Research and Extension

group photo outdoors near fur tree
NRSS lab members

Would you like to join our research team? We currently have an open position for a postdoctoral research associate with expertise in both quantitative and qualitative methods. For more information, please see our posting.

We broadly study the human dimensions of natural resource management. Our overlapping and complementary subject areas of interest are: (1) watershed management; (2) adoption of conservation behaviors / environmentally-friendly behaviors; (3) sustainable agriculture; (4) climate change and (5) public participation. We use a variety of different literatures to study these different subject areas. These literatures include social psychology, rural sociology, collaboration/policy studies, planning, communication and risk assessment. We typically use a mixed methods approach to answer research questions and employ a variety of qualitative and quantitative research tools, including surveys, case studies, and in-person interviews.

indiana map with survey data across central and northern portions
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We strongly believe in extending our research findings to relevant communities.  The majority of the research projects listed here have a strong extension component.

We use social indicator surveys to measure attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions of water quality, watershed management,  and adoption of conservation practices and we have conducted these studies throughout Indiana. In March 2021, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service produced a map showing the locations of our social indicator studies. See a full version of the map and links to reports by clicking the map on the right.

To learn more about how the NRSS lab develops, distributes, and manages surveys, see our standard operating procedure and templates for mailing addresses and survey metadata.

  • Diverse Corn Belt (DCB): We are actively involved in the DCB project, an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional USDA-funded project exploring opportunities and barriers to a more diversified agricultural landscape in the Midwestern Corn Belt (Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa). More information is available on our project website. The NRSS lab is actively involved in the following DCB research:
    • Farmer Survey: A survey of 3300 farmers across Illinois, Indiana and Iowa exploring barriers and opportunities for diversification, perspectives on agricultural diversification, and historic, current, and potential adoption of diversified practices.
    • Farmer Focus Groups and Interviews: Focus groups and interviews with diversified and non-diversified farmers across the Corn Belt. Focus groups explore participants’ ideas of what is working and not working with the current agricultural system, perceived benefits and challenges of diversification, as well as their vision for the future of Midwestern agriculture. Our interviews with diversified farmers explore motivations to diversity, conditions that enable diversification, as well as benefits and challenges they’ve faced while diversifying.
    • Market Case Studies: These case studies explore the value chain of three diversified food products. On the farmer end of the value chain, we are looking for evidence about the concerns and perceived challenges that diversified farmers experience. On the buyer and distributor side, we are investigating value-added practices that farmers might consider for accessing new markets. Overall, the case studies will produce recommendations that improve markets for diversified products, enabling a more sustainable agricultural ecosystem across the Corn Belt.
    • Reimagining Agricultural Diversity (RAD) teams: We will meet with diverse groups of stakeholders in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa to develop stakeholder-informed alternative visions for the agricultural landscape. Informed by focus groups, surveys, and other DCB work, RAD teams will participate in future visioning exercises where they will consider the ethical implications and sustainability outcomes of potential future scenarios. 
  • A Farmer Network Study:  We are investigating the effectiveness of farmer-to-farmer networks promoting conservation agriculture. This work is being done in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, with funding from the General Mills Foundation. We are looking at farmer networks across the country and a variety of different types of models (grassroots, agency-driven, NGO-facilitated, Extension-led, etc.) and foci (regenerative agriculture, nitrogen management, cover crops, etc.) to understand what characteristics makes these networks successful (or unsuccessful).
  • Evaluation of the Federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP): We are currently studying landowner perceptions of the FRPP, a conservation easement program intended to keep working farm and ranch lands in agriculture by paying landowners to preserve parcels of agricultural land in permanent easements. In collaboration with the American Farmland Trust and USDA NRCS, we developed a multi-faceted longitudinal study to gather attitudes and perceptions of the FRPP from the perspective of landowners enrolled in the program by surveying 2,000 landowners enrolled in FRPP nationwide, and conducting in-depth interviews to gather more detailed information relating to FRPP participants’ motivations surrounding this program and their decision-making, as well as identifying barriers to success and access surrounding this program, particularly with historically-underserved agricultural producers. 
  • Indiana Nutrient Management Survey: The NRSS lab is conducting a follow-up survey of agricultural producers throughout the state of Indiana to assess changes in nutrient management conditions since the initial baseline social indicator survey was conducted in 2014. The results will help inform our partners on conditions for statewide nutrient management practice adoption for different types of producers and how these relate to the baseline conditions from 2014.
  • USAID Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program Study: In Trinidad and Tobago, Purdue University and The University of West Indies at St. Augustine are implementing a program that delivers demand driven technical assistance to farmers, farmer groups, agribusinesses, and institutions. Our research will discover the motivations of Trinbagonians to volunteer in the program, participant satisfaction, and farmer’s and participant’s adoption rate of different practices and technologies. During the COVID pandemic, a virtual paired-remote model was used using local volunteers in a society where volunteerism isn’t commonplace. Therefore, we are going to investigate the motivations of those volunteers. This type of program has never been implemented in Trinidad and Tobago, so we’re going to explore the participants satisfaction with the program and services provided. Lastly, one way in which we measure success in the program is to track the adoption rate of new practices and technologies of the participants. With that in mind, we are going to study the adoption rate and best practices for giving suggestions of new practices and technologies.

  • Lower Green Watershed (KY) Project:  The NRSS lab conducted a social indicators survey to identify barriers to increasing the adoption of a broad spectrum of in-field and edge-of-field conservations practices within the watershed.  The results of this survey provided baseline information on what factors impact a producer or landowner’s decision to adopt or increase their adoption of conservation practices. We anticipate these results will inform public and private entities about the design and delivery of conservation programs targeting agricultural stakeholders within this watershed.
  • Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF) Evaluation:  Using semi-structured interviews, we evaluated attitudes toward and perceived usefulness of the ACPF toolbox. The ACPF is a new watershed planning toolbox which combines high resolution LiDAR-based elevation data, soils data, and land use data to identify conservation opportunities in fields and in watersheds. In this project, we were particularly interested in learning about conservationists’ and key stakeholders’ experience using ACPF output maps to plan and implement conservation practices. Lessons from this study became the basis for training modules to help other watersheds effectively use the ACPF toolbox.
  • The social factors influencing cover crop adoption in the Midwest: A controlled comparison:  This study aimed to better understand the social factors that contributed to cover crop adoption in the states of Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. We compared pairs of neighboring counties where one county was a high adopter and the other was a low adopter of cover crops. By comparing neighboring counties within the same climatic areas, we were able to minimize the variation in climate. This allowed us to get a clearer understanding of the social factors responsible for the difference in cover crop adoption levels between each county pair. 
  • Non-choir farmers and conservation adoption:  Using focus group discussions with farmers, this study sought to understand farmers’ perceptions on the following seven topics: 1) regulation; 2) conservation barriers; 3) market-based policies; 4) conservation targeting; 5) motivations for widespread conservation adoption; 6) communication networks; and 7) certification programs and private sector funding for conservation. We conducted focus groups in each of the “I” states – Indiana (n=5), Illinois (n=2), Iowa (n=3) – to encompass different cultures and geographies for row crop agriculture in the Midwest.  Results revealed several pathways to engage non-choir farmers, and are useful for both policymakers and practitioners.
  • Developing and Evaluating an Outreach Campaign to Conserve Whooping Crane Populations in Indiana: This research sought to provide insight into the awareness, attitudes, and behaviors of Indiana residents towards the critically endangered whooping crane, with particular focus on resource users of Goose Pond and Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Areas. Broadly speaking, the research informed efforts to improve whooping crane conservation while also reducing the number of shootings of this species within the state.
  • National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI):  The National Water Quality Initiative (NWQI) is the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) premiere water quality program providing targeted technical and financial assistance to improve water quality in high-priority rivers and streams. In partnership with the Conservation Technology Information Center, the NRSS lab facilitated stakeholder forums in five NWQI watersheds (located in North Carolina, Washington, Illinois, Vermont, and Oklahoma) and surveyed NWQI watershed managers across the US to gather input on watershed project design, marketing, delivery, and implementation. This research identified success factors and challenges to effective implementation of NRCS-supported watershed projects and informed the development of two practitioner guides. One guide highlights the roles and importance of effective partnerships with NRCS, while the other provides general guidance for successful watershed management.
  • Non-operator Landowners and Conservation In Partnership with The Nature Conservancy: Using a mixed methods approach, consisting of surveys and in-depth interviews, this project aimed at understanding barriers to adoption of conservation practices on rented cropland. In particular, we examined how landlord-tenant relationships and lease agreements constitute both barriers and opportunities affecting the adoption of conservation practices on rented cropland. Through a large field experiment, this project also tested the effect that targeted financial, social, and legal/technical assistance interventions have on non-operator landowners’ likelihood of promoting conservation practices to their farmer-tenants.
  • St. Marys Watershed Project: This interdisciplinary research in the St. Marys River watershed (part of the Western Lake Erie Basin) included a social science evaluation, catalog of in-stream conditions and soil health monitoring to develop strong and productive partnerships with producers, conservation agencies and agricultural professionals. Using data from a watershed wide mail-survey and interviews with farmers, agency staff and crop advisors we worked with state and local partners to catalog current education levels, document existing education and outreach efforts, and identify areas for future watershed-wide outreach targeting.
  • Upper White and Big Pine Watershed Projects: The Upper White and Big Pine projects aimed to better understand motivations to recommend and/or implement conservation practices as part of farm management. Using a mixed methods approach, the projects focused on a broad range of stakeholders including farmers, crop advisors, agency staff, and others. The results of these projects provided baseline information that aided the development of collaborative efforts to incentivize future conservation programs.
  • USDA-NIFA Climate Synthesis: We conducted a synthesis of the NIFA Climate Change and Agroecosystem Portfolio. This portfolio is comprised of competitive and capacity NIFA grant funded projects on agriculture and climate change from 2010-2015. Based on our findings from this synthesis, we offered recommendations to NIFA that can inform how they invest in, and support, agroclimate work moving forward. Two online surveys were conducted. The first, conducted from November 2016 to January 2017, queried portfolio Project Directors on their project’s scope, successes, and outcomes. The second evaluated climate professionals within the portfolio and at government agencies on the key areas to focus future research, scientist responsibility, communication, and stakeholders. In addition to surveys, focus groups and case studies were conducted around the country for a more in-depth review of the portfolio. Products to date include:
  • USDA-NIFA Water Synthesis: In this project, we evaluated the collection of projects funded by competitive and capacity NIFA grant funds from 2000-2013 that addressed water resource issues (quality and quantity).  This compilation is known as the NIFA Water Portfolio.  Ultimately, the results of this project helped us recommend strategies for NIFA program leaders to identify future project focus areas, as well as attributes of successful projects that NIFA might consider when determining which projects to fund in the future.  Descriptive reports of survey results from both competitively funded (n=389) and capacity funded (n=449) Project Directors can be found below.  An additional component of this synthesis is a survey of federal agency water experts in which we sought to prioritize, through consensus, perceptions of the most pressing water issues facing the United States.  Water issues related to climate change were identified as top priorities, as were water quality issues due to excess nutrients (for more information, see Phase 1 and Phase 2 Water Priority Reports).