Agricultural Transformations in the Red Cedar Learning Hub

Progress report for ONC23-131

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2023: $47,733.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. John Strauser
University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Project Information


Monoculture row crops have been associated with reduced biodiversity, diminished water quality, and declining soil health. Increasing the amount of agricultural land in well-managed grasslands is likely the best way to have profitable farming operations, provide a wide array of ecosystem services, and produce a meaningful amount of meat and dairy. In Wisconsin’s Red Cedar River watershed, farmers want to increase the number of acres dedicated to well-managed perennial grasslands to protect water and soil health.

Implementing transformative agricultural landscape change is complex and requires collaborative efforts that reach beyond the boundaries of any particular farm. To attain shared water quality and soil health goals, community members have expressed a desire to develop the Red Cedar Learning Hub. The learning hub concept builds on Grassland 2.0; a USDA SAS-CAP funded project. Learning hubs create a platform for place-based dialogue that is appreciative of a diverse set of perspectives. By bringing expert and experiential knowledge together, learning hubs offer a way to develop a well thought out land-use strategy. With a desire for converting farming practices, the Red Cedar Learning Hub is focused on working together to inform how a transition to sustainable agriculture should be implemented.

Project Objectives:
  • Hold ten community meetings centered on creating a collective dialogue to identify a way to transform agricultural practices.
  • Hold four on-farm field days on innovative sustainability practices.
  • Identify ways that researchers, extension agents, agricultural companies, farmers, and communities can work together to improve water quality, soil health, and the profitability of agriculture through the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Provide farmers with technical support and economic analyses so that they can make well-informed management decisions.
  • Strengthen local supply chains with a pilot project that connects producers of grass-fed beef with lake management organizations through relational organizing and educational opportunities.


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Materials and methods:

Our model for socio-ecological landscape change employs a participatory process focusing on science-practice dialogue and co-creation. This approach focuses on making change by working on the system, rather than exclusively focusing on the individual, by working with communities to position themselves to cultivate the context within which agricultural decisions are made. We call this theory of change Collaborative Landscape Design (CLD), and it has five key elements: 1) connecting people, 2) envisioning novel landscapes, 3) building supply chains, 4) planning enterprises, 5) incentivizing change. The processes of landscape change through CLD are informed by the concepts of place and place-making and grounded at the regional scale.


As a Red Cedar Learning Hub, we are interested in how this region evolves through two primary research objectives. The first objective is to make sense of the ways in which community members operationalize the place they know as the Red Cedar. In 2023, we engaged the steering team and identified the Red Cedar as a place with diverse opportunities between a college town, agricultural communities, a vibrant art scene, and enjoyable recreational opportunities on its many waterways and paths. At this juncture, the research teams from UW-Madison and UW-Stout are positioning themselves to conduct semi-structured interviews and then analyze these dialogues employing a thematic analysis. From these conversations, we hope to develop insights to identify where community members feel they are and how this place might evolve as they engage their landscape.


The second primary objective is to document and better understand agricultural landscape change through a relational approach. The concept of relational place-making asserts that a place is not designed in confinement but rather related to other events and places. When we think about agricultural landscape change, a relational approach pushes us to consider how events beyond the farm gate influence on-farm practices. In our partnership project, we have fostered connections between the various towns, universities, lake organizations, and farming groups in the Red Cedar. Building these relationships through the development and implementation of a strategic land use planning process not only builds water quality but also attracts new and beginning farmers and develops agricultural markets that reward practices that work toward the outcomes identified by community members as desirable. This relational framing of agricultural landscape change and outreach is not commonly employed in the United States. Therefore, we are documenting and intend to put together peer-reviewed publications and subsequent grant proposals that build on our efforts.

Research results and discussion:

We are still currently active in our data collection phase. At this juncture, it is premature to produce any results. 

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers participated
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

A major motivating factor from the onset of this project was improving the water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed. Prior reports show that the primary source of pollution for the Red Cedar Watershed is non-point source agricultural pollutants 2015 Red Cedar Report. If the water quality is improved, we will likely realize improved agricultural, tourism, and community vitality outcomes.

At our first meeting on May 9, 2023, community members in the Red Cedar Learning Hub expressed a desire to develop a strategy for landscape-scale transformation. Community members stated that they have been part of projects before that have rushed into education and outreach efforts that have provided a wealth of information about regenerative agricultural practices, but they saw little tangible change in the landscape. Aware of these prior efforts, community members felt the participatory and place-based Learning Hub framework could allow them to take a more deliberate approach to education and outreach that would be strategic in obtaining outcomes for landscape-scale transformations.

Motivated to develop an action plan, 2023 was dedicated to developing and operationalizing a vision for the future. We began by engaging in a strategic visioning process with farmers, ag professionals, municipal government officials, and researchers. From that, it became clear that community members felt there was a direct relationship between regenerative agricultural practices and things such as tourism and community well-being Vision for the Future-2023. From that exercise, we identified six critical areas of focus that need to be addressed concurrently on agricultural lands in the Red Cedar to aid the community in attaining its desired future: 1) aging farmer population, 2). unfair agricultural markets, 3) social norms that are unnecessarily restrictive, 4) sharply declining biodiversity, 5) soil degradation, and 6) diminished water quality (both surface and ground). 

From that point on, the group of actors have met regularly in what we call the steering team (5 meetings in 2023). These meetings aimed to identify landscape configurations that would put the community on a path to attaining the outcomes identified by community members. With the stated vision for the future in mind, the research team at UW-Madison employed SmartScape™ to model landscape configurations and the potential outcomes that could be attained in a Grass-Fed Beef Scenario.

This motivated community members to consider what would be needed to increase the amount of well-managed grazing. The steering team did not feel it was sustainable for the desired landscape change to be supported merely by directly marketing premium agricultural products, such as grass-fed beef. To that end, our partnership is focusing on building a localized grass-fed beef supply chain to obtain important community outcomes. Knowing that collaboration would need to be fostered beyond the steering team, we have the following outreach and education plans for 2024:

  1. Circulate and engage community members with a white paper. The intent is to operationalize the steering team's thinking and allow for further community dialogue around these supply chain development efforts.
  2. Present a project update and engage community members at the annual Red Cedar Conference in March 2024.
  3. Engage with Dunn County to ensure that the outreach efforts of the Red Cedar Learning Hub are complementary to the strategic planning processes that the county is undergoing.
  4. Host a summer field day event that brings together actors that would be fundamental to developing a localized grass-fed beef supply chain. Following this event, build out logical follow-up actions based on what is gleaned from the day (I.e., one-on-one meetings, strategic focus groups, and further community meetings).
  5. Bring together farmers with the Chetek Lakes group (and potentially other lakes organizations) to make connections between producers and consumers.
  6. UW-Stout and UW-Madison will conduct community interviews and conduct data analysis. 


Link to scape tools


Link to compass tools



Learning Outcomes

5 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key changes:
  • During the development and initial phases of the project, the steering team expressed a desire to work collaboratively and strategically to create agricultural landscape changes that allowed for a broad set of socio-ecological outcomes identified by community members as necessary. We agreed that we wanted to advance and work toward changes that produced multi-dimensional solutions that advanced socio-ecological well-being. Crucial to our strategic approach was identifying the types of landscape configurations that allowed for these multi-dimensional solutions.

    While there is a solid commitment to designing landscapes that lead to a broad swath of positive outcomes, it is not always clear what types of landscape configurations might allow communities to attain the desired outcomes. Using Grassland 2.0’s SmartScape™ modeling, we could interactively engage with various modeled landscape scenarios to identify desirable configurations. When making sense of the SmartScape™ outputs and considering historical ag census data, it was evident that increasing the amount of animal agriculture using well-managed perennial cover is central to attaining the future desired by community members. Numerous community members expressed that the outputs and data curations helped provide a clear picture of how various land use practices contributed to attaining the multiple outcomes we were collectively working toward.

    To critically increase the amount of land committed to well-managed perennial grasses, we quickly identified a need to work collectively to develop localized markets that reward farmers for this practice. As a beginning phase of supply chain development, we continued to use SmartScape™ to map out landscape configurations, providing our partnership an idea of the acreage that would be committed to certain agronomic practices, such as grass-fed beef production. Based on the information we learned through our strategic processes of Collaborative Landscape Design, we are able to right-size the scope and magnitude of the supply chains we are working toward.

Project Outcomes

9 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The first year of our partnership project was primarily focused on developing the foundation for our 2024 activities. Crucial to this foundation building and then having regular meetings amongst our Red Cedar Learning Hub Steering team. The steering team group represents a cross section of actors who represent lakes groups, farming, municipal government, and university research and extension. In these conversations we engaged with what desires we saw for the future and what types of landscape configurations could allow for realized outcomes in those dimensions. Pursuant to that goal we used SmartScape™ consider potential tradeoffs from various land use configurations. As we grappled with these various scenarios, we felt compelled to tell this story in a white paper to 1) document our thinking, and 2) put it in a format that could be shared with others in the community so that they could provide input. Based on our dialogue and modeling efforts we have gained buy-in from various groups in the community on the need to develop a local grass-fed beef supply chain. Developing such a supply chain we feel offers the best opportunity to gain a multi-dimensional economic, social, and environmental benefit not only for farmers but the community at large.


While we are pleased with the progress, one set back to our progress in 2023 was that one of the original co-PI’s on the project, Dr. Zach Raff, took a position with the USDA which required an administrative and logistical burden as the co-PI duties shifted to UW-Stout Professor Dr. Tina Lee. While this transition has been smooth Dr. Lee’s teaching load for the fall of 2023 did not account for her duties on this project. With our leadership team solidified we are excited about the opportunities 2024 presents.

Success stories:

Grassland 2.0 can create transformational changes to our rural landscapes and communities.  Our Red Cedar community clearly has the vision for the changes that Grassland 2.0 will create environmentally, socially, culturally and economically in rural communities.  We are now at the critical point of taking this vision and developing it into those first steps of connecting our community of farmers and lakeshore property owners.  Which will demonstrate that purchasing locally produced food restores environmental and community health for the good of all.

-Quote from local community member pertaining the Red Cedar Project.

Information Products

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.