April 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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Collection of Information about Farm Management Practices

Researchers need information on best management practices (BMPs) installed by farmers to quantify the effect of BMPs on watershed-scale water quality and to educate farmers on which BMPs are the most suitable to achieve water quality goals. The goal is to provide farmers with educational assistance so they can make informed decisions on BMPs. However, farmers may be unable or unwilling to share the information needed by researchers. Targeting survey efforts to representative farmsteads or study areas is recommended to increase data acquisition success and reliability if assumptions of data transferability are correct. Windshield surveys of crops and review of agency records on cost-shared BMPs are additional ways of supplementing the land use data base to be used in conjunction with monitoring data for model development and verification and evaluation of BMP effectiveness.

Steven W. Coffey
Former Extension Specialist
Water Quality Group

Gregory D. Jennings
Associate Professor
Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering
Internet address: greg_jennings@ncsu.edu

Frank J. Humenik
Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering
Internet address: humenik@eos.ncsu.edu

North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina

A farm survey was used to gather information on water quality best management practices (BMPs) for the Herrings Marsh Run (HMR) watershed project. The HMR Water Quality Demonstration Project is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Water Quality Initiative. The purpose of this paper is to: (a) describe the farm survey, (b) list the information needs met by the farm survey, (c) describe the role of farmers in the survey, and (d) recommend refinements to the farm survey process.

The 5,050-acre HMR watershed is located entirely in Duplin County, North Carolina, which has the highest agricultural revenue in the state, as well as a higher number of both turkeys and swine than any other county in the United States. Because of the high animal concentration and extensive and diverse crop production within the watershed, the HMR project is ideally suited for testing the effectiveness of a farm survey used to meet information needs.

Based on the length and complexity of the questionnaire used in this survey, the in-person interview method was selected for obtaining detailed farm management information (Czaja & Blair, 1996). Local technicians were trained to conduct structured interviews (Constance, Rikoon & Ma, 1996). The general rules for interviewing (Fowler, 1988) were employed throughout the study period 1990-1997. The windshield survey, or observational survey, of crop type by agricultural field (Babbie, 1983) was used only during 1995-1997. The windshield survey was adopted in 1995 as the most efficient method of obtaining crop type information, because the time and effort required to complete interviews with farmers was not available, and it was determined that reliable data could be obtained by direct observation from roads.

Farm Survey

Survey instruments were developed by a team of specialists and agents with expertise in crop, swine, and poultry production and nutrient, pesticide, and animal waste management. Separate cropland and livestock survey instruments were used to collect data. The cropland survey focused on collecting data on crop rotations, tillage, and nutrient and pesticide management for each agricultural field. The livestock survey was used to collect information on animal production, waste management, and land application on swine and poultry farms. The initial data collection goal was to obtain a 100% annual survey for each of the 330 cropland fields each year and an updated survey of each of the 14 swine and poultry operations in the watershed.

Duplin County Cooperative Extension Service (CES) technicians attempted to gathered survey data from the 80 farmers located within the watershed. In-person interviews for cropland farmers generally occurred after the fall harvest, while interviews of livestock operators were conducted throughout the year. Technicians introduced themselves to area farmers within project boundaries via the telephone or in person and explained the HMR project and the reason for the survey. In-person interviews were often conducted at the farmer's home. An educational brochure listing the objectives of the farm survey was given to farmers. Some farmers managed only a few fields while some managed large tracts with one or more animal operations; thus, the extent of data obtained for fields and animal operations was tracked rather than the number of farmers participating in the survey.

Information Needs Met by the Survey

The farm survey provided valuable information to support both water quality monitoring and modeling, as well as educational efforts to increase awareness and knowledge of BMPs in the HMR. Four surface water monitoring stations were used to evaluate the impact of nutrients and pesticides applied to cropland (Stone, Hunt & Coffey, 1995). Approximately 100 research wells were installed near the edge of agricultural fields to monitor nutrient and pesticide leaching into shallow ground waters. Farm survey information was used in conjunction with monitoring site data to evaluate the effect of BMPs on surface and ground water quality.

The predictive capability of a model is especially important for understanding the impact of BMPs for sites where monitoring data are not available. Water quality models should be calibrated and validated for local conditions to be effective. Further, large site-specific data bases are required for validating watershed scale models (Coffey, Stone, & Line, 1993; Jacobson, Jennings, Feng, & Stone, 1995).

Once survey data have been evaluated with the use of monitoring and modeling analyses, the relevant information on BMP protection and enhancement of water quality must be disseminated to the farmers for appropriate BMP implementation. An extensive amount of information is being generated and analyzed in the HMR. The dynamics of the information exchanged and an estimate of the relative emphasis of each area are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1
Water Quality Information Exchange
Farmers (60%) Progress on HMR (5%)
Awareness of BMPs (30%)
Knowledge of BMPs (20%)
WQ research info (5%)
Scientists (20%) Farm survey data (20%) Farmers
Agents/ (20%)
Educational materials (10%)
Info on HMR (10%)

As shown in Table 1, farmers need more types of information than other project participants do. For the farmer to make informed decisions, he or she must be able to integrate all levels of information into crop and animal production decisions. To assist in this process, farm plans have been developed by the USDA - Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) and the farmer. A waste management plan also is required for some animal production units, but changes in the farm operation may require changes to the plan.

Information regarding nutrient and pesticide management is critical to linking the effects of BMPs to water quality. Without field level information, it is difficult to correlate implementation of BMPs with monitoring data. Field level information from farmers is also important, as models are used to simulate current conditions or estimate the effects of future BMPs on water quality. In addition, field level information is used to refine BMPs and determine which BMPs work best under a given set of circumstances. If scientists prepare educational materials and information on the project with agents and technicians, it can be passed on to farmers.

Role of Farmers

Many farmers were reluctant to participate in the farm surveys and were often reluctant to schedule an appointment. Contract livestock growers often felt that animal production information should be confidential and they did not want to share the information with a government agency. The reason for non- participation of some farmers has not been determined. Fortunately, many of the farmers did participate each year of the five-year survey. Out of a total of 330 agricultural fields in the watershed, including 14 farms with animal operations, water quality technicians were able to collect survey data from approximately 40% of the fields in 1990, 17% in the years 1991- 1993, 31% in 1994, and 29% in 1995. The increase in data collection in 1994 was due to the efforts of a newly hired local technician with training in animal science. The USDA-NRCS shared BMP implementation data for the project and nutrient management plan data for 125 fields. In addition, the USDA-Food Security Administration provided information on annual cropping patterns.

Participation in the farm survey may have been improved by increasing the educational outreach to explain the survey. Farmers may have responded more positively if their participation was publicly recognized or if they were compensated. The need for the farm survey was not fully endorsed by all extension agents in the area. The survey was viewed as the responsibility of the technicians. Crop and livestock agents could have had a greater role in survey data collection had there been time and interest. The USDA-NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District technicians often met with project area farmers and collected similar data to develop farm plans, yet these technicians often did not participate directly in farm survey data collection. The farm survey was a new idea and the direct benefits to the watershed residents or to local agricultural agencies was not clear.

The reliability of the information received from the farmers varied considerably. While some farmers kept good field records, others were unsure about the crop, tillage, and nutrient or pesticide applications on a particular field on their farm.

Technicians found the farm survey work challenging. However, their work was more satisfying when they were providing water quality education in conjunction with completing the survey.


From the level of farmer participation in the past five years, it is clear that consistently achieving a high level of in -person farm survey participation (for example, > 50%) is difficult. Information on crops and BMPs is needed for each field in the watershed; therefore, an innovative strategy for data collection is advocated. Producers were informed about the need of the survey through a farm breakfast meeting and through an informational brochure distributed to the farmers; however, there was no incentive or reward for participation. It was explained to the farmers that only tract and field number, not names, would be associated with the raw data. In addition, they were told that the data was for university usage only and that, to date, no information has ever been released. The data was used for pollutant transport modeling of the effects of BMPs and to evaluate the impact of BMPs on surface and ground water quality.

The following recommendations should improve future farm survey data collection: (a) the survey must be brief, (b) the survey should be used to request essential information, (c) survey results from other agencies should be used wherever possible, and (d) basic information should be collected from farms without requiring information from the farmer (e.g. crop type). If possible, simple field observations, called windshield surveys, should be used to gather information that does not require contact with the farmer. In a windshield survey, technicians note crop type for each field on a map as they travel in the watershed to complete summer and winter crop surveys.

Agency records and windshield surveys will not provide details on nutrient and pesticide application rates. Therefore, interviews with selected farmers are needed for more detailed field level information. While a complete survey of the watershed is needed, selective interviews may serve in obtaining a sufficient sample of information. Targeting survey efforts to representative farmsteads or study areas is recommended to increase data acquisition success and reliability if assumptions of data transferability are correct.


Observations and recommendations for field level information based on the HMR Project, USDA Water Quality Demonstration Project, are presented. Farmers need training and education on BMPs to protect and enhance water quality. They need to understand that the knowledge they have about their farm is essential for advancement of water quality research. Farmers should be encouraged to document BMPs on selected agricultural fields and the information should be readily available to researchers. Researchers need field-specific information from farms to evaluate BMPs. This process is iterative and cyclical, with both farmers and researchers relying on information exchange to facilitate water quality improvements. When researchers are privy to site-specific information about individual fields, they can learn more about the effects of BMPs on water quality and, in turn, educate farmers to use appropriate BMPs. Likewise, when farmers are knowledgeable about BMPs and their positive effect on water quality, they are motivated to implement recommended BMPs.


Babbie, E. (1983). The practice of social research (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Coffey, S.W., Stone, K.C., & Line, D.E. (1993). Validation of EPIC for land applied waste. Paper resented at the International Winter Meeting of American Society of Agricultural Engineers. Chicago, IL.

Constance, D.H., Rikoon, J.S., & Ma, J.C. (1996). Landlord involvement in environmental decision-making on rented Missouri cropland: pesticide use and water quality issues.

Czaja, R. & Blair, J. (1996). Designing surveys: a guide to decisions and procedures. Thousand Oaks, CA, London, New Delhi: Pine Forge Press.

Fowler, F.J. (1988). Survey research methods. (Rev.ed.). Newbury Park, London, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Jacobson, B.M., Jennings, G.D., Feng, J., & Stone, K.C. (1995). Watershed scale non-point source model evaluation, In Heatwole (Ed.) Water quality modeling, proceedings of the International Symposium 186-191 (ASAE Pub. 05-95). St. Joseph, MI. American Society of Agricultural Engineers.

Stone, K.C., Hunt, P. G., Coffey, S. W., & Mathey, T. A. (1995). Water quality status of a USDA water quality demonstration project in the Eastern Coastal Plain. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 50,657-571.