Farming for Ecosystem Services: Visualization of Alternative Working Landscapes

Final Report for GNC09-105

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,996.50
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
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


The concept of ecosystem services has become increasingly important in agricultural and environmental issues in the United States. Given the multiscalar and multi-stakeholder nature of ecosystem services, it is imperative that successful planning engage producers, policymakers, scientists, commodity and agribusiness groups, and the public. This report presents a case study conducted with agricultural and environmental leaders in Iowa, U.S.A. I studied the relationship between ecosystem services and land management through: (1) a three-round Delphi survey that assessed ecosystem service priorities, and (2) individual interviews utilizing landscape images to elicit participants’ perspectives on the benefits of integrating perennial vegetation into landscapes dominated by annual row-crops. Landscape images were based on a series of scenarios projecting different agricultural land uses, and were presented to participants as photorealistic images, at the farm-scale. Ecosystem services related to water, soil, and food were found to be the most important overall. Analysis of the Delphi data supported the cultural notion of a deep divergence between stakeholders with production-oriented expectations and those with environment-oriented expectations. Recognized and acceptable management practices—including riparian buffers, strategic integration of prairie, and wetland restoration—offer potential points of consensus across these viewpoints. Interview results suggested a major roadblock to practical application of ecosystem service management is a lack of support for landscape-level planning and coordination of management. I conclude that ecosystem services may provide a potential platform for consensus building within the group. However, clear perceptual and language differences exist among participants, which may lead to breakdowns in communication and hinder decision-making processes. Stakeholders must work towards explicit communication to move forward. To this end, I provide a framework for the discussion of ecosystem services.


The idea of managing agricultural landscapes to provide society with multiple ecosystem services has surfaced as a novel and potentially powerful way to frame agricultural and conservation policy and research in the U.S.A. The practical application of ecosystem service provision, however, has been hampered by a lack of coordinated, on the ground approaches. A critical challenge for ecosystem service management in parcelized agricultural landscapes is that many ecosystem service outcomes are best realized at regional scales; they are the aggregate result of myriad management practices used at the field and farm scale. Accordingly, management decision-making must effectively address the interactions and net impacts of combinations of practices at the farm and field scale and assist in coordinating the actions of multiple farms on the landscape scale. A critical, and often failed, step lies in defining an appropriate set of agricultural and environmental objectives for management across multiple spatial scales. In short, there is a need for multiscalar management strategies that span property and political boundaries.
Managing landscapes for an expanding set of ecosystem service objectives presents a major challenge for all players in agriculture. Attempts to incorporate multiple objectives inherently increase management complexity; land managers are faced trying to optimize for multiple, sometimes conflicting, objectives.
Given these complexities, my research is grounded in the premise that decision making—with regard to the many facets of agriculture and the environment, including research initiatives, policy creation, and on the ground implementation of practices—must engage a broad group of stakeholders; among them, landowners and land managers, policymakers, biophysical and social scientists, agribusiness and commodity groups, and environmental and conservation groups. To partially address the complexities associated with the practical application of ecosystem service management, I examined ideas and priority areas of leaders in agricultural and environmental arenas through an Iowa-centered case study that examined the utility of the concept of ecosystem services for agriculture.

Project Objectives:

The overall objective of this project was to gain a better understanding of the links between ecosystems services and agricultural land management in Central Iowa. Specifically, the objectives of this project are to: (1) survey stakeholders to determine the suite of ecosystem services considered critical for Central Iowa, (2) survey stakeholders to determine the suite of management practices that provide points of consensus regarding future agricultural land management, (3) investigate what synergies and barriers stakeholders forecast may help or impede the development of a comprehensive agenda for ecosystem service management , and (4) examine the effectiveness of visualization as a tool for enhanced communication among agricultural decision makers.


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  • Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore


Materials and methods:

To achieve these objectives, I took a mixed methods approach using: (1) a Delphi survey to address the concept of ecosystem services, and (2) in-depth interviews using photo elicitation to investigate preferences for strategic integration of perennial-based conservation practices. A mixed methods approached allowed me to observe the recognized relationships between ecosystem services and agricultural land management from two unique angles. In the photo elicitation survey I employ the tool of photorealistic visualization, wherein landscapes mapped in GIS are modeled three-dimensionally to provide a realistic photo-like image. This visualization technology has been used previously in the field of sustainable agriculture and it is expected to be a powerful communication tool—especially regarding spatial patterns and processes, such as associated with land cover and managing lands for ecosystems services.
Research was conducted in participation with the advisory board for the long-term research project science-based trials of row-crops integrated with prairies (STRIPs) project at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, Iowa ( In short, the project investigates strategies for integrating perennial vegetation into Iowa's agricultural landscapes. The project works in cooperation with a stakeholder advisory board, which is composed of representatives from industry, government, the community, and conservation interests. This case study was initiated at a STRIPs stakeholder meeting in June 2009. Because many of the individuals involved have a long history of complex personal and professional relationships, I selected methods that preserved confidentiality and avoided potential social, personal, or political conflicts.
The Delphi survey was conducted with the STRIPs stakeholder advisory board in order to aggregate the diverse views of these experts, and to analyze the degree of consensus that exists regarding both ecosystem services and management practices important for Iowa. Delphi allows a researcher to amalgamate the ideas expressed by a panel of experts, privately and individually, into a collective "worldview". Delphi studies produce data that predict future decision making and provide unique insights into complex issues. A three round Delphi survey was conducted from November 2009 through October 2010. It was decided in the course of the Delphi survey that three rounds provided a sufficient balance between thorough probing of the issues and maintaining participant interest. Through successive rounds, participants: (1) formed a list of "ecosystem services" and items that comprised relevant changes in agriculture needed to achieve them, (2) pared these items through forced-choice ranking of the most important items, and then (3) identified relationships between important ecosystem services and land management practices.
Typical of Delphi, the first round of the survey asked participants to define study themes without a large degree of influence or preface from the research team. I posed an opened-ended question asking participants to:
Make a list of key ecosystem services that you envision can be obtained from agricultural lands in Central Iowa, and then list any changes that may be needed to achieve them.
I paired the Delphi survey with structured, in-depth interviews, supported by photo elicitation, to further examine the relationship between ecosystem services and perennial management practices. My use of photo elicitation—inserting a picture or pictures into a research interview—is based on research that has demonstrated that images evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than do words alone. Interview photo elicitation was based on a series of scenarios projecting different agricultural land uses, and was presented to participants as photorealistic images, at the farm-scale. Structured, in-depth interviews with project stakeholders were conducted from June 2010 through December 2010. Invited participants included all individuals who had attended STRIPs annual stakeholder meetings in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The interview process was facilitated by a series of six, visually contextualized agricultural land use scenarios portraying a gradient in the amount of perennial land cover following a base-2 logarithmic scale (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64% perennial vegetative cover, as opposed to continuous production of annual row crops). The scenarios were placed in a hypothetical 66.4 hectare watershed in Iowa. Scenarios were presented to participants as photorealistic images created by the lead author using Visual Nature Studio 3 (Nature 3D, LLC).

Research results and discussion:

Water, soil, and food emerged as the most important ecosystem services themes for Iowa and were mentioned by a majority of the participants in each round of the Delphi survey (Table 1). All of Delphi round one responses included at least one mention of clean water, access to fresh water, or water purification; several participants focused their responses almost solely on topics of water quality. Ecosystem services related to tourism, outdoor recreation, aesthetic and spiritual benefits, pollination, and pest controls were ranked highly by some participants; however, support was more variable and none received mention by a majority.
Overall support for management practices was more diffuse than for ecosystem services; only four of 17 practices garnered majority support, these were landscape-level planning, riparian buffers, diverse crop rotations, and restored wetlands; yet none of the practices received greater than 60% mention (Table 2). Most management practices were identified by respondents as contributing to multiple ecosystem services. Over half of the surveyed management practices were perceived to be associated with 10 or more ecosystem services.
The interviews generated more vivid and specific descriptions of ecosystem services, likely due in large part to the photo elicitation. Many individuals accepted the scenario images as a real place, and accordingly the responses became more personal in nature. This attachment suggests that the images allowed participants to start interviews "on the same page" and provided them a better understanding of some of the spatial and biophysical aspects of the scenarios, which would be difficult to convey in a text-based depiction alone.
A list of ecosystem services was generated from interview data and found to be similar to the lists associated with the Delphi survey. All services mentioned in the Delphi survey were mentioned during interviews. The amount of perennial land cover depicted in a scenario was highly correlated with the amount of perceived benefits associated with the scenario (Figure 1). When asked to sort the scenarios based on the sum of the perceived benefits associated with each, 76% of participants sorted scenarios precisely following the gradient in perennial cover. As in the Delphi survey, ecosystem service items related to water and soil were the most frequently mentioned and were highly favored by a wide range of stakeholders; with water-related services considered the most important overall. Important ecosystem services related to water and soil included fresh drinking water, water bodies for recreation, habitat for aquatic wildlife, regulation of hydrology for flood mitigation, reduced water runoff, prevention of infield water erosion, maintenance of nutrient cycles, long-term maintenance of soil fertility, and carbon sequestration. Overall, ecosystem services and their associated value were always seen as being dependent on the specific ecological and socioeconomic context at hand. Many responses were followed with caveats such as, "it all depends on," and, "but I would need to know more about the area in order to say for sure." Additionally, benefits were described as dynamic phenomena, whereby values change in response to changes in these contexts.
Two main themes emerged regarding land management practices: (1) landscape-level planning—especially the ability to strategically position agriculture and conservation practices at the landscape scale—is essential and currently lacking, and (2) diversity, in many different contexts, is seen as a key component to ecosystem service management. All interviewees demonstrated a keen awareness of the role that landscape and regional context can play in ecosystem function. Frequently, participants asked many questions regarding the underlying biogeochemistry of the scenarios, the previous management history, and the surrounding landscape and region, in terms of both ecological and socioeconomic contexts. Many familiar with on the ground practices suggested that the practices currently "in our tool box" are likely sufficient to increase and enhance ecosystem services compared to the present; however, they attest that approaches for coordinating management activities at the appropriate scale are currently lacking. Participants asserted that it is futile to expect changes in landscape-scale outcomes without landscape-level planning.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
  • This research was successfully defended in July 2011 as the research component in the program of study for the Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The thesis, titled: Farming for ecosystem services: A case study of multifunctional agriculture in Iowa, USA, is available through ProQuest.

    Manuscript preparation for peer-review publication is now in progress.

    This research was presented at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management, held in Madison Wisconsin in June 2011.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

My project proposal pledged to initiate a discussion among diverse agricultural stakeholders on their relationship to ecosystem services. This, perhaps, is where the project has had the biggest impact. The feedback from participants in both the Delphi survey and interviews has been wholly positive. The responses in the Delphi are well thought and heartfelt, and many participants reported that the survey and/or interview has enlightened their thoughts regarding ecosystem services. In the process of prioritizing services, participants have revealed they had to wrestle with their decisions and it has led them to ponder the trade-offs inherent in land management decision making.
Through the funding provided from NCR-SARE, I have become skilled at the creation of photorealistic models and been able to expose many people to the tool of visualization for communicating about sustainable agriculture. Accordingly, I created a portfolio of landscape visualizations as part of my graduate research and program of study. In total, I completed seven visualization projects, each of which included the creation of between one and 18 images. Sustainable agriculture themes represented in the portfolio include: agroforestry, future agricultural scenarios based on uncertainty of energy costs and climate change, incorporating prairies into multifunctional landscapes, cross boundary cooperation, future agricultural scenarios based on biofuels policy, and landscape-scale targeting of perennial conservation practices. As a result of my seeing my work, multiple NGO's (for example, the Land Stewardship Project, Green Lands Blue Waters, and The Nature Conservancy) have contacted me with questions on how they can incorporate this tool into their planning and communications activities.
In my study, I found potential communication barriers due to definitions of words and ideas and misinformation regarding the relationships between land management and some ecosystem services. To overcome these barriers, I offer a framework for discussions regarding ecosystem services in an agricultural context (Figure 2). This framework was shaped in response to questions frequently posed by participants of the case study. The framework illustrates six key themes essential to effective communication regarding ecosystem services:
• People - clearly define all stakeholders involved;
• Land - discussions must be place-based;
• Ecosystem services - a full set of relevant ecosystem services must be generated and explicitly defined to identify and optimize trade-offs;
• Management - the avenue through which people can directly impact ecosystem service delivery;
• Ecosystem processes - clarity regarding ecosystem processes that provision specific ecosystem services is necessary for successful management; and
• Expectations and values - must be understood for the range of stakeholders as these impact stakeholder attitudes and behaviors.
Discussions using the framework must be bounded in time and space. The line is dashed to illustrate that all of these themes operate across multiple spatial and temporal scales.

Economic Analysis

No economic analysis was conducted in conjunction with this research.

Farmer Adoption

No farmer adoption activities were conducted in conjunction with this research.


Areas needing additional study

Farmers and managers need technical tools to aid in the placement of perennial conservation practices at the farm scale. Ideally, the format/interface of these tools would be compatible with existing precision agriculture tools (e.g., yield monitors, variable-rate application technologies, guidance systems, and GPS maps). Additionally, tools and policy are needed to target areas and regions for coordinated, landscape-scale management efforts based on both biophysical and social criteria.

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.