Published Jul 12, 2019

How We Work: Getting Commitments

By Sally Worley

At Practical Farmers, we try to help farmers make changes in order to reach their goals. Change is hard, even when change is wanted! From the research we use to guide our work, we know that making commitments help people make the change they want.

Small Commitments

When someone makes a small commitment, such as sporting a bumper sticker that says they support local farmers, they are more likely to agree to a larger commitment in the future. Why? Research shows reasons are two-fold: 1) people perceive themselves as supporting local farmers, thus are more likely to; and 2) people want to be seen as consistent, so match their actions with their claims.

One way we help people make small commitments is through our on-farm research program. This program provides people data on changes on small amounts of ground to help them decide if the change is worth it. In addition to data, farmers get the chance to try out a practice on a small scale to see how the practice fits, time and money-wise, into their operation. For example, Tim Sieren, of Keota, shared results from his 2018 on-farm research trial at a field day he held in June 2019. Tim had noticed the corn was always taller in strips where soil was disturbed in the spring by anhydrous ammonia injectors. He says, “I wondered if I would have better yield if I strip-tilled my corn. My 2018 trial showed strip-till yielded better than no-till for me.” His 2018 strip-till plots also had a higher return on investment (nearly $32 per acre). This trial will provide Tim with knowledge and experience to move forward with more strip-till.

PFI farmer Tim Sieren Keota Iowa

We also seek small commitments through cover crop cost-share, recruiting new members into PFI’s learning community and asking people to attend events. We have indeed seen small commitments lead to larger ones. For example, new member Cathy LaFrenz, of Miss Effie’s Country Flowers, was introduced to PFI through member Jill Beebout. Cathy gave a dynamic presentation on cut flowers at PFI’s 2019 annual conference. Cathy then became a member, and then attended PFI’s fruit and vegetable meetup in Solon. She is hosting a field day on her farm near Donahue on August 18. Cathy’s increased commitment will help other aspiring flower farmers learn how to grow and sell flowers in their communities. It’s impossible to NOT want to grow flowers after hearing Cathy enthusiastically share her experiences. 

Public Commitments

When commitments are made public, they are more likely to be followed through on. We love to get RSVPs for events, because you are all busy—if you don’t voice your commitment to attend, you may decide to stay home and get work done on the farm. We also share commitments people make in our outreach, making these commitments more visible and increasing accountability. We are increasing organizing members through peer groups, where they can make commitments to a close-knit group they will see again. For example, a recent grazing group was Caleb Baker’s first PFI event. “I’ve been doing a lot of research on regenerative ag and the positive effects it can have”, said Caleb, so he’s been transitioning his conventional corn and soybean farm to perennial pastures to raise grass-fed beef. Caleb has now attended his second grazing group meeting and is looking forward to continued participation. In the same vein, on-farm researchers commit to projects when they meet in December. This peer commitment increases their likelihood of participating in the project the next year.  

regenerative grazing group practical farmer

Things to Improve

While we are doing some things to encourage small and public commitments, there is much we can do to improve! We hope to more thoughtfully make direct invitations to events, and to help event hosts do the same. We want to increase asking for people to make a commitment at events, with appropriate follow-up mechanisms in place to help them stay true to their commitment. At the end of certain events, perhaps people can share what they plan to change as a result of attending. Social media is so easy to access—we would like to spur some social media commitment campaigns around your main goals of conservation, viability and community. 

Read more about how commitments increase change in Fostering Sustainable Behavior. What ideas to you have around how we can encourage commitment? What do you commit to do to improve your future? I commit to continuing to learn how change is effectively made, and sharing what I learn with my peers at PFI. If you have resources to recommend, please contact me!