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Transforming Public-Private Partnerships into Learning Engines

By Nate Birt, Vice President of Trust in Food

Embarking on a collaboration is a lot like looking through a kaleidoscope for the first time: Peer through the spyhole and you’ll get a glimpse of a brilliant, colorful landscape. Adjust the dial and you’ll experience a bright collage of diamonds and contours you previously didn’t notice.

This illustration underscores the promise of public-private partnerships for conservation agriculture: They represent an unprecedented way to engage in the art and science of conservation by bringing people together into a never-before-seen tapestry of commitment, momentum and learning.

But how can you transition your public-private partnership from “nice people working together to help farmers and shared ecosystems” to “nice people helping farmers and ecosystems while learning together and driving measurable impact that improves the world?” It’s a tall order, and one my colleagues and I at Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative, have been exploring as organizers of a public-private partnership introduced in July 2019 called America’s Conservation Ag Movement (ACAM).

Here I’ll share details of the conservation journey our partnership – which includes farmer associations, conservation nonprofits, agribusinesses and food companies, and with support from NRCS—has undertaken and translate those experiences into lessons we’re applying daily to our work. Perhaps there is a lesson that will resonate with your work.

The Seeds of Our Learning Journey

Trust In Food’s parent company, Farm Journal, invests in purpose-driven work to help farmers navigate and remain economically resilient through periods of rapid change. As consumer, industry and environmental pressures grow, we felt we had a responsibility to both celebrate farmers’ conservation successes and identify areas (and means) of improvement in environmental stewardship for agriculture.

ACAM brings farmers, agronomists, technical service providers and others together around the future of farming by helping profitable, planet-friendly farming practices go mainstream. The partnership conducts education and outreach nationally to farmers, ranchers and growers of virtually every commodity type through events, editorial coverage and farmer-to-farmer learning communities in five states—California, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Maryland.

We emphasize a culture of genuine curiosity about the human dimension of conservation practice adoption. How do personal preferences, experiences, communities, beliefs and other factors impact decision-making on farms and ranches? In parallel, we convert those learnings into strategy that informs the ways we equip producers with insights and resources to take the next step.

That kind of focused attention to your surroundings—as many conservation professionals undoubtedly put into practice—yields many surprising insights. For example, in the course of our work, we have discovered that 93% of farmers surveyed report knowing the original source of their tap water.

That spurs all kinds of interesting questions for water-related work: How do farmers know this? How does that compare to the general public? What does this connectedness to water mean for their openness to greater conservation adoption for healthy waterways?

Five Learning Lessons for Your Partnerships

Now, let’s take a step back to see the fuller picture. What is the ACAM partnership learning about how to generate action through curiosity-driven partnerships?

Here are five factors informing our transformation into a learning engine to better serve farmers with conservation.

1. Listen at least twice as much as you speak—to both your partners and people within your organization

Public-private partnerships provide a tremendous opportunity for caring, committed people from all walks of life. They also present the chance to learn more about colleagues within your organization, depending on the level of staffing and resources available.

I have a bias for reading, so I’ve turned to books, such as “Questions Are The Answer” by Hal Gregersen and “Crucial Conversations,” for strengthening my professional ability to probe deeper and navigate the opportunities and challenges inherent to any group of people working closely together. Find people you respect who are especially adept at drawing insights out of others and learn how they frame conversations to be productive and exploratory.

2. Embrace feedback as a gift.

The more you ask questions and listen, the more likely you are to learn about how your partners view the world and the factors impacting your program. Some of this feedback might delight you, while other insights might surprise you.

Trust In Food’s Executive Vice President Amy Skoczlas Cole offers this helpful perspective: “Treat feedback as a gift.” Negative feedback creates space for learning and improvement. Positive feedback provides energy and motivation to keep going. In both cases, regular feedback serves as the compass guiding your partnership to have the most positive impact possible. Seek it and apply it.

3. Anticipate the unknown unknowns.

Public-private partnerships are fundamentally a product of people working together. Recognize at every phase of work that programs transpire in unexpected ways, and that’s OK.

Yes, there are terms and conditions we must follow closely. Good financial stewardship and time management are imperative. Yet, you should also build in flexibility and an open mind to be able to pivot to meet the needs of your partners and the constituents you serve—such as farmers and ranchers.

4. Celebrate the wins.

Part of learning is memorializing the successes we’ve had so we can pursue more positive outcomes. Perhaps it’s executing a well-attended field day or spending an hour asking for honest insights from a farmer. Keep a journal or written record you can revisit. These written reminders are evidence of forward progress and will help nudge you forward. And, when appropriate, share those successes widely throughout your partnership network. As the old adage goes, “Take the blame and share the credit.”

5. Embed feedback loops into your work.

Consider automating the process of soliciting regular input about how your partnership is faring—from both partners and the people you are serving out in the field. Schedule an alert on your calendar to pick up the phone and call a partner or a farmer. Build a quick Google Form to survey your partners about the next leg of your program and possible paths forward. Assess enrollments and map them back to tactics you’ve tried to bring people along. What’s working? What might we do differently? If time and money were no object, what might be possible? Keep asking questions that make your partnership network smarter and better positioned for impact.

Your Own Partnership Learning Engine

Few of those lessons likely surprised you, but revisiting programmatic building blocks can be both grounding and provide a framework for the creative solutions that sprout from the soil of partnership.

The reality is, turning a public-private partnership into a learning engine simply requires curious minds, willing collaborators and diligence to keep at it. May 2021 bring your conservation partnerships incredible success for farmers, ranchers and U.S. waterways.

About Nate Birt

Nate Birt is Vice President at Trust In Food™, a Farm Journal initiative, and leads the day-to-day operations of the America’s Conservation Ag Movement public-private partnership. A nine-year Farm Journal team member and author, Birt’s portfolio includes work for Farm Journal and Top Producer magazines; AgWeb.com; AOL/Patch.com, the Boonville (Mo.) Daily News, the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, the Columbia Missourian, the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press. He holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri. Birt and his wife, Dr. Julie Birt, live in Mexico, Mo., with their four children. Follow Birt on Twitter at @TrustInFoodNews.

This post was written for The Confluence, a quarterly newsletter for watershed leaders in the Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin (MARB). Do you lead watershed work somewhere in the MARB? Subscribe here>>

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