When Stephanie Singer, agriculture outreach project manager for The Nature Conservancy, works with farmers on conservation, she often brings in experts from extension, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and organizations that research best management practices.
But while extension educators and conservationists can be a great resource, they may not always be the best ones to help farmers understand how a particular practice can work on their farms.
“What we’ve heard loud and clear … is that farmers want to hear it from other farmers,” Singer said.
So in 2020, the organization launched the Farmer Advocates for Conservation program. Through the program, farmers using conservation practices learn how to talk about the benefits they see from them, and encourage other farmers to give them a try.
Jeff Duling, of Ottawa, Ohio, one of the farmer advocates, tends to be more interested in panels with farmers at conferences. He believes learning from peers can help farmers get a practical idea of whether a conservation practice might work for them, and what benefits they might see from it.
“Who else better to talk to the farmer?” Duling said.
The Nature Conservancy’s agriculture team in Ohio has been working on encouraging sustainable systems of farming that work well in watersheds. The program identifies farmers who are using conservation practices and trains them to advocate for conservation to other farmers. For now, it is focused in the Western Lake Erie Basin’s watersheds, where farming and conservation practices can have a big impact on Lake Erie’s water quality.
In training, farmers think about their vision for their farms, and how they can effectively talk about their practices and the benefits they see from them.
“Farmer advocates doing cover crops believe in it from the standpoint of ‘it’s great for water quality, but it’s also good for my farm,’” Singer said.
Farmers also create plans for outreach, based on their strengths. They are paid by the hour to go through the training and for the outreach they do.
The funding for the program, which comes from a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Grant, goes through 2023, but Singer is hoping The Nature Conservancy can later replicate it across the state. So far, the program has trained 18 farmers, who manage 22,000 acres.
The Nature Conservancy is seeking applicants for the next training for the Farmer Advocates for Conservation program, scheduled for Aug. 9-10. Anyone interested can learn more about the program at farmeradvocatesforconservation.com, or contact Stephanie Singer at email@example.com.
There are a couple of reasons some farmers are hesitant about trying new conservation practices, Duling said. They may have equipment that works for a particular system, and habits. Or they might have a smaller farm with just a few fields and less room to experiment. Plus, a farmer only gets so many seasons.
“Nobody wants a failure,” he said. “You don’t want to have a bad year.”
For Duling, conservation has been part of the farm for a long time. No till and cover crops, as well as drainage work to help fields handle heavy rains, are key for him. His dad was always looking for better ways to do things on the farm, and that influenced him to do the same.
“We’re trying to figure it out, but still trying to make a profit. That’s the happy medium,” Duling said.
Duling was a soil and water supervisor in Putnam County for about 14 years, and will be the president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts starting in 2023. He also worked for about 20 years as a certified crop adviser for a local fertilizer retailer, before becoming a full time farmer.
Another farmer nominated him for the program. Duling was interested in working on his speaking skills because of his work with the soil and water districts. The training helped him get out of his comfort zone. In 2021, he held a field day at his farm with about 140 attendees. He’s done a little bit of outreach on social media. But most of his advocacy is more organic.
“I let them come to me,” he said. He often gets calls from farmers he knows through things like his work with the soil and water conservation districts, or who are interested in conservation and hear about his farm. He estimates he talks to about three farmers per day, but doesn’t keep track of them all. “I’m not in it to make money,” he added.
His favorite way to talk to farmers about conservation includes showing them what it’s done for his farm. In most of his fields, he can go out with a shovel and dig up soil filled with earthworms. He encourages other farmers to look at their soil and compare it.
“If they don’t have no earthworms, you know something’s wrong out there — there’s no life,” he said. “The first thing you do, you take a shovel — do you have earthworms?”
The way Duling talks to other farmers is also important. He learned from working in agricultural sales that the first thing to do is to get a feel for the farm and find out what the farmer’s goals are. Then, he can help them figure out if practices like cover crops or no till can help them achieve those goals.
The Nature Conservancy is measuring the success of the program in a few ways. First, they’re asking farmer advocates to report the number of events they speak at and the people they reach. The 15 farmer advocates trained for the first year reached a total of 1,077 farmers face-to-face and 373,721 farmers through articles, social media and videos.
Researchers at Ohio State University, a partner on the grant, are also trying to gauge the advocates’ influence through focus groups and evaluations with some of the farmers they reached.
Singer is hoping by the end of the project to see farmers gain confidence in best management practices and their ability to use them based on support and mentorship from their peers.
“I hate seeing soil erosion. I hate seeing muddy water,” Duling said. “My goal is to see 100% no till, and 100% cover crops, but I know better.”
He knows he’s not going to convince every farmer to try those things. For some people, it can take years of learning about and considering a new practice before they’re ready to try it. But he’s hopeful that he can help some make that decision.
“That’s one of those things,” Singer said. “We’re asking farmer advocates to have an influence. Sometimes that takes time, for someone to decide to change what they’re doing … the farmer advocates right now are doing work that we might not be able to see changes in people until five or 10 years from now.”
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