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UMN Morris project supports conservation work in Stevens County

Troy Goodnough
Publication date: 
September 10, 2021

In the fall of 2019 UMN Morris Associate Professor of Political Science Roger Rose began a conversation with Matt Solemsaas, the district administrator of the Stevens Soil Water and Conservation District (SWCD) about the challenges of getting information from landowners and farmers in the county about SWCD conservation programs. In Minnesota SWCDs play a leadership role in putting conservation practices on the ground.

Solemsaas shared, “Before our last strategic planning meeting, I had challenged our Board of Supervisors to answer a bunch of questions about what landowners in their service areas were thinking about. During our planning, we realized that we would benefit from more feedback from stakeholders in our county.”

With this challenge in mind, Rose engaged his Making Environmental Policy course in a service-learning project with support from the UMN Morris Office of Community Engagement, which leads the Community Engaged Learning program. During the semester his students worked with Stevens SWCD staff to develop survey questions.

When the class was over, Rose continued the project. With funding from the UMN Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP) and UMN Morris Center for Small Towns, Rose hired a research intern, UMN Morris student Erik Kjer, to finalize the survey and send it out to hundreds of landowners in the county.

“Our local SWCD wanted to know what farmers thought about their programs and work. It is hard for organizations to make improvements or address urgent needs without good feedback. I am hoping the survey we developed could be used as a template for other counties,” explained Rose.

In summer 2021, once the surveys were returned and analyzed, Rose and Kjer presented the results to the Stevens SWCD Board of Supervisors and Southwest RSDP board. One central finding shows the level of support among program participants: nearly 70% of respondents see the core SWCD programs as valuable or highly valuable for maintaining their farms and sustaining farming—and nearly 71% believe SWCD programs help ensure soil and water quality in Stevens County.

Kjer reflected, “This was a fun project to work on, and I learned a lot. We harvested some great information. We learned what conservation programs farmers are most excited about, how local farmers are adapting to Minnesota’s changing climate, what farm practices they are using, and more.”

These efforts are connected to the West Central We Are Water program at UMN Morris, which is working to cultivate a shared water ethic in Minnesota.