The existance of Modern Ag vs Wildlife Conservation, with a Social Science Twist.

Throughout my collegiate career, and my short time of farming on my own, I have come to the realization that where people are from (example: farming communities vs. urban living) plays a role in how they think farming works, if they have a clue at all to start with. Although, I also developed my own theory that what people do as an occupation, or what they want to do, or even what they like (specifically, moreover, a hobby that is partly a lifestyle to them) can effect how they view agriculture differently. For this blog post, I went and interviewed two of my friends who happen to be directly involved in wild life conservation. They both grew up hunting and fishing and have developed a strong love for the outdoors; they are both biology majors at school and they both want to work in conservation after the graduate. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, but I left a lot of room for thought.

Now, apart from being an Ag major in school, I am also a Communications minor; I have a little bit of a thing for social psychology and because of this I find these interviews to be particularly interesting. So I’m going to put a little psychological twist into this post. When reading through their answers, it seemed as if they possess the same self-biases which, in turn, makes their logic nearly similar. But before you read the questions, perhaps I should define “self-biases” and “logic” for better understanding. The best way to understand them may by to think of them like this: while growing up, they’ve comprehended knowledge that they believe is credible, and witnessed events which in turn has shaped their identity, whether that info was credible or even accurate is irrelevant because that knowledge and those events build internal and external attributions within their character (self-biases). This, in turn, has a direct effect on their way of thinking. Such as what information they choose to draw conclusions upon and even how they go about communicating their thoughts and ideas (logic). Now, when you read these interviews try to keep that in the back of your mind and I think you may be able to grasp the concept.

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Interview with Student #1:

Hometown: Rochester, Illinois
Education: Biology major with emphasis in Zoology, minor in LEJA
Occupation: Full-time student

For starters, how would you rate your knowledge of wildlife conservation?

I have a pretty decent background into the conservation of wildlife. I would say I am about midrange for my knowledge level as I have a good amount of experience with hunting and fishing, which is the management of wildlife. Also being a bio major, I have learned various other conservation methods.

How would you rate your knowledge of production agriculture as practiced today?

I am not too well with it, but I do work for a farmer back home for the last couple years and I have learned a decent amount from that experience.

Do you believe that modern agricultural practices have an impact on wildlife conservation? Why?

Yes it does and for the most part has destroyed a lot of natural land. Also several habitats have been destroyed due to the land being cleared and turned into agriculture, for example the greater prairie chickens who have been endangered and pushed very closely to extinct in Illinois. I do also understand the benefit of agriculture and the benefits of having crops.

What is directly the largest negative impact(s) that agriculture has on conservation? Why?

The loss of natural habitats, destruction of native prairies, the intoxication of soils and water sources. The chemicals and the cultivation of the land has had the biggest impacts on the conservation and preservation of the land and wildlife.

What about indirect negative effects agriculture may have on conservation? And why?

Politics and money have a huge indirect effect on conservation for the fact that more money goes toward agriculture instead of the conservation of the true natural resources. Corn and soybeans are an invasive species that without help could never make it on their own, but sometimes just a little help with natural species of plants and trees can go a long way in conserving the natural species.

Are there any positive effects (either directly or indirectly) that agriculture may have on wildlife conservation? If so, Why?

Agriculture can provide invasive habitats and a food source for species that is more available and readily.

Have you ever witnessed any of these impacts in real life?

Yes I have seen how deer can destroy crops while they eat the seeds and I have also came across coyote dens that are in fields since the land is usually easier to burrow into the ground.

If you believe that agricultural practices are harmful to wildlife conservation, how would you go about limiting or eliminating their impact?

The use of chemicals to make practices easier would be a good starting point in helping increase better wildlife conservation. Farmers can create more work for people by walking fields and cutting weeds instead of applying herbicides that can kill native weed species in ditches and field lines.

Is there any practice (or practices) of modern agriculture today in the US that you know of that is minimally impactful to wildlife conservation? If so, why?

The smaller farms have a lot less impact on wildlife in the fact that they tend to leave woodlands and the bigger facilities often clear all the land to gain more bushels of crop.

Do you know of any agricultural practices in modern agriculture today that are beneficial to wildlife conservation?

The farmers that turn land into CRP offer habitat for a huge variety of wildlife.

Interview with Student #2:

Hometown: Burlington, Iowa
Education: Associates of Science and 1 Semester to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology with a minor in Environmental Science.
Occupation: Student and Fisheries Research Biologist.

For starters, how would you rate your knowledge of wildlife conservation?

I am very knowledgeable about wildlife conservation. I am a member of several conservation organizations, including The Wildlife Society and the American Fisheries Society. Through these organizations I am able to discuss conservation practices with others in the field along with read published articles about on going and finished conservation research. I have also worked in a conservation department where I implemented conservation practices.

How would you rate your knowledge of production agriculture as practiced today?

I would say I my knowledge of production agriculture is sufficient. I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I also have many family members who have large scale farming operations.

Do you believe that modern agricultural practices have an impact on wildlife conservation? Why?

Yes very much so. Agriculture can be very detrimental to conservation in several ways. One of the largest impacts agriculture has had on conservation is loss of habitat.

What is directly the largest negative impact(s) that agriculture has on conservation? Why?

Loss of habitat is the biggest reason. First just in Illinois there was 22 million acres of prairie before settlement. Today 99.9% has been turned into agriculture or urban areas. (http://wwn.inhs.illinois.edu/~kenr/prairiesettlement.html ) Because of this extreme loss of habitat the ability to sustain wildlife is severely impacted. With much of agriculture being corn and soybeans in the Midwest, there is little for habitat once the crops have been harvested. This leaves very small fragmented islands of habitat for wildlife. These islands create many problems within populations of animals. One of the largest problems is the lack of resources. Another major issue is genetic drift, which occurs when there are very few individuals of a species mating. This can lead to extinction of a species. A prime example of this in Illinois is the Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnates). Due to loss of prairie habitat the prairie chicken has become greatly reduced in numbers (only around 50 today). They lost genetic diversity when habitats were fragmented and now only live in two places in southern Illinois. With no habitat there is no hope for the prairie chicken to rebound and I believe in my lifetime it will become extinct.

What about indirect negative effects agriculture may have on conservation? And why?

I believe that agriculture indirectly effects conservation by receiving a large share of federal money. This money goes to subsidies and farms when it could go to conservation. However programs such as CRP,CREP, and WRP are farm programs that receive money, yet create wildlife habitat. I also believe agriculture receives much more attention than conservation which allows more people to care about farming than conservation.

Are there any positive effects (either directly or indirectly) that agriculture may have on wildlife conservation? If so, Why?

I believe agriculture does create habitat of a certain type and food for wildlife. Agriculture provides an edge habitat. This is beneficial to species such as whitetail deer, pheasants, and coyotes. It also provides a non-native food source for species like the deer and pheasants.

Have you ever witnessed any of these impacts in real life?

Yes, I have worked in a conservation department and also lived in the Midwest where I see these things everyday.

If you believe that agricultural practices are harmful to wildlife conservation, how would you go about limiting or eliminating their impact?

I believe that agriculture needs to have stricter regulations on uses of fertilizer and chemicals. I also believe that regulations should be put into place for fall tillage and cover cropping. I understand that agriculture is important to humanity; however wildlife is also important for us. There must be a way that both can coexist without harming being detrimental to eachother.

Is there any practice (or practices) of modern agriculture today in the US that you know of that is minimally impactful to wildlife conservation? If so, why?

Yes, no till planting, strip till, terraces, Iowa State Universities STRIPS program (https://www.nrem.iastate.edu/research/STRIPs/ ). These practices are new, which help stop some of the problems that agriculture has traditionally caused to wildlife.

Do you know of any agricultural practices in modern agriculture today that are beneficial to wildlife conservation?

Not really. I believe that the only thing agriculture provides to wildlife is an alternative source of food. There are not many direct benefits of agriculture to wildlife conservation.

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I think after reading this their answers and explanations are a lot more similar than different. I brought up the whole topic because I think as an agriculturalist it’s beneficial to think about what may go into someone’s thought process. Everyone has their own self-biases, even myself. But thinking critically enables us to look past our own biases, and gauge who ever we’re talking to to try and determine where their biases lie. Once you know that you can more effectively communicate your message to them.

Why is this important? It’s no myth, for those in the ag industry, that the common public is near clueless about food production and the aspects within it. There is an information war being waged against the ag industry and if we as agriculturalists don’t reach out to the public and try to counter flawed logic spewed by “anti-ag” groups agriculture could change for the worse. I believe it is very important that before engaging someone in a conversation about ag to be somewhat knowledgeable about the social sciences because if you’re familiar with different techniques on how to critique your message to your audience, that in turn will your arguments more effective and may even cause more persuasion to take place.

Now, I know a number of people who may just disregard this advice, they have the kind of attitude that’s all like “I call it like I see it and if people don’t like that then oh well who cares” and may I just say that kind of mentality is not only going to fail in convincing people away from the flawed logic of things like anti-gmo advocates and PETA schemes but it’s also going to give people a false perspective of what the people are like who live and work in agriculture. If they think we’re stuck up and rude they will be less likely to accept any information from anyone else in ag. We need to be able to display our industry in the most positive light and doing that first starts with how we act towards others, and it ends with being able to effectively persuade them to think past any kind of self-bias or expose any false logic within claims they may hold true. The best way to do that is to have some sort of social science understanding.

Now, about the interviews themselves. I believe a lot of their explanations were sound. One misconception that I believe they may hold it being more true than it actually is is use of chemicals. Chemicals can cause problems, depending on what the chemical is it can be anything from the killing of macro and micro organisms within the soil to spilling chemicals to polluting local ecosystems by run-off. The biggest misconception I hear about is specifically spraying of herbicide, and pesticide. Spraying today, is a lot different than spraying back in the 1950s. Today, spraying chemicals is just one tool of many within the care for crops most refer to as IPM (Integrated Pest Management). Spraying is a chemical method, many are nto aware that there are also cultural methods (Example: resistant crops) and mechanical methods (example: tillage) to controlling weeds and insects within fields. Plus, most people are under the general assumption that when farmers do spray crops they just poor on the chemicals, when in reality the chemicals are so effected they are applied in quantity as small as “ounces to the acre.” When these chemicals are applied, it doesn’t take long for them to complete what ever process it is necessary to kill the bug or weed. Any residue that is left on the plants are broken down by ultraviolet rays to ineffective forms, and if any get into the soil they are broken down by the micro-biology within the soil. By the time the herbicide would even reach ground water, or get washed off into a ditch, the chances are highly likely that the chemical is no longer in a form where it could be harmful. I approached both of my friends and explained this to them, they were very understanding and even asked a few extra questions that went into the specifics of how herbicides killed weeds so rest assured they are more aware of that particular process now than they were when they filled out this interview.

There is one last thing I would like to touch on. In my experience of what I’ve seen from large farms and smaller farms, I agree with the statement made that smaller farms have less impact on the environment than the larger farms do, and I seem to be one of the few within my school and even within ag in general that shares this view. It’s simple logic; smaller farms, especially those smaller farms that own all their land and rent little to none, have a larger margin of profit than the larger farms do because they can make more money per acre. Not only that, but there is a biological window that farmers have to plant and harvest, even sometimes spray depending on the weather that growing season. Farmers with less land are not only more able to get their work done in this biological window, but they’re able to take better care of their land. It’s easier for a farmer with 800 acres to tend to their land than a farmer with 8000 acres. Growing up on a farm, working for a number of farmers through out my life, and even being an actual farmer myself: I know of 2 larger scale farmers that are currently clearing forest to make more farmable ground, I don’t know of any smaller farmers that are doing that. I know of a larger farmer that has got in some hot water with the state and wound up in a lawsuit, I don’t know of any smaller farmers that have. I’m not trying to form the impression that every large farmer is a “bad” farmer by any means, I’m well aware that even small farmers can be less than adequate; but what I’ve witnessed through out my lifetime is congruent with that statement “smaller farms have less impact on the environment.” And when you think about the trend that our industry has, smaller farms disappearing and larger farms getting bigger, what impact do you think that has on conservation? Food for thought I suppose.

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