Disruptive Conservation: A Path to Landscape Resiliency

By Tim Gieseke, Founder and President, Ag Resource Strategies, LLC, USA

As the Ecosystem Services Partnership conference draws to a close and we gear up for World Water Week beginning on Monday, our guest author today is bridging the topics of resilience and water resources management. Tim Gieseke brings us a “Landscape of the Week” from Minnesota to discuss how a new model of accounting for multiple benefits from agricultural landscapes in the United States, including meeting high water quality standards, can boost resilience both economically and ecologically.

A Minnesota, USA watershed project is bringing resiliency to the landscape by using a fundamentally different approach to natural resource management.

Since the 1930’s the USDA has relied on a “conservation delivery system” (CDS) that provides technical and financial support to implement on-farm conservation practices. Essentially, the CDS uses congressional allocations and a federal-state-local partnership to determine which practices should be installed on which farms. With two million US farms, it is a complex and cumbersome winnowing process to assess farms and target funds.

Unlike this traditional model, the Sunrise Watershed project uses an index-based Farm Environmental Asset Portfolio to account for off-farm environmental impacts to meet state water quality goals. The portfolio consists of USDA and university-developed indices such as water quality, soil condition, habitat, and others related to nutrients and then scaled from 0-100.

This is a key divergence from the traditional USDA CDS, which valued the costs and processes of implementing conservation practices rather than the quality of outcomes. The traditional approach was sufficient when farmers only wanted to address on-farm resource issues, but it is not sufficient today as government, NGOs and corporations are more interested in off-farm environmental impacts.

This divergence is described as disruptive conservation, a term borrowed from The Innovator’s Dilemma, where disruptive innovation is described as a market force that occurs due to the introduction of a new process, technology, and/or product that appeals to a new customer base enabling them to approach an issue with a different set of values and strategies.

In the Sunrise case, the new product is the farm portfolio and the new customer is the state of Minnesota. This illustrates the potential of disruptive conservation; where the farmers were once the [conservation practice] customer of the USDA CDS, now the government, NGOs and corporations can become the farmers’ [environmental asset] customers.

In disruptive innovation, a realignment of activities and relationships among the stakeholders occurs causing some corporations to flourish and others to fail. But due to the comprehensive nature of landscape management, the CDS stakeholders remain viable components.

In the Sunrise project, local agronomists assess farms and develop portfolios. This realignment decouples the on-farm assessment process from government programs, causing the CDS to shift from a program-driven to a more resource-driven process; a recommendation of National Association of State Conservation Agencies in a 2007 report Evaluation of the Nation’s Conservation Delivery System.

The strategy of using agricultural professionals also complements the findings of a 2013 survey sponsored by the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Agricultural Retailers Association, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the American Society of Agronomy, and the Fertilizer Institute. The survey found few relationships between agricultural retailers and conservation district staff, but the need for them to interact was great, as the skills of the groups are complementary and there is a common interest in environmental improvement.

Working relationships between farmers, agronomists and other conservationists occur organically in the Sunrise project. If a farm portfolio shows low scores in habitat, petroleum management, manure storage, and nutrient-water quality, the farmer might engage with Pheasants Forever, the local cooperative, the conservation district, and the agronomist, respectively.

When combined, these portfolios create landscape intelligence – a higher level of data generated by aggregating acre-based index scores for a particular area. For the state of Minnesota, the landscape intelligence is defined by the watershed and the water quality index.  Presumably if corporate and NGO sustainability efforts mature, they too will need landscape intelligence on which to base their sustainability claims. No other conservation system has the capacity to generate this new set of valuable data.

And finally, disruptive conservation is not disruptive to farmers, their advisers, and local government staff. These frontline conservationists in the Sunrise project intuitively understand the adaptive management process. The complementary production and natural resource asset portfolios provide farmers with a common process to develop resiliency in their business and the landscape. It will provide them the means to adapt to society’s evolving environmental demands in a manner similar to how they adapt to market demands – with the freedom to achieve these outcomes in a manner that best suits them.

Where else could lessons from this experience be applied? Do you know of other landscapes in which models have met similar success in achieving multiple benefits?

Photo credit: Casey Thiel (Chicago SWCD)
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10 Responses to Disruptive Conservation: A Path to Landscape Resiliency

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  5. Nice post. This method moves away from bureaucratic relations and towards market relations (e.g., the way that Apple has an ecosystem of developers and users), although I think the jargon calls it a “stakeholder” model :)

    • tmgieseke says:

      Thanks David – and I believe this method is very complementary to many of the principles you describe in “The End of Abundance”; transitioning water and landscape management into an economic system that does not discount it altogether.

  6. Interesting Post. Appreciable views. People must aware of the Eco system. Keep sharing.

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  8. It is with great interest that I read of the Sunrise project of disruptive conservation. I have been part of a team initiating a project aimed at focusing investments into ecological infrastructure in an extremely stressed catchment, the uMngeni River in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, which provides water to the port city of Durban. The uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP) is very new with a Memorandum of Understanding to be signed by stakeholders in November this year, but it recognises the need for the restoration of ecological infrastructure where the land cover is still natural, or untransformed; and the integration of ecological infrastructure into those landscapes that have become transformed either through an agricultural or urban footprint. It is expected that such investments will carry returns on improved water quality, increased flood attenuation capacity, decreased sediments loads, and increased dry season base flows (amongst others). The catchment is a complex mosaic of land ownership and usage but some of the greatest returns on investment should be from the intensive agricultural operations in the upper portions of the catchment. The provincial conservation agency, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, does have a system of District Conservation Officers, but they, together with other related stated bodies do not yet have the capacity to engage with land owners on the basis suggested for the Sunrise project. Through the UEIP it may be possible to build this capacity and as the partnership gains momentum, enhanced coordination between stakeholders should also help to focus efforts in the catchment. While the UEIP does not present any achievements yet, it is an initiative that is worth tracking.

    • tmgieseke says:

      It sounds like you have a good platform to build upon, and as I believe you recognize, is that the landowners and managers are important to a long-term success. In mant cases, “governance” is a key aspect that is not transparent, or perhaps not even discussed openly, and often allowed to unfold along with the project.

      For the Sunrise Project, I created a “Governance Compass” to illustrate the direction the project can move as it pertains to governance – that is decision-making, verifying performance and delegating authority for project components. Here is a link: https://prezi.com/6dzq0blll11w/the-governance-compass/ – - a presentation that illustrates the four aspects of governance and allows open discussion at the beginning of the project.

      To use the compass, fill in the quadrants with stakeholders, roles, funding, outcomes, etc. Ideally, the compass illustrates a shared (not necessary equal) governance structure. Governance that resides in a singular quadrant is usually highly inefficient and leads to “turf wars”

      Best to you and your project.