When my husband and I finally headed to Babies’ R Us to create a gift registry for the future Baby Hong, I was overwhelmed and horrified. “Why don’t we start in the front corner of the store,” Gary suggested, “and just work our way from there?” Yet, the first aisle we encountered contained endless rows of bottles – tall bottles, short bottles, plastic bottles, glass bottles, round bottles, ergonomic bottles, bottles with long nipples, and bottles with short nipples. If a seemingly easy task like picking out bottles was so difficult, I wondered, how on earth could we manage a much more important decision like selecting the right car seat? After spending what seemed to be an eternity in the store, I pouted, we went home, and I promptly sent an email to all of my friends who had recently had babies asking, “What things do I actually need?”
When looking for advice, most of us turn first to the people we know. If we want to know which kind of cloth diaper works the best, we ask a friend who uses them which one she prefers. If we want to know if the Prius is really worth all the hype, we ask a coworker who bought one last year to tell us about the car. When friends and family can’t provide the advice we need, clubs and social networks are another good option. My first attempt at triathlon was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience. Three years later, when I finally mustered the courage to sign up for another race, I vowed to be wiser the second time around. Since no one I knew competed in triathlons, I joined the Minnesota Triathlon Club so that I could meet people who did. As a member of the loose-knit group, I could send out an email to find a companion for a weekend bike ride or ask for advice on whether or not to wear a wetsuit in an upcoming race. Talking to people like me improved my confidence and was usually more helpful than researching my questions on the internet or reading about them in a book. Even now that I have a few years of racing under my belt, I still find it useful to talk with other amateur triathletes and I often receive nuggets of advice that help me to train even better.
A pilot project called FarmWise, which will be a collaborative effort of the National Park Service and the Freshwater Society, is based on the simple principle that people learn best from their peers. Research has shown that agriculture is a major source of water pollution in Minnesota, but we also know that many farmers in our state are already using conservation practices that help to keep our lakes and rivers clean such as strip tillage, vegetated buffers for streams and wetlands, and nutrient testing. The goal of FarmWise is to connect conservation-minded producers with others in their area so that they can learn from one another and eventually increase the number of farmers using these practices statewide. For an example of how this type of peer-to-peer mentoring is already at work, Freshwater Society points to a group of farmers from southeastern Minnesota, John Harkness, Dave Levold, and Rusty Kluver. 35 years ago, Harkness acted as a mentor to his neighbor Legvold, who was just getting started in the business. Legvold, in turn, passed some of his wisdom on to his neighbor Kluver. Today, both Legvold and Kluver have experimented with and adopted numerous conservation practices for their farms, and as a result they have reduced erosion and runoff pollution from their lands while still achieving high yields.
Earlier this year, FarmWise won $15,000 in the Minnesota Idea Open, a competition that asked people across the state to vote on-line and during the Minnesota State Fair to select their favorite, most innovative ideas for cleaning up Minnesota waterways. During the pilot phase, the National Park Service and Freshwater Society hope to recruit three to five farmers in the Minnesota River Valley to meet with mentors, monitor their existing farming practices during the 2012 cropping year, and then adopt any new conservation strategies that they find to be beneficial. If the pilot is successful, project coordinators hope to include more producers in FarmWise and expand the program to other regions of the state as well.
The beauty of the FarmWise concept is that it connects farmers and producers with people they can trust that share their same experiences. Much like I trusted the advice of my friends over that of the Babies’ R Us registry “must-have” list, farmers in the program will be able to learn from one another and not just their dealers and suppliers. Said farmer Dave Legvold in an interview with the Freshwater Society, “The beauty of FarmWise is it’s not Case-IH, it’s not Pioneer Seed, it’s not Monsanto. It’s a farmer.” Peer-to-peer mentoring? It’s a winning idea.