Mental models reveal farmers who use systems-based thinking use more conservation practices

Many farming practices promote conservation of important natural functions like planting vegetation to support pollinators and natural enemies to pests, and using cover crops to promote soil health. However, the reasons farmers choose or don’t choose to adopt these practices is not well understood. A new study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems helps fill that gap and shows that farmers who think about their operations from a systems perspective also include more conservation practices in their farm management. This study analyzed 31 cognitive maps that farmers used to describe their operations to determine whether a farmer’s beliefs about conservation practices influenced their adoption of those practices. The mental maps showed that farmers who included concepts that reflected systems thinking such as biological pest control also used more conservation practices on their farms and participated in more conservation programs than those farmers who did not include systems-based practices in their maps. The results indicate that future outreach and extension that emphasizes a systems-based approach to farming and highlights how ecosystem services can support farming operations may help increase the overall adoption of conservation practices in agriculture.