By Anne Dybsetter, Executive Director, Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership
What do farmers and landowners think about the conservation practices on the landscape?
This was the central question that prompted a collaboration between University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) and Stevens Soil Water and Conservation District (SWCD) to conduct a farmer and landowner survey in Stevens County. The project was supported by UMM’s Office of Community Engagement, UMM’s Center for Small Towns, and the UMN Extension’s Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP).
The collaboration took root when Troy Goodnough, a member of the Stevens SWCD board of supervisors, and UMM associate professor of political science Roger Rose began a conversation with Matt Solemsaas, the district administrator of the Stevens SWCD, about the challenges of understanding what landowners and farmers think about SWCD conservation programs. In Minnesota, SWCDs play a leadership role in putting conservation practices on the ground.
Solemsaas shares, “Before our last strategic planning meeting, I had challenged our Board of Supervisors to answer a bunch of questions about what landowners in their service areas were thinking about. During our planning, we realized that we would benefit from more feedback from stakeholders in our county.”
With this challenge in mind, Rose engaged UMM students in his Making Environmental Policy course at UMM. They began a service-learning project with support from the UMM Office of Community Engagement, in which students worked with Stevens SWCD staff to develop survey questions.
Rose continued the project after the class ended. With funding from the Southwest RSDP and UMM’s Center for Small Towns, Rose hired a student research intern, Erik Kjer, to finalize the survey and send it out to hundreds of landowners in the county.
“Our local SWCD wanted to know what farmers thought about their programs and work. It is hard for organizations to make improvements or address urgent needs without good feedback. I am hoping the survey we developed could be used as a template for other counties,” explained Rose.
In summer 2021, Rose and Kjer presented the results of the survey findings to the Stevens SWCD Board of Supervisors and Southwest RSDP board. One central finding shows a high level of support among program participants: nearly 70% of respondents see the core SWCD programs as valuable or highly valuable for maintaining their farms and sustaining farming. Nearly 71% believe SWCD programs help ensure soil and water quality in Stevens County.
Kjer, a UMN Morris undergraduate student, reflected, “This was a fun project to work on and I learned a lot. We harvested some great information. We learned what conservation programs farmers are most excited about; how local farmers are adapting to Minnesota’s changing climate; what farm practices they are using, and more.”
For more about the project partners and their related efforts to cultivate a shared conservation ethic in Minnesota, see the West Central We Are Water collaboration.