Grassed Waterway

Grassed Waterway

Purdue University’s Natural Resources Social Science Lab is conducting a multi-phased, five-year study to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of the Saginaw Bay Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The RCPP is a new program implemented by the USDA under the 2014 Farm Bill. The RCPP makes federal funding available over a period of 10 years to address areas of critical conservation concerns across United States.

The Saginaw Bay Regional Conservation Partnership Program was specifically designed to address the excess nutrient and sediment runoff issues within the watershed by working with agricultural producers to make conservation improvements on farms to address downstream and overall water quality in the regional waterways.

The Saginaw Bay RCPP Social Science Evaluation is a collaboration between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and Michigan Agri-Business Association that accelerates and targets conservation in the watershed by employing three innovative strategies:

  • Using scientific models linking conservation practices to ecological outcomes (developed by TNC and NRCS) to target the right conservation practices in the right places.
  • Harnessing the influences of agribusinesses via crop advisors (CAs) to deliver conservation practices directly to farmers
  • Using a cutting-edge online tool – the Great Lakes Watershed Management System – to track implementation progress and water quality benefits.

The aim of Purdue’s evaluation is to use a quantitative and qualitative social science approach to test the efficacy of and impact of RCPP, and its reliance on CAs, on the uptake of soil and water conservation practices in the Saginaw Bay watershed. This mixed-methods approach consists of random-sample surveys, in-person interviews, observations of CA-client interactions, RCPP promotion/training events geared towards CAs, and other RCPP-related on-farm demonstration events.

In Year 1 of the evaluation, the goal was to conduct baseline surveys and interviews with all relevant RCPP stakeholders, including farmers, CAs, and NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff in the watershed.


Year 1 Report

The results of the year-1 evaluation were shared in a stakeholder meeting in Frankenmuth, MI on 06/27/2017.  Following is a summary of the key recommendations:

FarmersCrop Advisors (CAs)NRCS and SWCD Staff
- Frame the topic of conservation practices in a way that addresses farmers’ on-farm concerns and priorities such as the goal of improving soil health

- Get the most influential person in a watershed to adopt conservation practices

- Get more positive stories out there

- Quantify a dollar per acre value that could be used in estimating their bottom line

- Calibrate expectations to accommodate possible setbacks for farmers who are deciding whether or not to adopt a new conservation practice

- Don't start with most complicated recommendation (e.g. start with oats instead of rye as cover crops)

- Facilitate the brokering of long-term leases (e.g. 10 yrs), and/or develop boilerplate lease language that partially compensates farmers for demonstrable improvements to the land over time

- Provide conservation advice that is delivered in a coordinated and consistent manner from entities that are most trusted and are working cooperatively and not in competition with each other.
- Provide CAs with educational opportunities that demonstrates the efficacy and value of conservation practices and earn them soil and water continuing education credits

- Reduce the barrier to entry in RCPP by pre-screening clients’ fields and passing that information on to CAs

- Recognize CAs for their efforts - via public recognition. e.g. award at MABA conference

- Emphasize the value of improved customer relations and the possibility of CAs becoming deeply embedded in farmers’ operations by offering comprehensive conservation advice and services

- When communicating with CAs, use language and concepts that they resonate with

- Generate scripts, brochures, and other accessible and easily digestible materials on conservation that CAs can refer back to for guidance

- Identify and quantify (when possible) the spectrum of conservation services that CAs could provide to farmers.
- Provide greater role clarity to both NRCS/SWCD staff and to CAs, particularly with respect to responsibilities for RCPP program promotion, applicant screening, and implementation of practices

- Jointly organize educational opportunities for CAs, NRCS/SWCD/Extension staff to learn and teach each other about the latest research on conservation practices, as well as programs/funding opportunities for farmers

- Broker meetings between public and private sector entities that have a role in conservation, with the aim of identifying barriers and opportunities for increased cross-sector collaboration, including opportunities for financial engagement

- Lobby for increased and more stable funding for NRCS and SWCD offices to ensure that they are fully staffed and able to process farmer’s applications expeditiously

Webinar: Aired September 28, 2017

Agriculture, water & conservation in the Saginaw Bay Watershed: Results from a social science evaluation of the agricultural and conservation community

Presented by Linda Prokopy, PhD, Purdue University and Francis Eanes, PhD, Bates College

In 2016, Purdue University conducted surveys and interviews with agricultural In 2016, Purdue University conducted surveys and interviews with agricultural In 2016, Purdue University conducted surveys and interviews with agricultural producers, crop advisors (CAs), and conservation professionals in the Saginaw Bay watershed.  This webinar shares the results from this research, including:

  • Information on relationships and trust between farmers and crop advisors regarding conservation
  • Key barriers preventing crop advisors from engaging in conservation

A recording of this webinar is available at

This webinar has been approved for CCA/CPAg/CPSS/CPSC CEUs: SW 0.5, CM 0.5

This webinar is co-sponsored by the Indiana Water Resources Research Center and the Michigan State University’s Institute of Water Research


The Saginaw Bay Watershed

Michigan’s Saginaw Bay is the largest contiguous freshwater wetland system in the United States, and the Bay’s watershed is the largest in Michigan. Spanning 5.5 million acres and 22 counties, the bay and its tributaries support a diversity of fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, migratory birds, and other wildlife. The ecological health of the Saginaw Bay and its tributaries is critically important to not only the Lake Huron Basin, but also the entire Great Lakes ecosystem.

Agricultural field with barnThe Saginaw Bay, as other watersheds and waterways in the Great Lakes, suffers from non-point source pollution due to intensive land use practices, carrying excess nutrient and sediment pollution into the bay. The primary resource concern is water quality degradation, caused in part by the high levels of nutrient and sediment pollution, which is also a significant driver of change to coastal and inland freshwater habitat in the bay. With 45 percent of the watershed’s land area consisting of agricultural land use, it is crucial to manage this land, balancing agronomic and environmental needs.