Monday, May 20, 2024
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Are You Better Than Average at Conservation?

“In the field of social psychology, illusory superiority is a cognitive bias whereby a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities, in relation to the same qualities and abilities of other persons”.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll is always fascinating. But one question was especially illuminating in this year’s survey. Farmers were asked, “compared to other farm operations in your area, how well do you think your farm operation is performing in controlling soil erosion?”  Seventeen percent (17%) rated themselves far above average. Fifty-two percent, yes that is 52%, rated themselves above average. Thirty percent (30%) rated themselves as average. One percent (1%) rated themselves below average, and absolutely no one (0%) rated themselves as far below average. Talk about an example of illusory superiority! News flash, 69% of farmers cannot be above average, with 30% average, leaving only 1% below average. Of course this is statistically impossible.

Answering another question, 63% of farmers rated themselves above average in controlling nutrient runoff/loss into waterways, with only 2% rating themselves below average. That means 35% of farmers rated themselves as average.

And we wonder why farmers are not implementing conservation. Really? Why would farmers implement more conservation when they already think they are doing a bang-up job? Let’s just clear the air. Most farmers have no idea how much soil or nutrients they are losing.  It is hard, even impossible, to visually detect the amount of soil loss and nutrient loss.

For voluntary conservation to be successful, we MUST be serious about conservation planning. The first step in conservation planning is identifying the problems.  Farmers need to know what levels of soil erosion they have; they need to know the level of nitrates leaching into the water below their fields. Certainly, it is easy to say farmers should know how much they are losing and they should know how to reduce or prevent it. But show me a survey of farmers that leads anyone to believe this is true. We need to give farmers the information and then help/expect them to act on it.

This feeling of illusory superiority is not unique to farmers. According to a study published in a Swedish Psychology journal (Acta Psychologica) a whopping 93% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers.  It is really annoying to me that 93% of Americans think they drive better than I do.

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Tom Buman
Tom Buman
Tom is a passionate entrepreneur and precision conservation thought leader with over 30 years of experience in conservation planning. Through his work at Agren, he is able to marry his love of the environment with his passion for pioneering innovative solutions to complex environmental problems. Prior to founding Agren in 1996, he spent 14 years with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Iowa, first as a Soil Conservationist and later as a District Conservationist. Tom has received a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy in 1982 and a Masters in Business Administration in 1995, both from Iowa State University.


  1. I am a better than average conservationist CITY dweller! When I heard we were to face taxation per square foot of impermeable surfaces on our properties I said they probably should be paying ME! lol I bought a property 20 years ago that had degraded sloping frontage(previous owners kids had quad-runners) a quarter acre of oak trees sloping(35 degree) toward a large ditch and the next lower neighbor has a ditch too. The summer I bought the place the red dirt from our tree roots washed away with each rain and it literally filled my lower neighbor’s 60 ft ditch 2 ft deep and appr 4 ft wide with MY soil. The neighbor above me has a 1000 sq ft impermeable sloping(toward us) concrete parking pad. I immediately planted the dreaded monkey grass at the fence line between us (slowing the flow there) ) and developed four berms of branches, leaves and woodchips perpendicular to water flow. I brought in 3 truckloads of dirt and terraced my own hill bottom and ditch to create level areas planted with trees and flowering bushes. Each yard berm has at least one oak tree and assorted flowering bushes. For 20+ years I have raked leaves to cover branches arranged on the berms and covered it all with free wood chips from tree trimmers. It looks neat AND helps break it all down.

    This year I am considering planting some type of forage mix to develop the mycelia in the deep sponge soil that now covers the front yard which I will then scythe and use as mulch in my veggie garden. Hardly a drop of water leaves my yard! If you think I can do better or have an idea of what mix to plant please reply… Take me down a notch if you think I can do better! 🙂

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