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Three Things I’ve Learned About How to Cultivate Farmer Leadership in Conservation

By Amanda Gumbert

People expect a lot from farmers: Grow our food, take care of animals, fix broken equipment, endure extreme weather conditions, be a good steward of the land, preserve the beauty of the rural landscape, foster our nostalgia for a simpler time…oh, and I’m sorry to bother you, but could you also maybe host a field day or come to this meeting and bring your neighbors too?

Asking farmers to step up as leaders in conservation is part of the job of many watershed professionals, and it’s often not an easy ask. I think it’s safe to say it’s a job of constant learning, and we can learn a lot from each other.

For the first 10 years of my job, I was focused on getting Kentucky farmers to develop and implement Agriculture Water Quality Plans, which were meant to keep them compliant with a state law designed to find common ground between agriculture and the Clean Water Act. But I met a lot of opposition from farmers. Water quality was a hard sell to those who already felt burdened by an overwhelming to-do list, plus some financial uncertainty on top.

In the last several years, however, I have gotten to interact with farmers who are implementing the plans and more – and it’s refreshing. It’s hard to tell if my perspective has changed, if our farmers have changed, or if we’ve indeed found some common ground. Regardless, here are some things I’ve learned along the way that I have found useful as a watershed management practitioner.

Listen to farmers

A few months ago, I was part of a facilitated conversation with about 15 central Kentucky farmers. We, the facilitators, wanted to hear about these farmers’ experiences with conservation practices, get a sense for what conservation practices they’d be willing to implement, and identify any barriers. The conversation turned out to be eye-opening.

The farmers weren’t worried about the government over-regulating them with regard to water quality; they were worried about the sustainability of water resources and if they will have enough water for their livestock during periods of drought. I didn’t see that coming at all.

By listening to the farmers, we learned they would participate in programs to implement conservation and protect water quality, especially if we designed them with sufficient water resources for their livestock in mind.

Too often, practitioners take their concerns to farmers, but this conversation was a reminder to me that, instead, we need to remember to listen to their concerns too.

Surround yourself with positive influences

That meeting with those farmers served as another reminder: that we have to be careful not to be overly influenced by bad actors.

I tend to hear from county agents or agency colleagues only when there are water quality problems, like how to address a violation or how to fix an erosion problem. When I drive around the state, I look for conservation practices on farms, but what often stands out are the problems and areas for improvement.

Over time, practitioners can get jaded and cynical, and we have to be careful about that. Look for the good examples, the good stewards, the ones who are doing it right. There are lots of farmers who are innovative, taking risks, and doing cool things.

It’s important to focus on those farmers and the potential that farmers can live into, rather than on the smaller set that will never change. These examples will help keep you fueled through the challenging moments.

Find and support the farmers who can reach the middle

I have met several motivated farmers who are doing really innovative work on their farms. They are willing to try new techniques and aren’t afraid to take risks. These farmers can be empowering messengers to other farmers, especially those in the middle of the adoption curve.

But these farmers are also really busy. So, it’s up to us to showcase what they are doing and create platforms to help them tell their stories and share their knowledge more broadly.

Again, this involves listening, so we can design our programs to meet the needs they see and experience. By providing them the support they need, we can give them a leg up to be leaders in their circles of influence.

I believe we can find common ground between agriculture and clean water. And I believe both watershed practitioners and farmer leaders can serve essential roles as bridges between differing interests. By sharing what we learn as practitioners with each other, we can expand our capacity to build farmer leadership and achieve collective goals.

About Amanda Gumbert

Dr. Amanda Gumbert serves as an Extension Water Quality Specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food & Environment. Her work focuses on the KY Agriculture Water Quality Act and implementation of conservation practices, but she also has special interest in streamside buffer zones in urban and rural areas. She holds BS and MS degrees in Plant and Soil Science and a PhD in Soil Science from the University of Kentucky, and loves to play in the dirt (soil)!

This post was written for The Confluence, a quarterly newsletter for watershed leaders in the Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB) that ran from May 2019 to October 2021.

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