Finding Common Ground: Cultivating Farmer Communities in Pursuit of Conservation
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Over the past two months, my research partner Tara and I have conducted 23 interviews with lakefront owners and farmers across the Red Cedar River watershed. All of these individuals graciously welcomed us into their home environments and willingly shared their experiences with two young women who “aren’t from here". Nine of these interviews were with a diverse range of farmers including conventional and organic dairies, agri-tourism farms, large scale-cash crop operations, small-scale vegetable farms, and alternative “niche-market” farms. My research focused primarily on farmer narratives and the ways in which cultivating a strong sense of community can lead to more effective and conscious conservation efforts. I began this research to understand the commonalities between conventional and organic farmers in the region. From an outsider perspective, these two farming communities seem polar in their cultural beliefs and farming practices. After speaking with a diverse group of farmers, we found several common themes between the two main communities.
On the topic of conservation, although individuals had varying degrees in which they believed in and implemented conservation practices, all the interviewees pursued some type of environmentally minded farming practice. Some of the conservation practices in common included cover crops, the implementation of grass waterways, no-till practices, the creation of pollinator habitat, rotational livestock grazing, continual soil health management, creating riparian buffer zones, land easements with the Department of Natural Resources or the Nature Conservancy, and the active management of forests and wildlife habitat.
When asked about their individual motivations to pursue conservation practices, many farmers expressed the challenge of straddling economic and environmental pressures and benefits when making decisions about conservation. One farmer concisely stated, “Everything I do is for a conservation reason, but everything I do has a dollar amount attached.” Many found that what was better for the environment and for the watershed, in the long run, helped to produce a better crop yield and increased the overall health of their landscape. Many simply said that conservation is “what is right” and feel that they had to do things right: “I feel as all my neighbors do…We have a responsibility in that we control a significant amount of land, more so than the average citizen. Much more. So, we have an important responsibility in doing things right, because in a real true sense of a way, I don’t really own anything here.”
A fundamental care for place was the root of all our conversations. Conventional farmers who had been farming the same land for generations expressed their deep connection to the landscape: “My entire history is pretty much right here”; “We’re very attached to the river- that is out pride.” All farmers expressed some sort of connection to the watershed, but interestingly, the majority of farmers interviewed did not use the lakes, rivers or streams in the area for recreation, citing either no desire, limited free time, or the poor water quality.
On a community level, at the heart of this issue is the fundamental importance of being heard. In a constantly changing economy, farmers interviewed continually expressed their fears of losing their land and the pressures they felt to expand and to become more efficient to compete in the regional, national and global marketplace. All farmers expressed financial stress and concern about the market-- either the lowering prices of soy and corn, or the challenge to find a niche market and customer base to sustain their livelihood. These economic pressures are what drive many farmers to use technologies and fertilizing techniques that are notoriously known to increase the phosphorus application in soils. Several farmers posed the question, “What will farming look like in twenty years?” Their ideas usually included mass consolidation and the loss of the family farm.
Ultimately, from a summer of research and listening to diverse range of community members and stakeholders, I believe that cultivating farming communities should be prioritized and should be used as a tool for conservation. To build a strong community, we must first recognize and credit farmers. By crediting both conventional and organic farmers for the conservation practices that they have independently pursued, farmers are more likely to feel encouraged and engaged with the issue, rather than feeling blamed or isolated. As one farmer stated, “We forgot that we have done a lot already and that people really do care. I would just like to see us, for people who are doing a good job, reward that somehow. At least recognize it…I don’t believe that it is always recognized.”
Secondly, we must prioritize farmer-led conservation. There are several examples of this across the watershed, ranging from small-scale farmer-led conservation efforts to meetings within smaller watersheds. By prioritizing farmer leadership, individual farmers can consult with one another and feel a responsibility for their community and landscape. One interviewee expressed his perspective as a farmer, “Farmers are kind of a goofy animal…They’re not followers. They are their own innovators. They kind of have to get it straight in their own mind that it works, so that’s why I say that we’re all a crazy critter. ’Cause we just don’t change that easy.” This quote emphasizes the importance of patience and respect that must be present to have constructive and thoughtful change.
Finally, to address these issues and to build stronger farming communities, the regional community should prioritize creating a physical space for farmer leadership and conversation. Several farmers expressed varying aspects of individual isolation within the landscape. One farmer mentioned that he interacted with his neighbors and community members “either on the road or at church”. By building a physical space where all farmers can interact and engage in open dialogue to share their experiences and advice, a sense of community and ownership can be established. One farmer expressed this idea concisely, speaking of his relationship to his neighbor: “[My neighbor and I], although we have very little in common- like, very little- we have been able to find common ground, literally, just by talking about vegetables. I think that is really interesting and allows for the spirit of cooperation.”
Perhaps most important in my summer research was my realization of being heard and the value of listening to others. I quickly found that the differences we see in the rural and urban divide are only intensified by the unwillingness to have honest and open conversations with people who are not like us. This summer, I was welcomed by many individuals that I would likely have never had the opportunity to have an open conversation with about their experiences, the issues they face, and how they fit into the movement towards conservation. I want to express my most sincere gratitude to all the farmers, lakefront residents, and community members who took the time to welcome us into their home environments to share their experiences with us. We could not have done this work without this community’s willingness and generosity.