Agricultural Landscape Design through Participatory Modeling: Collaboration among Diverse Stakeholder Groups
Results from 33 depth interviews suggest that farmers and rural residents relate to social and biophysical aspects of their landscapes differently at different scales. While almost all farmers responded favorably to site-level restoration of perennial vegetation, they were unsure and doubtful of management initiatives focused at landscape scales. However, these rural residents readily identified with social aspects of their landscapes including relationships with neighbors and community social integration. Interviewees envisioned that successful landscape-scale ecological restoration must link restoration of biodiversity with “restoration” of neighborly social connections across the countryside, especially grassroots communication between farm owners, operators and conservation agency personnel.
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.
In 2006, I accomplished the following: I used ethnographic techniques to become familiar with rural culture and to identify key social and farm networks in and around my study site. This step was implemented to provide background understanding of the community and build rapport with community members, thus enabling more informed, efficient, and successful modeling workshops in this next year. A strategic sampling strategy was developed and we conducted 40 depth interviews with farm owners and operators, community leaders, conservation personnel, and other rural stakeholders.
Interviews were carried out at homes, offices, barns, and other locations of convenience for my subjects. I have used qualitative techniques with the assistance of the software package N7 to catalog and manage and analyze ongoing interview analysis. Two subsequent passes through the data have been completed and results have been integrated into preliminary models and more focused questions. Work has also continued on a computer-based graphical modeling package through which I can present a spatial online representation of some of our research findings.
Preliminary interview results suggest that rural residents relate to social and biophysical aspects of their landscapes differently at different scales. Farmers and rural residents perceive the “countryside” primarily in social terms and only secondly in biophysical terms. Although I intended to concentrate my interviews in one watershed, I found that the rural network was rather based around an unexpected “peopleshed,” delineated by social and political boundaries. While almost all farmers responded favorably to restoration of perennial vegetation at a farm-level, they were doubtful of management initiatives focused at landscape (i.e., Upper Squaw Creek watershed) scales. However, rural residents readily identified with social aspects of their landscapes such as strong relationships with neighbors.
My interviewees more confidently related to their biophysical surroundings at the scales above and below that of the landscape. Farmers displayed infield conservation ethics involving soil stewardship and agricultural production (i.e., farm scale), though these conservation ethics were not tied to perennial vegetation. They did identify with perennial vegetation associated with natural amenities such as larger rivers and marshes in regional parks and preserves, and saw these amenities as existing in a more pristine state than the conditions found within their own watershed (i.e., regional scale). My interviewees also saw conservation through the restoration of perennial vegetation as socially challenging at these scales. For instance, at an individual/farm scale, private property and independence were highly valued, and almost all interviewees emphasized that you couldn’t tell a farmer what to do on his or her own farm. At societal/regional scales, farmers tended to be very distrustful of outsiders, especially of the federal government. The abstract, complex, and ephemeral nature of government programs were repeatedly voiced as a primary barrier to participation in conservation initiatives.
Interviewees affirmed that their countryside is currently undergoing social and ecological changes that are linked to one another, and that will challenge perennial restoration. These changes are driven by precision agriculture, input technologies, animal confinement, and bioenergy. Although frustrated with the ephemeral and abstract nature of government programs, interviewees readily coupled agricultural technology with farm-scale conservation initiatives. Precision agriculture, Geographical Information System mapping, and the increasing size of equipment were seen as positive technological advances that could aid in identifying and farming around marginal cropland. Interviewees reacted to bioenergy with a mix of suspicion and intrigue. Many farmers have already been affected by the opening of a local ethanol plant, and some are planning to drastically increase their corn acreage as a result. Although farmers generally responded with disfavor to strip cropping and rotations involving perennials as throwbacks to days gone by, most indicated an interest in producing perennial grass if biofuel markets were lucrative. Interviewees envisioned that successful landscape-scale ecological restoration must link restoration of biodiversity with “restoration” of neighborly social connections across the countryside, especially grassroots communication between farm owners, operators, and conservation agency personnel.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
I have chosen to focus my research in a study area representative of many rural U.S. Corn Belt communities, in that it is in agroecological and socioeconomic decline. This field site can additionally contribute to real change through ties to past, present, and future efforts between interagency partners. The Upper Squaw Creek watershed is an important nexus for linked research and management efforts aimed at understanding and bolstering ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes. This watershed is of particular importance because of its close proximity to Iowa State University, previous and ongoing research on landscape and land use change in the watershed, and the implementation of the Conservation Security Program in the watershed next year.
Furthermore, increasing interest in the agroecological and socioeconomic crises faced by rural agricultural communities are factors that have the potential to increase the impact of our research upon local and regional partners. My research is establishing communication lines and partnerships with a diverse set of rural stakeholders. I will, thus, be positioned to assist in the dissemination of research results from these related projects and open future avenues for research and management on private lands and with agency partners. I have incorporated data from interviews into my preliminary models, and my emerging data will allow for assimilation of social data with biophysical data from Isenhart et al. (unpublished data) in future research and management efforts. Results from this project will add to a growing body of research on the ecological dilemmas presented by working agricultural landscapes in general and the U.S. Corn Belt in particular.
My findings will directly dovetail with recent and ongoing efforts by Iowa State University and state and federal agency collaborators, including the Leopold Center Agroecology Issue Team, the ISU College of Agriculture’s Agricultural Systems Management and Performance Initiative, and joint watershed working groups and modeling projects between the Nature Conservancy, the Iowa Soybean Growers Association, and the ISU Center for Agricultural Research and Development. In addition, our research will provide important information for an Environmental Protection Agency 319 grant application.
I have presented these preliminary results in local meetings with agency partners, at local, regional, and national symposia and conferences, and in a research note in the journal Ecological Restoration. Citations for these presentations of my research follow:
Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L. Westphal. 2007. Ecological Restoration and Socio-Cultural Context: Perceptions of Place in the U.S. Corn Belt. Presented January 30th at the Iowa State University Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities Symposium, Mapping Territories: Dialogues on places, Peoples, and Spatial Practice, Ames, Iowa.
Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2006. Restoring perennial cover and ecological function to Corn Belt landscapes: The Iowa farmer’s perspective. Ecological Restoration 24: 289-290. (Invited submission)
Atwell, R.C., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2006. Healthy agricultural landscapes for resilient rural communities: participatory watershed design to bridge gaps among science, people and policy. Presented October 3rd at the Fall Meeting of the Iowa Chapter of The Wildlife Society, Ames, Iowa.
Atwell, R.A., L.A. Schulte, and L.M. Westphal. 2006. Can perennial vegetation link species, farms and communities?: Participatory action research to develop landscape scenarios in Iowa, USA. Presented June 28th as part first annual experimental scientific “speed dating” presentation session at the 20th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, Conservation Without Borders, San Jose, California.
Atwell, R.C. 2006. Human nature?: lessons on restoration ecology and agricultural sustainability from Iowa farmers and grandmothers’ coffee groups. Presented April 20th at “Sustainable Wooster, Sustainable World” Symposium, Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio.