Understanding Farmer and Landowner Decision-Making and Message Preference Concerning Conservation Practice Adoption in the Clear Creek Watershed

Oct 2018


Many farmers across Iowa have not adopted conservation practices that have been shown to decrease nutrient loading in waterways and to mitigate the impacts from agricultural activities on water quality in their watersheds. The Clear Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) is developing the communication and education plan for the Clear Creek Watershed Management Plan. By identifying the most effective messaging for these various farm decision-makers, they can better understand the on-farm decision- making process, help farmers overcome barriers to implementation, and increase the adoption of conservation practices in this watershed.


This project will provide in-depth understanding of decision-making around conservation practice adoption across three farm types (owner/operators, tenant farmers, and non-operating landowners) in the Clear Creek Watershed. The project also will identify persuasive conservation messages for use with these groups.


Twelve focus groups with 6-8 individuals each will be conducted. Two groups will be completed from each of three farming types: owner/operators, tenant farmers, and non-operating landowners in each county (Johnson and Iowa) within the Clear Creek watershed. Participants will be asked to describe their experiences with practice adoption and decision-making, then asked to provide reactions and associations they may have to a variety of persuasive messaging content focused on conservation practice adoption. Findings will be incorporated into the communication and education plan of the Clear Creek Watershed Management Plan to improve outreach activities promoting adoption of conservation practices.

Project Updates

Note: Project reports published on the INRC website are often revised from researchers' original reports to increase consistency.

August 2019


This study provides an indepth understanding of decision-making around conservation practice adoption across four farmer types (owner-operators, tenant farmers, owner-tenants and non-operating landowners) through interviews with 15 individuals in Johnson and Iowa Counties. It also seeks to identify persuasive conservation messages for use with these groups when seeking to encourage adoption of conservation practices that will improve water quality (below). It is important to note that this study was qualitative in design and represents the perceptions and views of those interviewed. These may not be representative of those from other areas or even other farmers in Johnson and Iowa Counties. 

Several key themes emerged from these interviews. 

  1. Loss of farmland and deteriorating soil health are primary concerns
  2. Water quality is not a top of mind concern
  3. “Good farmers” are viewed as stewards of the land   
    3.1 Most farmers see in themselves aspects of a “good farmer”  
    3.2:  Conservation is viewed as good farming in practice
  4. Participants’ connections to the land and personal relationships drive decision-making
  5. Involvement in decision-making and approach to farming drives information seeking and sources of information
  6. Individuals will reach out to farming support organizations primarily for technical assistance and cost-sharing opportunities
  7. Farmers assess the financial risk and impact on profit margins before implementing a conservation practice
  8. Participants are committed to conservation, but new practices to address it are sometimes viewed with skepticism about their value
  9. Current conservation programs are seen as underfunded
  10. Individuals perceive their own actions to have little impact in the grand scheme of conservation given the relative size of their land to other farms in Iowa 
  11. Years of experience and habits are barriers to adopting new practices
  12. Awareness of conservation messaging is limited
  13. “Neighbors helping neighbors” is associated with farmer culture and identity, but not with conservation
  14. Persuasive messages need to be tailored to the audience 

Based on these themes, several recommendations for persuasive messaging are made. The overall recommendation is to use a multi-tiered style of messaging. Any successful persuasive messaging strategy will require targeting different aspects of conservation and utilizing different frames that will appeal to different groups of individuals. A key aspect to messaging strategies is to understand that conservation is conceived of broadly by participants. It is understood as an ethic for care of the land: conservation and preservation of natural resources; keeping the land natural and original; and leaving the land better than you found it. It is also understood as specific practices, such as rotating crops, reducing soil erosion and using the appropriate amount of chemicals and products. While practices in use by participants tended to address issues of soil health and stability, the concept of conservation as articulated by all 15 individuals included everything from keeping ditches mowed to crop rotation to soil testing, with many of these practices having been in place for several decades. 

Specific approaches to messaging may include the following:  

  • Draw on the idea of stewardship of the land
  • Emphasize the multiple benefits of conservation practices
  • Frame conservation as a cost-efficient practice
  • Frame conservation as a long-standing tradition
  • Promote cost-sharing programs and technical resources as a partnership
  • Use farmer spokespersons 

Full Project Report: Ruxton, M. M., Heiden, E. O., Begum, N., & Losch, M. E.. (2019). Understanding farmer and landowner decision-making and message preference concerning conservation practice adoption in the Clear Creek Watershed. University of Northern Iowa, Center for Social and Behavioral Research, at https://csbr.uni.edu/sites/default/files/csbr_inrc_final_report_submitted.pdf 

December 2018

Activities completed:

  • The application for University of Northern Iowa Institutional Review Board approval was completed and approval received. A literature review of broad constructs related to farmer and landowner perceptions of conservation practices and adoption was completed.
  • A recruitment strategy was planned, and recruitment letters will be sent out early January 2019 to invite participants. Those indicating interest via a mail-back form will be contacted to arrange focus groups in January/February 2019.
  • Project Co-PI Ruxton received information on conservation questions of interest and messaging from the Clear Creek Watershed Coalition to draft a moderator guide used for focus groups via email 12/6/2018. The focus group moderator guide has been drafted.

Activities In progress:

  • Preparation for recruitment (printing letters, organizing contact information for mailings, etc.)
  • Refine moderator guide for focus groups.

Activities upcoming:

  • Implement recruitment strategy – January 2019
  • Reserve focus group locations
  • Finalize focus group moderator guide
  • Conduct focus groups – January 2019 – February 2019

September 2018

No data collection activities have been completed. Activities in progress include:

  • Literature review related to farmer and landowner perceptions of conservation practices and adoption.
  • The project Co-PI networked and discussed project goals, objectives and strategies with members of the Clear Creek Watershed Coalition in September 2018. 
  • Planned succession of project responsibilities to Megan Ruxton following Co-PI Andrew Stephenson’s departure in October. 
  • Planning of participant recruitment strategies, including projected focus groups schedule.
  • Drafting Institutional Review Board (IRB) application for this project for approval of human subject research for submission in October

Upcoming activities include: 

  • Implementing recruitment strategies, e.g. advance postcard, telephone, flyers
  • Reserving focus group locations
  • Conducting focus groups – November 2018 – February 2019