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Serving: MN
Aerial view of conservation practices to protect soil and water Paula Mohr
CONSERVATION CONVERSATIONS: Many landowners and farmers have implemented conservation practices on their land to protect soil and water. Possibly more could be done if conservation agencies worked together with farmers to provide new approaches to delivery and implementation.

With conservation, where there’s a will there’s a way

Ag Water Stewardship: Conservation success depends on more voices joining the conversation.

In the conservation world, it has become a normal manner of speaking to refer to “willing landowners.”

While this may seem to be a compliment, I believe the term is often used as a criticism, suggesting that many landowners are unwilling to work with agency employees and utilize agency programs. You might also hear about organizations purchasing farmland from “willing sellers” knowing full-well that the purchasing organization will be converting the farm permanently to habitat.

It is not my intent to suggest that such transactions are never warranted. I am simply opining on the use of the word “willing,” in these cases, to suggest that those who are not willing to enter into such arrangements are lesser environmentalists.

I also hear the word “willing” as a frequent explanation when agency-led efforts fall short of their goals. “We need willing landowners who will cooperate with us to get this done,” accompanied by lamentations that, in their view, many landowners either don’t care about protecting water and soil or don’t want to.

The fact that much good conservation work is getting done is encouraging. Obviously, the system is working for some programs in some parts of the state and some landowners. My question is, where the current process is not working, or at least not working well enough, are there “willing agency folks” interested in working with landowners and farmers to identify new approaches to conservation delivery and implementation?

I’ve previously written calls to action in this column, encouraging farmers to get involved locally in water planning. This time I’m calling on those who generally control the planning and conservation delivery process to re-consider their approach.

I know many great conservation professionals who demonstrate tremendous willingness to work with landowners and farmers already. And I see room for improvement.

If you are a conservation professional who would like to do better, are you willing to change how you interact with your customers? Are you willing to work within your agency to change programs to make them more marketable? Are you willing to work with farmers and farm organizations in crafting conservation programs?

This may sound too simple. However, we have all seen the surveys asking some variation of “what obstacles are keeping you from doing more conservation practices?” Frequent answers include money, time and tradition. Other frequent answers refer to the processes and programs themselves. Too much paperwork. The program requirements are too rigid, or they don’t fit my situation.

I understand that the idea of giving up some control of the process may sound threatening to some who currently control the conversation. I would argue that involving the people who will ultimately be expected to implement the plan in the development of the plan will result in more action and accountability.

So instead of repeating the “obstacles” survey, I am interested in knowing who’s willing to work on the process and programs to help farmers in their basic goal of constantly, gradually improving. Depending on your position, this might simply be working on collaborating with farmers more than directing. Others will have opportunities to work at policy or budgetary levels.

I’d bet that having more willing partners on all sides of the conversation will go a long way to improving how conservation happens. It will just require that participants be willing to make a few changes.

Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.

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