Knowledge Networks and Adaptation of New Agricultural Systems: Cover Cropping in North Central Illinois
Corwin, Charles Scott
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Rational planning models often include knowledges mainly derived from top-down, state-sponsored institutions. Such a model has been heavily critiqued in planning literature for its failure to address community level concerns and include divergent knowledges. The failure of rational, state-centered planning is nowhere more pervasive than in agriculture in the U.S. Corn Belt, yet industrial agricultural systems continue to proliferate, even amidst growing concerns over soil health and water quality. Conservation agriculture efforts to promote conservation practices, such as cover cropping, continue to come primarily from the state, but recently, state-backed policy, farmers, and agricultural groups are championing a more place-based approach to agricultural planning. The recent shift, however, still has not inspired widespread adoption of cover cropping, indicating a need for a middle ground, including multiple, place-specific strategies and knowledges. This research utilizes a case study approach to explore the degree to which types of knowledge networks (from scientific to local to integrated) influence cover cropping adoption among farmers. I employ an actor network theory method to identify the impact of histories, landscapes, institutional actors, and conservation policy that make up knowledge networks in the Vermilion Headwaters in north central Illinois. The theory is more beneficial compared to other approaches in that it better elucidates divergent knowledges in the watershed and allows me to show how farmers and agricultural professionals use such knowledges when adopting conservation practices. The research finds that farmers operating within mixed knowledge networks are more likely to adopt cover cropping than farmers only involved in scientific or local knowledge networks. However, not all farmers adhere to this pattern, therefore, I further draw on in-depth interviews to conclude that farmers adopting cover cropping are likely to experience three key moments: inspiration, collaboration, and experimentation. Urban and agricultural planning, then, may find it useful to bolster conservation planning programs and policies that not only encourage the integration of knowledges but also create the conditions for the three moments to occur if practices like cover cropping are to become widespread.