Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Science




Rural Sociology; Sustainable Agriculture

First Advisor

J. G. Arbuckle


Soil and water conservation practices have been identified as viable solutions for reducing the negative impacts of U.S. agriculture on soil health, soil erosion, impaired water quality, and declining wildlife habitat. Efforts to encourage farmer adoption of conservation practices to address these natural resourced concerns have been ongoing for nearly a century. During this time, enormous progress has been made in increasing the productivity of our food system, however progress towards making that system ecologically sustainable has been limited. Adoption rates of conservation practices remain far below the levels suggested by research and policy, and the demands of our growing population threaten to further increase negative impacts to our nation’s natural resources. This thesis explores two related avenues that have been developed with the goal of increasing farmer adoption of conservation practices: conservation plans and targeted conservation approaches. Two research studies focus on the state of Iowa as a national leader in agricultural production as well as a significant contributor to soil loss and water quality impairment. The first study uses quantitative survey data from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll (IFRLP) to examine the relationship between a farmer having a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Plan and their likelihood of applying soil and water conservation practices on their farm. The second study takes advantage of panel survey data from the IFRLP to examine whether or not farmer acceptance of targeted conservation approaches has changed over time and if so, what factors may have influenced this change. This study also analyses qualitative data from interviews and focus groups to provide additional perspectives on farmers’ potential acceptance of targeted conservation approaches.

Conservation planning is the primary tool the NRCS uses to help farmers manage and protect natural resources on their land, and yet almost no research exists examining the relationship between having an NRCS conservation plan and best management practice adoption. Results from my first study show that that farmers who reported having an NRCS conservation plan were significantly more likely to have implemented only two of ten conservation practices. However, the number of times a farmer visited their local USDA Service Center for conservation technical assistance was a significant predictor of farmer implementation for five out of the ten best management practices, suggesting that a sustained interaction with natural resource professionals over time is potentially a more important factor in influencing practice adoption than the conservation plan itself.

Targeted conservation has been proposed as a way to proactively encourage conservation practice adoption in a more efficient manner by using GIS-based software to recommend the placement of conservation practices in areas on the landscape that disproportionately contribute to soil loss and water quality impairment. This approach has not been widely adopted, in part due to concerns about farmer perceptions of being targeted. Previous research has reported relatively high farmer acceptance of targeting in general, but no research has looked at potential change in farmer acceptance over time. Quantitative analysis results from my second study show that, while farmer approval of targeted conservation approaches decreased slightly between 2009 and 2014, attitudes remained generally positive over that time. Several factors, including support for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, as well as changes in awareness and attitudes regarding the effects of climate change and agriculture’s role in water quality issues, were found to be associated with changes in targeted support. Analysis of qualitative data suggest that addressing farmer concerns about potential increased regulations, farmer autonomy and collaboration in the planning process, and the need for financial assistance to encourage practice adoption could potentially improve farmer buy-in to targeted conservation approaches.

Overall, this thesis provides an in-depth examination of research addressing two approaches to increasing the rate of conservation practice adoption by farmers, and it offers a discussion of important implications for improving the sustainability of U.S. agriculture within the context of natural resource conservation policy.


Copyright Owner

Jason Christopher Morris



File Format


File Size

130 pages

Available for download on Saturday, August 28, 2021