MSHS speaker Ryan Stockwell specializes in social psychology of sustainable decisionmaking
By Kassie Brown • SFA Communications Intern
Anybody can preach to the choir, but it’s tougher to get your message across when your sermon is delivered to people on the sidewalk.
Ryan Stockwell, a sustainable farmer and public policy influencer slated to speak at the 2017 SFA Midwest Soil Health Summit, specializes in engaging those folks and getting them into the pews.
Stockwell, a soil health-focused farmer and Senior Agriculture Program Manager for the National Wildlife Federation, knows farmers face intense social pressure when making sustainably focused changes to their fields despite mounting evidence that implementing soil health practices leads to enhanced farm profitability. Keeping soil covered, increasing crop diversity and integrating livestock can create social, economic and personal dilemmas. For Stockwell, the key to creating a more sustainable system is understanding this process and finding out why farmers choose to make changes – even if those changes, while successful, could bring alienation, ridicule, or a different workload.
Stockwell has worked with SFA on cover crop adoption and crop insurance literature and now focuses largely on the messaging behind and social psychology of transitioning to unconventional practices. He describes farming as one of the only fields where people are engaged in a “non-voluntary public occupation.”
“For farmers, decisions to go against what is tried and true cannot be made lightly,” he said. “Any changes that a farmer makes are noticed.”
This is not true of most other occupations – very few clients notice their auto mechanic’s decision to switch tool brands or their teacher’s replacement of her PC with a Mac. On a multi-acre field visible to a farmer’s entire community, the farmer alone must experiment while an audience critiques. Most non-farmers cannot begin to understand the social pressure – not to mention the economic and personal pressures – that farmers face when attempting anything new. Stockwell is interested in identifying the positive things that get good traction and expanding those successful messages to reach a broader audience, circumventing the social pressure.
Stockwell is aided by a deep awareness of the issues commodity agriculture faces matched with a strong passion for resource conservation, and he is motivated by his own farm and the hope that he will one day pass the land on to one or all of his three sons. He fears a plateau in the momentum that has been achieved by no-till and cover crops and worries about the future, but these things also bolster his resolve to develop the best possible strategies for wide-scale adoption of a sustainability-centered mindset. He is determined in his work to get the non-choir to practice.
When asked about his level of optimism in regard to the widespread adoption of the five principles of soil health, Stockwell said the future of soil health “will be determined by us and the strategies we use.” This sense of personal responsibility is evidence of Stockwell’s determination to find solutions to the many barriers farmers and consumers alike face; and because it attracts farmers from across the spectrum – conventional, sustainable, organic – Stockwell views the Midwest Soil Health Summit as one place in which we can begin surmounting a few of sustainable agriculture’s biggest obstacles.