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Collaborating with Iowa farmers as research partners

Researcher Elise Miller learned the value of partnerships while engaging with Iowa landowners and farm managers.

Incorporating new land and water conservation strategies is an obstacle course for farmers. I knew that. My own parents fought for insurance and agricultural zoning status for their five-acre poultry, fruit, and nut farm.

Iowa field of flowers
Photo credit: Elise Miller

On the other hand, my fieldwork with the Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project at Iowa State University had also shown me that conservation can be a moneymaker, providing farmers with a slew of benefits. For instance, replacing struggling acres of corn and soybeans with native tallgrass prairie has the potential to save money, improve soil, and attract biodiversity, especially with a federal conservation program to subsidize the change.

When I accompanied the STRIPS project team to its annual Cooperator’s Meeting in 2016, I had a chance to finally meet our partners. These were landowners and farm managers who had incorporated strips of native prairie vegetation into their agricultural fields and given us the opportunity to monitor the resulting benefits in water quality, biodiversity, and soil retention. The deep roots of prairie plants held onto soil, their thick stems slowed the flow of water, the dense foliage protected the soil from heavy rain, and the diverse mix of perennial plants served as a home for many native species.

At the meeting, project leaders and graduate students described their most recent findings, and partners reported on the progress they had seen. It was a unique experience to hear our partners recount the newest flowers they had identified and witness the pride of knowing that their work was improving the quality of Iowa’s water. We ate together, took a trip to a partner’s field, and brainstormed what it’s like to establish prairie strips on a farm.

Elise Miller with Farmers in a field
Participants visit an established prairie strip site on a west central Iowa farm | Photo credit: Lisa Schulte Moore

The brainstorming activity was especially fascinating. As we assembled into clusters of five scientists and five partners each, equipped with jumbo markers, easels, and giant sticky notepads, I already had an idea of the difficulties our partners might bring up—weeds, for instance—but many of the obstacles they mentioned surprised me.

For some of our partners, I learned, trying new conservation techniques jeopardized their social standing as good farmers. That’s why it is so powerful to have “farmer champions” – excellent, respected farmers who have adopted conservation technologies and can share the ways in which they have benefit from it. “Some think we are crazy to spend so much money on the [prairie] seed,” one farmer wrote in a survey after the event. In a “neatness culture” of Corn Belt farming, as some of our partners put it, anything other than corn and soybeans “looks like a bunch of weeds.” Neighbors could worry about the impact on their own property and become angry at the conservation adopters.

Iowa farmers brainstorm session
Discussion of farming challenges & strategies | Photo credit: Lisa Schulte Moore

“Tough acres,” a phrase that Iowa farmers use to describe unproductive or less productive areas, often cost more in fertilizer, pesticide, and seed than they generate in yield. In our group discussion, I came to understand that a farmer’s ability to wrestle “tough acres” into production was a badge of pride and success. Taking those acres “out of production” to restore the quality of the land ran completely against the grain of this social expectation.  The landowners in my group stressed that when they talk about conservation with their neighbors, they need to adjust language from a negative framework of “losing land” to a positive framework of “shifting production” that involves targeted, strategic decisions to locally optimize management.

One landowner in my group communicated using a different framework. His Lutheran community, he said, shares an understanding of tithe as a responsibility to give back 10% of what one has. In talking with his neighbors, he described his decision to put 10% of his land into conservation as a form of tithe that, in turn, leads to protection of the soil and water.

As my group discussed the nuances of designing prairie strips, I also saw the value of sharing and consolidating multiple kinds of knowledge. Some partners had scientific questions: Which plants are weeds? What are the strips supposed to look like? How do I know if it’s working?  These concerns underscored the importance of sharing digestible ecology resources and incorporating monitoring tools so that partners could see the effects of their new practices. The STRIPS project has a comprehensive model of monitoring and sharing their results with collaborators, which I think is one of the main reasons partners stay excited.

Other farm managers had logistical questions: How often should I mow? What equipment models and implementation techniques work best? Veteran partners shared invaluable insights they had learned the hard way, such as handling pesticide drift, preparing for the next season, accounting for current and future farm equipment needs, using best equipment practices, and communicating needs to a landlord or tenant.

That meeting sticks with me as the first time I saw the inextricable connections between sociology and conservation science. When partnering with communities to implement research-based decisions, the most salient motivations or barriers to adoption might be surprising, and the success of a project rests on understanding them properly. Social science research, including the work of J.G. Arbuckle and others, is making significant progress in understanding the social factors behind conservation behavior.

And as with any community-engaged research endeavor, relationships are paramount. The meeting was a case study in synthesizing multiple kinds of knowledge and experience, then documenting and sharing what has been learned with other collaborators and those initiating similar endeavors. Bridge builders who are comfortable and respected in multiple communities can connect stakeholders who hold different frameworks to generate fuller understanding. I was fortunate to see these principles in action early in my conservation career, and they are among my most valued lessons.


About Elise

Elise Miller Headshot

Elise Miller is an environmental science researcher and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Miller completed her M.S. in Earth Systems at Stanford University with an emphasis in local community-based conservation, and her research in partnership with Iowa State University investigates erosion in conservation agriculture systems.

Have a question for Elise? You can email her at

Representative Image Caption
Photo credit: Lisa Schulte Moore