Surveying the Landscape: Interdisciplinary Research Examines Connection Between Farming and Health of Maumee River Watershed

Jan. 14, 2014

This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Twine Line, a publication of The Ohio State University's Ohio Sea Grant College Program

Written by Christina Dierkes, Ohio Sea Grant Communications

Northwestern Ohio’s landscape is marked mostly by agriculture, with farms of all sizes stretching across the Maumee River watershed and beyond. A collaborative project, led by Ohio State University, is examining the connection between people’s perception of the health of Lake Erie and the Maumee River watershed, the actual state of these ecosystems, and how both are likely to shift under future influences like climate change. The overall project is funded by a National Science Foundation program aimed at examining the connection between human and natural systems – how humans influence an ecosystem, and how changes in that ecosystem in turn affect humans’ perception of and future actions towards it. 
 
“The big research question of the project is whether or not we can offset the predicted negative impacts of climate change on Lake Erie, like harmful algal blooms, decreased water quality, and lost recreation opportunities,” says Dr. Robyn Wilson, Associate Professor in Ohio State University’s School of Environment & Natural Resources. “We’re asking if we can offset what are likely to be some negative impacts from the changing climate through changes in human behavior.”
 
Those impacts are likely to include increasingly strong storm events, which in turn will wash both sediments and nutrients, such as fertilizer, into streams and eventually Lake Erie. Combined with expected warmer temperatures, all of these factors could contribute to an increase in harmful algal blooms and associated problems.
 
Farms are a common sight in Ohio, and especially the northwestern
region of the state. Agriculture contributes $105 
billion to Ohio's
economy, and covers more than 14 million acres of land.
 
“Since we can’t stop the climate from changing, we can’t stop it from raining, and we can’t stop the temperatures from increasing, the only thing we can do to decrease the likelihood of those expected negative economic and environmental impacts is to then change the human behavior,” Wilson says. An overview of the project is available online at go.osu.edu/maumeebay1.
 
Currently, the researchers are analyzing data from a pilot survey of 652 farmers in the Maumee River watershed to help them create a larger follow-up survey that will be sent out in January 2014. Results indicate that there is a fairly consistent split between farmers that has been seen in other surveys as well. 70-80% of respondents agree that nutrient runoff is a problem in the watershed, and while they think that they’re already doing a good job of limiting that runoff, they would be willing to do more if needed. On the other hand, 20-30% believe that nutrient runoff isn’t really an agriculture issue, but more related to urban development or septic systems, and they are not as willing to take additional action.
 
 

Photo by Daniel X. O'Neil
 
“What we’re trying to do in our research is to take those 20-30%, and see both how we can target policy efforts at those people, and whether it really is a case of a small minority causing the problem,” says Wilson. “So from a policy standpoint, you can then really focus your mechanisms on the right place, develop the right incentive program, develop the right messaging when it comes to outreach, and in particular, motivate those farmers who most need to change.” 
 
Wilson has already received some positive feedback on the report from a professor at the University of Toledo, who has used it to answer a frequently asked question from his students: what do farmers say about all this? “Our motivation with the report was basically to say we’ve collected this data on what farmers think about this issue,” Wilson says. “We wanted to get some of that basic descriptive information out there so people would have some baseline understanding of what farmers are thinking and doing and are willing to do.”
 
The larger survey will dig deeper into the connections between farmer demographics, outside incentives and policy programs about nutrient management, and willingness to incorporate different types of precision application techniques, such as incorporating fertilizer into the soil and timing broadcast fertilizer application with crop needs and weather forecasts. 
 
“We’ll also have questions that ask really targeted behavioral questions to get at what the farmers are currently doing, and what they’re willing to do differently,” says Wilson. “We’ll be focusing on the precision agriculture idea of whether they’re not just applying the same amount of fertilizer to an entire field, but instead applying the right rate at the right place at the right time.” This precision approach is popular in current policy conversations, because it focuses on prevention and crop management rather than technological solutions to deal with the runoff. 
 
Once the larger survey is completed, the researchers will use the results to develop a probabilistic model of farmer behavior – basically a way to determine the likelihood of farmers’ values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors given observable information like crop rotation and farm size. When combined with the biophysical models of watershed data – showing the current health of the ecosystem, and what practices would most improve that health – this behavioral model in turn will help policy makers and watershed conservation groups target regulations and incentives towards people most likely to be able to make a difference. 
 
“That’s where the human and the natural system really come together,” says Wilson. “We need to be able to make some predictions about who’s most likely to change, and what sort of interventions would encourage a shift in behavior among those people. And then the hope would be, if you’re targeting the right people and the right behaviors, that you will see those positive impacts on the physical side.” 
 
Despite the technical nature of the project, the research team always maintains a focus on how their findings can impact the people who live and work in the Maumee River watershed. 
 
“In the end, what we’re really trying to do is figure out how you get the right information to farmers,” Wilson summarizes. “How do you target policies in the most effective way while being fair to farmers, giving them the right kind of resources and support and incentives to put the right practices in place, and adding that human piece into a policy making process that often leaves it out.”
 
Results of the pilot survey are published in Farmers, phosphorus and water quality: A descriptive report of beliefs, attitudes and practices in the Maumee Watershed of northwest Ohio, available at ohioseagrant.osu.edu/maumeebay
 
For more information about this project, contact Robyn Wilson at wilson.1376@osu.edu