Farmer identity represents the cycle of an individual’s subjective understanding of good farming practices which are verified through social and ecological feedback. We assessed this process through an examination of survey responses by farmers in Iowa and found that distinct identity groups emerge within a range of potential behaviors that a “good farmer” engages in. The identity framework components of the figure are adapted from Burke (1991) and McGuire et al. (2013). All color graphical elements are from the Integration and Application Network ( licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

By Adam Dixon, J. G. Arbuckle and Erle Ellis

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Conservation strategies in agricultural regions have historically been in essence, “we pay you to not farm” to improve habitat quality. This strategy has been somewhat successful in creating short term conservation actions; but when crop prices increase, these areas are often converted back to crop production. There is an urgent need to improve conservation strategies to reverse the tremendous decline of grassland bird populations in the US Midwest due to intensive agricultural land use. In this article, we investigate relationships between farmers’ perspectives on what it means to be a “good farmer” and their on-farm wildlife habitat conservation behaviors.

We analyzed data from survey of about 1,000 farmers in Iowa, USA. Our analyses compared wildlife habitat management practices among farmers with different perspectives about what makes a “good farmer.” We found large differences between clustered groups of farmers and their use of wildlife habitat management practices on their farms. For example, farmers who rated production-related characteristics (e.g., highest yields) as the most important signifiers of a “good farmer” were far less likely to report wildlife habitat management actions like leaving weedy areas between crop fields or waiting for ground nesting birds to successfully hatch their young before mowing than were farmers who rated stewardship-related factors (e.g., minimizing soil erosion) as the characteristics that define a “good farmer.” Furthermore, we found that farmers who reported participation in recreational activities like birdwatching and hunting were more likely to report to wildlife-friendly habitat management. Based on these results, we suggest that new conservation initiatives should be designed to appeal to different identity types. For instance, programs that focus on wildlife habitat management solutions that enhance recreational opportunities might appeal to more conservation-oriented farmers.

However, many farmers may view wildlife habitat as incompatible with high-yield commodity production, so programs must take those perspectives into account. Production focused farmers may respond better to outcome-based solutions, which may not prescribe a specific solution but rather allow the farmers to innovate and create solutions on their own.

Our research shows that farmers’ diverse perspectives regarding what it means to be a “good farmer” can predict their wildlife habitat management behaviors. These findings can inform the significant effort already expended within farmlands and help to increase the effectiveness of these investments over the long-term.