Data as an Eco-Social Feedback: Connecting Farmers, Actions, and Outcomes through Water Quality Monitoring and Modeling

Understanding nutrient management on farms

Image courtesy of Lynn Betts, USDA NRCS

Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars invested in conservation practices, water contamination from agriculture remains a complex and widespread challenge.

Water pollution from fertilizer runoff is challenging to solve for multiple reasons. There are many dispersed sources but few monitoring locations, which makes it difficult to know how much loss is occurring from a given farm. Moreover, the consequences of nutrient losses occur far downstream and take years to be detected. The distant and delayed outcomes provide little information to farmers that are relevant for making management decisions.

These dynamics stand in stark contrast to trends in soil conservation, where farmers have cut soil erosion rates in half through largely voluntary efforts over the past 30 years.  

IU Assistant Professor Landon Yoder and his team aim to see how farm-scale data aid farmers’ understanding and expectations of nutrient losses and in what ways these data become useful for management decisions. By monitoring data on nutrient losses, farmers may identify strategies to improve nutrient use efficiency, thereby lowering their input costs and helping to improve water quality simultaneously.