Agricultural Landscape Design through Participatory Modeling: Collaboration among Diverse Stakeholder Groups
Results from 33 depth interviews suggest that to be successful, practices to restore perennial vegetation must be linked more closely with other rural concerns and priorities. In particular, successful diffusion of perennial conservation practices across the rural Corn Belt must consider the social-ecological context surrounding practices at multiple scales including: consistent, straightforward, targeted incentives and regulations; reinforcement through social networks, norms, and support structures; and compatibility with farm priorities, profitability, practices, and technologies. The scales that seem to be limiting in this system are highly social in nature and include cultural as well as spatial and temporal components.
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 the last year, I have finalized the analysis of data from interviews with farmers and rural residents in the Upper Squaw Creek Watershed. One manuscript presenting these is in the process of being submitted to the journal Landscape Ecology; a second manuscript is in the process of internal review and revision and will be submitted to the journal Ecology and Society in the coming months.
Interview results demonstrated that the majority of our interviewees related to the rural “countryside” primarily in social terms, identifying strongly with the farming lifestyle and with networks of people across the landscape. They expressed deep concern about declines in the number of rural people, farm families, and community resources that have accompanied agricultural intensification. While most interviewees approved of landscape-scale restoration practices on marginal agricultural land, implementation of these practices was neither a priority nor strongly assimilated into rural experience and ethics. Interview data suggest that in order to be successful, practices to restore perennial vegetation must be linked more closely with other rural concerns and priorities. In particular, successful diffusion of perennial conservation practices across the rural Corn Belt must consider the social-ecological context surrounding practices at multiple scales including: consistent, straightforward, targeted incentives and regulations; reinforcement through social networks, norms, and support structures; and compatibility with farm priorities, profitability, practices, and technologies.
I also worked with colleagues to complete technical development of a spatially explicit Microsoft® Excel-based model designed to evaluate and teach tradeoffs associated with agricultural land use named PEWI (People in Ecosystems/Watershed Integration). The model is comprised of an interface page, two pre-defined variable pages (topographic relief and soil hydrologic groups), many variable pages that change values depending on user decisions, and six output calculation pages (biodiversity, sediment delivery, phosphorus delivery, agricultural yield, stream nitrate concentration, and carbon sequestration). The model interface page allows the user to manipulate the fictitious watershed. Each pixel or cell of the watershed is a predefined 30m by 30m. User controls include manipulating the land cover of a given parcel of land; whether or not the land adjacent to the stream is buffered; and whether or not in-field conservation practices are implemented.
In the coming year, I will complete a participatory modeling workshop with regional leaders in agriculture, environment, and policy outlined in our objectives. In this workshop, the results of interviews with rural stakeholders will be presented directly to regional leaders. I will then work with collaborators to facilitate a discussion with these leaders about how perennial agriculture and conservation practices fit within current and future Corn Belt social-ecological systems. I will analyze data from this workshop, develop a qualitative conceptual model integrating the biophysical and social factors that influence the restoration of perennial vegetation in Corn Belt agro-ecosystems, and develop of future policy scenarios based on these models. I will present my preliminary results directly to the regional leaders in agriculture, environment, and policy that attended the workshop and document their feedback through in depth interviews. Data from these interviews will be incorporated into workshop analyses
I will present my research at an international conference and to state-level agency and non-profit partners. Results of these research products will also be considered in the ongoing development of PEWI which will be published online. I will deliver a report of my findings back to the rural stakeholders and regional leaders who participated in this study. My research products will be published in both peer review and farm journals, and I will deliver the SARE Final Report.
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 socioeco¬nomic 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 Protec¬tion 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. (Invited presentation)
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” presenta¬tion 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. (Invited presentation)