Packaging, Testing, and Disseminating a Set of Indicators for Ecological, Financial, and Social Monitoring on Farms

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1996: $88,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $69,000.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
George Boody
Land Stewardship Project

Annual Reports

Information Products

The Monitoring Tool Box (Manual/Guide)


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine, swine
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, manure management, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: agricultural finance, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, indicators, riverbank protection, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: prevention
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, agroecosystems, holistic management
  • Soil Management: earthworms, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, analysis of personal/family life, social capital, social networks, social psychological indicators, sustainability measures


    The Monitoring Team included 25 people from the disciplines of ecology, rural sociology, hydrogeology, soil science, fish and wildlife biology and agricultural economics. It combined the perspectives of farmers, agency officials, researchers, consultants and non-profit staff. Our overriding goal for this project was to foster on-farm observation and interaction that brought together farmers and other professionals to monitor ecosystem health and economic and social well-being of the farm family. The project conducted three years of baseline monitoring on farms in transition to Management Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) and evaluated the viability of various on-farm indicators. The Team also developed the Monitoring Tool Box, the video Close to the Ground, the newsletter Close to the Ground, as well as other publications tool to assist on-farm observation and monitoring team building.

    The Team is nearing completion of two additional publications that will be released in 1999. One will describe the Team’s recommendations for team process to conduct whole-farm research and on-farm monitoring. The second publication will present monitoring data on the impacts of MIRG on the ecology of the farms included in the study.

    Positive impacts of the project fall into three broad categories:
    (1) documentation and observation of MIRG benefits to the environment;
    (2) documentation and observation of MIRG benefits to farm family quality-of-life; and
    (3) documentation of the project team process.

    Environmental Benefits from adopting MIRG include:
    1. Increased soil structural integrity (as measured by soil aggregate stability), improved infiltration, and greatly increased surface cover for MIRG when compared to row crop production, suggesting greatly reduced soil erosion under MIRG.
    2. Improved stream physical, biological, and water quality characteristics in stream reaches adjacent to MIRG pastures when compared to stream reaches along conventionally-grazed pastures.
    3. Improved grassland bird habitat within grazing systems from the use of extended rest periods.
    4. Development of simple, inexpensive monitoring methods that improve awareness and understanding of ecosystem function.
    5. Decreased veterinary costs without negative impacts to production or herd health.

    Quality of Life Benefits from adopting MIRG include:
    1. Lower-stress lifestyle and personal empowerment for farmers.
    2. Construction of an accepting and supportive network of sustainable agriculture/MIRG practitioners who shares ideas and experiences.
    3. Development of techniques that surface underlying feelings or attitudes about farm goals and quality of life.
    4. Identification that some quality of life factors, such as spirituality, cannot be adequately described or measured through survey instruments.

    Team Process Benefits include:
    1. Bridging the gap between farmers, university researchers, and agency staff.
    2. Empowerment of farmers by giving equal weight to their knowledge and observations.
    3. Development of a powerful model for future dialogue about our land, water and human resources.
    4. Clarification of the terms profit and profitability in relation to farm economics at large.


    The Monitoring Team included 25 people from ecology, rural sociology, hydrogeology, soil science, fish and wildlife and agricultural economics. It combined the perspectives of farmers, agency officials, researchers, consultants and non-profit staff. The project focused on farms in transition to Management Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG).

    In 1997, the Team prepared materials for dissemination and conducted educational activities. The team developed a prototype version of the Monitoring Tool Box, a set of indicators that farmers can use to see if they are making progress toward their goals.

    The prototype Tool Box was reviewed by farmers and other professionals. The Team established working relationships with four interdisciplinary groups to help promote the use of a team process for on-farm monitoring:
    (1) Chippewa River Stewardship Partnership--four farms including a 1300 acre crow crop operation with an 80 acre wetland restoration project.
    (2) Coalition for Holistic Agricultural and Resource Management in northeastern Iowa--five mixed crop and livestock farms.
    (3) Blue Earth River Basin Initiative--five farms with mostly row crops.
    (4) A group of four farmers in south central Minnesota with mixed crop and livestock enterprises. Mentors from our Team assisted these groups. Eighteen farmers who were part of these groups reviewed the Tool Box.

    After further editing, The Monitoring Tool Box was released in a first edition in June 1998. It is a practical, easy-to-use 115-page guide for those interested in monitoring the impact of management decisions on their land, finances and family. The Team also produced a video called Close to the Ground, which shows team interaction and makes suggestions for how to form teams to monitor on farms. As of January 1999, 300 copies of the Tool Box and 300 copies of the video have been sold or distributed.

    In addition, Team members gave more than 55 formal presentations reaching in-state and national audiences. We held a total of 12 workshops or field days reaching local, state, regional and national audiences totaling 560 people. The publication Monitoring Sustainable Agriculture With Conventional Financial Data, by Dick Levins, was distributed to 700 people. Alison Meare’s article on quality of life was published in the Winter 1997 issue of Rural Sociology. Laurie Sovell produced a Masters Thesis entitled Impacts of Rotational Grazing and Riparian Buffer Strip on the Physiochemical Characteristics and Biological Communities of Southeastern Minnesota Streams. In addition, articles about the project appeared in Successful Farming, Sierra, The Minnesota Volunteer, as well as a variety of newspapers.

    Project objectives:

    A. Foster the use of on-farm monitoring and an interdisciplinary, farmer-driven team process by farmers and agency and university staff.

    B. Produce a package or "tool box" of indicators that helps farmers and agricultural professionals evaluate the sustainability of management practices.

    C. Field test the monitoring tool box on at least 10 farms that employ a variety of farming systems.

    D. Disseminate the tool box to at least 500 individuals through 10 workshops or field days and through partner organizations, other agencies and farm groups.

    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.