Retaining nitrate for crop production remains a complex management challenge for farmers and a major source of water quality impairment in the Midwest. While both farmers and the public would benefit from reducing nitrate losses, through lower fertilizer expenses and safer water for drinking and recreation, there have been few improvements in water quality nationally over the past 40 years. This ongoing challenge persists despite farmers halving soil erosion rates and the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in Farm Bill conservation programs during this same time period. Among the complexities in retaining nitrate for crop production are: (1) the lack of nitrate loss data available to farmers at the farm scale for management decisions; and (2) the difficulty in connecting farm management to downstream outcomes, since most monitoring is done at a watershed scale and permits substantial ambiguity in how much any one farm might be losing. To address this long-standing challenge, we propose to examine how the availability of nitrate data at the farm scale, alongside the involvement of farmers in collecting these data, informs and assists their evaluation of their nitrogen management.
We will involve 25 farmers in the Wabash River Basin to participate in two years of monitoring nitrate outcomes on their farms. Both the nitrate outcomes and farmers’ evaluations of what management changes are possible and effective to better retain nitrate will provide valuable information for farmers and conservation officials throughout the North Central Region with their nitrogen management. To understand farmers’ self-evaluations of their management, we will undertake two interviews, one before collecting the water samples on their farms and one after we provide a report on nitrate outcomes at the end of the study. We will use these interviews to examine how farmers’ views on their management have changed and how these changes can improve outreach and education efforts on nitrogen management. In addition, we will invite farmers to participate in one of two focus group sessions at the end of the project to share ideas about retaining nitrate more effectively. Learning-focused outcomes will include whether farmers see opportunities to retain more nitrate, what practices they believe are most effective to do so, and what new knowledge they gain from focus group discussions. Action-focused outcomes will include what new practices farmers intend to implement, a report on potential economic losses based on nitrate outcomes, and two peer-reviewed journal articles.
Project objectives from proposal:
Our learning outcomes include how many farmers believe they can improve retention after reviewing measured tile nitrate outcomes, the retention practices they believe are most effective, new knowledge on nitrogen retention farmers gain from focus group discussions, and the connections they identify between their management and nitrate outcomes. Our action outcomes include new practices farmers intend to implement based on the nitrate outcomes, a report on potential economic losses based on nitrate outcomes, two peer-reviewed journal articles, and a future research proposal building on the findings from this study. One benefit is greater potential for on-farm nitrate-retention experimentation.