The lessons a scientist learned from analysis of rancher interviews
As I close in on completing graduate school, I’ve really found my passion in science communication particularly in the context of agriculture. My last blog post spoke a little bit about my resistance to working in agriculture, but I really feel like I ended up exactly where I’m supposed to be. I love the opportunity to work alongside producers, to listen their needs, and to see research get implemented and be beneficial.
Dr. Hannah Gosnell wrote a paper titled Transformational Adaptation on the Farm: Process of Change and Persistence in Transitions to ‘Climate-Smart’ regenerative Agriculture that really helped to shift the way I think about communicating with producers. In the paper, she discusses what she learned from her interviews with ranchers in Australia and what actually makes producers change their practices. She found that there are multiple factors like practical, political, and personal viewpoints. Admittedly, a well-done scientific presentation of lab findings was not the highlighted reason that producers changed management practices.
Too often, it’s just assumed that people don’t care, don’t want to participate in research, or aren’t concerned about the environment. I’ve personally found that to be entirely untrue in agriculture. Rather, we need to engage with stakeholders and really listen, in my work this is through interviews. Through understanding what producers need and what’s really important to them, we are in a better position to communicate science in a meaningful way and stand a chance at implementation.
However, this science communication work is a different type of research and analysis than I was traditionally trained in. This is now a huge part of my work, but it started as a jumping off point for learning to analyze interviews by theme, starting with interviews that had already been done in South Dakota. I have analyzed 2 different sets of in-person interviews, originally done for Growing Resilience videos. The first set is from the 2019 “Our Amazing Grasslands” videos, commissioned by the SD Grassland Coalition, with 12 producers. They are entirely open-ended, unstructured interviews that let ranchers really tell their stories. The second set of interviews is from 2020 featuring 10 questions (and follow-up questions as needed) asked to each of the 20 ranchers. In both cases, producers utilizing regenerative management practices were interviewed about their operations. The videoed interviews were then transcribed, coded using NVivo® software that sorted the interviews into themes, and analyzed with charts, graphs, word counts, and word clouds.
The analysis results from the 2019 and 2020 interviews turned out differently largely due to the different question styles. Water and family were the top referenced themes in the 2019 interviews while grass and water where the top themes from 2020. The theme of soils was more than halfway down the list in number of references from 2019 and fourth in the 2020 interviews. I’m noting soil in particular because soil health is the main focus of our lab (SoilHealthLabs.com) and research shows there are soil health benefits from regenerative agriculture even if it isn’t what the producers are talking the most about. Whereas the theme of family was highly referenced in both sets (2nd out of 14 themes in 2019 and 6th out of 14 themes in 2020). Interview analysis of this type helped uncover a key motivator and a reason for decision making beyond the impacts of any one practice.
One main reason that the themes varied in each set of interviews is due to the different question styles. In 2019, family, emotions, and values are highlighted more and there is less technical detail about topics like soil structure and infiltration. In 2020, the questions were more structured, and the impacts of regenerative practices shine through more with some mentions of family and emotion still. These differences emphasize the importance of having clear aims for interviews. Both sets of interview analysis were insightful, but they serve different goals. 2019 with the open-ended, story-telling nature focuses more on the “why” and overall impacts, while 2020 with more direct questions focuses more on the “what” and direct benefits.
We initially expected to see soil and grazing to be top referenced themes in both sets, but these underlying themes give more insight into the “why’s” behind decisions. This aligns with what Dr. Gosnell found in her interview work that I mentioned previously. She found that personal beliefs were a major factor in adopting regenerative practices. Diving into the interviews in this way has helped me better understand producers’ priorities, their goals, and some of the challenges in implementing new management practices.
2019 Interview Themes from Most to Least Referenced:
Themes in grey and sub-themes in white.
2020 Interview Themes from Most to Least Referenced:
Themes in grey and sub-themes in white.
As I mentioned early on, analysis of this type is not always common in what we conventionally think of as science, but I think it is a great tool for science communication. It’s a piece of the puzzle alongside sound science, farming and ranching expertise, and partnerships with supporting organizations. Research might show that a practice works but we need to understand how it fits into an operation and into the lives of producers. For example, rotational grazing has amazing benefit for the land and operation, but it does require infrastructure, especially fencing and water. Practices don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re intertwined with people and their decisions.
Interviews and analysis can be a key tool in communication and engagement. It’s a way to incorporate people and the human aspect of science, which is exactly why I love this work. Interviews provide a way to really listen to people and the expertise they bring, but as the 2 sets of interviews showed it’s also important to consider what questions are being asked. The more time I spend on this work, the more I believe listening, understanding motivation, and working alongside producers is the best way to see research implemented for everyone’s benefit.
A special word of thanks to our partners at SD Grasslands Coalition for being willing to share videos and transcripts with us, without their collaboration, this project could not have existed.
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