When my wife Peg looks at the conservation community, she sees a world that appears upside down, according to her paradigms. Peg’s career has been split between health care and social work. She fully supports the need for preventative care and wellness programs. However, she recognizes that health care providers and social workers need to spend an inordinate amount of time seeking out and helping those people that are unhealthy and struggling with day to day activities. What would we think if hospitals admitted only healthy people and social workers refused to work with dysfunctional families because it was more rewarding to work with people that “have it all together”?
Dr. Pete Nowak, Professor of Environmental Studies at UW-Madison and one of the godfathers of precision conservation, says that agricultural degradation is not evenly distributed across the landscape. Nowak suggests there are certain farmers who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of soil erosion, nitrogen leaching, or phosphorus loading. These farmers are outliers and cause significantly more pollution than the average farmer.
As conservationists, we compound this problem by our unwillingness to push ourselves to seek out these outliers. When was the last time any of us made a concerted effort to stop and offer assistance to those who are in the most need of help? It is only natural for us to work with those who are excited about conservation; those who are early adopters; those who are conservation leaders; those who seek us out. It is much less comfortable for us to stop and visit farmers who may resent our intrusions; those who may not want to change what they are doing; those who may not want to invest in new technology; those who we perceive as “just not caring”.
It is easy to imagine these outliers may cause 20 times the amount of pollution as that of the best conservation farmers. But, because these farmers don’t come knocking at our door, we only interface with them when we are forced to because of compliance issues. Imagine being a farmer who is only sought out because of a violation (HEL, CAFO, or wetland violation) and not because somebody just wanted to help. As one of these farmers, of course you would be less than enthusiastic about seeing a conservationist/environmentalist.
If we are going to have the maximum impact, we all need to be more proactive. We need to identify the farmers who are causing a disproportionate amount of pollution and we need to aggressively work towards developing a positive relationship with them. Because of Dr. Nowak’s work, we know it is far more important to identify and help these outliers if we want to have the maximum impact.