Farmers meeting about conservation

(RCFI Co-Director Roger Wolf leads the introductory discussion during a Grassroots Leadership Forum in southeast Iowa. Photo by Joseph Hopper/Iowa Soybean Association)

On the road with the Front 40: Grassroots Leadership Forums

August 25, 2022 | Joseph Hopper

It’s a conversation about conservation.

The Front 40 initiative began with a series of regional meetings between ISA’s Research Center for Farming Innovation and local farmers. One year later, the Front 40 is in its second season and RCFI has again hit the road to meet with farmers, hosting six Grassroots Leadership Forums across the state. In 2022, meeting attendees have sometimes doubled or tripled from 2021, leading to an even more colorful and insightful discussion.

At the southeast Iowa Grassroots Leadership Forum, farmers reviewed nine RCFI priorities and voted with colored stickers to order what they thought was most important. Leading the pack at the southeast Iowa meeting were: diversifying the landscape, middle adopter engagement, on-farm research support, also communication and advocacy. Much of the initial conversation concerned the fact that many early adopters are today’s advocates for conservation practices on the farm, but a new wave of farmers — middle adopters — are needed to make meaningful conservation progress in the state.

“The Grassroots leadership forums held this past summer builds upon ISA RCFI foundation of research and application of practices by connecting directly with the priorities we find locally,” says Roger Wolf, RCFI co-director. “Local leaders are essential as we are relying on them to inform, build and sustain action and momentum that serves our farmers and the communities they live in. Building out advocacy and forward focus action programming ensures relevancy in how we can connect future RCFI programming, foster collaboration and achieve outcomes that bring value to our farmers.

He added, “We intend on recruiting additional local Front Forty champions as well as developing new proposals to empower more action locally.”

Mike Paustian, an ISA farmer member and inaugural Front 40 conservation champion, says a Purdue University study examining conservation adoption has informed his perspective in a meaningful way. The study found a farmers’ trusted social network makes a critical role in conservation adoption. Paustian says the Front 40 is built from that philosophy: empowering farmers and communities to have a conversation about conservation, learn from each other and figure out what works in each community.

“I think at the end of the day it comes down to people and relationships, if I had to boil it down,” Paustian says. “Seeing that study really got me thinking: How do we go beyond just early adopters who are interested in trying to see what works and what doesn’t? How do we make a nice, smooth paved road for everyone else to drive down now? That’s what I spend my time thinking a lot about now. How do we take it to the next level?”

The topic also brings a sense of urgency. Paustian says, “the clock is ticking.”

“It’s important that all of us think about how we can improve what we’re doing on our farms,” he says. “Our customers, consumers, are very interested what we’re doing, and we need to demonstrate that we can make progress using a voluntary approach. Because if we don’t it’s going to be a regulatory approach, it’s going to be less flexible and it’s probably not going to be as effective. I get that we’ve only got one chance to grow a crop each year, and you don’t want to screw it up, so that’s why we all need to start small now — figure out what works and what doesn’t work and go from there.”