Farmer Decision Making

(written by Randa Jabbour)

As a biologist, I have spent over a decade trying to understand how agricultural management practices affect different components of agricultural systems – crop yield, soil quality, insect and weed communities, insect pathogenic microbes, birds…and the list goes on. In 2010, I began a post-doc position at the University of Maine working with Eric Gallandt through which I was introduced to the idea of “mental models.” Mental models describe the knowledge, beliefs, and priorities that a group has about a certain risk that they face. Eric was collaborating on a project with the aim of constructing mental models illustrating how organic farmers perceive weeds, a major risk on their farms. We wanted to understand – how do farmers make decisions about weed management on their farms? This work was a mindblowing shift for me – I’ve spent so long trying to understand the effects of management practices on the ecosystem, but how do farmers decide whether or not to use a particular management practice in the first place? Are we as scientists answering questions that address salient points from the perspective of farmers? If we as a society want to farm sustainably according to environmental, social, and economic dimensions, it is crucial to link biophysical dimensions with the human dimensions.

My current work in Wyoming focuses on the topic of insect pest management in alfalfa, our largest acreage crop. I am collaborating with the sociologist Shiri Noy on a project funded by the University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station to address the following objectives:

  1. Define farmer perceptions, priorities, and decision-making strategies regarding pest management in alfalfa, including those producing hay, seed, or on-farm feed.
  2. Quantify connectivity and importance of farmer-farmer advice and other relationships using social network analysis.
  3. Engage students through novel curriculum based on farmer decision-making.
  4. Communicate findings through Extension and peer-reviewed publications and seek funding to develop a multi-state, externally funded research program in alfalfa pest management.

Our work on farmer decision-making and mental models:

Jabbour, R., Gallandt, E.R., Zwickle, S., Wilson, R.S., Doohan, D. 2014. Organic farmer knowledge and perceptions are associated with on-farm weed seedbank densities in northern New England. Weed Science 62: 338-349.

Jabbour, R., Zwickle, S., Gallandt, E.R., McPhee, K., Wilson, R., Doohan, D. 2014. Mental models of organic weed management: comparison of New England farmer and expert models. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 29: 319-333.

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