This proposal directly addresses three sustainable agriculture challenges in Nebraska and the Corn Belt more broadly: 1) annual crop production of corn and soybean that comprises 81% of state cropland, which due to limited conservation adoption is at risk of continuing to degrade soil and water; 2) the challenges landowners and tenants face in collaboratively planning conservation to address these concerns; and 3) educating the future agricultural workforce to understand the social dimensions involved in conservation planning among landowners and tenants.
In the context of these challenges: how can agricultural scientists, professionals, and advisors better facilitate landowners and tenants working together to prioritize conservation? This proposal addresses this question through a pilot project creatively integrating research studying landowner-tenant relationships and undergraduates’ learning, creating tools for intervention and change.
This proposal will partner working farms whose landowners are interested in or actively pursuing diversification, conservation, and sustainability with a senior undergraduate course. Analysis of qualitative (landowner-tenant interviews and student surveys) and quantitative data (resource inventory of the farms) will result in case studies of conservation navigation for use by agricultural professionals, landowners, and tenants, as well as a pedagogical model for use in other classes engaged in on-farm research and management.
- Analyze how landowner-tenant conservation decision-making influences conservation implementation in specific on-farm scenarios through social and agronomic research
- Identify and evaluate enabling or impeding factors within landowner-tenant conservation collaboration to inform intervention and farm-scale change
- Generate new and extend existing knowledge of landowner-tenant relationships to analyze specific navigations of conservation decision-making on-farm
- Develop conservation case studies and tools for use by agricultural professionals and landowner-tenant teams
- Analyze agricultural student learning of conservation planning and its complex human dimensions through integration within undergraduate education
- Create an educational module to instruct future agricultural leaders in the complex human dimensions of on-farm conservation planning
The preliminary research in this phase of the project included: semi-structured qualitative interviews, agronomic data synthesis, student farm improvement plans addressing both landowner and tenant goals, and student reflections on the course.
Landowner partners and researchers convened a series of planning calls in spring 2019 to collectively plan the qualitative interviews and the fall course field trip. Landowners communicated directly with their tenants, sharing information and reporting back throughout the planning process. During June 2019, the researchers conducted in-person qualitative interviews separately with landowners and tenants to learn more about their conservation planning process, goals for their farms and farming operations, and to identify topics for the fall student course conservation recommendation projects. The course research projects took place during August-December 2019, and included student visits with landowners and tenants on the farm, agronomic data shared by landowners and tenants, and contextual and historical information as identified in the interviews. Students presented their conservation planning recommendations to the landowners and tenants at the end of semester. At start and end of semester, students were asked evaluative questions to identify their knowledge of landowner-tenant relationships and what was learned through the experience of doing the class project. Interview protocols were approved by IRB at MTU and the class learning evaluation instruments were approved by the IRB at UNL.
In this first year of the project, we have preliminary results from two simultaneous areas of study in this project: the landowner-tenant conservation decision-making process (Objectives 1, 2, 3) and the learning among the undergraduate UNL students (Objectives 4, 5, 6).
Researchers analyzed the interview transcripts to identify shared interests, concerns, and opportunities for the course conservation planning. Researchers shared contextual and historical information from the interviews, as well as agronomic data shared by landowners and tenants, in the fall course and the students used these data to develop conservation recommendations. These recommendations were then presented to the landowner-tenant teams. Initial analysis of the student evaluative data shows increased awareness and understanding of the importance of landowner-tenant relationships, the positive role that women landowners can play, as well as the benefits of collaborating with the NRCS in their future careers (described in learning outcomes). Our focus on this relationship in the class project differs from the normative course instruction about agronomic planning and conservation adoption in calling attention to this important relationship and including landowners and tenants within the class project.
Educational & Outreach Activities
-We estimate approximately nine consultations during 2019 activities on the project: 3 calls with women landowners together, 6 calls separately to coordinate the trip and campus visits.
-The 8 educational tools include the student farm improvement plan reports and presentations (two landowner-tenant pairs received three reports, and one pair received two based on the student groups). In 2020 and 2021 we will continue working toward conservation case studies based on our landowner tenant pairs and an academic journal article analyzing the student evaluation data to be submitted to Natural Sciences Education
–On farm demonstrations included the three student farm visits (1/farm) at start of fall 2019 semester in August 2019.
-We estimate six webinars, talks and presentations including: two collaborative conference presentation proposals submitted and accepted (to be presented in 2020 where landowners and researchers as equal authors); 1 guest lecture by Carter in Basche’s fall course in October 2019; 1 meeting with Basche, Carter and NCR SARE team in August 2019; Student presentations on conservation practices at UNL’s Natural History Museum Morrill Hall in November 2019; Student presentations for landowners and tenants in December 2019
-Additional agricultural professionals who participated in the project include the following individuals who supported both the farm visits/interviews and final student presentations in December 2019: Chris Rader, NRCS; two representatives from Mo Valley Ag Cooperative; Jeremiah Schutz, NRCS; Becky Carter, NRCS; Ray Ward, Ward Labs; Jami Thoene, NRCS; Ryan Hassebrook, ServiTech; Gary Lesoing, UNL Extension and State SARE Coordinator
From a landowner and farmer perspective: we have learned that since our interviews and class projects that each pair intends to take additional conservation action on their farms: one plans to take five acres of typically flooded cropland out of production to convert to a permanent CRP; another intends to convert 12 acres of flood cropland to grass through the EQIP program to be used for sheep grazing; and finally another will convert one acre of land to permanent vegetation to reduce erosion.
From a student perspective: in analysis of student reflection assignments we found that 100% of students recognized the importance of considering both landowner and farmer goals in the context of conservation, and how critical communication between these individuals. We estimate in our report that this will impact 22 farmers, as this is the number of students in the class who told us that they already farm or intend to farm in the future. This learning was illustrated by a few of the below quotes:
“The best-case scenario is to have a good dialogue between the two parties, so an agreement can be made about what is done to the land.”
“The most important thing I learned over the course of the semester that is important for my future career was how to communicate with landowners, producers, and other industry professionals. In the future I would hope to be a crop consultant that works with producers and landowners to improve their production and meet goals. I believe this is super important because knowing the goals and expectations of all parties involved makes it easier to create plans that improve farm productivity and sustainability.”
From a student perspective: We further found that a number of students also reflected on changing their perceptions of the role that women landowners can play in supporting conservation or diversification, and how financial arrangements can help facilitate such changes. This is illustrated by the below quotes:
“The most surprising thing that I learned in this course was how much these women landowners cared for their farmland even though some of them were away from the farm for many years. They all cared deeply about their land and wanted what was best for it. I think I was unaware of this before because I always perceived people that inherited ground just wanted the money from the land and that they didn’t care what happened to it. I always thought they would rent the ground to the highest bidder and not care what happened to it.”
“All of the landowners in the case study’s seemed involved in the management practices happening in the field but I know from experience there are some landowners that only what a check for rent.”
From a student perspective:Finally, a number of students noted that they were most surprised to learn about the value that NRCS and its programs afforded, illustrated by the below quotes:
“I was interested in how many government programs can be used to help soil conservation. I did not realize all of the possible programs that could provide cost share to help with erosion and soil health.”
“I did not know that the NRCS office is so willing to help people. If one of my future clients is interested in land conservation, I would not be afraid to call the local NRCS office to ask for help.”
We have learned that since our interviews and class projects that each pair intends to take additional conservation action on their farms. This includes flooded cropland out of production to convert to a permanent CRP; another intends to convert 12 acres of flood cropland to grass through the EQIP program to be used for sheep grazing; and finally another will convert one acre of land to permanent vegetation to reduce erosion. Additionally, all three landowners on the project have reported to us that they find their relationships improved with their tenants, including now having a better understanding of their tenant’s goals and motivations, and having more frequent communication. Overall these outcomes illustrate success toward project objectives 1, 2 and 3.
Finally, our preliminary analysis of student learning (objective 5) found that students report a more complex understanding of landowner-tenant dynamics to ensure long-term vitality of operations, the positive role that women landowners can play in supporting conservation, and the support available from NRCS.