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SWEEP Report #71

Evaluation of Conservation Systems:
Cooperator Attitude Change
(PWS Report #3)

Ecologistics Ltd., Waterloo, Ont.

Executive Summary

View / Download Final Report   [760 KB pdf] (appendices not included)



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Completed: May, 1994

Executive Summary

1.0 Introduction

The mandate of the Soil and Water Environmental Enhancement Program (SWEEP) was to reduce phosphorus loadings to the Lake Erie basin and to maintain or improve agricultural productivity by reducing or correcting soil erosion and degradation. Conservation cropping and tillage systems were identified as the best means to achieve these goals over a wide geographic region such as the Lake Erie watershed. The Pilot Watershed study (PWS) was developed as a means of evaluating the impact on conservation systems on soil erosion and degradation, water quality and crop production when implemented.

Maximizing farm operator participation in soil erosion and sediment control programs is essential to achieving improvements in water quality and sustainable levels of crop production in areas where pollution occurs from agricultural runoff. High participation rates in localized areas were particularly crucial in the Pilot Watershed Study (PWS) where implementation of conservation practices by cooperators in the test sub-watershed was key to discovering whether or not long-term improvements in soil, water and crop production parameters would occur, relative to those in the control sub-watershed.

At the same time that soil and water quality-related benefits were important to demonstrate in the Pilot Watershed Study, it was also necessary to evaluate factors that affected the adoption of soil and water conservation practices and influenced farmer attitudes towards these practices. In the short-term, understanding why a farmer chose to adopt, adapt or reject a particular practice provided the basis for adjusting program delivery on a day-to-day basis. In the post-PWS era, such findings can contribute to the effective design, targeting and implementation of other soil and water conservation initiatives.

2.0 Objectives

The longitudinal nature of the PWS provided the opportunity to explore a number of research objectives relating to conservation attitude change over time. These included:
  1. to obtain cooperator perceptions of on-farm soil erosion and local water quality change over the life span of the project;
  2. to determine the changes which occurred in cooperator attitude toward the merits of conservation practices and their own willingness to accept risk related to implementing conservation practices;
  3. to track the main reasons cooperators decided to continue to work with or discontinue the use of specific conservation practices over time and across types of enterprise;
  4. to determine cooperator perceptions of effectiveness of individual conservation practices in controlling erosion, of practice impact on crop yields and farm profitability and the extent to which the practice is accepted in the community;
  5. to determine the degree to which the cooperators have "owned" the soil erosion problem and its resolution.

3.0 Methodology

Tracking attitudinal change took several different forms throughout the life span of the PWS. The majority of data collection efforts focussed on personal interviews of the cooperators. These surveys served to collect baseline data (June 1988), midpoint, equipment use, and end-of-project data (January 1992). Watershed technicians also collected additional ongoing, qualitative attitude change data in their regular contacts with the cooperators.

Data were analyzed at a number of different levels, including: pairs of test and control sub-watersheds; among all three test sub-watersheds, and; grouped test versus grouped control sub-watersheds.

Cross-sectional (point-in-time) and longitudinal (ongoing through time) analyses were conducted for relevant variables in assessing attitude change over time. Where longitudinal analyses were conducted, only those cooperators responding to both the baseline survey and the concluding survey were included in the data set to ensure that the findings reflected accurately and consistently, individual attitude change over the full course of the project.

4.0 Conclusions

The conclusions are grouped as follows: cooperator perception of the problem and the general merits of soil conservation; factors affecting adoption; perception of practice effectiveness; factors inherent to the PWS itself, and; suggestions for future programming.

Cooperator Perception of the Soil Erosion Problem/Merits of Soil Conservation

  1. Recognition of soil degradation as a problem on cooperator farms appeared to be an important prerequisite to obtaining consistent farmer interest and response;
  2. Implementation of erosion control measures resulted in test cooperators perceiving slightly less erosion on their farms in 1992 relative to 1988. Conversely, control cooperators as a group perceived slightly more erosion happening on their farms over the same time period. Control cooperators probably became sensitized to the erosion problem as a result of the PWS, but did not receive the encouragement to implement measures within the watershed boundaries to alleviate the problem.
  3. There is evidence that cooperators in general, affirmed the overall concept of soil and water conservation. In all sub-watersheds, cooperators agreed that "conserving soil and water is a good investment for their area".
In all three test sub-watersheds in 1992, there was a trend toward disagreement with the statement, "costs to the farmer of soil conservation are greater than the on-farm benefits", relative to how they responded in 1988. This suggested that positive experiences shaped their thinking over the four years, to the point where net returns/farm profitability for virtually all conservation practices were viewed positively.

Factors Affecting Adoption

  1. Cooperators' reasoning for choice of conservation practice varied by watershed and over time. In Kettle, where soil erosion was most obvious and where the expressed need for erosion control was the greatest, there remained a continuing desire to do what is right for the land resource (biophysical reasons). Having installed structures, Kettle cooperators demonstrated a growing appreciation for the positive economic benefits of the no-till cropping system in particular, in order to complement the work of the structures. Essex cooperators shifted away from biophysical reasoning to a focus on economic and farm management concerns over the life of the PWS. In Pittock, there appeared to be a growing appreciation of benefits to the land resource, but less consideration of economics as a motivating force.
  2. Motivation for practice implementation initially required experimentation with practices farmers were most familiar with and which were most easily incorporated into farming systems. In both Kettle and Essex, initial discussions and experimentation centered around modifications to the moldboard plow. Practice introduction time was reduced by building on practices farmers were familiar with, and by being ready to suggest or respond to requests for technical guidance on the more complicated conservation practices as they arose.

    Initial emphasis on structures on long slopes in Kettle seemed an appropriate starting point for some conservation discussions. After the structures were installed, several cooperators noted sediment build-ups in the ponded areas behind the berms. This prompted serious consideration of no-till practices to minimize soil movement off the fields.

  3. The time required for practice adoption appears to remain a highly variable and individually-oriented factor. Farm enterprises with livestock manures needing incorporation, or with certain specialty cash crops (e.g. white/coloured beans) were most hesitant to consider conservation cropping systems that included no-till. Very large, diversified farm enterprises with tight crop planting and harvesting schedules did not want to "bother" with scheduling the use of PWS equipment and time to keep field records.

    On the other hand, cooperators who enjoyed modifying and fine-tuning management systems tended to be more patient in working with the more complicated alternative tillage and cropping practices. Timing of technician input was important, particularly where weather was a factor and where the cooperator was open to integrating alternative tillage practices with structural control measures. Access to the PWS equipment was a crucial component in encouraging practice adoption. Farm tours in Ontario and beyond served to stimulate and reinforce adoption behaviour.

    In general, cooperators agreed that five to ten years is a realistic time frame to achieve a satisfactory comfort level with integration of conservation planter equipment into their management systems. Cooperators generally considered three years adequate for the conservation drill.

Perception of Practice Effectiveness

  1. Test cooperators had a high regard for the effectiveness of the conservation practices they have implemented for limiting soil loss. For others who perceive they have a problem, this can serve as a strong motivating force.
  2. Test cooperators were generally neutral or slightly positive about practice effects on crop yields. They were almost always more positive with respect to "effects on profitability". This bodes well for future adoption as cooperators appeared to be acknowledging the net financial benefits of implementation of even the less familiar practices.
  3. Test cooperators in Essex and Kettle had a substantially more positive view of the community acceptance of no-till practices in 1992 relative to 1991. Peer support can contribute to higher adoption rates.

Factors Inherent to the PWS

  1. Several cooperators, particularly in Pittock, raised the issue of their own lack of understanding of project design and goals from the outset. It is possible that cooperators who missed one or more of the early orientation meetings were not personally updated on meeting content and therefore developed certain misconceptions about the project (eg. water quality monitoring results to be potentially used against them).
  2. The PWS did not provide for designation of a cooperator spokesperson or a small committee to whom project participants could take their concerns and suggestions. This could have served a purpose in providing a "safe place" for cooperators to negotiate disputes and provide a sense of continuity when changes in technical staff occurred.
  3. Some interest was expressed in both Essex and Pittock in lowering herbicide use and promoting "ecological" agriculture. Specifically, band spraying combined with inter-row cultivation was mentioned as a technique that the PWS could not provide equipment for, or had few technical or financial resources to use in support of these ideas.
  4. Few resources were allocated to dissemination of PWS experience beyond the boundaries of the watersheds. Wider community support for, and understanding of conservation initiatives may have been engendered by such promotion. However, some local organizations gave some profile (conservation/production awards) to selected conservation farmers whose experience was built through the PWS.

Cooperator Perspectives on Post-PWS Conservation Intentions and Future Programming

  1. There appeared to be interest in maintaining or increasing acreage of crops under selected conservation practices in each of the watersheds. The focus is expected to be on no-till in Kettle and Essex, along with some increase in cropping systems practices (e.g. winter cover crop grown for crop or tilled in spring). Fewer cooperators in the Pittock watershed were choosing to expand no-till practices; rather, there appeared to be a reliance on cropping systems practices.
  2. The most frequently cited kinds of support required to enable continuation of cooperator conservation goals post-PWS included:
    • money from better crop prices and through financial assistance programs;
    • availability of equipment at low cost, as it is too expensive to buy;
    • continued technical support.
  3. In future programming, cooperators suggested the following approaches:
    • a low key, non-threatening approach where the farmers help set the agenda, similar to the PWS approach;
    • take prospective cooperators on tours to see first hand how other people are working with the specific techniques, and thus provide motivation;
    • keep cooperators up-to-date with project findings along the way;
    • ensure technical support is based in the local community;
    • where possible, involve cooperators in environmental monitoring or other field testing exercises.

5.0 Recommendations

Recommendations applicable to other conservation programming initiatives where accelerated adoption rates are sought, are noted below:
  1. Determine from potential cooperators, whether they perceive a soil erosion problem, and whether they are willing to try to correct it. Also, ensure that they are presented with current information about the soil conserving attributes and economic benefits of the conservation measures they are being asked to consider to alleviate the problem.
  2. Whenever cooperators are unable to attend project information sessions particularly at project start-up, contact each cooperator to ensure they get the same information as everyone else. This will minimize the possibilities of misunderstandings arising related to project intentions and objectives.
  3. Wherever possible, include peer support mechanisms for promoting newer practices such as no-till. These may include visits to other conservation farms of similar enterprise types where exposure to proven techniques can occur, or participation in technical workshops, seminars or demonstration sites.
  4. Ensure that adequate technical support is available locally, and that access to equipment at critical cropping phases does not pose a constraint to experimentation with alternative practices;
  5. Ensure that cooperators have a "safe place" where they feel comfortable taking their project-specific concerns. This may require setting up a cooperator committee as a sounding board where potential disputes can be resolved and where continuity can be maintained should change in technical staff occur.
  6. In future programming, use a low-key, non-threatening approach to project design and implementation where farmers help set the agenda. The farm management system and enterprise-specific conservation needs and constraints must be addressed with each cooperator.




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Created: 05-28-1996
Last Revised: Thursday, May 19, 2011 07:30:23 PM