black eyed susans in a field
MORE WORK TO DO: “We’ve made significant strides in increasing awareness of practices that prevent soil erosion and improve soil health. But there’s still more work to do, getting folks to better understand the water quality challenges in Iowa,” says ILF Director Jackie Comito.

Better communication could lead to improved water quality

Iowa Learning Farms: Engaging participants in small group discussions can help identify knowledge and misconceptions about water quality and soil protection practices.

By Jacqueline Comito and Brandy Case-Haub

Iowa Learning Farms believes the most productive way to motivate farmers to adopt more conservation and water quality measures is to engage with them and encourage them to engage with other farmers. Beginning in 2016, ILF began using a new method to facilitate two-way, open communication at select meetings and workshops, called the Rapid Needs Assessment and Response technique. ILF most recently used the RNR approach during a series of five cover crop workshops earlier this year in Linn, Marion, Hardin, Floyd and Sioux counties.

The goal of the RNR technique is to engage participants in small group discussions of questions that are central to the workshop topic, identifying main points and questions that are subsequently relayed back to the larger group to provide direction for the remainder of the event. This technique does two important things.

First, it helps facilitators identify participants’ existing knowledge on the workshop topic, including commonly held misconceptions, thus helping facilitators to respond to attendees’ specific needs. Second, these small group interactions tend to stimulate a deeper discussion of issues than might normally occur in a typical lecture-style event, and helps to engage event attendees in interacting more directly with one another, in addition to hearing from the experts facilitating the workshop.

During last winter’s cover crop workshop series, ILF used the RNR technique to help assess participants’ understanding of water quality concerns in Iowa, what practices were believed to be most effective in improving water quality, and the main barriers to adoption of those practices, as well as participants’ views on assignment of financial responsibility for conservation practices.

The ILF team identified five questions for participants to focus on during the RNR activity. Large sheets of paper were taped to walls around the room’s perimeter, each with a question written at the top. Small groups of four to 10 people rotated through the stations together to discuss the questions and add their thoughts onto the sheets of paper. After they rotated through each station, the group returned to the first question they had answered and were asked to circle the top three responses on the sheet and to explain to the greater group why they chose those responses.

Identifying misconceptions about water quality
In addition to encouraging attendees to interact with each other on these important issues, the ILF team was able to identify some misconceptions held by participants. For instance, many of the participants thought that urban runoff’s impact on water quality was as significant as that of waters leaving agricultural lands in our state. The participants also were quite knowledgeable on the practices that could reduce soil erosion, such as cover crops, but struggled to identify the best practices for water quality improvement.

Identifying these misconceptions before moving forward with the meeting was tremendously helpful, as Iowa State University experts in attendance could speak to the group about current scientific studies on these topics, and help dispel myths or misunderstandings of the issues. This process encouraged greater participation during the session, since everyone in attendance was given a chance to really engage with the focus material, and get a sense of other attendees’ points of view.

Most farmers react positively to new approach
As with any new approach, ILF found reactions of farmer participants to the RNR workshops were incredibly diverse. Overall, a majority of the 207 attendees rated the workshops positively. Others were reticent of this new and contrasting approach to more traditional field days and workshops. However, the conversations that emerged in all five workshops will help ILF continue to develop and sharpen its outreach methods moving forward.

Perhaps more pointedly, we have learned that we still have a long way to go in Iowa when it comes to learning about water quality. While we’ve made significant strides in increasing statewide awareness of practices that prevent soil erosion and improve soil health, there is still a lot of work needed to better understand water quality challenges in Iowa. It is a conversation we must keep having — as uncomfortable as it may be for folks at times.

Comito is the program director of Iowa Learning Farms; Case-Haub is a post-doctoral researcher.


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