For me, this has turned out to be the Summer of the Humble Expert. While conducting interviews for various articles and podcasts the past few months, I’ve run into a couple of examples of people who are tops in their perspective scientific fields—one environmental, one agricultural—but who found they had a lot to learn from farmers. Their willingness to make “I don’t know” part of their vocabulary has opened up the kinds of two-way conversations that are critical to creating truly sustainable land use.
Humble Expert Example No. 1
There’s little doubt Jon Stravers is one of the region’s top experts on birds, particularly raptors such as red-shouldered hawks. I first met him in June at a field day hosted by northeast Iowa farmer and LSP member Dan Specht.
Stravers, who is the Driftless Area Coordinator for the National Audubon Society’s Mississippi River Initiative, makes quite an impression. He’s the kind of person who has channeled his scientific expertise into an unflagging passion for preserving and improving the environment. That combination of passion and knowledge can be valuable in an eco-struggle, but it can also be a bit off-putting to farmers, who have to make a living on the land on a daily basis.
But Stravers told me about how a few years ago while doing research in some woods overlooking the Mississippi River town of McGregor, Iowa, he noticed that a dairy farm he had to walk through to get to the trees was full of bobolinks. This caught Stravers’ attention because bobolink populations have plummeted in recent decades. Audubon has listed them as one of North America’s eight most threatened birds, mostly because the Midwestern landscape has been converted on a wholesale basis from perennial grasses to annual crops like corn and soybeans.
The ever-observant Stravers also noticed he often had to modify his route through the farm because the fencing was being moved every few weeks. Could there be a connection between the wandering fencelines and the fluttering bobolinks?
Stravers started talking to the farmer, Phil Specht, who is Dan’s brother. It turns out there was a connection. All that fence movement is part of Phil’s managed rotational grazing system, which he uses to produce milk from a 170-cow herd. Managed rotational grazing has developed into a low-cost, profitable way for livestock farmers to produce meat and milk from grass. The added benefit is that all that grass provides good ground cover year-round, protecting water quality and building soil quality. And, as Stravers discovered, it also provides great habitat for grassland birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks.
Specht was delighted to learn from the expert that a farming system he was utilizing was good for the birds. Over the years he has created a rotational grazing system he tweaks throughout the growing season so that it provides optimal forage for his cows while building the soil and reducing runoff on the steep hills of northeast Iowa (Specht provides a detailed description of his system in episode 82 of LSP’s Ear to the Ground podcast).
“It is incidental,” Specht told me about the added benefit his system provides birds. But Specht has a highly developed land ethic, one that is accentuated by a curious and open mind. So he’s modified his grazing system somewhat to make it even more friendly to grassland birds. “The expertise of Jon to note the benefits for birds just kind of gave me a little added incentive.”
And guess what? It still provides good feed for his cows throughout the growing season.
“It works,” Stravers says about the economic/environmental balance Specht has struck, adding that in the past he often thought production agriculture and environmental sustainability were mutually exclusive. No more. “Phil’s farm is a prime example of how agriculture and cow production can go along with bird populations and conservation. We’re both wanting long-term sustainability—me of bird populations and him of effective grasslands.”
As the recent LSP podcast interview of Specht and Stravers makes clear, these men have a ton of mutual respect for each other and are willing to participate in a lot of give-and-take conversations. Such a relationship can generate more innovation and forward momentum than any number of “I’m the expert, now listen to me” one-way lectures.
Humble Expert Example No. 2
This summer, Dennis Johnson wrapped up a four decades-plus career as a University of Minnesota dairy scientist. As I describe in the latest issue of the Land Stewardship Letter, Johnson executed a bit of an about-face around the midway point in his career.
In the 1980s he started questioning the automatic assumption (which is still widespread) that the more milk a farm produces, the greater the profit. He then began a search for an alternative to the high-input, high energy, highly-leveraged way of dairying.
This search led Dr. Johnson to do something that university scientists aren’t always so good at: he took his questions to farmers, and listened more than he talked.
“We weren’t used to that from the quote, unquote university experts, who usually came bearing the gifts of knowledge handed down from on high,” says western Minnesota beef producer Audrey Arner, one of those farmers Johnson sought out. “It was unusual and welcome.”
What Johnson learned from farmers like Arner was that managed rotational grazing could be a low-cost, profitable option for producing livestock in the Upper Midwest. He learned this from farmers who had been trying the system out pretty much on their own, with little help from university experts or the rest of the mainstream agricultural community.
But upon these pioneering farms, as well as farms in other countries where rotational grazing was being used, the scientist could see for himself this system was the real deal. He then took what he learned from the farmers and helped them make it even better adapted to this region. While interviewing Johnson for an LSP podcast (episode 81), I commented on how his experience showed farmers and scientists can have a two-way conversation about problems and innovations.
He corrected me: “Actually, it was one-way for many years, with the information coming from the farmers to us.”
As a result of his listening, in the wake of his retirement Johnson has left an impressive legacy at the U of M’s West Central Research and Outreach Center, which is now known nationally for its practical research into alternative livestock systems like managed rotational grazing.
School’s Always in Session
Stravers and Johnson are just two examples of how scientific expertise does not have to be a barrier to further learning. Unfortunately, such examples are rare, particularly at a time when education is geared toward producing “specialists” who can’t see outside their own thesis statements.
But it’s inspiring to know that there are “educated” lifelong students out there roaming the land with open ears and open eyes. Such an attitude is particularly valuable when we’re trying to bring about changes that don’t fit in the conventional framework of doing things.
“We’re learning, okay?” Stravers told me at the end of our interview near McGregor. “I’m the so-called expert, but you benefit from listening, from some other point of view. It’s definitely a learning process I appreciate.”