Farming for Ecosystem Services: Visualization of Alternative Working Landscapes

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,996.50
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
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
  • Vegetables: beans


  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, display, extension, focus group, networking, participatory research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: agritourism, new enterprise development, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, hedgerows, hedges - grass, hedges - woody, indicators, riparian buffers, riverbank protection, wetlands, wildlife
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life, infrastructure analysis


    The concept of ecosystem services has become increasingly important in agricultural and environmental issues in the United States. Given the multiscalar and multi-stakeholder nature of ecosystem services, it is imperative that successful planning engage producers, policymakers, scientists, commodity and agribusiness groups, and the public. This report presents a case study conducted with agricultural and environmental leaders in Iowa, U.S.A. I studied the relationship between ecosystem services and land management through: (1) a three-round Delphi survey that assessed ecosystem service priorities, and (2) individual interviews utilizing landscape images to elicit participants’ perspectives on the benefits of integrating perennial vegetation into landscapes dominated by annual row-crops. Landscape images were based on a series of scenarios projecting different agricultural land uses, and were presented to participants as photorealistic images, at the farm-scale. Ecosystem services related to water, soil, and food were found to be the most important overall. Analysis of the Delphi data supported the cultural notion of a deep divergence between stakeholders with production-oriented expectations and those with environment-oriented expectations. Recognized and acceptable management practices—including riparian buffers, strategic integration of prairie, and wetland restoration—offer potential points of consensus across these viewpoints. Interview results suggested a major roadblock to practical application of ecosystem service management is a lack of support for landscape-level planning and coordination of management. I conclude that ecosystem services may provide a potential platform for consensus building within the group. However, clear perceptual and language differences exist among participants, which may lead to breakdowns in communication and hinder decision-making processes. Stakeholders must work towards explicit communication to move forward. To this end, I provide a framework for the discussion of ecosystem services.


    The idea of managing agricultural landscapes to provide society with multiple ecosystem services has surfaced as a novel and potentially powerful way to frame agricultural and conservation policy and research in the U.S.A. The practical application of ecosystem service provision, however, has been hampered by a lack of coordinated, on the ground approaches. A critical challenge for ecosystem service management in parcelized agricultural landscapes is that many ecosystem service outcomes are best realized at regional scales; they are the aggregate result of myriad management practices used at the field and farm scale. Accordingly, management decision-making must effectively address the interactions and net impacts of combinations of practices at the farm and field scale and assist in coordinating the actions of multiple farms on the landscape scale. A critical, and often failed, step lies in defining an appropriate set of agricultural and environmental objectives for management across multiple spatial scales. In short, there is a need for multiscalar management strategies that span property and political boundaries.
    Managing landscapes for an expanding set of ecosystem service objectives presents a major challenge for all players in agriculture. Attempts to incorporate multiple objectives inherently increase management complexity; land managers are faced trying to optimize for multiple, sometimes conflicting, objectives.
    Given these complexities, my research is grounded in the premise that decision making—with regard to the many facets of agriculture and the environment, including research initiatives, policy creation, and on the ground implementation of practices—must engage a broad group of stakeholders; among them, landowners and land managers, policymakers, biophysical and social scientists, agribusiness and commodity groups, and environmental and conservation groups. To partially address the complexities associated with the practical application of ecosystem service management, I examined ideas and priority areas of leaders in agricultural and environmental arenas through an Iowa-centered case study that examined the utility of the concept of ecosystem services for agriculture.

    Project objectives:

    The overall objective of this project was to gain a better understanding of the links between ecosystems services and agricultural land management in Central Iowa. Specifically, the objectives of this project are to: (1) survey stakeholders to determine the suite of ecosystem services considered critical for Central Iowa, (2) survey stakeholders to determine the suite of management practices that provide points of consensus regarding future agricultural land management, (3) investigate what synergies and barriers stakeholders forecast may help or impede the development of a comprehensive agenda for ecosystem service management , and (4) examine the effectiveness of visualization as a tool for enhanced communication among agricultural decision makers.

    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.