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The adoption of conservation practices in the Corn Belt: the role of one formal farmer network, Practical Farmers of Iowa.


Substantial evidence has shown that involvement in peer-to-peer farming networks influences whether a farmer decides to try a new practice. Formally organized farmer networks are emerging as a unique entity that blend the benefits of decentralized exchange of farmer knowledge within the structure of an organization providing a variety of sources of information and forms of engagement. We define formal farmer networks as farmer networks with a distinct membership and organizational structure, leadership that includes farmers, and an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. This study complements existing ethnographic research on the benefits of organized farmer networking by examining farmers in one longstanding formal farmer network, Practical Farmers of Iowa. Using a nested, mixed-method research design, we analyzed survey and interview data to understand how participation and forms of engagement in the network are associated with the adoption of conservation practices. Responses from 677 farmers from a regular member survey disseminated by Practical Farmers of Iowa in 2013, 2017, and 2020 were pooled and analyzed. GLM binomial and ordered logistic regression results indicate that greater participation in the network, particularly through in-person formats, has a strong and significant association with greater adoption of conservation practices. Logistic regression results show that building relationships in the network is the most important variable for predicting whether a farmer reported adopting conservation practices as a result of participation in PFI. In-depth interviews with 26 surveyed member farmers revealed that PFI supports farmers to adopt by providing information, resources, encouragement, confidence building, and reinforcement. In-person learning formats were more important to farmers relative to independent formats because they were able to have side conversations with other farmers, ask questions, and observe results. We conclude that formal networks are a promising way to expand the use of conservation practices, particularly through targeted efforts to increase relationship building in the network through face-to-face learning opportunities.

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