Soil health is proven to have wide-ranging benefits and is of increasing interest to farmers and agricultural stakeholders, yet there is still relatively low adoption of soil health practices (e.g. cover crops, no-till, crop rotations) on row crop farms in the Midwest. We predict that one reason for limited adoption is that soil health is an abstract idea with long-term returns, and that farmers may lack concrete strategies by which to improve and evaluate soil health. Additional confusion about soil health may come from incongruences between farmer and agricultural advisors’ conceptualizations, or mental models, of soil health. This project – “Exploring how farmers’ perceptions of soil health affect their management decisions” – seeks to describe farmers’ mental models of soil health in order to improve the effectiveness of soil health education and policies. We propose to use survey data previously collected from row crop farmers across the Midwest and case-study interviews with farmers in southwest Michigan to evaluate 1) how row crop farmers in southwest Michigan conceptualize soil health and 2) whether and how differences in their soil health mental models influence their management decisions. We will disseminate and discuss our results in a workshop with a diverse group of agricultural stakeholders, targeting individuals already engaged in the topic of soil health. In the workshop, we will discuss how understanding farmers’ soil health mental models can improve agricultural education, Extension, and policy efforts. For instance, refocusing Extension publications with terminology central to farmers’ soil health mental models could increase farmers’ understanding and, therefore, adoption of soil health practices. Results from the survey, interviews, and workshop will be published in a peer-reviewed publication, Extension Newsletter, and trade publications that are accessible to farmers, academics, and agricultural advisors.
Project objectives from proposal:
The three learning outcomes for this project include: 1) increase the academic community’s knowledge of how farmers’ soil health mental models inform their management decisions, 2) increase awareness and knowledge of farmer mental models and resources for agricultural advisors, and 3) simplify the complicated ‘soil health’ concept for farmers in the eastern Midwest corn belt. This project also has two primary action outcomes: 1) agricultural advisors will improve their practices by incorporating farmer soil health mental models into their training and outreach activities and 2) we will help enhance networks between agricultural stakeholders in southwest Michigan.