Agricultural Landscape Design through Participatory Modeling: Collaboration among Diverse Stakeholder Groups

Final Report for GNC05-041

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,998.38
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore
Iowa State University
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Project Information


Qualitative analysis of 33 depth interviews with rural stakeholders and a participatory workshop with regional leaders was integrated with the results of other social and ecological research in the North Central Corn Belt. Success of initiatives that integrate perennial vegetation into agricultural landscapes was found to be dependent upon linking working lands and protected areas and coupling local creativity and initiative with regional vision, support, and accountability.

Future adoption of perennial conservation practices will be based upon multi-scale contextual factors including:
1) compatibility with farm practices,
2) community reinforcement through social networks and norms, and
3) consistent, straightforward institutions.


Change is both a disruptive and renewing force in natural and human systems (Gunderson and Holling 2002, Walker et al. 2006). When change is driven by collective human decision making, its ramifications can be very difficult to predict because many plausible courses of action may be chosen. In natural resource management, the dynamic decisions of social actors often heighten the difficulty involved in addressing what are already complex ecological questions.

This is the case in agroecosystems of the north-central U.S. Corn Belt, a landscape with a long history of change driven by the interplay of natural processes and the decisions of its human inhabitants (Axelrod 1985). This region is currently undergoing a period of rapid and uncertain reorganization driven by an increased demand for bioenergy crops (Hinkamp et al. 2007). A recent spike in the demand for corn-based ethanol is currently leading to more land in rowcrops and less land in perennial cover types (Secchi et al. 2008). This change in land use comes at a time when regional loss of perennial cover is increasingly implicated in declining biodiversity, water quality, flood control, and other ecosystem services (Best et al. 1995, Schulte et al. 2006, Hatfield et al. 2008). In particular, the export of agricultural nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) from Corn Belt river systems is implicated as a key driver of downstream hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico (EPA Science Advisory Board 2007). Corn Belt stakeholders are concerned with how changes in agriculture associated with bioenergy production will impact the environment, natural resources, and long term sustainability of the region’s rural landscapes (Hinkamp et al. 2007).

System re-organization associated with emerging bioenergy markets, technologies, and crops will change the landscape in unexpected ways, presenting new challenges and opportunities for conservation. For example, initial research indicates that conservation strategies that integrate small, carefully-targeted patches of perennial cover within Corn Belt agricultural landscapes (e.g., constructed wetlands, stream buffers, pasture, diverse cropping rotations, and certain biomass crops) can disproportionately benefit regionally-impaired ecosystem services (Schulte et al. 2006, Nassauer et al. 2007, Schulte et al. 2008). Although there is growing evidence for the benefits of restoration of perennial vegetation in agroecosystems, such practices have yet to be widely embraced by rural residents, adopted by farmers, or integrated into Farm Bill legislation.

Resilience theory is an emerging approach for understanding and influencing processes of change in complex natural resource management systems (Gunderson and Holling 2002, Folke et al. 2004, Walker et al. 2006). This framework has received widespread attention and application among scientists and practitioners from diverse fields (Carpenter and Folke 2006, Liu et al. 2007), but has seen little use in the study of regions dominated by intensive agricultural production and autonomous private property rights (Allison and Hobbes 2004, 2006). The term “resilience” was applied to ecological systems by Holling (1973) and refers to the ability of dynamic systems to respond to perturbations and maintain their essential configuration. Resilience is a non-normative term; system configurations characterized as resilient may be either desirable or undesirable. In particular, resilience theorists are interested in understanding where resilience, adaptive capacity, and the potential for innovation reside in linked social-ecological systems and how these attributes can be gained, lost, or preserved. Because human values, perspectives, and collective decisions are fundamental in determining the structure, function, and desirability of social-ecological systems, resilience analyses emphasize the integration of stakeholders and policy makers in scientific and decision making processes (Walker et al. 2002).

The goal of my dissertation research was to determine how restoration of perennial vegetation interplays with social and ecological contexts at multiple scales to impact the resilience of communities and landscapes in the rural Corn Belt. I addressed this goal through a series of 33 in-depth interviews with farmers and other rural stakeholders and through a participatory workshop with regional leaders in agriculture, conservation, and policy. Qualitative analysis of interview and workshop data was integrated with the results of other social and ecological research and interpreted through the lens of resilience theory. Qualitative analysis is a tool that has been rigorously developed in the social sciences and is particularly useful in investigating questions with a depth and breadth that is not often afforded by quantitative approaches (Huberman and Miles 2002).

Project Objectives:

I propose a transdisciplinary modeling approach to engage grass-roots groups in developing workable policy solutions to agricultural landscape change in the North Central Corn Belt Region.

The short term outcomes of this research are to:
1) represent the perspectives of stakeholders—including farmers, land managers, policy makers and research scientists—directly to one another through a series of workshops,
2) facilitate stakeholder development of a qualitative model integrating social, economic and ecological aspects of landscape change,
3) document possible policy scenarios under which stakeholders are willing to implement such change, and
4) build an understanding of the values and land ethics of rural stakeholders.

Intermediate term outcomes include:
1) formalized development and implementation of a user-friendly Excel and Stella based model for use in landscape design, education and policy development,
2) publication of results in peer review, farm and management journals, and
3) delivery of a succinct report to relevant policy channels.

My long term objectives for this research are to develop, test and refine methodology for mediating communication, creativity, design and education among diverse public sectors.


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  • Lisa Schulte


Materials and methods:

Research Design

My research is based on consideration of land use and change across multiple social and ecological scales in the Corn Belt. I began by using ethnographic depth interviews to better understand what is most important to rural residents about their countryside, how farm owners and operators make land use decisions—including the constraints and opportunities for adoption of perennial cover types. I then presented the results of these interviews to regional leaders in a participatory workshop designed to better understand leverage points to increase the adoption of perennial conservation practices at landscape scales and to develop future policy scenarios. Resilience analysis (Walker et al. 2002) was used to integrate data from interviews and workshops with the results of other regional social and ecological research in the development of 1) a qualitative conceptual model of the Corn Belt social-ecological system, and 2) future policy scenarios, and 3) a Microsoft® Excel-based model illustrating tradeoffs in watershed land use choices,

Study Area

My research was conducted in Iowa, U.S.A., a state situated in the center of the Corn Belt and the only state that lies entirely within this agroecoregion. While Iowa contains several distinct geological formations supporting diverse native habitats (e.g., prairies, wetlands, savannahs, and woodlands), upwards of 90% of its land area is farmed, with 63% of its land planted in row crop corn and soybeans (USDA NASS 2002). Agricultural practices in Iowa are representative of those across the Corn Belt as a whole.

Interviews were conducted within an agricultural community encompassing the headwaters of three small watersheds, roughly coinciding with the western half of the South Skunk School district, and surrounding the rural town of Stanhope, Iowa (Atwell 2008). Stanhope lies in Hamilton County in central Iowa, which is turn situated in the Des Moines Lobe, an eco-region of the Corn Belt that has been identified as contributing disproportionately to Gulf of Mexico hypoxia (EPA Science Advisory Board 2007) due to the high incidence of underground field drainage networks. Hamilton County is one of 15 Iowa counties located entirely within the Des Moines Lobe and is representative of this ecoregion in its high preponderance of row crop agriculture, high levels of concentrated animal production facilities, consolidation of agriculture into large farms, loss of farmers, and increase in non-farm rural residents. All three of the watersheds within my study site are currently targeted by research and management initiatives whose aim is to better understand and influence the interplay between agricultural intensification, ecosystem services, and rural social vitality.

Interview Sampling Strategy and Protocols

The goals of my research were to understand how shared values and norms influence collective behavior. I used nonprobability sampling techniques (Handwerker 2005), which are common in qualitative and cultural research, to study a smaller number of cases that are particularly relevant to our study questions in greater depth. In this way, my aims and methods differ from those of quantitative studies where a representative sample is drawn from a large number of cases in order to generalize to a broad population. As is common in qualitative research, I did not choose my sample size beforehand, but worked inductively and systematically towards “theoretical saturation” (Neuman 2003), the point at which enough cases were explored to thoroughly elucidate the questions and concepts under investigation.

I used a multi-stage, nonprobability sampling design to choose interviewees (Handwerker 2005). Ethnographic techniques (Spradley 1979, Handwerker 2005) were used to gain entrance into my community of study, and informal conversations about our research were initiated with rural stakeholders during visits to local gathering places (e.g., churches, restaurants, farm supply co-ops). I presented myself as a researcher from Iowa State University studying how rural people valued the places they lived, with the goal of evaluating and recommending improvements to agricultural and conservation practices. Based on insight gained from discussions with residents of my study site, I used purposive sampling (Neuman 2003, Handwerker 2005) to choose initial participants for in-depth interviews who represented a diversity of local perspectives within the following overlapping groups: farm operators, farm owners, non-farm rural residents, rural opinion leaders, and local conservation personnel. Among these groups, I prioritized interviewing opinion leaders whose behavior, decisions, and influence were recognized by other community members as impacting sizable portions of the landscape (>200 ha). Snowball sampling techniques, in which ongoing interviews and continued ethnographic work generated more interview contacts, were used to choose interview subjects who represented the above categories until we had reached theoretical saturation in relationship to major study questions.
During initial visits to gathering places in my study site, I found local people to be suspicious of my intentions and reticent to talk. A breakthrough came when a group of local women took an interest in my research project and volunteered contact information for several local farmers, some of whom were their family members. Due to their referral, several farmers consented to be interviewed. These interviewees helped me choose other subjects who were representative of groups that we wished to interview. With the help of a local name and reference, scheduling interviews became much easier. In the end, only three people whom I asked to participate in in-depth interviews declined to talk to me.

Interviews followed an open-ended guide—while similar questions were asked and similar topics were covered, the exact wording and flow of questions varied between interviews. Interviews included three sections. The first section began with the broad question, “What is most important to you about the rural countryside?” Here I probed how interviewees perceived the natural landscape, how they viewed their neighbors, communities, and institutions, what challenges they saw facing their rural area, and what local assets and amenities they most valued. In the second section, I used 14 pictures of Corn Belt agricultural landscapes to elicit participants’ evaluations of different land uses and cover types. Photos were selected to represent a suite of potential landscape scenarios that varied from maximization of row crop production at one end of the spectrum to a high concentration of perennial conservation practices at the other. Each interview closed by:
1) asking interviewees where they got advice and information on agricultural and conservation practices,
2) reviewing important aspects of our conversation,
3) and asking each participant to share their vision of what they would like the local landscape to look like 25 years in the future.

Workshop Sampling Strategy and Protocols

Using strategic sampling (Neuman 2003) with assistance from agency and non-profit partners, I selected key leaders in agriculture, environment, and policy in the state of Iowa as workshop participants. These leaders encompassed the breadth of perspectives that influence state-level land-use decisions, and they each held top positions in groups that play pivotal roles in these decisions (Table 1). Participants were also selected because each had demonstrated a personal ability to engage in thoughtful, creative, and constructive dialogue. Sixteen of the 17 leaders invited agreed to participate, but two state senators were unable to attend the workshop due to an extended committee meeting. The remaining 14 invitees participated in the workshop.

Upon arrival, participants filled out a questionnaire that probed individual perspectives on agricultural land use change. A brief presentation was given to provide background and a common starting point. This presentation highlighted the results of my depth interviews with rural stakeholders. Following this presentation, I facilitated a dialogue with the assistance of collaborators centered on roadblocks and opportunities in current and future land use, institutions, and policies in Iowa. The discussion lasted for two and a half hours, during which we routinely encouraged participants toward creativity, vision, frankness, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives. The workshop closed with an opportunity for each participant to share final comments and observations.

Data Analyses

The interviews and workshop were recorded using audio and visual media, but anonymity of participants’ comments in research reports was guaranteed to foster a candid dialogue. Transcripts were imported into the NVivo7 data management and analysis software package (QSR 2006). Transcript, along with participant questionnaires and notes taken during and after interviews and workshop became my primary data. The lead author coded this data into descriptive and analytic categories using a qualitative approach (Miles and Huberman 1994, Neuman 2003). These coded chunks of interview data were used to determine the main themes in the workshop (Ryan and Bernard 2003). Themes reflected recurring concepts expressed by research participants and were also identified by comparing similarities and dissimilarities in the data, by looking at the use of key phrases, metaphors and stories, and by sorting and assigning coded data into different hierarchical groupings.

I worked with collaborators to probe the strength, connectedness, and nuances of these themes and to ensure that analysis was consistent, valid, and confirmable. Iterative rounds of analysis were used to scrutinize how the data reinforced or contradicted themes and with what caveats, as well as how themes were related to one another, to study questions, and to theoretical considerations. Here the text searching, sorting, and crosstab capabilities of the NVivo7 software were used to analyze how parts of interview text assigned to different codes related to one another, to emerging themes, and to various attributes of our participants’ backgrounds (QSR 2006).

Model and Scenario Development

In conjunction with the results of regional social and ecological research, workshop themes were used to develop a conceptual model illustrating how desired multi-objective regional outcomes hinge upon the interactions between key social and ecological variables. This model provided the underlying causal framework upon which future policy scenarios were built (Walker et al. 2002, Peterson et al. 2003). The unique narrative of each scenario is grounded directly in the insights of interviewees and workshop participants and was determined through further qualitative analysis to compare and contrast interview and workshop themes with resilience theory. Negative evidence in my data that challenged or added caveat to primary themes was also considered in scenario development.
The relationship between the conceptual model and future scenarios was subject to iterative rounds of criticism, scrutiny, and development with the assistance of collaborators. The results of preliminary analyses, including themes and scenarios, were also presented to all workshop participants and their feedback was recorded in individual interviews and incorporated into further analyses. These interviews added clarifications, caveats, and rich examples to my data set. However, workshop participants generally affirmed my preliminary data analysis and the essence of major themes remained the same after analysis of interviews.

This conceptual model and future scenarios were integrated with biophysical and economic data to build a spatially explicit Microsoft® Excel-based model designed to evaluate and teach tradeoffs associated with agricultural land use named PE/WI (People in Ecosystems/Watershed Integration). The model is comprised of an interface page, two pre-defined variable pages (topographic relief and soil hydrologic groups), many variable pages that change values depending on user decisions, and six output calculation pages (biodiversity, sediment delivery, phosphorus delivery, agricultural yield, stream nitrate concentration, and carbon sequestration). The model interface page allows the user to manipulate the fictitious watershed. Each pixel or cell of the watershed is a predefined 30m by 30m. User controls include manipulating the land cover of a given parcel of land; whether or not the land adjacent to the stream is buffered; and whether or not in-field conservation practices are implemented.

Research results and discussion:

Interview Results

Our interview results address two related study questions:
1) What is most important to rural stakeholders about their countryside? and
2) what factors promote or hinder adoption of perennial conservation practices?

We address these questions in turn by explicating groups of related themes that emerged through analysis of interview data.

Eighteen themes emerged in response to our first study question. These themes encapsulated what was most important to our interviewees about their rural places. Consideration of how these themes related to one another in light of our major study questions led us to understand them in terms of four overlapping groups—countryside, stewardship, independence, and conservation—as described below. Some themes are contained in more than one group.

Twelve themes of moderate strength emerging from the interview data were most cogent in addressing our second study question. When taken together, these themes grouped into three strong classes that were consistent across interviewees—farm compatibility, community reinforcement, and institutional transparency. Each of these classes of themes is also explained below.


This group is comprised of the following themes:
-farming lifestyle,
-people on the land,
-rural aesthetics, f
-arming becoming big business,
-and the economic realities of farming.

Both farm operators and non-farm rural residents most consistently and strongly spoke of their connection to rural areas in terms of networks of farms and people. “Countryside” emerged through the interview process as the term best able to capture, in the vernacular of our interviewees, this collage of farms, families, and communities interconnected across the landscape. The themes that comprise this set illustrate that our interviewees perceived their countryside as primarily a social, and only secondarily a biophysical, entity.

Out of all interview themes, farmers and non-farm rural residents most consistently and emphatically identified with the “farming lifestyle”. Interviewees were eager to talk about the rhythms, challenges, and edifying character of farm work and oftentimes did so at length. Childhood experiences and the work ethic instilled through farm life were important to many interviewees. As one non-farm rural resident put it, “Our son needs to be raised in an environment where he is somehow connected to the farming community, learning how to work with his hands next to the intellectual education.” Interviewees relished participation in t

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

I have presented the results of this research in local meetings with agency partners, at local, regional, and national symposia and conferences, and in a research note in the journal Ecological Restoration. In addition, four additional articles based on this research are either in preparation, in revision, or in press for publication in peer review journals.

Citations for these presentations of my research follow:

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. 2009. Linking resilience and diffusions of innovations theories to understand the potential for perennials in U.S. Cornbelt. Ecology and Society, in press.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. Landscape, community, and countryside: linking social and biophysical scales in the rural North Central U.S. Corn Belt. Landscape Ecology, in revision.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. Moving beyond random acts of conservation: how to build multi-functional agroecosystems in the Corn Belt. Ecology and Society, in preparation.
Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. Tweak, adapt, or transform: policy scenarios in response to emerging bioeconomy markets in the U.S. Corn Belt. Conservation Letters, in preparation.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2008. Deep roots: ecological restoration in sociocultural context. Presented April 14 at Resilience, Transformation, and Adaptation in Turbulent Times: International Science and Policy Conference, Stockholm, Sweden.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. 2008. Ecological Restoration in Socio-Cultural Context: Multi-Scalar Resilience Analysis in the U.S. Corn Belt. Presented April 30 at the Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture Research Symposium, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. Deep roots: ecological restoration in sociocultural context. 2008. Presented April 8 as part of the symposium Cross-boundary Challenges to the Creation of Multifunctional Agricultural Landscapes at Landscape Patterns and Ecosystem Processes, U.S. International Association of Landscape Ecology 2008 Conference, Madison, Wisconsin.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2008. Perennial vegetation, human adaptation, and the resilience of linked social-ecological systems in the U.S. Corn Belt. Presented March 4 at Natural Resource Ecology and Management Departmental Seminar, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. 2007. Ecological Restoration and Socio-Cultural Context: Perceptions of Place in the U.S. Corn Belt. Presented January 30th at the Iowa State University Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities Symposium, Mapping Territories: Dialogues on places, Peoples, and Spatial Practice, Ames, Iowa.

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2006. Restoring perennial cover and ecological function to Corn Belt landscapes: The Iowa farmer’s perspective. Ecological Restoration 24: 289-290. (Invited submission)

Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2006. Healthy agricultural landscapes for resilient rural communities: participatory watershed design to bridge gaps among science, people and policy. Presented October 3rd at the Fall Meeting of the Iowa Chapter of The Wildlife Society, Ames, Iowa. (Invited presentation)

Atwell, R.A., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2006. Can perennial vegetation link species, farms and communities?: Participatory action research to develop landscape scenarios in Iowa, USA. Presented June 28th as part first annual experimental scientific “speed dating” presentation session at the 20th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, Conservation Without Borders, San Jose, California.

Atwell, R.C. 2006. Human nature?: lessons on restoration ecology and agricultural sustainability from Iowa farmers and grandmothers’ coffee groups. Presented April 20th at “Sustainable Wooster, Sustainable World” Symposium, Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio. (Invited presentation)

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

I have chosen to focus my research in a study area representative of many rural U.S. Corn Belt communities, in that it is in agroecological and socioeco¬nomic decline. My field site can contribute to real change through ties to past, present, and future efforts between interagency partners. The Upper Squaw Creek watershed is an important nexus for linked research and management efforts aimed at understanding and bolstering ecosystem services in agricultural land¬scapes. This watershed is of particular importance because of its close proximity to Iowa State University, previous and ongoing research on landscape and land use change in the watershed, and the implementation of the Conservation Security Program in the watershed next year. My results will be presented directly to the rural stakeholders that I interviewed as well as in public meeting places within my study site.

Increasing interest in the agroecological and socioeconomic crises faced by rural agricultural communities are factors that have the potential to increase the impact of our research upon local and regional partners. My research is establishing communication lines and partnerships with a diverse set of rural stakeholders. In particular, I have built rapport with the 14 regional leaders who participated in my policy scenario workshop, both through the workshop and follow-up interviews. Results of this research will be delivered directly to these leaders. Through this work, I will be positioned to assist in the dissemination of research results from this research and related projects and open future avenues for research and management on private lands and with agency partners.

Results from this project will add to a growing body of research on the ecological dilemmas presented by working agricultural landscapes in general and the U.S. Corn Belt in particular. My findings will directly dovetail with recent and ongoing efforts by Iowa State University and state and federal agency collaborators, including the Leopold Center Agroecology Issue Team, the ISU College of Agriculture’s Agricultural Systems Management and Performance Initiative, and joint watershed working groups and modeling projects between the Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Soybean Growers Association, and the ISU Center for Agricultural Research and Development. In addition, our research will provide important information for an Environmental Protection Agency 319 grant application.

Economic Analysis

not applicable

Farmer Adoption

We interviewed 23 active farm operators, 5 retired farm operators, and 14 non-farm rural residents. The goal of this research was to learn from these participants through interviews and deliver results to academic and interagency colleagues who could use this information to better understand the perspectives of rural people and work with them to achieve desired landscape outcomes. These results are described above.

My research did not directly impact farm practices. However, many farmers indicated that they benefitted from the chance to talk about their values and practices through the interview process. The following quotations illustrate the benefit of interviews to farmers.

“If you don’t have the people out here [in the countryside] that can do things right whether you’ve got confinement, cattle, crops, contour farming—it’s not going to make a difference what you do. You’ve got to have some sense of personal responsibility. That’s true in everything you do… Sitting here, from [the perspective of] a small farm, that’s just the way I see it. I think a lot of people think that, but they just don’t—they’ve never had someone like you sit down and try to go through this and bring it out. Kind of like a counselor. [laugh] Don’t call yourself a psychiatrist. I don’t think much of them either. They’re goofier than anybody to work with.”

“I think what I have said to you is probably going to get somewhere. And what you have relayed to me, I mean just this standpoint of you and I talking about it makes me more aware of what is out there as far as problems and potential problems.”


Areas needing additional study

Results of our research suggest the need for adaptive management projects that couple landscape change initiatives in watersheds with long-term biophysical and social analysis. The regional research cited in the conceptual system model above suggests long term social and ecological benefits of multifunctional agricultural landscapes with increased amounts of perennial cover types. Most of this research is based on either modeling efforts, surveys of land owners in one community or watershed, or small-scale field experiments. Long-term management and monitoring efforts are needed at broad scales to monitor the social and biophysical outcomes of increased implementation of perennial conservation practices. In the short term, I recommend on-farm research that couples social analyses—including qualitative case studies and systems analyses—with biophysical and economic analyses. Many social variables and decision making processes involved in agricultural sustainability can be most effectively analyzed through qualitative analyses and conceptual systems models.

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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.