Midwestern Initiative to Discern and Overcome Identity-Based Barriers to Adopting Regenerative Practices in Commercial Grain Farming

Progress report for LNC18-407

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2018: $197,909.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: The Land Connection
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

Increasing the prevalence of regenerative practices in commercial grain farming, such as diverse crop rotations, cover cropping, and reduced tillage, is critical to sustaining and improving the environmental quality of the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. Research is clear that regenerative practices both reduce and remediate the damaging environmental effects of commercial-scale, conventional agriculture, while enhancing economic, agronomic, and human health outcomes for farmers.

The literature indicates that the generally accepted model of economic decision-making does not sufficiently explain farmers’ motivations when deciding whether to adopt regenerative practices, and underscores the importance of including social factors in the analysis. Identity-based decision-making is a theory of human motivation that explains how a person’s perception of their identity shapes their choices. We hypothesize that assisting farmers in incorporating regenerative practices into their identity as “successful farmers” would facilitate the adoption of these practices. Through this project, we aim to better understand identity-based barriers to adoption of regenerative practices and to assist stakeholders in addressing these barriers in their educational programs.

Building upon the recommendations of previous scholarly work, we will take a qualitative case-study approach to this investigation. In this multi-phase study, we will conduct semi-structured interviews and focus groups to investigate how perceived identity shapes farmer willingness to adopt regenerative practices. We will then formulate a protocol to mitigate identity-based barriers and increase the likelihood that farmers will adopt regenerative practices. Using this protocol, we will develop a guide for use by educators and other stakeholders when developing their educational and outreach materials.

Project Objectives:

PROJECT OUTCOMES

Learning outcomes will allow farmers, educators, conservation associates, and other stakeholders to:

  • understand how identity-based barriers affect decision-making on adopting regenerative farming practices;
  • gain skills to overcome these identity-based barriers;

and allow farmers to:

  • feel successful in the face of peer examination of their farming practices.

Action outcomes:

  • Educators and conservation associates will utilize the findings of this project in their work.
  • This project will increase the number of farmers adopting regenerative practices.

System-wide outcomes:

  • The ecological condition of Midwest farms will improve with increased use of regenerative practices on commercial-scale grain farms.
Introduction:

This project aims to better understand identity-based barriers to adoption of regenerative practices in commercial grain production and to assist stakeholders in addressing these barriers in their educational and outreach programs.

Cooperators

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Research

Hypothesis:

We hypothesize that assisting farmers in incorporating regenerative practices into their identity as “successful farmers” will facilitate the adoption of these practices. We also hypothesize that equipping stakeholders to better address identity-based barriers towards the adoption of regenerative practices in commercial grain production will assist them in providing stronger, more meaningful education and outreach programs.

March 2021 update: While not entirely surprising, incorporating regenerative and conservation-minded practices into identity is a complex task. The farmers we interviewed all held some level of a “stewardship ethic” as part of their farming identity. This makes matching our own identified practices to this identity a bit trickier. We recognize that the entire “system” that these farmers operate in affects all of their decision making and taking on only one part of the system is likely not enough to achieve the landscape-scale outcomes we desire. We are now investigating how to address the integration of conservation practices through the farmer’s own “systems-thinking” approach. We are developing our protocol to help outreach practitioners identify the leverage points within the system most likely to affect a particular group of farmers willingness to adopt these practices.

Materials and methods:

To date, our approach to this investigation and methodology is as follows.

We began by generating a list of row crop farmers in the target research area through recruitment at Illinois Farm Progress Show and the All-Day Ag Outlook meeting as well as discussion with our farmer constituents. Through this process, we identified nearly 40 farmers to approach for an initial screening interview. Our goal is to conduct in-depth interviews with 20 farmers meeting the following criteria: are located in Illinois; dedicate a significant portion of their time and derive a significant portion of their income from farming (no “hobby” farmers); raise corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, or other grain crops at a commercial-scale; and have not been extensively interviewed about regenerative farming practices before (no “celebrity” farmers). Additionally, the makeup of the 20 farmers consists of 10 conventional farmers who use no regenerative practices, 5 conventional farmers who use at least one regenerative practice, and 5 farmers who are either transitioning or are currently certified organic.  

We finalized the research protocol and developed a plan to begin piloting screening and in-depth interviews in January 2020.

 

March 2021 update:

In 2020, we conducted all of our in-depth interviews. We enlisted 20 farmers with varying degrees of conservation practice integration. With regenerative agricultural being very much outcomes-based, rather than practice-based our ability to neatly categorize farmers into our previously identified buckets was a tricky. However, we do feel that we achieved a good representation of farmers with varied levels of conservation-mindedness in our region. 

By fall of 2020, we had transcribed all of our interviews and began pulling out themes. Our dataset is incredibly rich! 

We returned to our literature review to compare themes, check our assumptions, and build out our findings. We will present our initial findings to fellow researchers and practitioners for feedback in spring 2021.

Research results and discussion:

The research protocol is being piloted in early 2020. There are no results to share as of this report.

 

March 2021 update: 

We have a very rich dataset to work with. Our results are confirming what others have shown. How individuals integrate “successful farmer” into their identity is often inextricably linked to yield and profit and less closely linked to practices. This would make us believe that any conservation practice we desire a farmer adopt needs to align with yield and profit. Obviously, this creates a wrinkle as many conservation practices may reduce yield while increasing profit (or reducing cost). This also highlights the complexity of the system farmers are working within and the need for heuristic devices to ease decision-making. 

We recognize that farmers seek out different information from different sources, and are careful about who they share their information with. The farmers we interviewed were likely to see their neighbors as competitors. These are competitors not only for market share, but for potential expansion as limits to available land restrict individual farm growth. This air of competition impedes our hope for peer sharing of practices, which we see as paramount to increasing adoption.

We are currently focusing our protocol design on helping ag educators and outreach professionals develop their listening skills to identify methods of framing conservation practices. We see this as a two-step process, learning to listen and learning to respond. We hope to develop a kind of audit for educators to identify leverage points for practice adoption. This audit would engage the educator in a kind of “empathetic/supportive” listening that would help the educator direct the conversation toward aligning practice adoption with their values. (We still have ways to go to figure this out.)

We will be sharing our preliminary results and recommendations for feedback spring 2021.

Participation Summary
20 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

The educational approach used in this project will be developed based on the outcomes of the research. This has not yet been developed.

March 2021 update: We are currently focusing our protocol design on helping ag educators and outreach professionals develop their listening skills to identify methods of framing conservation practices. We see this as a two-step process, learning to listen and learning to respond. We hope to develop a kind of audit for educators to identify leverage points for practice adoption. This audit would engage the educator in a kind of “empathetic/supportive” listening that would help the educator direct the conversation toward aligning practice adoption with their values. (We still have ways to go to figure this out.)

Project Activities

Recruitment
In-depth Interviews

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

This portion of the project has not yet begun.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.