Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds

Progress report for ENC22-213

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2022: $89,607.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2025
Grant Recipient: Sand County Foundation
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Craig Ficenec
Sand County Foundation
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Project Information


This project will expand the reach of the successful Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds (LMW) meeting series, stimulating knowledge exchange and accelerating outcomes among watershed projects in the North Central Region with emphasis in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.


The new LMW events will serve watershed coordinators—paid professionals who collaborate with farmers to improve water quality within specific watershed boundaries. This community includes employees of conservation districts, non-profit organizations, and state agencies. Many have a farming background and live in agricultural communities. The common thread is that all work cooperatively to encourage farmers to adopt land management that reduces water quality impacts and improves ecosystem services.


As a result of participating in LMW in-person and online events, at least 100 watershed project leaders will gain skills and confidence to scale-up farmer adoption of practices that improve soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat in their project watersheds. They will also learn how to engage historically underserved farmers in their outreach. At least 50 participants will incorporate new planning and assessment tools or methods in their work, and 25 will accelerate delivery of technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers due in part to knowledge gained through engagement in the LMW network.


We will achieve these outcomes by adding a new in-person LMW event held annually over three years in the eastern states of the NCR-SARE region. “LMW East” will mirror and complement the existing LMW series that Sand County Foundation has successfully delivered in the Upper Mississippi River Basin since 2011.

Project Objectives:

This project will deliver three in-person events, each lasting one full day and the following morning, for approximately 12 total hours of engagement. Each event focuses on a specific theme, with two or three speakers on the first morning focusing on that theme followed by facilitated breakouts sessions for participants to discuss relevance of the topic in their work. In the afternoon, watershed leaders and invited farmers provide case study accounts of projects and farm operations, with additional facilitated discussion among attendees. The second morning focuses on current tools and resources that watershed leaders may apply in their projects, as well as presentations about current and pending policies and state or federal programs. This usually includes a presentation by the State Conservationist for the NRCS in the host state of that year’s LMW event.


Around these presentations and discussions are lengthy breaks, lunch, and a group dinner providing time for spontaneous discussion among participants. We intentionally leave unprogrammed time to allow for participants to build connections among each other.


We also invite farmers to speak about their operations in the context of watershed protection, farm profitability, and factors that influence behavior of other farmers. We recruit early adopters of conservation practices to discuss their conservation experiences and their suggestions for influencing their farmer peers to adopt similar practices. Soil health and economics are a common thread in these discussions, with a focus on commodity crops common to the Midwest as these are the acres and cropping systems generally with the greatest opportunity to reduce their impact on water quality.


Each LMW East event will follow this general format and will draw approximately 70 watershed project professionals from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Approximately 150 professionals will attend at least one annual event during the three year course of the project. Also, each year a 2-hour virtual event, presenting additional content on the theme of that year’s prior in-person event, will reach approximately 120 attendees, including both LMW West and East network attendees.


This project will also produce an annually updated database of active watershed leaders across the NCR-SARE region. We anticipate the complete database to include at least 300 individuals currently employed or (in limited cases) volunteering as the lead coordinator or manager of water quality improvement effort based on a watershed boundary (USGS HUC-8 or smaller size) where agriculture is a primary land use.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Capacity building for watershed coordinators

Strengthen a “community of practice” among leaders of projects to improve water quality in specific agricultural watershed across the Midwest.


Annual in-person professional training events, each lasting 1.5 days and including presentations, facilitated discussions, case studies from farmers and meeting attendees, and ample time for networking.

Outcomes and impacts:

Watershed coordinators will achieve: 1) increased confidence in facilitating the implementation of conservation practices to improve soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat in their project watersheds; 2) accelerated delivery of technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers, 3) progress in engaging historically underserved farmers; and 3) intention to incorporate new planning, implementation, and/or assessment tools or methods as a result of participating in Leadership for Midwestern Watersheds events.

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Online trainings
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

12 Extension
5 Researchers
53 Nonprofit
45 Agency
59 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
8 Farmers/ranchers
2 Others
8 Farmers participated

Project Outcomes

4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Our Nov 3-4, 2022 event in West Lafayette, Indiana drew 53 attendees. An online evaluations distributed at the conclusion of the event drew a 55% response rate, with 96% of respondents rating the event “excellent” or “very good” and 82% ranking 9 or 10 (out of 10) when asked if they would recommend the event to a colleague. 89% felt the balance of presentations vs discussion time was about right.

Our Nov 2-3, 2023 event in Fort Wayne, Indiana drew 52 attendees (9 of whom also attended in 2022). An online evaluation distributed the week after the event drew a 70% response rate, with 97% of respondents rating the event “excellent” or “very good” and 80% ranking 9 or 10 (out of 10) when asked if they would recommend the event to a colleague. 83% felt the balance of presentations vs discussion time was about right.

In both events’ evaluations, the farmer panel presentations and discussion ranked highest among the representations for usefulness to attendees.

We intend to distribute a project impact survey later in 2024 to assess learning and action outcomes by those who attended both Indiana events.

The May 24, 2023 virtual session focused on the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program drew 104 attendees. We intend to distribute a short survey in March to assess if this session helped attendees advance their projects by applying for and securing RCPP funding in 2023, or to be better prepared to apply for the anticipated call for proposals in early 2024.

8 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Additional Outcomes:

To offset costs not supported by SARE (including meals and additional staff time and travel), Sand County Foundation has secured sponsorship of Leadership for Midwestern Watershed events from Field to Market, Conservation Technology Information Center, Purdue University, the Environmental Protection Agency, General Mills, Nutrien, ISG Engineering, and The Nature Conservancy. We anticipate growing our pool of sponsors for future events.

We are in the process of constructing a detailed, geospatial database of several hundred watershed-based agriculture conservation projects and their project leaders across the Midwest, to be make public later in 2024. This will enable watershed project leaders to better identify other projects and leaders. Also Sand County Foundation will promote this digital project inventory to potential funders of watershed projects, especially in the private sector.

Success stories:

Responses from the two in-person events confirmed the value of time to network with peers, including across state lines, and the value of having farmers’ voices on the agenda. Specific comments include:

“This was my first interaction with this group. Very happy to have found you!”

“I look forward to the next conference and hope to start building relationships from this one!”

“There is always something to learn and gain from this event, and it always recharges my batteries.”

“Well worth the time, especially for the networking”

“I thought it was very valuable as I am just beginning my career in conservation”

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.