The Anthropology of Effective Watershed Groups

By Jason Gomes

Though I’ve spent most of my career as an independent agronomist, my educational background is in anthropology. One concept from anthropology that describes how effective watershed projects work is the mutual-aid network. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are well-known examples of mutual-aid networks, but in practice, they can encompass any group that is organized around solving a common problem.

Mutual-aid watershed groups tend to be egalitarian and inclusive. They engage members around a shared purpose. Members are urged to check social status at the door. Everyone maintains their independence, yet proper functioning requires those involved to share their ideas, to both teach and be taught.

When I had started working with my own watershed group, the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, in 2015, we had the good fortune of piggy backing on a couple of existing projects led by the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship. To the extent we’ve been successful, it’s largely a credit to the people who preceded me. The outcomes they’ve achieved illustrate the important role that watershed leaders play in knitting together a community around a common goal.

And it’s reminded me of the power of mutual-aid groups and given me some insight into what principles have been most useful in building support among our growers.

If I had to boil it down to three basic principles, it would be these:

Build relationships

On the farm, so much of what gets done is accomplished based on social relationships. For farmers, technical and logistical help often comes through a network of sales and service staff who are trusted advisors. Companies that are successful in the ag industry know this well and have built their businesses accordingly. For example, Pioneer does a great job of coaching their sales representatives in providing secondary services and technical solutions outside of their regular seed and chemical sales.

Show up

Be present as much as possible. Go to coffee, have quarterly meetings, pull water samples, walk fields. Any time spent out of the office is precious, so do as much of it as possible. It’s a great chance to meet people, lets your stakeholders know that you’re out there getting stuff done, and builds a sense of communal purpose around the project. It’s always better to meet people where they’re at – in the physical and psychological sense – rather than waiting for them to come into the office. Spend time driving the back roads and learn where people live. It’ll give you a sense of who farms where and how they farm, and will provide layers of information to which geospatial software will not do justice.

Give away free stuff

Not “stuff” in the literal sense, but give away your time and resources towards an endeavor that instructs or helps solve a problem for your growers.

In the first two years of our project, we did a nitrate sampling project with the Iowa Soybean Association that included free aerial imagery and GPS-guided stalk sampling on approximately 200 fields. If you’ve ever done this type of work – walking along rows of corn in mid-September, through some pretty big fields – you know it can be brutal. Wet in the mornings, dusty in the afternoons, and on the hottest days you get home in the evening with a layer of dust on your skin and salty sweat lines in your clothes.

If that project accomplished anything, it was less from the sampling analysis than from the relationships and loyalty we built. Our farmer participants appreciated the time and resources we devoted to helping evaluate nitrogen management practices, and it helped spur involvement in other watershed activities.

If I have any regrets, it’s that there’s never enough time to follow all the leads we want. Each new relationship leads to another idea, each new contact reveals a host of untapped opportunities. But perhaps that’s a good problem to have.

photo of Jason GomesAbout Jason Gomes

Jason is the owner and managing partner of North Iowa Agronomy Partners (NIAP), LLC, an independent agronomy services company with operations in northeast and east central Iowa. NIAP provides crop scouting, soil sampling, fertility management, and data management services direct to farmers. NIAP also provides conservation planning and outreach support to watershed projects in eastern Iowa.

Watch this video to learn about his work with Middle Cedar Partnership Project.

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