The security of freshwater resources is an increasing concern with many groups across the U.S. with agriculture often criticized as using too much, or not protecting water resources, with legislative action following popular opinion; thereby creating unnecessary barriers to food production efforts. Much of this criticism is directly related to the growing disconnect between the average consumer and the agricultural community. The need to sustain the natural environment, and specifically water resources, has been widely acknowledged across the agricultural industry with sustainable farming systems and best management practices developed and implemented widely. Production agriculture is using less water than ever before and recognizes the need to continue research efforts that will inform agricultural producers’ ability to reduce, remediate and recycle water. Unfortunately, consumers’ negative views about agriculture’s impact on the environment, largely perpetuated by mainstream and social media sources not always grounded in fact, often leads to public support for and implementation of environmental policies that create issues for agricultural producers rather than policies that support both production agriculture and the environment.
Educational efforts made by land-grant universities extension systems, non-profit organizations, and agricultural commodity groups have attempted to inform consumers of the need to conserve water for residential, recreational and industry use while sharing how the agricultural industry is doing their part to protect these precious resources. Unfortunately, these efforts largely fall on deaf ears. Our research has found the reason the public does not pay attention to water education initiatives and communication messages is largely due to the longstanding messaging related to water conservation. Members of the U.S. public have heard the same messages for so long they no longer pay attention. In fact, members of the public surveyed (despite where they were located) indicated water conservation was important, expressed a positive attitude toward water conservation, and even planned to save water by changing their landscape watering practices, reducing the number of loads of laundry they do each week and installing low flow toilets and shower heads. However, in another study we found homeowners’ actual behaviors do not match their expressed intent to conserve water. In fact, we found residential irrigation stayed stable in researched areas based on water management district data even when the same residents reported a willingness and intent to change their watering practices.
But the narrative is not all negative. Our research has also found consumers may be willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting sustainable agriculture. The results from one of our studies revealed consumers’ overall willingness to pay for sustainable farming practices was fairly high overall, but more so with rural residents than those living in urban areas. Perhaps this is because rural residents are not as physically distanced from their agricultural neighbors – they see their work every day – while urban residents do not feel the same personal connection. Recognizing these differences showcases how important it is to target messaging with specific audiences.
The majority of U.S. residents live in urban and suburban areas, disconnected from their agrarian roots. To gain support for sustainable farming practices from urban audiences we must make the messaging personal. Storytelling is a great place to start when sharing new sustainable farming innovations. Showcasing the face of farming, removing the science behind the innovation and focusing on the impact efforts will make in urban neighborhoods, schools, parks, and homes is the key to getting urban consumers to listen once again, engage in the conversation, and even support important work being done to conserve water across industries. Creating videos, visual messages, and infographics shared on popular social media sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – all while giving voice to the farming community and showcasing success stories – will engage an audience that gets 70% of their information from online sources, most through video, and assist us all in saving water together.
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