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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn


  • Crop Production: agroforestry, forestry, intercropping, strip tillage
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, focus group, participatory research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, hedges - woody, riparian buffers, riverbank protection, wetlands, wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, public participation, social capital, social networks, sustainability measures


    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.

    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.