Farmers have a unique role in our community and our economy. From a sustainability perspective, they can be viewed in two ways. Either as custodians of the land who spend their days carefully nurturing the flora and fauna and ensuring that the land stays healthy and productive for future generations. Or, alternatively, as utilitarians who treat the earth as a means to an end and are only interested in extracting maximum value from natural resources. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between, and there are probably farmers who exist all along the continuum from those opposite characterisations. What influences some farmers to adopt conservation practices?
For a start, researchers have found that having a favourable attitude towards conservation practices helps. For instance, research described in this article found that those farmers who believed that climate change was real were more likely to take adaptive measures in response. Meanwhile, an Austrian study found that farmers who had positive attitudes toward conservation behaviours were much more likely to adopt them. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it is in fact unusual to find an attitude-behaviour link as strong as the one found in this study. The authors attempt to explain the strength of this finding and conclude that farmer's attitudes are greatly influenced by their awareness of environmental problems, and their personal experience of stress created by them. It would appear that attitudes forged in such a way are a strong motive for action.
While pro-environment attitudes are important, having a sense of control is also essential for people to engage in conservation behaviours, and farmers are no different. A study into conservation technology adoption found that those farmers who felt they had more control, especially financially, were more likely to adopt such measures. The authors added that "to predict technology adoption we may need to account for both perceived and actual control." Meaning that providing a way for farmers to control their level of engagement, as well as demonstrating this to them, will be a key engagement strategy.
More down the emotional end of the spectrum, a number of studies have found that "connectedness to nature" is a key differentiator between those who adopt sustainability measures on the farm and those who don't. Those who experience such a connection were more likely to adopt vegetation protection measures on their farm in research conducted in Victoria, Australia. Another study attempted to identify differences between organic and conventional farmers, observing that organic farmers placed a greater emphasis on living ethically, and "also reported a greater awareness of and appreciation for nature in their relationship with the land." The same study also found that both groups were open to having their rights limited, with conventional farmers slightly more likely to assert their rights as landholders. One notable commonality was that both groups distrust the government to provide those limitations and regulations.
The last point, about who farmers trust, is probably the most important common thread when reviewing research into their conservation behaviours. There is consistent evidence that farmers are most influenced by their peers, their community and those closest to them. A review by DEFRA in the UK found, for instance, that "local and personal contacts have more influence on farmers' intentions than more distant and impersonal sources. In particular, many farmers are not disposed to follow advice from institutions that they feel do not fully understand their situation." Another piece of research into the social psychology of farm sustainability found that farmers with greater environmental awareness were more influenced by their peers and the community. Finally, the study into technology adoption mentioned earlier stated that "individual farmers who are more influenced by the community will be more likely to adopt, and will adopt more intensely." The authors also warn, though, that efforts to influence through coercion will likely reduce farmer's all-important sense of control, creating more resistance than adoption.
To conclude, research into conservation adoption by farmers reveals some key commonalities. Firstly, if farmers believe such measures will make a difference, and that they can do it on their terms, they are more likely to do it. If they feel that they are being forced into it by green groups or the government, they are less likely to get involved. Those looking to influence farmers to engage in sustainability actions are best to recognise this fact and leverage their peers and local community in order to provide a credible case for change.
Awake provides psychology-based tools and services which support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability. Visit www.awake.com.au for more info.