BROWN BAG SEMINAR: Understanding the human dimensions of social agro-ecological systems: What motivates farmer decision-making and policy change?

Sea Grant is a federal-state partnership between NOAA and the 34 university-based programs in every coastal and Great Lakes states, including Puerto Rico and Guam.  For over 50 years, Sea Grant has supported coastal communities through research, extension, and education programming.  Sea Grant Extension Specialists are housed throughout the state and work with coastal communities to identify and collaboratively address pressing issues associated with the use and protection of California’s coastal and marine environment.

This brown bag seminar is part of the selection process for a California Sea Grant Extension Specialist who will be hired jointly with the Delta Stewardship Council.  The position with the Delta Stewardship Council will provide leadership in advancing collaborative partnerships and initiatives and in catalyzing and implementing social science research to inform management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region of California.

The candidate and presenter for the seminar is Jessica Rudnick.  Jessica Rudnick arrived at UC Davis in 2016 after completing her master’s in ecology and has since been a Ph.D. candidate and a graduate research fellow in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis studying the drivers of individual and institutional changes to improve agricultural nitrogen management.  Throughout this time, Jessica has also gained relevant hands-on outreach and leadership experience through fellowships, internships, and consulting efforts which have included the development of an autonomous tractor and contributing to the development of a nonpoint source pollution engagement strategy and nitrogen offset protocol.  Her seminar today is titled, “Understanding the Human Dimensions of Agroecological Systems: What motivates farmers decision making and policy changes.”


Ms. Rudnick began with how she conceptualizes the Delta as this vast complex dynamic hydro-ecological system which is overlaid by an equally complex governance landscape.  The figure on the slide shows the large number of governing actors as red dots that work across multiple levels from federal, state, regional, and local policy arenas on a large number of issues in different types of decision-making venues which are shown as the blue squares.

There are many different users and uses of Delta, both human and nonhuman.  There is the wildlife habitat for endangered and endemic species, the millions of birds that use the Pacific Flyway, and the fish populations that contribute to nearly 80% of the state’s commercial fisheries and pass through the Delta at some point in their life span.  There are the many people who use the Delta for recreational and cultural uses as well as thousands who depend on the Delta for both subsistence and livelihood.

There is the impressive but aging levee system that requires maintenance and flood control management.  Agriculture is the dominant land use in the Delta with more than half a million acres of agricultural cropland producing a whole host of different fruit and vegetable crops.  It is a key priority to protect both the private landowners as well as ourselves as food consumers.  The Delta is also a water conveyance system from which water is exported to serve urban and agricultural water needs.

All of these competing uses and priorities sit at the nexus of the management decisions in the Delta,” said Ms. Rudnick.  “On top of this, we have threats from climate change, invasive species, population growth, resource overuse just to name a few, and to truly develop and implement solutions to these challenges or to meet the bold and ambitious policy goals of the coequal goals requires not only understanding the biophysical, ecological aspects of these pieces but really understanding human behavior.  We need to know how humans make decisions, what types of governing institutions can better motivate cooperation and collective action, and all of this requires a true integration of the social dimension into the system.”

The diagram on the slide is the social-ecological systems framework developed by Eleanor Ostrom who won a Nobel Prize for her work in environmental governance.  This framework offers an organizational scheme for how to integrate across multiple disciplines to understand both the social and ecological components of complex systems.

On the left side of the diagram is the resource system and resource units which encompass the biophysical and ecological elements of the Delta; on the right side is the governance system and the resource users.  The governance system has the rules, policies, or social norms that shape how collective decisions are made.  They also help to govern and shape resource users’ behaviors who are the folks using the resources of the Delta – the water, the land, and the fish.  These are all interconnected and interact with one another which is related to the outcomes, which for Ms. Rudnick, those priorities would be focused around sustainability, equity, and resilience.

While I feel like there has been a large amount of research and efforts to help characterize these more ecological components of this system, I see the gap lying around the social elements of the system, and that’s why I’m excited to contribute to filling this gap and improving our understanding of the Delta’s social elements, which I think range from the farmer all the way up to the decision-maker,” said Ms. Rudnick.


In this next part of her talk, Ms. Rudnick discussed a project that centered around farmer decision making and behavior, which is closely related to her dissertation work which is focused on understanding farmer behavior on nitrogen fertilizer management.  This work was funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and involved a large interdisciplinary team including herself and many others.  The project had a significant outreach component throughout the entire research design, from farmer field surveys to working with policymakers at state agencies and local water quality coalitions, all of which she attributed to a more participatory and collaborative approach.

For background, farmers use nitrogen fertilizer to increase their crop production, but when too much fertilizer is used, the excess can end up leaving the farm through runoff or by leaching into the groundwater aquifers.  The map shows the areas in the Central Valley highlighted in red that have nitrogen contaminated water above the federal drinking water standard.

There are over a million Californians in the state that are drinking nitrogen contaminated water,” said Ms. Rudnick.  “This is a major public health and environmental justice concern and has gained a lot of attention due to the hard work of the communities who are impacted, along with environmental justice organizations who have advocated and brought this issue into the policy spotlight.”

Since the early 2000s, the state of California has implemented a policy approach for managing the impacts of nitrogen fertilizer on water quality which relies on local water quality coalitions to help farmers monitor and report to the State Water Board, as well as conduct a number of annual regular education and outreach events.  Farmers submit reports to their water quality coalition which include management plans that specify what types of management practices they are implementing on their farm as well as how much nitrogen they are applying.  They are also required to do water quality monitoring in both their irrigation and domestic wells.

The program really hinges on the ability to motivate farmers to implement best management practices, or practices that are protective of water quality,” said Ms. Rudnick.  “The key here is that this part of the program is currently voluntary.  So in this context, my research questions have revolved around how do farmers make decisions about nitrogen management, and what barriers and motivations might influence their decisions to adopt a new management practice.  I want to point out that across all of my work, I draw from a range of social science disciplines that include economic, sociology and communication, political science and public policy, and anthropology, and these all help us to understand how people behave and offer various approaches to assessing behavior.”

This project draws from economics, rural sociology, and social psychology for frameworks on how farmers make decisions.  “From past work on farmer decision making, we know that farmers are generally more likely to adopt conservation practices if they have access to technical information, better financial and human capital; if they generally have positive attitudes towards environmental stewardship and conservation; and if they have social networks that encourage innovation,” she said.   “What we don’t know is how these factors matter in the case of fertilizer management, particularly because fertilizer is very intricately linked to the notion of yield and crop productivity.”

To better understand how California farmers are making these decisions, Ms. Rudnick used a mixed-method social science approach which involves qualitative and quantitative data collection.  She focused in three regions across the Central Valley representative of different parts of the agricultural sector:  Colusa-Glenn Subwatershed Program in the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin County and Delta Water Quality Coalition, and the Eastern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition.

The research design has been very engaged throughout with the design of our survey tools and the implementation of survey measurements was done in partnership with the water quality coalitions and involved local cooperative extension farm advisors, county-level resource districts, and agricultural commissioners.  They also had a number of forums that allowed for state-level decision-makers as well as environmental justice organizations to engage in the design of the research tools.

The data collection involved about two years of fieldwork conducting 30 interviews with farmers and farm advisors, as well as a number of different field day focus groups which helped to build a better understanding of how farmers think about nitrogen management.  They also designed an in-person survey that was presented at annual grower education meetings which attempted to gather farmers’ perceptions of the cost and benefits associated with specific management practices.  Both of those sets of preliminary data inform the development of a bigger mail survey, which was sent to all of the farmers in the three study areas which gathered more information about rates of adoption of different management practices, and farmers’ attitudes and opinions for both nitrogen pollution and the nitrogen policy approaches.

While the response rates may seem fairly low, it is relatively on par with similar work serving farmers, and Ms. Rudnick said their samples were fairly representative of the regions based on farm size and crop type.  She acknowledged that it’s expected to receive more responses from folks who are generally more engaged both with science and extension and with these regulatory policies and there are implications regarding representativeness that could affect results that is beyond the scope of this presentation.

The data for the project was quite complex; Ms. Rudnick acknowledged collecting survey data on people and their businesses are always challenging, and people behave in different ways.  There’s a lot of heterogeneity in the population of California farmers that is challenging to capture in the survey tool.  For example, farms across California can have multiple crops, multiple fields of different sizes and those fields can be contiguous or non-contiguous across the landscape.

The result was a multi-level dataset that allows researchers to look at the various characteristics at the farmer level, which might include income and whether their attitudes were generally pro-environmental or anti-environmental, as well as how many different fields the farmer is managing, what crop is on each field, and how large is each block. They also looked at different field practices and behaviors of interest; each of those practices could be adopted or not on an individual field and those practices also have a number of associated attributes like the barriers, the cost of the practice, and how technically advanced the practice is.

With the dataset, the research team were able to make predictions of what drives farmer adoption behavior.  Using a multivariate probit model, they looked at the effects of different variables on the farmers’ behavior, such as their attitudes, their access to information, and their use of consultants, as well as some variables at the field level such as what crop type is on the field or their access to different water sources.

The plot shows how each of the variables weigh into the likelihood of a farmer adopting a single practice.  The different shapes represent the different practices and are color-coded based on whether they are related to fertilizer applications, soil management, or irrigation management. The coefficients that fall on the right hand of the zero line indicate that the variable is likely to increase the farmer adopting that practice.

Ms. Rudnick then highlighted some of the variables which were seen as key trends in driving farmer adoption.  “Farmers with perennial crops such as almonds, grapes, or citrus are more likely to adopt nearly every practice of interest,” she said.  “Water infrastructure also matters, so farms with drip irrigation are more likely to adopt practices, especially those related to water management and water conservation.  And finally, farm size matters; larger farms with more capital to invest and greater economies of scale are more likely to adopt all practices across the board.”

To better understand why certain drivers varied across different practices, they were able to integrate data from the in-person surveys where farmers were asked about their perceptions of cost and benefits; they found that farmers face different types of barriers with different practices.  The most important barriers include the cost of the practice, the timeline to return on investment, and uncertainty around the potential negative impacts of the practice on their yield.

We also saw that these barriers can interact with the psychological drivers that might motivate behavior change,” she said.  “Specifically, for the practices that had very high uncertainty barriers, we found that the farmers’ attitude toward the problem really, really matters.  Farmers have to accept the role of agriculture as a polluting source and part of the nitrogen problem before they are willing to experiment with those high uncertainty practices.”

Ms. Rudnick then gave the takeaways.  “What we found is that farm structure can both enable and constrain adoption, and particularly we think that extension and policy moving forward needs to focus on small farms and annual crops and better understanding and addressing the barriers that they are facing to adoption.  Secondly, the extension efforts that aim to increase adoption need to think about what the economic and cognitive barriers that farmers face.  This is both explaining what the cost of the practice is and how long it will take to pay off, as well as addressing the uncertainties and providing the science that might address those uncertainties that farmers have in terms of risk around practice adoption.”

Finally we found that adoption really might require shifting farmers perspective on the nitrogen management problem, such that farmers need to accept the role that agriculture plays and their part of the solution of this problem before they are going to be willing to adopt these challenging but highly necessary practices.  Ultimately, all of this highlights that effective extension programs as well as policy design really need to understand the behavioral drivers of the resource users in this particular setting and incorporate those factors into the design in order to achieve intended results.”

Ms. Rudnick then worked with on other projects with NGOs who have been working on developing more market-based approaches to motivating farmer decision making.  Those include serving as a social science advisor on a technical advisory committee at the Climate Action Reserve to aid in the development of the nitrogen management protocol which was essentially a greenhouse gas offset program that would pay farmers to improve their nitrogen management.  She also worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to assist in developing their policy engagement strategy in the Midwest by translating what lessons learned from the California policy approach and how those might be relevant in other states.

Ms. Rudnick said that she sees understanding farmer decision making and building more collaborative co-beneficial solutions on agricultural and working lands as a critical piece of the Delta.  “The Delta has more than a half-million acres of agricultural land which brings huge value to that Delta economy, but also contributes to many of the challenges that we see in the Delta related to water quality, land subsidence, and loss of wildlife habitat, and so the opportunity for agricultural and working lands to engage in land management approaches that might enhance or further provide ecosystem services is highly important for meeting all of the competing goals of the Delta.”

If she is chosen for the position, she would build off her previous work as well as her connections in the agricultural community to think about questions like what barriers and motivations drive Delta farmers’ adoption of conservation management strategies, and how willing are Delta farmers to participate in or support projects that might provide cobenefits to both the farm and the Delta ecosystem.


Her second example was a project that focused on addressing and assessing participation in groundwater governance.  The project team was a large collaborative team; the project was very applied and policy-oriented.  The study found that some types of farmers, particularly small and socially disadvantaged farmers, are much less likely to be participating and represented in the policy process.  Further outreach efforts have focused on raising awareness of the policy process and how to engage among the small farmer communities and the organizations that assist and support them, as well as among state policymakers and the local groundwater governance agencies.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed by the California legislature in 2014.  The legislation required that groundwater users in groundwater basins shown in orange and yellow on the map to collectively and collaboratively form new agencies called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, who were then tasked with writing new management plans for their groundwater basin.  Groundwater basins designated as critically overdrafted were required to develop groundwater sustainability plans by January 2020; all other basins have until January of 2022.  The legislation allows twenty years for the groundwater basins to become sustainable.

The ability for these communities to come together and form GSAs requires engagement and participation of the many groundwater users and stakeholders, leading to questions of who engages in governance, who is represented and why, who is left out and why, and how do the management plans that are developed really reflect the needs of groundwater users that are engaged.  Their research questions focused on how the agricultural sector was engaging in SGMA; in particular, which farmers are participating and why and how the new management plans will impact different types of farms across the state.

Ms. Rudnick acknowledged that agriculture across the state is incredibly diverse; there are hundreds of different crops being grown on operations ranging from fewer than 5 acres to thousands of acres and yet all of these farms will be regulated in the same way under SGMA.

The first step of the project was to quantitatively map the diversity of farms.  The map shows an agricultural diversity index which is based on farm size; the counties in darker orange are more diverse with large and small farms which is helpful for identifying regions where the representation of agriculture’s needs in groundwater governance might be more challenging and complex.

The project focused on assessing three key questions or hypotheses around why farmers participate in policy processes:

The psychological hypothesis:  Farmers who were more impacted by the drought or who perceived drought to be a greater future risk would be more concerned about groundwater decline and therefore more likely to participate and engage in the SGMA process.

Resource scarcity hypothesis: Farmers with a greater reliance on groundwater would be more driven to participate in groundwater governance.

Transaction cost hypothesis: Farmers with more access to financial resources or linked into social networks would be better able to overcome the transaction costs of participating and therefore more likely to be involved in SGMA.

The research team investigated these hypotheses using an integrated approach and linking social and environmental change data.  This involved 27 interviews with farmers across various groundwater priority basins, as well as some biophysical data where they looked at how much precipitation each farmer had received during the drought relative to normal precipitation, and how much groundwater level decline they had experienced over time.

What we found is that we really didn’t support for the psychological hypothesis,” said Ms. Rudnick.  “The severity of drought impacts, both in terms of precipitation and the average change in groundwater over time were no different between the farmers who were engaging in SGMA and those who were not engaging in SGMA.  So this led us to think that these environmental experiences are really not what ultimately drives participation in policy.”

What we did find was more support for the other two hypotheses.  Farmers with greater access to financial and human capital, in other words, larger farms with more staff were able to attend the meetings and have the money and time to engage.  Farmers who were involved in organized groups, and particularly more powerful, centralized agricultural organizations like irrigation districts and farm bureaus, tended to be more involved and likely to participate as well.

Interestingly, we also found that the farmers who were participating had a stronger aversion to state control and intervention and they saw and used SGMA as an opportunity to maintain local level control of resource management, and that was a key driver that they explained and noted as motivating their participation.”

These findings continued to raise concern that there was a potential for a lack of diverse agricultural representation in the new groundwater sustainability agencies.

The Kings subbasin is a critically overdrafted basin that straddles both Fresno and Tulare County, and is home to a large number of small diversified farms and generally socially disadvantaged farmers, often immigrants.  These farmers are some of the most vulnerable farmers in the state.  They generally operate small farms less than 10 acres, they usually rent their land rather than own it, almost all of them rely on shallow groundwater wells, and there are number of language, cultural, racial, and financial barriers to them integrating into the other agricultural extension and outreach organizations.

The Kings basin approach to SGMA implementation has been fragmented; the basin formed six unique Groundwater Sustainability Agencies that produced six different management plans.

We evaluated how these groundwater sustainability plans might impact the small farmer population, and what we found was slightly concerning,” said Ms. Rudnick.  “We found very little to no representation with these farmers on the groundwater sustainability agencies.  We also saw that the plans really didn’t outline outreach goals or plans for outreach to these farming communities.  When we looked into what the plans predict in terms of groundwater change over time, the management plans allow for continual groundwater pumping down to a point that will cause between 20 to 50% of the shallow agricultural wells in this region to go dry.”

So they worked with the local groundwater agencies to foster participation of the small farmers in the groundwater governance process as well as raise awareness of the small farmers and the shallow wells they rely on to farm.

Ms. Rudnick then gave her takeaways.  “We found that groundwater users have varying capacities for engagement in different policy processes.  Larger farms and those that are well connected to the organized and powerful ag organizations are more likely to be those that are participating and therefore represented.  This means there is a lack of diverse representation in the new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.  In very few cases, there are representatives there to voice the needs of diverse and socially disadvantaged farming communities.”

And finally, we feel these groundwater sustainability plans may challenge the diversity of agriculture in the state going forward.  For instance, if there are new plans that go into place that institute water markets that require certain monitoring and well pumping costs, small farms and farms operating on very marginal returns are unlikely to be viable under the new management approach.”

This work around SGMA and the representation of different stakeholders points out the fact that collaborative governance institutions and approaches that rely on participation and engagement of different communities may result in institutions that are not necessarily representative, so this needs to be thought about and well considered in designing collaborative governance approaches.”

Relating this to the Delta, Ms. Rudnick said that understanding participation burdens and equitable access to participation is a key part of getting the governance right in the Delta.  Currently, there are many different overlapping and intersecting policy processes happening, many which ask for stakeholder participation and engagement, so there’s a role for social science to better characterize when and where these policies overlap in geography, implementation goals, and jurisdictions.  It’s important to understand how these policies stack on top of one another in terms of creating increasing barriers for participation for stakeholders that might be affected by multiple processes.


Ms. Rudnick then gave her vision for the social scientist position, which she sees as linking between policy makers, agency staff and resource managers, the academic and NGO science community, as well as the communities within the Delta and outside of the Delta who depend on Delta resources.

She outlined three goals:

Advancing social science in the Delta:  The first step would be a needs assessment to determine where the greatest human and social dimensions of the problems are.  She would then convene a social sciences working group that would include both scholars and practitioners who meet on a regular basis to think about the social science issues that are unfolding and where there’s a need for research.  There could be a social science track at the Bay-Delta Science Conference, and quarterly brown bag seminars to disseminate information.  Another priority would be to build a social science resource hub or landing spot to compile and synthesize the different social science work that has been done across the Delta and the development of social health indicators that assess the various aspects of sustainability, equity, and resilience in the Delta.  She would develop a portfolio of collaborative research projects on user and governance in Delta.

Policy engagement in the Delta: This would involve a ‘policy engagement toolbox’ to help build capacity for communities to participate in the various policy processes unfolding, which might include training on things such as how to review plans and submit comments.  Building more science policy bridges is key; this could involve science policy training for the scientific community.  She would work with policy and decision-makers to improve the inclusivity of different policy processes by working to remove barriers to participation that different stakeholder populations face and working to expand more equitable and inclusive policy spaces.

Extension and environmental education:  The Delta faces a climate risk with sea level rise, land subsidence, and salinization and there’s a need to both better understand how different communities and users perceive these risks as well as to engage these communities in planning and building pilot projects that might help them adapt to these different climate threats.  She would also establish environmental education programs, such as programs that engage high school students in restoration projects and build mentorship programs with community college or university students to provide research or professional internship possibilities.

Question: Did any of your research lead you to assess the effectiveness of cost-effective conservation programs from agencies like the Department of Agriculture?

Answer:One of the challenges with better management of fertilizer is that it is cheap; farmers often talk about it as cheap insurance, so putting a little extra on is a risk abatement technique.  Some of the management practices that require investment and time on the part of the farmer are expensive to implement.  Some of what we have done is tried to quantify what other benefits come from the practice that are privately acquired, so where can the farmer acquire other economic benefits from the practice.  We’ve also worked with some economists to try and conduct timeline to return on investment studies, so how long does it take for a cover crop to pay off, how long does it take for a drip irrigation system to result in both increased benefit to the crop and the farm as well as to the water and nitrogen challenge.”


A paper recently was published regarding the work done with SGMA on which Jessica Rudnick was one of the authors:

Farmer Participation and Institutional Capture in Common-Pool Resource Governance Reforms. The Case of Groundwater Management in California

By: Linda Estelí Méndez-Barrientos, Alyssa DeVincentis, Jessica Rudnick, Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, Bridget Lowry & Kennedy Gould


Farmers are often critically important to the success of common-pool resource governance reforms. Nevertheless, their participation in these off-farm reform processes has received limited research attention. This paper investigates farmer participation in state-mandated common-pool resource governance. Using groundwater governance in California as a case study, we show that existing social networks, in combination with asymmetries in resource access within the farming community, and a collective identity framed against central government intervention, explain participation and representation in groundwater governance processes. An important governance paradox has emerged, in which groundwater-dependent users are unequally represented in the very groundwater management agencies that have been developed to protect them. This case sheds light on documented shortcomings of common-pool resource governance reforms and aims to inform the design of future reform processes.

Read the paper by clicking here (open access).


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