Two men talking while standing in front of a truck

Marrying Data and Relationships to Boost Farmer Recruitment in Conservation Outreach Programs

The bread-and-butter approach many Extension professionals take to outreach, particularly with agricultural producers, is relationship building – and for good reason. Relationships tend to play a strong role in motivating someone’s decisions, such as deciding to attend a field day or adopt a conservation practice.

The challenge with relationships is it’s difficult to reach everyone everywhere you’d like. Limitations on time, geography, and other things will mean there are some people you just can’t or won’t reach.

This can be problematic in farmer outreach around conservation, where often it’s the same farmers who show up to events or get involved in farmer-led groups. The latter especially can result in “leadership fatigue,” with the same farmers being tapped over and over again and losing their stamina to keep activities going.

A project led by the North Central Region Water Network is exploring what role data-driven outreach could play in expanding capacity to reach more farmers than what can be done through relationship-driven outreach, particularly to infuse “fresh blood” into farmer conservation outreach to combat leadership fatigue and attract new participants.

To do so, the Network is partnering with Trust In Food™, the climate-smart division of the agricultural information and data company Farm Journal. Trust In Food uses its expertise and resources in data-driven media and communications to increase the adoption of conservation practices by farmers across the country. They have developed a data-driven approach they call the “Human Dimensions of Change,” which uses psychographic and online behavioral data to guide the development of strategic media campaigns to engage target audiences, particularly those not normally reached through relationship building.

There are two “waves” to our data-driven campaign. The first is to recruit farmers to participate in a leadership development program called the Conservation Farmer Network, which we also developed as a deliverable of the project. The second wave will happen in summer 2024 to recruit “middle adopter” farmers to participate in field days organized through the project.

Developing the data-driven campaign happened in roughly three steps. First, we identified indicators of both farmers who could be potential leaders in conservation and farmers who would be considered in the “moveable middle” of the bell curve for conservation practice adoption – meaning, they haven’t yet adopted a conservation practice, but could be nudgeable.

Identifying leadership indicators entailed a literature review and focus groups with farmers and conservation outreach professionals, and we relied on existing research to select “middle adopter” indicators. Example indicators of potential farmer leaders included an inclination to experiment or self-learn and a willingness to lead (e.g., past community leadership experience); example indicators of middle adopters included high trust in commodity groups and higher risk aversion.

Second, Trust In Food aligned those indicators with the data they have available on farmer preferences and behavior – not every indicator had a perfectly matching data point, but we came up with the best proxies possible – to develop a predictive model for reaching farmers in our geographic regions who might match the profile of a potential farmer leader or middle adopter.

Third, we developed media assets, or promotional materials, using messaging recommendations made by Trust In Food based on the information they had available about the potential farmer leader and middle adopter groups. These recommendations were paired with the social science of what motivates farmers, particularly around conservation. The resulting campaign uses these media assets and the predictive model to target farmers who match either our leader or middle adopter profiles.

The first wave of our campaign is currently underway, targeting farmers to participate in the Conservation Farmer Network, which we will be piloting this winter in three watersheds within the Mississippi River Basin – the Sinsinawa watershed in Wisconsin, the Great Bend of the Wabash watershed in Indiana, and the Upper White Village watershed in Arkansas.

Ultimately, this process is testing a hypothesis that data-driven outreach can augment relationship-driven outreach, and the process could be replicable. We will be excited to share our results and lessons learned in a future post!

In addition to Trust In Food, project partners include Purdue University, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research & Extension, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, and the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Funding for this project comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Header photo credit: NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *