Adaptive targeting: Engaging farmers to assess perceptions and improve watershed modeling, spatial optimization, and adoption of agricultural conservation practices

Margaret McCahon Kalcic, Purdue University


Targeting agricultural conservation practices to farmland that has the greatest impact on surface water quality has received wide support from scientists and watershed managers. The targeting approach has, however, been politically contentious as many believe farmers will oppose the approach on grounds such as privacy invasion and unfair distribution of government incentives. Targeting conservation practices using complex optimization models has become common in the scientific community, and yet targeted results are underutilized in practice because of difficulties such as knowledge transfer and absence of a political framework for their use. For targeting to be successful, it must be politically supported in concept and practically demonstrated in implementation. In this work I have conducted an interdisciplinary study and targeting experiment that brings together the human dimensions of targeting with the engineering tools of watershed modeling and spatial optimization to demonstrate an adaptive targeting approach. The approach is adaptive in its involvement of stakeholders, namely farmers and landowners, in the targeting process. Fourteen farmers were engaged through in-depth interviews about their farmland, conservation practices, and opinions on targeting of conservation. Interviews and the targeting experiment were conducted in 2012–2013 in two small west-central Indiana watersheds—the Little Pine watershed (56 km2) and Little Wea watershed (45 km2). There was general support for the targeting approach among farmers interviewed, despite wide variation in farmer views of conservation and government programs. Farmer views of differing conservation practices varied as well, supporting a flexible targeting approach where farmers are consulted prior to targeting conservation on their lands. The watershed modeling and spatial optimization approach tailored to farm boundaries was a suitable tool for targeting field scale practices at the watershed scale. Conservation practices represented in the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) varied in effectiveness of reducing total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and sediment from reaching surface waters. Grassed waterways, filter strips, and strategically cited wildlife habitats had the greatest efficiency in lands with little existing conservation, and cover crops and wetlands were capable of intercepting nutrients and sediments other practices could not reach. The adaptive targeting experiment resulted in a stated intention to adopt 35% of all targeted recommendations across ten farms. Interviews clearly improved the targeting approach, provided an avenue for knowledge transfer, and built trust with farmers.




Chaubey, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Social research|Agricultural engineering|Environmental engineering

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