Participatory Farmer Monitoring on Nitrate Loss: Using Farm-Scale Data to Improve Nutrient Management and Water Quality

Progress report for LNC20-444

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $236,702.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2024
Grant Recipient: Indiana University
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Landon Yoder
Indiana University
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Project Information

Summary:

Retaining nitrate for crop production remains a complex management challenge for farmers and a major source of water quality impairment in the Midwest. While both farmers and the public would benefit from reducing nitrate losses, through lower fertilizer expenses and safer water for drinking and recreation, there have been few improvements in water quality nationally over the past 40 years. This ongoing challenge persists despite farmers halving soil erosion rates and the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in Farm Bill conservation programs during this same time period. Among the complexities in retaining nitrate for crop production are: (1) the lack of nitrate loss data available to farmers at the farm scale for management decisions; and (2) the difficulty in connecting farm management to downstream outcomes, since most monitoring is done at a watershed scale and permits substantial ambiguity in how much any one farm might be losing. To address this long-standing challenge, we propose to examine how the availability of nitrate data at the farm scale, alongside the involvement of farmers in collecting these data, informs and assists their evaluation of their nitrogen management.

We will involve 25 farmers in the Wabash River Basin to participate in two years of monitoring nitrate outcomes on their farms. Both the nitrate outcomes and farmers’ evaluations of what management changes are possible and effective to better retain nitrate will provide valuable information for farmers and conservation officials throughout the North Central Region with their nitrogen management. To understand farmers’ self-evaluations of their management, we will undertake two interviews, one before collecting the water samples on their farms and one after we provide a report on nitrate outcomes at the end of the study. We will use these interviews to examine how farmers’ views on their management have changed and how these changes can improve outreach and education efforts on nitrogen management. In addition, we will invite farmers to participate in one of two focus group sessions at the end of the project to share ideas about retaining nitrate more effectively. Learning-focused outcomes will include whether farmers see opportunities to retain more nitrate, what practices they believe are most effective to do so, and what new knowledge they gain from focus group discussions. Action-focused outcomes will include what new practices farmers intend to implement, a report on potential economic losses based on nitrate outcomes, and two peer-reviewed journal articles.

Project Objectives:

Our learning outcomes include how many farmers believe they can improve retention after reviewing measured tile nitrate outcomes, the retention practices they believe are most effective, new knowledge on nitrogen retention farmers gain from focus group discussions, and the connections they identify between their management and nitrate outcomes. Our action outcomes include new practices farmers intend to implement based on the nitrate outcomes, a report on potential economic losses based on nitrate outcomes, two peer-reviewed journal articles, and a future research proposal building on the findings from this study. One benefit is greater potential for on-farm nitrate-retention experimentation.

Introduction:

Retaining nitrate for crop production remains a complex management challenge for farmers and a major source of water quality impairment in the Midwest. While both farmers and the public would benefit from reducing nitrate losses, through lower fertilizer expenses and safer water for drinking and recreation, there have been few improvements in water quality nationally over the past 40 years. This ongoing challenge persists despite farmers halving soil erosion rates and the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in Farm Bill conservation programs during this same time period. Among the complexities in retaining nitrate for crop production are: (1) the lack of nitrate loss data available to farmers at the farm scale for management decisions; and (2) the difficulty in connecting farm management to downstream outcomes, since most monitoring is done at a watershed scale and permits substantial ambiguity in how much any one farm might be losing. To address this long-standing challenge, we propose to examine how the availability of nitrate data at the farm scale, alongside the involvement of farmers in collecting these data, informs and assists their evaluation of their nitrogen management.

Cooperators

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Research

Hypothesis:

We hypothesize that participants will not be familiar with what levels of nitrate loss are common for their farm, watershed, or in non-agricultural watersheds or have clear expectations on what times of the year nitrate retention is most or least likely.

Materials and methods:

This proposed project will address two research questions. First, how does the availability of nitrate data at the farm scale inform farmers’ perceptions on whether and how they can improve nitrate retention? We hypothesize that if farmers under-estimate the amount of nitrate they are losing, they will express an expectation that they can reduce their future nitrate losses. Second, based on a farmer’s management priorities and stated rationales, what practices do they indicate they will change following the study? For the second question, we hypothesize that if they under-estimate their nitrate losses they will identify feasible, low-cost management changes that they can make. Additionally, we hypothesize that the greater the contrast between farmers upfront estimates of nitrate losses against actual outcomes, the more participants will look for system-wide changes in their nitrogen management. Both research questions will be addressed using a mixed-methods approach that will combine two semi-structured interviews, the collection and analysis of water samples, and focus groups to draw on peer-to-peer learning.

We will involve 25 farmers with conventional grain operations in southwestern Indiana for participation over a two-year period. Recruitment is ongoing by project coordinator Yoder with the assistance of NRCS and SWCD offices in six southwest Indiana counties. At the time of submission, 12 farmers have agreed to participate. Farmers will participate in the study by sharing their insights in the interviews and collecting water samples and recording flow rates from two tile drains for two growing seasons from fields in corn and soybean rotations, plus an optional third site of interest, such as a nearby stream (10 samples for each location per year; 60 total). Each participant will receive $25 in compensation for each sample collected, plus $100 for each interview. Sampling will be focused around getting before and after samples of key events, including planting and harvesting, fertilizer applications (pre-plant, side dress, and/or fall application), and big rainfall events. At the end of each year, we will provide farmers with a report on their nitrate concentrations and loads for each location.

The data collection process will start with semi-structured interviews lasting approximately 45 minutes before farmers begin the process of collecting water samples. PC Yoder will conduct all interviews. The first semi-structured interview will address participant’s nitrogen fertilizer management practices and decisions, their perceptions on what nitrate retention practices are most effective and feasible for farmers to undertake, and what they anticipate their nitrate outcomes will be. Interviews will be transcribed and coded using Atlas.ti software. Codes will be developed thematically based on how farmers describe the connections between their management and expected outcomes (e.g., variable rating increases profitability, one pound of nitrogen per bushel of corn, etc.; Saldaña 2016). Codes will then be interpreted using a network analysis to identify which key management aspects are connected to each other and nitrate retention and loss (e.g., Hammond Wagner 2019; Hoffman 2014). This approach uses quantifiable variables to measure the frequency and centrality of connections to understand the relative importance of different concepts (Hoffman 2014). Coding will be undertaken by PC Yoder with support from Hammond Wagner (collaborator). This will provide a fine-grain analysis of the similarities and differences in how farmers evaluate their nitrogen management.

Farmers will participate in collecting and storing 10 water samples annually from two tile drains representing two different fields on a corn-soybean rotation. Farmers will select the fields and drains based on which ones they would like to learn about, as well as a third site of their choosing. Sampling will be based around getting before and after samples of key events during the year: fertilizer applications (e.g., pre-plant, side dress, fall), planting, harvest, and large rainfall events. PC Yoder will be responsible for collecting the bottles from farmers for transport to Indiana University for laboratory analysis, which will be overseen by Royer (collaborator). To determine the nitrate concentrations in the lab, a 60-mL water sample will be filtered through a 0.45 µm membrane into an acid-washed Nalgene bottle. Samples will be stored frozen until analysis on a Lachat QuikChem 8500 flow injection analyzer using US EPA-approved QuikChem method 10-107-04-1-A. Field duplicate samples, analytical split samples, and certified commercial standards will be analyzed as part of an established quality control protocol used in previous water quality studies (e.g., Morgan et al. 2019). Farmers will also provide flow data following methods in Hanrahan et al. (2018), which in combination with nitrate concentrations, will allow us to estimate nitrate loads for the tile drains, which will be led by Ward (collaborator).

We will provide farmers with a report at the end of the first year on their nitrate outcomes, as well as a comparison with other participant’s nitrate outcomes. Group nitrate outcomes will be provided anonymously to protect privacy. No identifiable information, including locations, will be provided in these reports. The data in these reports will include: nitrate concentrations and loads for each farmer’s own samples; average, maximum, and minimum values for the group’s nitrate outcomes; report the ratio of fertilizer applied to the amount lost and a related economic estimate based on the cost of the fertilizer type applied. These reports will provide farmers with an opportunity to evaluate their own outcomes, as well as see the range of other nitrate outcomes from a comparable group. These reports will provide the basis for the second semi-structured interview, which will focus on farmers reflections and self-evaluation of the nitrate outcomes and connections they draw to their management or other factors beyond their control, such as weather-related challenges. In addition, it will address whether there are new understandings and management practices they intend to pursue, if their nitrate outcomes are different than what they anticipated.

Lastly, we will invite all participants and 10 conservation practitioners to participate in a focus group (we will organize two separate sessions to increase the opportunities to contribute). The focus groups will engage farmers in discussions around the strengths and weaknesses of the nitrate outcome data in helping them evaluate their nitrogen management, as well as what additional data or analysis would be complementary in the future. We plan to use the focus groups as an opportunity for farmers to share their insights on what practices they feel would make a difference. These sessions will also include presentations by conservation professionals and scientists on best management practices to retain nitrate. The focus group sessions will be led by PC Yoder and co-designed with Lisa Holscher, Director of the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, Ben Wicker, Executive Director of the Indiana Agriculture and Nutrient Alliance, and Hans Schmitz, Posey County Purdue Extension Director (who are collaborators on this proposal).

There are several potential limitations for our proposed study. The study will only cover two years of data with small number of samples. Continuous monitoring could provide a more accurate set of estimates. However, we believe that sampling around key events will provide a helpful baseline to see whether continuous monitoring would be essential to convince farmers to consider new practices or if more strategic sampling, such as what this study proposes, will be effective at lower cost and time commitments. A second potential limitation is that farmers may quit or be inconsistent in getting samples, especially during busy times of the year. We will provide payment at the end of each year in the study to encourage commitment. In addition, several NRCS and SWCD technicians have agreed to assist with collecting samples if participants find themselves too busy to get timely samples during busy periods, such as planting or harvesting. Lastly, while SARE relies on participatory research, water quality remains a sensitive issue and thus farmers have expressed a strong preference for privacy as part of their agreement to participate. We have included a letter of support from the Posey County SWCD to illustrate the existing and ongoing recruitment to secure 25 participants by fall 2020.

 

References

Hammond Wagner, C. R. 2019. Governing water quality limits in agricultural watersheds. Dissertation. University of Vermont.

Hanrahan, B. R., J. L. Tank, S. F. Christopher, U. H. Mahl, M. T. Trentman, and T. V. Royer. 2018. Winter cover crops reduce nitrate loss in an agricultural watershed in the central U.S. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 265:513–523.

Hoffman, M., M. Lubell, and V. Hillis. 2014. Linking knowledge and action through mental models of sustainable agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (36):13016–13021.

Morgan, J. A., T. V. Royer, and J. R. White. 2019. Fine Sediment Removal Influences Biogeochemical Processes in a Gravel-bottomed Stream. Environmental Management 64 (3):258–271.

Saldaña, J. 2016. The coding manual for qualitative researchers 3rd edition. Los Angeles, California: SAGE.

Participation Summary
23 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

So far the main approach for education has included individual interviews with the participants, participatory water samples that allow farmers greater familairity with their tile flows over the growing season, and handouts sharing the first year's data on nitrate concentrations, discharges, and daily loads for the dates with water samples.

Project Activities

Water Sampling 2021
Participant Interviews

Educational & Outreach Activities

27 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

23 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Participating in the water data sampling is the main preliminary education activity. A focus group discussion will occur at the end of the project to share and synthesize insights.

Learning Outcomes

10 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • nutrient management

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:
    1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
    2 New working collaborations
    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.