How are farmers re-engaged with their soils? Through fear, finances, regulation or education?
Throughout human history there are examples of entire civilisations which have crumbled as a result of their soil management; yet we appear doomed to repeat these mistakes century after century. If our only interaction with soil is from the comfy seat of a tractor rather than with our hands and a spade it is no wonder we don’t notice how it is changing over time and when damage is being done. The year I was awarded my Nuffield Farming Scholarship was the FAO’s International Year of Soils: raising the profile of soils as not only a growing medium for the food we eat but as a crucial tool in mitigating climate change. Meanwhile the media was plagued with negative press exposing the industry’s perceived shortcomings of “2 million tonnes of top soil degraded in the UK each year” and “only 100 harvests left”.
The aim of my study was to understand which mechanisms are most effective for achieving change within agriculture. I visited organisations and initiatives in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France which have utilised a range of regulatory mechanisms, knowledge transfer techniques and financial incentives. I also engaged with farmers who had been involved with these initiatives to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Understanding what the barriers to change were and how these initiatives had overcome these barriers was a key learning point. Would it be possible to utilise any of these mechanisms to reinvigorate interest in soil health in the UK?
I concluded that no single mechanism, if implemented alone, would achieve long-term positive change. A combination of regulation, knowledge transfer and financial rewards is more likely to engage the broad range of farm type and farmer personalities. Where regulation is to be introduced an interactive consultation process with the target audience can improve understanding and ownership of the issue that the regulation seeks to address. Regulation can encourage the adoption of innovative solutions which result in more resilient businesses. Financial support schemes should reward or be a happy consequence of good practice. When incentives are used it often results in a mindset of only carrying out good practice when one is being paid to do so, winning over wallets but not hearts and minds.
Personnel working for initiatives proactively engaging with farmers should develop their role as a Facilitator rather than considering themselves to be an Educator. Empowerment of leading/host farmers will allow for the cascade of enthusiasm to occur with ideas and practices shared peer-to-peer. Resources and effort should be focused on assisting those most likely to change practice rather than chasing the hard-to-reach. Only those who have changed can explain how they overcame the barriers.
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