Agriculture intensification is resulting in the simplification of agricultural systems (e.g., monocultures of high-yielding crops), increased field sizes, and removal of non-crop habitat to maximize production. Agricultural intensification is expected to increase as human population and nutritional demands increase. Increased climate variability is also expected to affect nutrient cycling, water availability, and plant pest and disease outbreaks, all of which negatively affect food production (Fuhrer 2003). Unfortunately, the intensification of agriculture coupled with increased chemical and mechanical inputs has led to negative environmental impacts on soils, water, and biodiversity (Firbank et al. 2008, Stoate et al. 2009, Landis 2017). Additionally, U.S. net farm income, an indicator of farm well-being, has decreased by more than $9 billion (or -12%) from 2017 (United States Farm Income Outlook for 2018). These challenges to meet food production, provide environmental protection, adapt to climate variability, and face economic uncertainties require innovative solutions to achieve resilient agricultural systems.
New precision technologies and strategic conservation planning frameworks offer opportunities to optimize agricultural production, leading to increased profits while simultaneously reducing negative environmental impacts (McConnell and Burger 2011, Brandes et al. 2016). Furthermore, switching less productive and profitable portions of a field to a lower input management option, such as perennial vegetation funded by a conservation program, could increase overall cropland profitability by 80% and reduce water pollution by 38% (Brandes et al. 2018). However, implementing this precision conservation approach is complicated with varying land management objectives, tradeoffs between competing stakeholder values, and other uncertainties that might affect management decisions.
Our research team is using a Structured Decision-Making framework to discuss opportunities, challenges, and potential solutions for conservation in agricultural landscapes with multiple stakeholders (e.g., Nebraska agricultural producers, state/federal/NGO representatives, policymakers, and University of Nebraska researchers).