July 12 Iowa Learning Farms Webinar: Social and Natural Sciences Support Butterfly Conservation

In the webinar, “How the Social Sciences Can Help Conserve Butterflies (and More),” Dahlem will draw on a social scientific case study of the highly threatened island marble butterfly to provide a reflection of ways the social sciences might illuminate otherwise hidden, yet important, solutions to problems in butterfly conservation work.

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The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Farmer Survey: Tracking Changes in Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors

Post written by Laurie Nowatzke and J. Arbuckle

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) aims to reduce Iowa agriculture’s nitrogen loss and phosphorus loss by 42 and 29 percent, respectively. A major component of the NRS is to encourage the voluntary adoption of conservation practices on Iowa farms. Practices that can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss include cover crops, nitrogen management, and perennial vegetation, among others.

Decision and behavioral theory generally view awareness of a problematic situation and attitudes toward potential solutions as important predictors of behavior change. In tracking progress toward achieving NRS goals, we ask the questions: “What are farmers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward the NRS?” and, “How do these factors affect the use of conservation practices?”

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, with support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, is conducting a five-year survey of farmers to help track the progress of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy by examining trends in farmers’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to nutrient loss reduction. At the Iowa Water Conference on March 20, 2018, in Ames, we will present analysis and highlights from the first three years (2015-2017) of the survey.

Following an innovative “semi-longitudinal” structure, the project surveys two HUC6 watershed each year; one that was surveyed during the previous year, and one new one. Thus, each HUC6 watersheds is surveyed two years in a row to allow measurement of changes in farmers’ knowledge, attitudes, and conservation practice use. A sample of farmers in the Iowa HUC6 is surveyed every year. By the end of the five-year survey, the majority of the state will have been surveyed, and two years of data will be available for all major HUC6 watersheds in Iowa (Figure 1b).

Figure 1 The rotating survey areas for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy Farmer Survey, with a) HUC6 watersheds that, as of 2017, have been surveyed for a least two years, and b) the HUC6 watersheds that will have been surveyed at the end of the project in 2019. The Iowa HUC6 watershed is surveyed every year.

With three years of the annual sampled watershed (the Iowa HUC6) completed, and with two consecutive years surveyed in two other HUC6 watershed, our presentation at the Iowa Water Conference will present trends over time in each of those watershed areas (Figure 1a). The presentation will examine trends in the following survey variables:

  • Knowledge and awareness of the NRS
  • Information sources where farmers learned about the NRS
  • Attitudes toward the NRS and related activities
  • Concerns about agriculture’s impacts on water quality
  • Involvement in watershed groups
  • Use of conservation practices, including cover crops, springtime nitrogen application, and no-till
  • Use of cost-share funding and technical assistance for conservation practices


Laurie Nowatzke is the Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, in Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. She has a MA in International Relations & Environmental Policy from Boston University, and a BS from Wright State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Iowa State University.

J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. is associate professor and extension sociologist at Iowa State University. His research and extension efforts focus on improving the environmental and social performance of agricultural systems. His primary areas of interest are drivers of farmer and agricultural stakeholder decision making and action related to soil and water quality. He is director of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa farmers.

Research shows social networks play an integral part in conservation practice adoption

Ames, Iowa – Research shows that to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Iowa farmers will need to increase use of a diverse array of appropriate nutrient management and other conservation practices. However, most soil and water conservation practice research focuses on single practices (e.g., cover crops). Research from Iowa State University published this week in the Journal of Extension examines factors that influence Iowa farmers’ simultaneous use of multiple practices. The primary finding was that farmers who are more engaged in agricultural social networks tend to adopt more diverse nutrient management practices.

Farmer Social Networks

The article, “Understanding Predictors of Nutrient Management Practice Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture,” co-authored by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center at Iowa State University and J. Arbuckle, Iowa State University Extension Sociologist, draws on data from the 2012 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. The research examined relationships between information format preferences, information sources, farm organization involvement, and opinion leadership and farmers’ use of diverse nutrient management practices. The results showed that farmers who prefer to learn about nutrient management through in-person formats such as field days, farmers who are more involved in agriculture and natural resource conservation organizations, and those who consider themselves to be opinion leaders tend to employ a more diverse range of nutrient management practices.

“The finding that farmers who prefer face-to-face learning formats for nutrient management information tend to use more diverse practices is important,” said Bates. “Given the recent increase of online webinars, publications, and social media campaigns as means to reach farmers, this result suggests that in-person formats are still valuable.”

Results also highlight the important role that agriculture and natural resource organizations can play in encouraging nutrient management practice adoption. Numerous organizations have initiated or expanded conservation programs and research projects to help farmers reduce nutrient loss.

“Farmers who are more involved in these organizations used significantly more practices,” Bates said. “This result suggests that efforts to experiment and share information about practices such as cover crops and bioreactors are paying off.”

Another key finding in the study was a positive relationship between opinion leadership and use of diverse nutrient management practices. Opinion leaders are community members whose opinions and actions can influence others. The study asked farmers to rate the degree to which they take leadership roles, are role models to other farmers, or are a source of advice for others, such as extension staff and crop advisers. Farmers who viewed themselves as opinion leaders tended to use more nutrient management practices.

“Opinion leaders can be a critical component of outreach at the local level,” said Bates. “Public recognition programs, such as the Iowa Farm Environmental Leader Award, may provide insight into who are the key players who are influencing change in rural communities.”

Future Directions for Conservation Service Providers

The findings provide positive reinforcement for efforts to engage farmers in conservation networks. On the flip side, however, the authors of the study highlight that more needs to be done to reach out to farmers who are less connected within agricultural community social networks.

“Farmers who are less involved in agricultural and conservation organizations and see themselves as less central in the ag community reported fewer nutrient management practices,” noted co-author Arbuckle. “These results point to challenges for conservation service providers because farmers who are likely in need of conservation assistance appear to be the hardest to reach. The conservation community needs to develop different strategies to engage such farmers.”

Understanding Predictors of Nutrient Management Practice Diversity in Midwestern Agriculture” and “Iowa Farmers’ Nitrogen Management Practices and Perspectives” are available at the provided hyperlinks. More information about Sociology Extension and the Iowa Water Center can be found online.

What we can learn when we come together

Post written by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

The agriculture community is a vast network that includes farmers, researchers, coordinators, agronomists, and more. Whether we are in the lab or out in the field, we all have one person in common – the farmer. According to a study by Doll and Reimer in the Journal Extension, many public and private professionals interact with farmers to guide on-farm decision making, but rarely do these individuals effectively interact with each other. When these individuals do work with each other, the research indicates it could be substantial for their knowledge and understanding of nutrient management.

In this study by Doll and Reimer, researchers invited Extension educators and private sector nitrogen dealers from across the Midwest for a 1.5-day workshop to discuss the many aspects of nitrogen fertilizer, including the biophysical and the social. The workshop goal was to inform management and policy decisions and to encourage future research and educational partnerships on nutrient management (Doll and Reimer 2017). The workshop included a myriad of topics and formats that involve small group sessions using flip charts to farmer panels to large group discussions. Of those who came to the workshop, 96 percent advised farmers on nutrient management as part of their jobs (Doll and Reimer 2017). Nutrient management on the farm plays a critical role in influencing local water quality as well as contributes to water impairments in the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone.

The researchers in this study reported, “96 percent of participants said that a mix of presentations and discussions provided an effective means for learning about nitrogen management” (Doll and Reimer 2017). Ninety-percent of respondents indicated that they improved their understanding of diverse viewpoints on nitrogen management during the workshop (Doll and Reimer 2017). Not only this, but they also improved their knowledge of available tools for decision-support in efficient nitrogen management. These are key findings given that there are many diverse approaches and viewpoints when it comes to policy decisions. Best of all, 90 percent would recommend this workshop to a colleague, and a majority of participants had increased “motivation to implement knowledge in the area of sustainable nitrogen management” (Doll and Reimer 2017).

Most respondents also indicated that they have never met each other prior to the workshop. These relationships are vital since each can have an influence on a farmer’s nutrient management decision-making. Regardless of the role you play, you are valuable to the agricultural outreach system. If you are a researcher, think about the wider influences of your research. If you are in the private sector, it is key to be learning continuously and to help clients make the best decision for resilient farm operations using the best data available.

It may seem like there is an ever-increasing number of meetings, conferences, summits, and workshops that are available in Iowa for researchers, coordinators, and farmers alike. We should not take that time for granted. Rather, we should appreciate having the time to get to know our community in water and to kick around new ideas with new people. I am inspired by the research from Doll and Reimer that if you can execute an event well with a diverse range of people, you can make a huge positive impact on water resources.

Doll, Julie and Adam Reimer. 2017. Bringing Farm Advisors into the Sustainability Conversation: Results from a Nitrogen Workshop in the U.S. Midwest. Journal of Extension 55(5) https://www.joe.org/joe/2017october/iw2.php.


Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree. 

Get to know the Prairie STRIPS Project

Two weeks ago, the Iowa Water Center staff attended a lecture on a study conducted with the Iowa State University Prairie STRIPS Project. Eduardo Luquin Oroz, graduate student at the University of Wageningen, presented results from examining the sediment deposition at the sites associated with this project as well as the strip width effects on sediment deposition. After leaving the presentation, the above quote immediately entered my mind.

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The Eleventh [Business] Day of Christmas: Workshop: The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior

On the eleventh [business] day of Christmas, the Iowa Water Center gave to me…more information on the optional workshop to occur after the close of the Iowa Water Conference beginning at 3 p.m. on Thursday, March 24. The workshop will cost an additional fee of $50, payable during online registration (opening in early January) or on-site at the conference.

The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior – A skill-building workshop to support voluntary behavior change
Christie Manning, Macalester College

This workshop will describe in greater detail the tools introduced in the plenary talk: Engaging people to preserve water resources – Insights from Psychology. Psychological research offers many clues to why people behave in certain ways or make particular choices. The workshop will offer several exercises designed to help you:

(1)  Understand the audience you are trying to reach. Who is responsible for water pollution and/or resource protection? How does your audience think of themselves? What values do people in your community hold, and does water protection align with those values? Who is a credible messenger to represent water resource protection to this group, and what are the effective frames for communicating the message?

(2)  Change the social norms. Are the behaviors that lead to water resource issues unremarkable or accepted as normal? Are people uncomfortable speaking up about water issues because they don’t want to draw negative attention to themselves? Social norms like this keep people locked into bad habits. We’ll talk about how to change the social perception of water use; to create and communicate a new “normal” and help shift people’s behavior.

(3)  Make hidden information visible. Human beings, like other biological organisms, respond to information that strikes the senses. Yet many water issues are undetectable – pollutants are invisible and odorless, runoff tends to occur far from where people live, and “a million gallons” of reported water waste is abstract and intangible. We’ll discuss strategies for making invisible information concrete, visible, and sensory-based.

(4)  Build people’s competence. People have a basic psychological need to feel competent. When faced with a task that they don’t know how to do, or fear they may do badly, motivation drops. Solving water resource issues will involve learning new ways to do everyday actions – and this may threaten people’s competence and lead to resistance. In the workshop, we’ll cover methods to boost competence and motivation and support more sustainable community-wide water habits.

The workshop facilitator, Dr. Christie Manning, has spent the last 15 years applying psychological research to issues of natural resource use and sustainability.

The Sixth [Business] Day of Christmas: Day Two Plenaries

On the sixth [business] day of Christmas, the Iowa Water Center gave to me…descriptions for Thursday’s plenaries.

The following plenary sessions will be presented on March 24, 2016 at the Iowa Water Conference in Ames. Registration for the conference will open in January.

From Drought to El Niño, California’s Water Odyssey
Dr. Doug Parker, Director, California Institute for Water Resources and Strategic Initiative Leader for the Water Initiative

Critically low reservoir levels, fallowed fields, wells running dry and the Governor’s mandatory 25 percent water cutbacks for urban users have sharpened the focus on water management in California. California has always endured periodic droughts – and this one has been one of the worst. But this pattern isn’t new, and because of it California has become smarter about water use.  While we have seen huge gains in agricultural water use efficiency, there are still calls for agriculture to reduce water use or relinquish water to alternative uses (urban and environmental).  Yet, after 4 years of severe drought, California now finds itself preparing for a record El Niño that may produce record amounts of rainfall and the potential for flooding.  How does a state plan for drought and flood at the same time?  How can we encourage citizens to conserve water when forecasts are for heavy rains and potential flooding?  California’s water paradox requires new thinking in resources management.  This presentation will explore some of the ways the state has adapted to its volatility in its water supply and how its institutions must plan and carryout water management regimes in times of extreme weather events.

Looking Under the Hood: The Pros and Cons of Using Law to Achieve Environmental Quality
Professor Jerry L. Anderson, Richard M. and Anita Calkins Distinguished Professor of Law, Drake Law School

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act (CWA) when the family farm was still the norm and the major pollution problems emanated from industrial and municipal sources. While the law has made significant progress in those areas, agricultural pollution remains largely unaddressed. Several recent legal actions attempt to fit the square peg of the CWA into the round hole of present-day pollution problems. We will discuss the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, the Mississippi River litigation, the Waters of the U.S. rule, and the Washington dairy farm case, and draw some conclusions about how current law works — and doesn’t work — to achieve our water quality goals.

Engaging people to preserve water resources: Insights from Psychology
Dr. Christie Manning, Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept. of Environmental Studies and Dept.  of Psychology, Macalester College

Nonpoint source water pollution comes about through millions of human decisions, some large and consequential (e.g. what will our community put on the roads to mitigate ice in winter?), some small and seemingly innocuous (e.g. should I water my lawn today?) When people make these decisions, the environmental consequences are often not their primary consideration. Instead, people’s choices and actions are driven by the set of circumstances and priorities they face in the moment. In this presentation I will introduce a set of psychological guidelines that can raise the importance of water resources in people’s minds and help create situations where the more environmentally sustainable choice is also the more appealing. The guidelines are drawn from research studies and include (1) know your community’s identity and values; (2) change the social norms; (3) make hidden information visible; and (4) build people’s competence.

The Third [Business] Day of Christmas: Breakouts: Strategies for Social Engagement

On the third [business] day of Christmas, the Iowa Water Center gave to me…descriptions for the breakout session Strategies for Social Engagement.

The following presentations will take place at the Iowa Water Conference in Ames on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Registration for the conference will open in January.

1000s of Acres: Adding Conservation Partners
Angie Carter, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Welfare at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL & Jean Eells, E Resources Group

Women farmland owners are an important part of watershed level conservation changes in Iowa. Learn from researchers and landowners about how PhotoVoice, a participatory research method, is being used in the Raccoon River watershed to engage this important demographic.

Water in Iowa: Voicing the Lexicon
Chad Žmolek, Mike Todd, Joe Brekke and Ames High School Bluestem Institute students

Students from the Bluestem Institute at Ames High School share insights gained from their journey across Iowa examining water quality issues in collaboration with Project Localize, an educational program that helps classrooms identify and promote sustainable economic, cultural and social progress in their communities. As part of the project, students created unique posters shining light on terms related to water quality. Following the presentation, the students will be available during the conference break to answer questions about their posters, which will be on display in the second floor lobby area.

Iowa farmers’ perspectives on actions toward nutrient reduction strategy goals
J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., Associate Professor/Extension Sociologist, Department of Sociology, Iowa State University

In spring 2014, 1,128 Iowa farmers were surveyed to measure their knowledge of the strategy, their attitudes and concerns toward it and its goals, and, importantly, their willingness to take action to help meet those goals. A regression analysis was conducted to evaluate factors that influence farmers’ willingness to take steps to support the strategy. The results of this analysis will be shared.

retaiN Iowa: Engaging Farmers in On-farm Nitrogen Testing
Jamie Benning, Water Quality Program Manager, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach & Clare Lindahl, Executive Director, Conservation Districts of Iowa

retaiN seeks to give farmers the tools and information they need to make the best conservation decisions on their land, starting by helping farmers test for, understand and take steps to retain their nitrogen. The retaiN project developed nitrate testing kits that facilitate farmer engagement in collecting on-farm nitrate concentration data.  The retaiN kits were initially distributed in the summer and fall of 2015 through existing watershed projects and ISU Extension field specialists.  retaiN is a collaboration between Conservation Districts of Iowa and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Iowa Learning Farms with support from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality.