The paradigm of soil health has become widely embraced in recent years by a variety of stakeholders. While formal definitions have been proposed (and adopted) by academics and governmental agencies (e.g. USDA-NRCS), the ways that these groups conceptualize soil health has not been described. This project—“ I do not think it means what you think it means: Explorations of mental models of soil health”—seeks to describe the mental models of soil health within and across groups in order to facilitate communication and cooperation across these stakeholders. This will result in knowledge creation that is simultaneously valued by all stakeholders and actionable by farmers, ultimately increasing farmer adoption of practices that improve soil health. To further this goal, we will specifically target the mental models of farmers, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) employees, and researchers involved in the fields of agronomy and/or soil science. To develop these models, mail surveys containing prompted and open-ended questions will gauge their conceptualizations of soil health. These responses will then be used to describe similarities and differences in mental models amongst groups. Prompted questions will be used to describe the values and beliefs held by each group, whereas open-ended responses will be coded and used to develop a network-based mental map. After these preliminary data analyses, the mental models will be validated through focus groups where all stakeholder groups will be present. Increased understanding amongst all stakeholder groups will be measured through exit surveys given at the end of the focus groups. In order to disseminate our findings to members of those groups beyond our focus group population, the validated dataset will be used to publish in both peer-reviewed publications and trade publications where they are accessible to farmers, NRCS employees, and researchers. Successful completion of these publication(s) will be considered indicative of a successful description and analysis of stakeholder mental models.
This project has four explicit learning outcomes. These outcomes are: 1) to describe mental models for stakeholder groups surrounding the term “soil health”, 2) determine similarities and differences in these mental models of “soil health” amongst stakeholders, 3) validate these models by collectively analyzing and interpreting the data in those models, and 4) increase knowledge of stakeholders of in-group and out-group mental models surrounding soil health. Learning Outcomes 1) and 2) will be primarily accomplished by project leaders through a survey that contains closed- and open-response questions. These two types of questions will be used to develop a set of values and a mental network map, respectively, to represent the mental models held by each group. In order to ensure accurate analysis of those results, a “data party” will be held with stakeholders to validate those models (Learning Outcome 3). The focus-group format of the “data party” will also serve as a venue for stakeholders to understand the mental models from others within their group, as well as from other groups
(Learning Outcome 4).
We developed surveys in two stages. First, we conducted semi-structured phone interviews of 30 to 60 minutes with 5 to 10 members from each group of interest. Using content analysis of these interviews, we identified 19 themes, each of which were discussed by at least two interviewees. To minimize redundancy in the survey, we consolidated similar themes, ultimately establishing six emergent themes related to soil health: soil fertility and biological functioning, soil physical functioning, crop productivity, profitability, environmental harm, and agrochemical inputs.
To describe the mental models surrounding soil health, we developed a survey to ask participants how these emergent themes related to one another and to soil health. We then sent out surveys to 650 farmers, 1,427 NRCS employees, and 381 agricultural researchers from ten states in the Midwest: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. We purchased the farmer survey sample from Farm Market ID (farmmarketid.com), which was comprised of corn, soybean, and wheat farmers equally represented by farm size: 50-250 acres, 500-1000 acres, and 1000+ acres. We compiled NRCS personnel contacts from publicly available databases, including all employees with “soil” or “agronomy” in their position title. Agricultural researcher contacts were compiled from departmental and extension websites of 1862 Land Grant institutions. Inclusion was based on stated research expertise where available, as well as the topic of publications from 2013 to 2018. Farmer surveys were sent by mail, while NRCS and researcher surveys were sent via email. Farmers could complete the survey on paper, but all participants had the option to complete the study online. We received complete, usable responses from 89 farmers, 134 NRCS employees, and 42 researchers, giving response rates of 13.7%, 9.4%, and 11.0%, respectively.
First, we asked farmer respondents to rank the priority of soil health on their farm from 0 (not a priority) to 10 (highest priority). Similarly, we asked NRCS and researcher respondents to evaluate the degree to which farmers prioritize soil health. Second, to better understand the mental models surrounding soil health within each group, we wanted to explore perceived causal linkages among emergent themes, including soil health. For each pair of themes (X,Y), multiple choice survey questions asked what effect an increase in X causes on Y, where the provided responses were “increases” (+1), “decreases” (-1), or “they are not related” (0). We used each respondent’s answers to these answers to construct a network comprised of causal linkages among the themes (i.e. depict the individual’s mental model). Third, to determine the frequency of use of soil tests, we asked all groups if they had used standard agronomic soil tests, soil health tests, or in-field tests to evaluate their soils in the last three years. For respondents who had used a given test, we then asked them to rate the quality of information from that test, ranging from 1 (not at all helpful) to 5 (extremely helpful).
Mental models were represented as directed networks. Links between nodes in that directed network represent a causal path that connects these themes or concepts. In network analyses, the importance of a given node is often evaluated using network centrality measures, which can be quantified in several ways. The betweenness of a node is a measure of its presence in the shortest path or set of linkages between other nodes, i.e. its importance in connecting themes that would otherwise be linked less directly. Betweenness is therefore interpreted as the tendency of a node to exclusively mediate causal paths. Information centrality is a measure of the number of links originating with a given node and is interpreted as the tendency of a node to initiate causal paths within the network. Prestige is a measure of the incoming links to a given node and is interpreted as the importance of that node.
There are several notable outcomes from our survey:
- Soil health is more important to farmers than others realize: Our findings show that soil health is a high priority to farmers in their on-farm operations, but NRCS personnel and researchers undervalue this importance to farmers. Farmers rated soil health an 8.5 out of 10 priority on their farms (lowest reported value was a 5), while both NRCS personnel and researchers had statistically lower ratings for farmers—4.9 and 5.7, respectively. The attitudes informing this systematic undervaluation were captured in a comment from one NRCS respondent who said, “I think the ‘how valuable is soil health to Farmers’ question could be split into two questions. How valuable is it to them and how valuable should it be. I answered 3 in your survey which might be high. How valuable should it be….12!”. These results illustrate that farmers prioritize improving soil health to a degree not recognized by educators or researchers.
- Soil health is equally prominent in mental models across groups: Our analysis showed limited variation between members of the three groups in the centrality of soil health in their mental models. On the whole, soil health was similarly prominent in each group’s mental models. However, a large degree of within-group heterogeneity may obscure potentially meaningful differences. Previous work has shown that farmer attitudes and beliefs are highly heterogeneous, but there is a lack of data on NRCS and agricultural researchers as distinct groups, our results indicate similar within-group heterogeneity in their conceptualizations of soil health.
Information Centrality Prestige Betweenness Farmers 0.144 (0.001) 0.317 (0.031) 0.242 (0.028) NRCS 0.145 (0.001) 0.202 (0.025) 0.296 (0.024) Researchers 0.146 (0.001) 0.252 (0.045) 0.216 (0.041) Effect size (F-ratio) 2.23 (p = 0.109) 0.73 (p = 0.483) 1.93 (p = 0.148)
- Group-level mental models differ in the connections: Consensus graphs show linkages that have 80% agreement within a group. Consensus graphs showed that the overall structure of NRCS and researchers’ mental models of soil health diverged from farmer mental models of soil health (Figure 1). Most notably, farmer mental models showed soil health as the only connection to environmental harm or agrochemical inputs—both of which were negative causal relationships. Conversely, NRCS and researchers perceived many connections to these concepts, indicating multiple potential connections to be leveraged when communicating on these topics. This position of soil health in causal paths to environmental harm and agrochemical inputs contributes to a higher betweenness values of soil health in farmer consensus mental models than in researcher or NRCS consensus mental models. Moreover, soil health had a higher information centrality in farmer mental modes. Collectively, this suggests that soil health is more likely to be the initiator and intermediary in farmer mental models than for NRCS personnel or agricultural researchers. However, soil health was only of median importance to farmers in terms of receiving linkages (i.e. prestige), relative to NRCS personnel and researchers. Given the qualitative nature of these findings, we caution against overgeneralization and encourage future work to identify potential drivers of between- and within-group heterogeneity in mental models.
- Conclusions: Our ten-state survey of Midwestern farmers, NRCS personnel, and agricultural researchers showed that soil health is equally central in mental models of all three groups. Despite the consistent centrality of soil health, mental models were differently structured between groups. Notably, soil health was the sole link to several themes with important environmental and agronomic implications. Paired with the consistent underestimation of the importance of soil health to farmers by NRCS personnel and agricultural researchers, this work suggests that using the language of soil health may be an undervalued way to communicate with farmers on these topics. These findings are essential for informing extension programming and communication around soil health. Future work is needed to understand if and how this communication can lead to changes in decision-making or adoption of preferred management techniques.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Thus far, education and outreach activities have primarily consisted of focus groups and presentations.
- One farmer focus group: 5 attendees; >90 minutes; exit surveys are not currently accessible due to campus shutdown. Overall discussion was lively and enthusiastic. Farmers expressed their overall dedication to improving soil health, as well as the benefits of doing so. They also exchanged ideas about challenges and pitfalls they experienced and strategies to overcome obstacles.
- One researchers focus group: 6 attendees; 60 minutes; exit surveys are not currently accessible due to campus closure. Discussion was constructive and informative. Researchers expressed uncertainty about how to define soil health, as well as skepticism about generalities surrounding it. Lots of discussion about contexts where specific soil health practices would/wouldn’t work.
- Soil Science Society of America meeting: ~100 attendees; 15 minutes with additional 15 minutes of questions/discussion; many people expressed interest in the results and were surprised to learn that farmers place a high priority on soil health. Discussion on the implications of research findings.
- Soil Research Symposium (Ohio State University): ~80 attendees to 2-hour poster session; Several of the graduate students seemed excited about the work, and a researcher at the Wooster campus was asking about potential overlap and coordination efforts with their project on organic farmers. The faculty seemed intrigued as well, although it was apparent that many of them had never considered the importance of the definition of soil health before.
- Hayes Graduate Forum (Ohio State University): poster session; received 1st place; invited abstract for submission into Hayes Knowledge Bank; judges and other graduate students commented that the project was very clear and accessible but seemed very important to improve communication efforts.
- Society for Risk Analysis Meeting: ~30 people stopped to read the poster; people were impressed and intrigued by the methodology used. Researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Albany wanted to use the methodology to inform other studies.
- Department of Crop Sciences seminar (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): ~20 attendees; 30 minutes; attendees expressed skepticism of results due to sample size, extensive discussion on personal definitions and operationalizing of “soil health”
- Peer-reviewed journal article: one peer reviewed journal article is in review with Agricultural & Environmental Letters. At least one other article is in preparation.
- Trade journals: pending completion of peer-review, we are planning to convert the contents of the journal article into a format that is amenable to trade journals or online publications. Targeted outlets include Progressive Farmer, Corn & Soybean Digest, and AgClips Daily.
- Survey participants: Survey participants have expressed an interest in receiving survey results, so we plan to send postcard-sized summaries of our findings to those that have participated in our survey.
Our research shows that the paradigm of soil health unites disparate populations. Thus, soil health can be a unifying approach to sustainable agroecosystem management. Thus far, this insight seems to be novel and thrilling to stakeholders and audiences. Moreover, our results highlight areas of overlap and differences in terms of how the soil health paradigm is operationalized. These results can be easily and seamlessly integrated into communication strategies and extension programming. Specifically, it suggests that using the language of soil health can be used to discuss difficult topics (e.g. environmental harm) with farmers. By leveraging a shared language, we could improve working relationships and social connection between farmers and other agricultural stakeholders, ultimately striving towards the shared long-term goal of agricultural sustainability.
Survey results speak directly to changes in attitude and knowledge in our collective knowledge of soil health. Since initiating this project, all of our findings have been nearly the inverse of our initial hypotheses. We expected soil health to be much more prominent in farmer mental models than either NRCS personnel or researchers, but our findings showed that there was nearly-equal prominence. Additionally, we expected farmers and NRCS personnel to have a more accurate perception of farmer prioritization of soil health, but found that these groups systematically undervalue how high of a priority soil health is to farmers.