Farm Progress

Iowa Learning Farms: Doing something for the common good is often a hard sell economically.

Jacqueline Comito

January 30, 2018

4 Min Read
CLEAN WATER: When it comes protecting the water, whose responsibility is it? No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or is everyone responsible?

Who owns Cross Creek? That is a line from one of my favorite films, “Cross Creek.” Released in 1983, the film is based on a memoir of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of the classic children’s book, “The Yearling.” The film is about her life as owner of an orange grove in Florida and all the local residents of “the creek.”

‘Who owns Cross Creek?’
This line popped into my head when I was talking to Ann Staudt, Iowa Learning Farms assistant manager, about workshops we had done last winter with farmers. It was clear from the brainstorming activity that many of the farmers and landowners were more knowledgeable and caring about questions concerning soil health than water quality.

When I pointed that out to Ann, she said, “Soil health happens on the land they own, and they directly benefit from it. It’s personal. Water is a part of the common good and is less tangible.”

The common good is often a hard sell economically. No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or is everyone responsible?

Attitudes change with social norms
Let’s face it: When it comes to water quality, we have been slipping in through the back door, so to speak. As folks from the Natural Resources Conservation Service like to point out, the practices that improve soil health also improve water quality.

That’s true. Cover crops are a good example. They are good for soil health, especially where land is highly erodible or degraded. On the water quality side, they play a major role in reducing both phosphorus and nitrogen loss. It’s difficult to show a direct return on investment with cover crops in terms of soil health, and it could cost billions of dollars annually to implement the 12 million acres of cover crops needed every year to improve water quality. That kind of investment is going to require a seismic change in attitudes toward water quality if it is going to happen.

In his 2012 book, “Navigating Environmental Attitudes,” social psychologist Thomas Heberlein argues that the way to change attitudes is by changing social norms. Norms are different than attitudes because they are tied directly to behavior, whereas attitudes are based on values and beliefs. In order for norms to change behavior, they must be focused on and activated by how society shapes what we do — i.e., what shapes the status quo.

Norms influencing environmental behaviors do change, but it takes years (decades) for norms to emerge, change and strengthen. For norms to function, individuals must feel responsible for their acts.

I’m not saying farmers are deliberating about doing wrong; they are following the norms within our current ag system. While many farmers could add more conservation practices to their operations, it’s the system itself that needs changing. Policies over the last several decades have intensified row crop agriculture and led us to our current water quality and soil erosion challenges. The long-term vision for Iowa must include policies that more readily allow for a diversity of cropping systems and land use.

Poor water quality is the unintended consequence of agricultural norms that aren’t sustainable. To change this is going to require a seismic change in attitudes.

Implementing Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy
As we try to put Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to work on more acres in Iowa, we need to do a better job of helping farmers see where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. As we heard from one of the speakers at ISU Extension’s Agriculture and Natural Resources in-service training last year, “Farmers don’t need any help to stay the same.”

In 1983, I couldn’t have imagined how the answer to a question posed at the end of a loved film would become one of the central questions of my career. It has. Who owns Cross Creek? Or any creek?

Here’s how Rawlings responds to her haunting question: “Who owns Cross Creek? The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. …It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors; lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the season, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all to time.”

Comito is program director of Iowa Learning Farms.

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