Farmers’ perspectives on water and soil management

STBY was asked to carry out an exploratory research to better understand the perspectives of farmers working in water catchment areas on the management of water and soil quality. The project was commissioned by a water management company that provides drinking water in a large part of The Netherlands. They wanted to explore how to better connect and collaborate with the farmers working in their water catchment areas.

Interviews around the kitchen table

Farmers family life and professional life are often entangled. Farmers often live in houses right next to the farm, and largely manage their farm from their home. Therefor, our approach was to interview the farmers not only about their formal business but also about the involvement of their family in the farm. At their kitchen tables we conducted extensive interviews with fathers and sons, and husbands and wives. We used visual research materials that helped to keep the interviews focused and engaged. Together with the farmers we created a Farmers Journey that visualised their working process and their use and considerations around resources such as water, animal manure, fertiliser, and pesticides.

Striking was that the farmers do not consider their working process as linear but as circular, since they are highly dependent on weather conditions and seasons. The cultivation process largely repeats itself every year, and is therefore circular in time. That is why we also created a Circular Journey, in addition to the Farmers Journeys, that shows the circularity of the working process of the farmers.

Creating System Maps to highlight friction

The Farmers Journey helped us to identify the most import issues and pain points in the professional lives of the farmers. We created a System Map to map the relations between the different stakeholders around the farmers. A System Map is a tool that visualises the different actors involved and their mutual links. This can help to visualise the exchange of values such as energy, information and money throughout the system. A System Map can also show frictions opportunities for improvement in relationships. For example, during the interviews the farmers expressed that they often feel restricted by public parties and regulations.

In design research we often embrace friction – that is where transformation can take place. For example; the farmers expressed their frustration about the negative image they often have in Dutch society, due to ongoing criticism on local farming in the media. This tension between the farmers, the media and society could be transformed in something more constructive when the right conditions are met. While analysing the input collected from the farmers, we identified several opportunities for improvement. 

Bringing the voice of the farmers into the organisation

The insights from the research were presented and discussed with the client project team. We delivered a research report that is comprehensive and analytical, and also very personal and visual. In a workshop with internal stakeholders we collectively came up with strategies and ideas to better connect and collaborate with farmers working in water catchment areas. During the workshop we showed videos from the fieldwork that captured the essence of the interviews with the farmers. In this project we felt that our role as design researchers was especially important for bringing the voice of the farmer firmly into the organisation.