as they balance all the many influences particular to their own, individual, unique farms.
That would be a big change from the kind of work that is most often done now in the Extension Service, but it could happen. It would start by setting a clear societal goal—let’s say of soil health—and then establishing small groups of farmers who would work together in a process designed to help each farm meet this goal. Qualitative social scientists could act as group coordinators, designing a process whereby farmers’ knowledge and experience is clearly valued in tandem with easy access to the latest agricultural science. Farmers would then design their own programs to improve soil health for their particular farms.
We have the biophysical data and the social science techniques to enable these kinds of small transformative soil health groups. We even have the infrastructure residing in soil conservation districts. We just need to get past the idea that there is a simpler solution. We need to go beyond adoption-diffusion and into participatory action, working with farmers rather than for farmers.