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Farmers as an audience for biodiversity

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Jess Brooks, farmland advisor at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, UK, reflects on farmers as an audience for biodiversity.

How are farmers operating today?

So when talking about farmer clusters, we must remember that these clusters are made up of people and no two people are the same. 'Farmer' is used quite broadly here to refer to many different types of land managers who live and work on land. Some farmers will make their living from the land and produce food but others may not and may not even be involved with the everyday activities on the farm. So as an example, one of my cluster members is actually a stock broker who lives in Monaco and and he owns a farm here, but the farm work is contracted out. So that's a very different scenario to another member of my cluster in Dorset who manages a four hundred hectare mixed livestock and Animal Farm by himself and gets by on four hours sleep a night! So the appetite of those two very different people to improve biodiversity and work with their neighbours in a cluster might be the same, but the mechanism by which you work with them will be different. So the bottom line is that you are dealing with a broad spectrum of personalities, farm types and business models as well.

What prevents farmers from considering biodiversity?

The biggest problems is that there's an absence of trust between farmers and other entities, such as the government and the public as well. And we find that the whole conversation about farming the environment is very negative. And there are also quite large gaps in the knowledge of farmers and about what wildlife they have on their farms, how it's increasing or how it's decreasing and why that is important. Agri-environmental schemes at the moment don't really incentivise enough farmers financially. They're not monitored and they don't necessarily offer positive feedback and encouragement either about about what farmers are doing. So farmers in that kind of setting and landscape will never be inspired to do more. If they feel unappreciated and they feel persecuted. The system of farming that we have, the political the industrial landscape is very top down and it's it's full of blockers. We have a lot of rules. We have a lot of inspection limits, payment delays, and we have a heavy admin load on farmers nowadays. So they are under enormous pressure from the government, from the media, from the public and from environmental organisations. So with all of these mental and physical burdens on their time, it's no wonder that conservation, biodiversity and the environment feels like another thing to add to the long list of things they have to think about and do! But what we find with farmer clusters is that it kind of flips the whole thing around onto its head. A farmer cluster is an enabler. By joining up with neighbours, choosing a trusted professional environmental adviser to work with them, it instantly puts in place a support network for farmers. It's a source of advice and a place for them to be creative, to get inspiration.

What helps and enables farmers to consider biodiversity?

So the culture of the farmer cluster is totally different from this top down ecosystem. It's an enabling type of way of working. It's very difficult for [farmers] to understand the success of what they're doing, because there is quite an absence of positive feedback and encouragement and monitoring of what they're doing. Everyone's kind of struggling in isolation rather than working together and being cooperative which is a big problem. So the default position is for everybody to work individually on their own farms at a farm level. And there's only so much biodiversity improvement that can be done working like that. Wildlife doesn't need boundaries. Rivers run through more than one farm. So working at landscape scale is essential and everyone on this call knows that!

That's why we're here. So to avoid these problems, to help them succeed, we need to communicate with farmers better. We to understand their psychology, support them better, give them more credit, hold them up a bit, stop farmer-bashing and give them more free opportunities for opportunities for learning and training. So those are all the core activities of the farmer cluster.

Where are farmers coming from? What are their motivations and values?

The values and the motives for farmers include pride in being a steward of land, producing quality food, being a good business person, making a profit to support their family, respect for tradition, the lifestyle and a love and knowledge of the land and the local area. The very same motives for conservation and entering stewardship agreements include a concern for future generations, peer pressure from the industry and but also their neighbours as well. Pressure from science, government, the media, scientists, the public. Other incentives would be topping-up farm income with environment schemes, making money from unproductive areas of the farm and just generally a love and knowledge of the wildlife that's on the farm. And then the fact that you bring nostalgia into it. Many farmers have observed declines in wildlife in their lifetimes and they want to do something about that.

I would say the importance of a healthy, profitable farm or family business cannot be overstated when talking about farmer's motivations. And you don't become a food producer to get rich, do you? Some farmers live hand-to-mouth. They don't have a cent to invest in better ways of doing things and new technologies. And as a general rule, farmers often say to me, we will struggle to be green and environmental if our bank statement is in the red.

So I think that kind of commonality is all to do with keeping their head above water in this challenging landscape.

How do these motivations and values impact attitudes to issues of biodiversity?

Someone's attitude to all this and conservation will depend on several things, the health of their business, their education, their personality and quite a lot of ways their knowledge, their creativity. But there's no real set template. As I said before, for a farmer, they're all very, very different people. So as an example, someone entering the industry might embrace new technology. They might have rather a different attitude to, say, a farming family that's been doing things the same way for decades and have set traditions and ways of doing things. So they would be very different scenarios.

Some farmers have positive attitudes to looking after the environment and believe it's an essential, an integral part, of their business. And others see the environment as a separate thing or an optional duty.

And then the final thing to say would be - there's a lot of negative public publicity directed at farming in terms of biodiversity [loss] and environmental impact. And this means that farmers kind of have a negative attitude towards the government and the public because of that. They're quite cynical. A lot of them are distrustful and disillusioned.

But farmer clusters, on the other hand, again flipping it around. They are a mini positive community. They're a bottom up way of working based on trust and support and knowledge. So they certainly have potential to convert a negative attitude into a positive attitude.

Finally, what’s your top tip for researching and promoting biodiversity sensitive farming?

My top tip would be to forget the outcomes that you want and start with the farmers, understand their psychology! You need to know what their blockers or barriers are but also what excites them as well. And the key to the success of the process is getting to know people, building trust and forming relationships, once you've made good progress with that the conservation work will follow.

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